By Sam Grinsell |

One of the pieces of advice you’ll read a lot as a PhD student is that you should try to keep some time free from your work. But how do you actually do that? When it can seem as though everyone around you is already ahead, and you’re racing against a clock ominously ticking, isn’t time off just a luxury? Not to mention that you can’t afford a fancy holiday…

In this post I want to offer a few ideas for small things you can do to take your mind away from work. These won’t work for everyone, but hopefully they’ll get you thinking. Personally, I think these small strategies are at least as important as the regular injunction we hear to take holidays: you need recovery time during each week and indeed each day. Marathon runners don’t train by running a marathon every day.

Go for a walk

One of the simplest ways to clear your head is to get your body moving, and a walk is a low impact way to do that. Depending on your inclinations, this might be a short stroll after lunch or a serious Sunday hike, but either way walking is one of the easiest ways to take your mind somewhere else. I find that my brain wanders from subject to subject while I walk, so even if I start off thinking about work I don’t have to worry, something else will be along soon.

Cook something nice

We all need to eat. In the rush to write, research and publish, it can often become easy to rely too much on cereal, sandwiches and ready meals. Learning to cook something new, or experimenting with different ingredients, can give you something to focus on for an evening or afternoon. Hopefully you’ll also get to eat something tasty and sustaining at the end! Food is also, of course, a great way of bringing people together, which leads us on nicely to…

Connect with your friends

Whether it’s a quiet drink, a big night out, or a dinner party, it’s important to reconnect with your friends regularly. If your friends are all also PhD students, try to avoid talking only about work. You all have interests outside your studies, just like any other group of young professionals. Believe it or not, the problem of people only talking about work isn’t unique to academia. Try throwing in alternative topics such as what TV people have been watching lately or what music they’re listening too. (Of course, if you’re in media studies or music you will need to find other topics to really leave work behind!) Even the most introverted among us need human contact, and maintaining that is an important part of staying happy and healthy.

Invite people to visit

What if you are far from home and don’t know anyone outside your cohort? You could invite friends or family to visit you. This can be like taking a holiday, in that you spend a weekend seeing your area through the eyes of an outsider. Of course, some places will be more of a lure to your friends than others! But wherever you live you have some local knowledge, and people enjoy getting off the beaten track as well as heading for major tourist sites. A visit from back home is another way of maintaining human connections, and can also help reinvigorate your relationship with where you’re now living.

Take in some culture

If you are living in the UK, you are fortunate to be in a country where many museums and galleries are free. A couple of hours spent wandering the corridors of these institutions can take your mind away from your own studies for a while. (Again, if your area is museum studies or fine art then this may count as work and you should do something else to relax!) One of the great things about these collections is that they help show us the sheer diversity of human experience, which can shift us out of our heads for a while.

Okay but isn’t all this quite straightforward?

It might seem that there is little here that isn’t fairly ordinary. Don’t we all cook and see our friends? But my point is not just the activities themselves: it’s about how you think about them. These things need to be higher in your list of priorities than they probably are. They slip down because they seem indulgent compared to writing abstracts or generating data. But it is the things in this post that will sustain you through your studies. More, they are the things that make up your life, in just as profound a sense as your work does. Just because you love your research, does not mean that you do not need the ordinary good things of life. Or that you do not deserve them.



Sam Grinsell is a third year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. He is working on taking his own advice.

Image by Moyan Brenn from Anzio, Italy [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons