| by Tim Galsworthy
The summer months are usually a very busy time for PhD researchers. With terms and teaching over, summer provides us with an opportunity to “get some research done.” If your project requires primary research – such as my History PhD – the time between June and September is invaluable for visiting archives. I should be in the United States right now, sifting through archive boxes and frantically photographing documents. However, this is a very different summer. Many research plans – including mine – are on hold. After a draining period of lockdown, online teaching, and fundamental upheaval, we must all take time to ourselves. We must all take the time to try and do nothing.
I am incredibly hard on myself; I have been throughout my PhD and my pre-PhD life. I put pressure on myself to work certain days and hours, often feeling guilty if I don’t “do enough.” This is part of my working through these feelings. I’m writing this blog in defence of taking time off, in defence of doing nothing, something which many researchers struggle with. We must not feel guilty for taking time off at any point, but especially this summer. I acknowledge I am writing this piece from positions of certain privilege. I’m doing my PhD full-time, I do not have any caring responsibilities, and I can afford (financially and time-wise) to take a spell off.
Like many of my peers, and friends in totally different professions, my productivity has seen a drop-off during the period since March. I’m getting up later and working less hours. To begin with I tried to fight this. I tried to work twice as hard, refusing to move away from my desk until the clock reached a certain hour. This was totally counterproductive. I listened to my body – which was telling me to slow down and be kind to myself – and we must all do the same. In the last few weeks, my body has been telling me to stop and take a break. For these next fortnight, I’m not touching my thesis or PhD research. Rather than beating myself up about being less productive, I’ve accepted that things have changed. We are in an unprecedented situation and being kind to ourselves, and to others around us, is one of the most important things we must do.
Social media can also be a barrier to taking time off. I love Twitter and I love tweeting out nonsense of a daily basis, as anyone who follows me can testify! While social media can very often create a sense of community, it also very often creates a sense of competition. We see our peers on Twitter posting about all the brilliant things they are doing and sometimes we feel like we’re slipping behind. This sense of competition pushes us to work harder and longer, even if our bodies and minds are telling us to stop and rest. Social media should be a medium for supporting one and other, cute animal videos, and random viral moments (think Chanel the African Grey parrot). Don’t let Twitter promote unhealthy working habits this summer.
There is also a very positive case for doing nothing. There are most definitely pros to procrastination. Taking time to yourself actually benefits your work. Look away from the computer and spending your time doing something else. It might be going for long walks or outdoor swimming. It might the next bingeworthy series on Netflix (shout out to Tiger King for getting me through the early stages of lockdown). Or it might be investing all your emotions in a sports team, like say the all-conquering Liverpool FC or Warrington Wolves. Give yourself time to think about something else other than your thesis, push your research to back of your mind for a couple of days or weeks. You will come back refreshed, more focused, and more able to think critically. That chapter you’ve been working one will fall easier into place, or the draft article you’ve started will be much easier to write, after giving your brain a breather. Your PhD will actually benefit from being on the backburner for once. Taking regular breaks – both short and long – has always been vital to getting things done. This summer, in a time of coronavirus, that is truer than ever.
We PhD students are masters of being harsh on ourselves. We burn the midnight oil, shut ourselves away from others, and try to work off imposter syndrome feelings. There is a time for working hard. Most of the time we should, and do, work hard tackling the myriad of challenges and demands of a PhD. But this summer is a time when we should, and must, take a break. It might be a couple of days or a couple of weeks, but taking time off is invaluable for all of us before we even think about the new semester in September. Most of all, don’t feel guilty about taking time off. In any other job, in any other work place, taking a couple of weeks annual leave is normal and routine. Academia just enjoys being contrary. Just think how much better things would have been for Alexander Hamilton if he had listened to the Schuyler sisters and taken a break…
Tim Galsworthy is a History PhD student at the University of Sussex. His PhD project focuses on American Civil War memory and the Republican Party. He is Chair of Pubs and Publications and Postgraduate Secretary for the Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS).
Image 1: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ladydaydream/5369971557
Image 2: https://pixabay.com/photos/kermit-cup-drink-coffee-break-1899262/