#94: The researcher’s guide to holidays

Are you going on a (summer) holiday this year? Really? You dare leave your desk and unfinished work behind? You plan to just stop working for a couple of weeks—in the middle of the year? Leaving your data unattended? Braveheart! You’re doing well, good on you. For everyone else hesitating over whether to take a holiday or not, here’s the researcher’s guide for why and how you should have holidays!  

Do researchers take holidays? 

At the beginning of our academic careers, we had no doubts that researchers must take time off, but we learned our lesson: It all started with a message that we received on the eve of December 24th, many years ago. Instead of the usual Merry Christmas wishes, it was simply a status update on a research project we were involved in. It came from a friend of ours—a distinguished scientist—who was leading one leg of a larger research project, telling us about the next upcoming steps. Nothing special, nothing important, so why send it on Christmas Eve? 

A similar situation occurred a few years later, while we, as most colleagues at our department, were on a summer holiday: Our Head of Department sent us messages regarding several tasks that would need to be completed before the new academic year started and students returned to campus. These were not messages that were expected to be answered after our holidays, no, they clearly invited an immediate response. 

When we received these messages, we had already been in academia for a while, but still considered ourselves ECRs about to find our place in the academic system. But seeing established researchers, professors, and academic leaders behaving like this was weird. “Do these guys never take a holiday?” 

In the years to come, we started to better understand the researchers’ attitudes towards holidays. Some researchers take holidays, others don’t dare to, and a third group seem to take a holiday to complete unfinished work. Here, we present a short guide to why for you, as a researcher, it can feel as if you cannot allow yourself to go on holiday, and why we think you still should.

1. Why you probably don’t want to take a holiday 

As a researcher, you have the best job in the world. You work in a perfect environment. You love what you do. You live what you do. Your work defines you. You’re loved and admired by students and peers alike. You’re supported by great colleagues and supervisors, who constantly ask for your advice and input. Your word is heard. Your institute can’t function without you. You’re needed. 

Being a scientist is an extraordinary experience. You probably doubt that this feeling would be surpassed by going on holiday. So you might tend to skip the holidays in favour of enjoying your privileges. 

2. Why you factually cannot take a holiday

Taking a holiday means taking time off from work to enjoy other pleasures in life. It means finally doing things you like to do. Holidays offer the possibility to gain new inspiration and new energy. 

But what if you deeply love your work much more than anything else? What if you get inspired by your work? Why should you leave the institute when you enjoy the daily chats with supervisors and colleagues? What if you long for reading the new emails that come in every morning? What if you feel at home in the atmosphere of a smelly chemical lab? Does this mean you should stop doing the stuff you enjoy?

Objectively, you cannot just go on holiday! How dare you take time off when you know you’re not finished with your work? Data collection is not complete. Data is not analysed. Lectures are not prepared. Proposals are not handed in. Papers are not written. Going on a holiday now would mean leaving the problems behind because the problems of the world don’t take a holiday. Duty is calling, my friend, can’t you hear it? 

Don’t forget, you also haven’t responded to the 98 remaining emails. If you leave them unanswered now, your colleagues waiting for your replies will think you are the most unreliable person on earth. You will probably never hear from many of them again. 

And didn’t you submit your latest paper to a journal two weeks ago? What if the journal comes back with a request for revision while you’re away? They’ll probably reject you because of the lack of a timely response. Not only that, but you’ll have messed it up with the journal’s entire editorial team by then. 

Most likely, your department’s teaching plan for next term is also not finished yet. Or your institute has not yet decided who’ll be responsible for organising the study trips in the next term. Can’t you see? You’re irreplaceable—they need you. If you go on holiday now, your colleagues might think you’re very selfish, and try to duck out of your duties. 

Ultimately, you fear that if you go on a holiday now, completion of your PhD study will be substantially delayed. Getting out into the fresh air for 2, 3 or 4 weeks could essentially kill the productivity that you’ve shown over the last couple of months. It interrupts the flow, and you’ll probably never be as productive again! 

The private side of holidays looks scary as well: On a holiday, you’ll be together 24/7 with friends or family and this can be stressful. You have hardly seen them lately, and now having to spend time with them seems like a challenge. 

You see, there are 500 reasons why you cannot go on holiday! 

3. What you’ll definitely miss if you go on holiday

Going on holiday risks cutting yourself off from great experiences at work. Those colleagues who take holidays will miss these,and envy you for months to come for the free parking lot close to your institute in the—usually—overcrowded university car park. Such a coveted parking spot will save you at least 10 minutes of driving through endless rows of parked cars. 

If you left, you would never get to reap the benefits of the choice of food that your university’s cantina is offering during a holiday period. You would also be unaware of the merits of radically reduced opening hours at your university library, or the on-campus coffee shop run by the student association. 

Going on holiday would also rob you of the amazing feeling of having reduced the amount of unread and unanswered emails to a single-digit number. You would probably return to your office that is still in need of clearing-out and loads of paper piles that need to be sorted, which you of course would have done if you skipped holidays this time. 

Finally, being away would mean that you won’t be able to pick the nicest lecture rooms for your upcoming courses, but have to consent to the shabby ones allocated to you. All of this trouble only because you’ve been on holiday! It opens a whole new perspective to fear of missing out (FOMO) when you go on holidays. You’re crippled by FOMO. 

4. Three approaches that make for bad holidays 

Over the years that we’ve spent at various universities and research institutes, we’ve learned how researchers sometimes spend this “best time of the year,” their holidays:  

Some of our colleagues never opted for a holiday, but decided instead to attend an international conference in a remote country, surprisingly often taking place at scenic locations with nearby coasts, beaches, or alpine hiking opportunities. These extracurricular activities were chosen to facilitate networking and scholarly debate. Yet, you get the feeling that—sometimes—an underlying desire for a holiday partly motivated the journey. Are you really going to conferences to have a holiday?

Other colleagues decided to use their “holidays” to enjoy the emptiness and quietness of their institutes, and work on all those tasks that they did not manage during the rest of the year: Writing papers, drafting proposals, clearing their desks, sorting files … This holiday approach seems to be motivated by the hope of finishing these tasks and being ready to freshly start new ones after the holidays. But does freshness, energizing, and rejuvenating really come from responding to emails and cleaning your office?   

Another, third approach to holidays looks like a real holiday. You book a trip with family or friends and go to a nice place in the mountains, in the countryside, or on the coast. Everything looks fine and everybody seems happy. But you carry this one extra bag with you. It contains your laptop, drafts of one or two papers, two extra books to read, a print of your entire raw data in case of poor WIFI at your holiday destination, and a presentation outline. While the rest of the holiday party is having a great day on the beach, you decide to work just a few hours at your rented cottage and join them later. Is this what you call a holiday? 

More ideas about how academics spend their holidays can be found in this article by the Times Higher Education (2015). 

5. Why you should take a holiday 

Even if it looks tempting to skip the holidays this year for the short-term benefits, in the long run, it is no good for you. Taking a holiday will remind you that there is a life outside your university or your institute. You have friends and a family, and too often time with them is cut in favour of doing more work. And yet these people would love to spend time together with you, and are probably tired of the many apologies for why you cannot join them. 

It’s great if you enjoy your work as a researcher. It’s great if you get pleasure from being a scientist and spending your time in an academic environment. But being a researcher is demanding, and at times a really tough job—especially when you’re ambitious and have certain career goals you want to meet. That’s when you need a break from work to get inspiration, new ideas, and new energy. Give your brain a rest. 

6. How to take the best holiday 

To get the most out of your holidays, consider the following steps (for more ideas check Prieto 2020): 

  • Plan your holidays well in advance.
  • Tell everybody that you’re away and for how long.
  • Avoid setting deadlines shortly before or after your holidays. 
  • Schedule several breaks over the year instead of one long break. 
  • Avoid working full-blast until the very last second—better to get slowly into holiday mode. 
  • Leave your work in the office, and avoid work-related activities during your holidays. 
  • Take a break from email and social media. 
  • If you set an out-of-office reply, only include the date when you’re able to respond to the sender. Nobody needs to know when you left and when exactly you’ll be back. 
  • Focus on family, friends, and your health—not on projects, papers, and career. 
  • Fill your holidays with enjoyable things—trust us, you’ll find something! 
  • Don’t schedule major tasks and meetings the week after you’re back. 
  • Don’t forget to send a postcard to the department. Postcards are special and they earn you a lot of merit points.  


Take a holiday! 

You deserve it! 

It’ll do you good! 

You’ll return a better you! 


P.S. Coming back to the messages we told you about at the beginning, the messages that we received during our holidays: We learned that if you want your holidays to be respected by colleagues, don’t send them messages and expect them to respond while they’re away. Having said this, we and the Smart Academics Blog will now take a holiday as well, and we look forward to coming back to you with new energy and ideas afterwards. 

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