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I am a US-based researcher who recently accepted a postdoc in Sweden. My offer letter states that I will be entitled to a 6-week annual vacation during my appointment. Being from the US where I have been in charge of structuring my own schedule (except for teaching), this obviously confuses me for several reasons.

  1. First, I am not sure if we are legally entitled to vacation days in the US, but even if we were, I have never seen people officially take "vacations" in the US. This is, in my mind what school administrative staff or office workers do, not academics. Over the past years, I have structured my work and vacation time around my teaching schedule and figured out when to rest and when to work on my own without having to count days or ask my department's permission. Of course nobody cares when I take vacations as long as my vacation time does not overlap with my teaching schedule.

  2. So the fact that my new department is emphasizing "legal vacation hours" is a little strange. What does vacations mean when I will likely be spending whatever free time, rushing to finish my manuscript, grant proposals, or course prep anyways?

  3. Also, does the fact that the school is counting vacation days mean that I have to be in my office during "normal work hours"? I've never heard anything sillier, because for academics, number of hours in office does not equate productivity, and I actually like switching up my work location time to time rather than being stuck in an office! (In the US, I only show up to school about 3 days a week-- mostly when I have to teach and want to be in office. Other days, I just go to a local cafe to write. If possible, I'd like to keep things this way...)

I'm wondering if anyone can clarify what academic vacation means in Europe and if it really differs from the US?

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Here is Uppsala, Sweden, there is virtually no one at the department during the summer. As a non-Swede, I thought it was crazy. But not as crazy as the US non-holiday culture. –  Dave Clarke Feb 13 at 12:08
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Has anyone mentioned the European Working Time Directive to you yet? :-D –  rachaelbe Feb 13 at 15:11
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@DaveClarke All the Swedes are soaking up the sun, preparing for the day-less winter ;) –  penelope Feb 13 at 15:25
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A side comment about 3.: your job as a researcher includes to be part of a lab, meaning colleagues that may need your expertise should be able to find you somehow, at least at some time in the week. Labs are more than collections of individuals, the members should interact significantly. –  Benoît Kloeckner Feb 15 at 10:23
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A side comment about 3.: institutions/people who are paying you are entitled to ask things in return, IMHO. You're always free to decline. –  Jigg Feb 19 at 15:37
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4 Answers 4

Welcome to European vacation regulations :-).

You are entitled to X days of vacations per year. Literally. There's no hook to it. You simply ask the employer, basically your direct supervisor (head of the group, department, dean?), and if there's no reason to say "no", they will approve it. Of course taking time off during days when you are teaching needs to be explained very very well, but if your vacation days do not interfere with teaching obligations, or similar duties, you will be given the time off. That's it.

Normally at universities, unless you have a very fussy boss, nobody cares when you take vacations time (still recall non-interference with teaching), but most people take several weeks off in the summer and people with a family also during school vacation periods (country dependent). In companies, the system tends to be stricter, you should plan any longer breaks several months ahead and coordinate with your colleagues so that it does not happen that everybody leaves for two weeks and a company stops. At universities that is a non-issue, though.

Legal vacation time means you are entitled to that time. The employer is obliged to give you that time off. Suppose they will refuse to approve your vacations when you wish to take them (e.g., when you work in agricultural sector you shouldn't leave at the harvest time). In that (rare!) case, they will have to select and offer you another period of (usually at least two weeks of uninterrupted) vacations period some other time in the year.

But there is another potential surprise for you. If you won't take all your vacations in a year, since you are entitled to that time, it will be (in all countries and places I worked, but there might be local differences) shifted into the next year when you will be entitled to the standard X days per year according to the union negotiations PLUS whatever carry-over from the last year. The regulations regarding how far into the future that contingent of vacation days can be pushed differ, but normally the carry-over is useful in the very next year in full. Sometimes you might even be obliged to take it. Because if not, the employer might have a problem - again, you are entitled to vacations. And the employer can even force you take time off in order to use that vacations budget. The reason is that they don't like the idea of accumulating and then even making use of several months of vacations in a row.

As for being in the workplace during working hours, again, regulations differ but most of the time there is at least a certain period (10oo-15oo?) when you are obliged to be there. But in reality at universities I never heard of anybody making any fuss about this (except for Eastern European universities, where it can be a matter of local department politics - but that is of no concern to your case). Think about it as a legal issue. If something happens to you at office hours (a car accident), it might be considered a work-related accident, so the employers try to counter-act that by requiring you to be in the office unless allowed not to.

Later edit:

What does vacations mean when I will likely be spending whatever free time, rushing to finish my manuscript, grant proposals, or course prep anyways?

You structure your time. It doesn't have to be the way you describe. What use does an employer have of burned out and stressed out employees?

Even later edit:
Just for completeness, being entitled to take vacations also means that often you will be able to trade days off for salary. Usually the union contracts regulate, or prevent this, but for example when you are leaving, the employer will either compensate the unused fraction of the annual vacations budget by money, or will force you to take it right before leaving the position - during that time you will receive the regular salary up to the date of leave.

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This makes me wonder: is it different elsewhere in the world? –  gerrit Feb 12 at 23:57
    
What about during school vacations? Let's say summer vacations when classes are out of session. If you are not "on vacation," Are you still expected to be at school? –  socialsciencedoc Feb 13 at 1:24
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@socialsciencedoc: yes, you are supposed to be at work. Students' vacations have little interaction with your job. As a PhD student/post-doc at periods when my involvement in teaching was low, I didn't even knew when students had vacations. Life of researchers/faculty ticks relatively independently from students' life clock. –  walkmanyi Feb 13 at 6:35
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Good answer. I would also add (based on UK employment experience) that it being mentioned up front in this way probably isn't the institution making a major point of it, but may be because there is a legal requirement to do so. If nothing else, (again, in .uk, I don't know how well this transfers to .se) the offer letter is often deemed to form the contract of employment if there is no seperate contract, and so the terms must be stated lest a legal "default" takes over instead. –  Simon W Feb 13 at 9:39
    
In the UK, whether or not you can carry unused vacation over from one year to the next varies from employer to employer. I imagine Sweden is the same. –  David Richerby Feb 13 at 11:33
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This answer will just clarify Swedish conditions since that is where you are heading. The following applies to Swedish universities and other state employment:

  • A fixed number of days of vacation are given by law and varies a little depending on seniority and other factors. The basic number is 35 workdays a year. If you are employed a shorter time the number decreases directly as the fraction of the time of a year you work.
  • Vacation days are salaried and you also receive a smaller amount extra for vacation days.
  • You will be asked to place your vacation days in advance. You can always change the dates later.
  • You will not be insured for work-place accidents by your employer on your vacation days. This means you should retract vacation days if you actually work when you should be on vacation.
  • You cannot save more than 31 days of vacation in total to be carried over from one year to the next.
  • When you complete your position, days of vacation not taken will be reimbursed as payment.
  • A work week is 40 hours and you should normally be at work. However, there are possibilities to get permission to work from home, particularly during summer.

In reality no-one really cares if you work or not on vacation days but as I stated above there are possible negative effects one should be aware of. No-one cares where and when you work. As a post-doc you will probably not be involved in much bureaucracy and so all you need to figure out is when your collaborators want you to be there and learn the local modus operandi.

I would not advice you to be invisible since part of a career in academia means involving yourself in activities and politics of departments. People will probably not be very up-front with their opinions about your presence/absence but will not look very favourable on someone who gets a salary and an office and never shows up. A funny law in Sweden is also the coffee(tea)-break, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. this is a time and place where you socialize with others in the workplace apart from immediate colleagues. You absence from these will not go unnoticed. This will not prevent you from working elsewhere for weeks at a time if you wish but showing some presence outside of mandatory chores will likely be expected.

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That is a really good point. I am a department postdoc and not a "project postdoc." I do not think there will actually be a de facto supervisor, and I do not think I will be collaborating with any of the people in the department. My primary (research) goal is to get as many solo publications/book out and some coauthored pieces with people I have already been collaborating. But of course, I do not want to give an impression that I am noticeably missing from department affairs so I will definitely try to be involved, especially more so when I am still trying to feel out how things work. –  socialsciencedoc Feb 13 at 20:30
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This answer is precise and spot on and should be upvoted more. Mine looks as a more of a rant :-). +1 –  walkmanyi Feb 13 at 22:56
    
Allow me to disagree, walkmanyi :-). I think it is good to have a more general answer to the post. That is why I decided to add the more specific details pertinent to Sweden as a complement. But, thanks for the positive comment! –  Peter Jansson Feb 13 at 23:10
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Peter Jansson's answer is right on the spot. I'd just add a few more pieces of advice and "exemplary" cases I picked up along the way:

  • most people here in Europe will refer to their PhD/postdoc as a job rather than school (you're not going to school, you're working)
  • it's almost the perfectly evaluated job: people judge you by how much you produce, not how much time you behind is in you office chair (of course, the "almost" part comes from all the things Peter Jansson already warned you about: you should be there and visible)
  • if you have an obligation away from the office, or in some cases, it's simpler to work from home, nobody usually has a problem with it. Last year, I think I had maybe 5-6 days when I did not go to the office at all and worked from hom, and another 5ish when I had obligations in the middle of the day and would spend half a day working from home.

    Some of these included after-flue recovery (e.g. I felt fine but was coughing frequently... I worked from home as to not disturb my noise-sensitive officemate), some tasks were just simpler to do from home (some tests etc.).

  • People in Europe actually would like you to have free free time and not to rush all the time: (this might be a bit special cause I'm in France, but) I strongly suspect that our lab cafeteria is closing at 5:15PM to deprive people of coffee and make them go home.
  • This whole "free time" of course does not work: I know people coming to the office around noon and leaving between 10PM and midnight on a regular basis. Nobody minds...
  • ... unless you don't have any overlap with your team and especially your supervisor. You should have a schedule that overlaps with their at least partially.
  • Where I am, it's not really sunny really often, and there's a lot of people that start missing the sun very soon. I had a friend who would spend every single sunny afternoon in a cafe (working) instead of the office. He was sharing the office with his supervisor -- and it was okay.
  • It is very rare for you to be able to take a long chunk of vacations at once (except for 1st year PhDs): precisely cause of deadlines, proposals and other things that wait for nobody.
  • One of the most frequent uses of vacation days among European PhD students is extending their conferences and other official travel. The university does not generally mind for which days they buy the plane tickets, so virtually anybody takes a few days up to a couple of weeks of vacation at every cool, exotic and new conference location they're sent to :D

But, basically, you should feel your team/lab dynamics. If it's a very coherent team, you might want to be there for the morning and/or afternoon coffees and lunches between often and always, otherwise you get a bit more flexibility. Of course, it might be that you got a postdoc in a very strict lab, but I don't think that is very common.

On the other hand, the lab/office can be a nice and fun place (even a nice, modern, spacious above ground facility with enough windows and sun ;)). You might just arrive and realize you want to spend time in the office: I realized I much prefer working only in the office, staying longer or coming earlier when needed. It helps me to stress out much less about work, especially when I'm away from the office and supposed to relax.

And lastly, I just want to add that I was almost as surprised with your description of US-(non)-vacation system as you seem to be with the European system.

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The parts of the question about vacation days have been answered above. Formally, you're supposed to arrange your vacation days in advance; in practice, this usually means going to the person you report to (e.g., the professor you're working for as a postdoc) a reasonable time in advance and saying, "I was thinking of taking X time off; is that going to be OK?" The answer is usually yes, unless you're supposed to be teaching in that time, in which case you'll need a really good reason to be away and you'll need to arrange cover. "Reasonable" just means, you know, reasonable.

The simple answer to the "Can I work in a cafe instead of my office?" part is that it's up to your employer, so ask them. You will probably find that your employment contract specifies your "normal place of work" as being the university department. However, academic staff are usually trusted to work sufficient hours in a suitable place without being managed in detail. As long as the people you're working with are happy for you to work outside the office, that's fine. If you're working collaboratively with somebody else, you might be expected to spend more time in the office than in cafes, so you're available for discussions but I doubt anyone would demand you work in the office just because "that's where you're supposed to be."

In summary, it's probably not going to be an issue. You and the people you're working with will quickly figure out something you're all comfortable with.

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