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I’ve been curious about this question for pretty long. I’m not in academia, but I heard from my friends who are in PhD programs talk about not wanting to take a vacation or ask for vacation approval, fearing that it will hurt their advisors’ evaluation on them. As far as I know, they’re very hardworking and dedicated people (with no problem to work overtime, on weekends, on call etc) who aim to publish as many high quality papers as possible, but it seems a little bizarre for me to understand, if taking a vacation really shows sign of tardiness in academia? And would that hurt their publishing speed (sorry I can’t think of a better word to describe what they want)?

I apologize in advance if this question is off-topic, please suggest anything to improve my question/vote for close if it’s the case.

  • 5
    I recall taking a variety of vacations in grad school, including a scuba diving trip with my advisor. Clearly this might differ in different places... – Jon Custer Dec 30 '19 at 21:58
  • 14
    Rested students are alert students are fast students are productive students. – Captain Emacs Dec 30 '19 at 23:17
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    I studied in the UK and I took several vacations during my PhD. I am still an academic in the country and I still do take several vacations a year. As many as I can! And so did everyone else, including my supervisors/PIs – Ander Biguri Dec 31 '19 at 8:04
  • Working over the weekend or long hours during the week are already red flags. Take vacations as needed and work a 9 to 5 or other comfortable time period. – Ian Turton Dec 31 '19 at 19:33
  • It also depends a lot on what is meant by "a vacation". Does it mean having a weekend off, or a whole week, or a whole semester? The "a vacation" expression can mean many things to different people. If I were a supervisor and someone wanted a week off to refresh the mind and relax, I'd be fine with that, even encourage it. But if they wanted a whole semester off, I'd be a lot more concerned. – Ray Butterworth Jan 4 at 15:39
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The question has several possible answers. The right one depends e.g. on the country, the region, the university, the field, as well as the research group and the 'culture' promoted there. The answers you can expect here will therefore be mostly based on specific examples and cannot be regarded as universal.

I for instance want my PhD students to take vacations if they feel it is necessary, and they also simply have the right to do so. My reasoning is that they will come back with some extra energy, motivation and fresh ideas effectively increasing their research output. I do not know if this is true though. [Actually, I do not care if it is true. There are more important things than maximizing research output at all costs.]

In reality, the PhD students often do not take the amount of days off they could. In many cases this is because they are so involved in their research that they do not want a vacation. I sometimes send them away then. It could however also be due to pressure they feel from their supervisor. This pressure might be real or not, and often enough it is real. But: At least where I work most supervisors are convinced of the benefits of an occasional vacation. With these people, it would be a big mistake not to take a vacation when necessary and instead keep working until motivation is gone -- especially if that is only the case because you do not even talk to the supervisor about it because of fear of the outcome of the conversation.

  • Thank you for the answer! Tho it is true that I can only collect few data points here, it’s very reassuring to hear from a professor’s perspective that most supervisors are approval of time off. I will let my friends know! – numerairX Dec 30 '19 at 22:21
  • @numerairX As I wrote: Where I work most (not all!) supervisors are generous with vacations. I could give you other examples where the opposite is the case, and I would not have to go far away from my institution. – Snijderfrey Dec 30 '19 at 22:34
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This might be location dependent. In Germany, doctoral students take vacations in the same way as employees in a company would do. That is, they are allowed 30 days a year of vacation, and they do take them without problems.

Threatening doctoral students with consequences (bad evaluation or otherwise) if they exercise their right to take vacation is seen as an abuse of the supervisor's power, and will probably get the supervisor into trouble with the university if the students complain.

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    This is true in a technical sense. But also in Germany many supervisors build up a general pressure that lives in their groups and drives people to work the extra hours. It is usually not enforced as openly that there is hard evidence, and generally there is no culture to complain about it (from my natural sciences perspective). – Snijderfrey Dec 30 '19 at 22:21
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    I think the point is that hours are hardly trackable. (And no one I am aware of lets the scientists punch in and out, there might be some documented hours, oh noes!) The vacation times are mandated by law, local regulations, and typically handled by the administration, not by local group. So aside from "fill for a vacation and still go to uni" there is little obstacle to the vacation possible. And being at work during vacation raises some insurance problems, I'd guess. – Oleg Lobachev Jan 2 at 20:43
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Henri Poincare, while on vacation:

At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for conscience’ sake, I verified the result at my leisure.

Mathematical Creation,

http://vigeland.caltech.edu/ist4/lectures/Poincare%20Reflections.pdf

The essay continues with a discussion of the value of alternating periods of conscious thought and intervals when one's subconscious can process ideas.

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    While I cannot top this story, I will give a supporting anecdote. After a brief stint in academia I embarked on an industrial research career. When I hit my 10 patents milestone, I took a moment to figure out "when did this idea first come to me". It turns out, 8 of 10 patents were first conceived while "away from work" (vacation, weekends, ...). This seems to confirm that Poincaré's experience is not unique. – Floris Dec 31 '19 at 16:10
  • I find holidays are the best time to work, no meetings, no talks, and no emails to deal with. I can concentrate only on what I want to do, rather than all the things that I need to do. – Rob Jan 3 at 20:26
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This will, of course, vary with advisors. Some are hard driving, looking down on what they consider slacking. Others are more humane, realizing that an occasional break from routine can be invigorating. A wise student takes short breaks fairly frequently and longer breaks aren't necessarily a detriment to good research.

In fact, a period of rest, even a week or two, can lead to a settling of the ideas that can lead to insights. But it is also good to have a way to jot down notes and ideas as they occur, even on the beach in Cannes. Your brain doesn't shut off just because you aren't at your desk.

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Views on vacation vary widely depending on the adviser/department. However, here is an anecdote to illustrate how hostile some labs can be to vacation.

I had a friend who needed to take a break from graduate school because she needed to be hospitalized. Her adviser knew where she went and why, and that her need for hospitalization was at least contributed to by the long hours she had been working in the lab. When she came back, even in private conversations, her adviser kept referring to her hospitalization as a vacation. He also expressed concern the other graduate students (who also knew she was hospitalized) would start thinking they could take long vacations like that because she did.

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I generally agree with the rest of the answers, but there's an important point I think needs to be explicitly discussed: PhD students are legally entitled to time off. I can only speak for the few PhD programs I'm familiar with (mostly in the UK), but I'd be highly surprised and disappointed if that weren't the case in most universities.

Of course some people may want to keep working for extended periods of time. Of course students need to agree dates with their supervisor in case there's a deadline or ongoing project. But, if your friends are not allowed to, or simply discouraged from, taking reasonable vacation, then I would gently recommend your friends to get the hell out of their lab(s) as soon as possible. That attitude is exploitative, unfair, and harmful to students' physical and mental health.

Let's end this stupid culture of consensual exploitation in academia.

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Based on my past direct experience, students that do not want to take holidays are considered very bad and it is negative in Academia. PhD students (future researchers) must have the ability to balance their free time with the hard work. It means that they must have the ability to respect the deadlines and they must dedicate free time for themselves. In Academia nobody wants to work with a person that is 100% only dedicated to his job.

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