Whilst working extremely hard on my PhD this morning (ahem), I stumbled across this PhD Comic by the amazing Jorge Cham:
Never be in doubt – you are ALWAYS supposed to be working…
“But my supervisors are away overseas on Christmas break“, you may think.
This changes nothing. Apart from your sleep patterns by staying up to weird hours trying to match supervisor emails from a different time zone.
“Well, at least it’s temporary,” you console yourself. “Once I’ve finished my PhD it will be different!“
Au contraire, mon ami innocent…
Last Christmas marked the final 4 months of my partner’s PhD. So we spent the festive season as all final-stage PhD students should – by working from home and pretending that this was a “treat”, because at least it meant we weren’t in the office. It actually worked out quite well; I chugged through a LOT of manual acoustic analysis whilst he got some writing done. And it was nice to spend the days together. Even if they were days filled with sitting at our laptops in silence, at least we were doing so together!
We took two days off – 25th Dec and 1st Jan. These days also coincided with our only two trips to the beach in the height of austral summer, despite living 10 minute drive from several lovely beach spots. But it was all good – only temporary, right?
Well, now it’s Christmas time again and a pretty familiar scene is playing out. Except this time it is me entering the PhD-Twilight-Months whilst Phil has moved onto the fabled, glorious lands of a Post-Doc. But apart from this role-reversal and upgrade, the overall story seems to be pretty similar. We’re still spending the summer days indoors, glued to laptops, desperately trying to catch-up on work before the universities re-open in January.
And we’re not alone. Our later-PhD and post-doc level friends are all in the same boat. Quietly excited to be working from home and enjoying all the little perks this brings: your own space; no angry-typing from your office mate; option to play Glee songs out loud (and even sing along) without fear of disturbance or judgement; extra sleep as you dodge the morning commute; no meetings or work calls; ability to work in pyjamas and snack on xmas treats…
From what I’ve seen, this doesn’t seem to change much between PhD and post-doc. Maybe at a higher-up level you eventually reach a stage where public holidays also translate to academic holidays, but it seems doubtful. You always hear “With great power comes great responsibility” – no one mentions this also means a greater number of working hours. But at this stage, it’s become so much the norm it is hard to imagine anything different!
Instead, the main frustration comes from people excitedly asking “So what are you guys doing over the holidays?“. This, of course, is met with a blank expression and the solid reply “Working…” (duh implied). It’s particularly annoying when this comes from people in the earlier (naiver) stages of their PhD (how can they justify time off?! Don’t they realise that there is so much to do?!), who receive the same response. But at least you can enjoy adding a slight hint of condescension, and jazz up the “duh” tone with a twist of “why – aren’t you?”. And so the unhealthy cycle of PhD guilt continues, expanding to include new generations. Can’t have Christmas without family!
The weird thing is that there is a kind of peace to this working-holiday. It’s nice knowing that most of the people who add to your To-Do list (undergrads, teaching staff, admin, anyone with a ‘real job’) have mysteriously disappeared for 2-3 weeks. The only deadlines to meet during this lull period are your own – no one else wants anything of you. Obviously supervisors will have an expectation of progress, but they will also be distracted by family commitments that we (as international orphans) do not have here. You feel like you’ve won back a little bit of time, so you have to make the most of it by catching up on all the things that are running you dry the rest of the year.
The weirdest thing of all is that I’ve been looking forward to it for months.