On 1st May 2018, I return to doctoral student-dom. I’ve ‘been off’ for 6 months, since my supervisors gently pointed out I *might* be heading for burnout and I should really (REALLY) consider interrupting my studies to ‘get sorted’.
If you take a moment to look around the inter-web, there are very few references or sources that give the student perspective on Interruption of Studies. Information is largely formal, process- and bureaucracy- focused, and, importantly, negative in tone, with references to things like ‘academic consequences’, phrasing that frankly sends a pretty unpleasant chill through the spine. One article I’ve seen was entitled ‘The Gamble of a PhD Hiatus’. Gamble? Hiatus? How to make you feel bad if you’re considering time away or what?! An Interruption is a risk, it’s damaging to reputation, it means a loss of momentum… You can maybe understand the negativity at a basic level – think about it: “Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking!” we may say/shout, the action considered most impertinent, not at all a good thing to do. In academic circles, Interruption, despite being sold as something to help nonetheless cannot help but push forward such associated ideas as, ‘you’ll fall behind’; ‘someone may well overtake you, cover your research topic and usurp your expertise whilst you’re off’; basically, ‘you can’t cope or hack the pressure, so really should you even be in academia at all?’.
When my supervisors brought up the possibility of inserting a ‘break’, I was to put it bluntly not happy. I was working my damned-hardest, and it felt like a kick in teeth. As a part-time student, balancing research with an exceedingly busy home-life and another job in a thoroughly unpleasant working environment, I thought I deserved a bit more credit. I pretty much knee-jerk-reacted and created my own interpretation of their words as being ‘you’re simply not good enough’. My PhD days in the week were the ones I looked forward to and they were telling me to give them up (admittedly they weren’t saying forever, but I occasionally have a tendency to dramatize…).
Suffice it to say, after almost running out of the supervision meeting room, my reaction to the proposal of Interruption developed into anger, based and focused on a number of aspects – I would instantly suffer the unanticipated loss of the needed income from my stipend (not helping but adding to existing stresses) and, most importantly, I was being told to put a passion I’d been working really hard on aside. Tantrumming thoughts arose: “maybe, for instance, if I hadn’t had to spend so much time doing ‘program-required’ training courses and writing essays on using the library or qualitative research methods, given I already have a qualitative-research-based PhD, perhaps I could have used time more productively?”; “maybe I should just pack it in, I don’t NEED a PhD, I could just do a book myself – I don’t need all that academic tick-boxing and red-tape-processing fencing me in” etc. ad infinitum. It took a few days to calm down and be able to think rationally about the situation, to realise that my supervisors had in fact done me a favour – this project is supremely important to me and I really wasn’t producing my best work, ‘doing it right’. Over a Thai dinner during a rare child-free weekend away in Edinburgh, it was my husband who eventually pushed me into recognising I was *perhaps* overreacting, and, actually, I really ought to continue with the project.
Having now almost had the six months I took, here are the two BIG THINGS I would say about an Interruption of Studies at PhD level:
- There is no break, there is no absence, there is no ‘being off’ – Interruption by no means whatsoever causes you to ‘leave’ your research (topic). In my case, I can’t really do that anyway, it being so intertwined with my daily life and all. Even if that weren’t the case though, a form saying ‘you have interrupted your studies’ does not automatically bring with it an interruption of your thinking. You’re already committed. Ideas remain and arrive, and interest remains and develops. The ‘world outside’ sometimes prompts a thought that connects in a way that you feel you must record. Once you’ve embarked on a PhD, there really is no way to fully detach from your subject, regardless of what the paperwork says. During your supposed break, you may still find yourself reassessing the topic, developing a new way of looking at it, or identifying a new angle that you want to approach it from – this is still working on your doctorate. You may also engage in activities or do bits and pieces of your own writing as they come to you, which you may (or may not) draw on later down the line. I, for instance, have had some personal writing on my bereavement accepted for a publication (without intending to do anything of the sort 6 months ago), and in this final week of ‘the break’ I will train as a Mental Health First Aider – not directly associated with my research subject, but definitely relevant in terms of knowledge and skills I can use for the PhD later on. I suppose my point is, during a study-break you don’t have to do anything, but it is likely you won’t be able to help yourself from doing something. Thus, Interruption doesn’t just equal increased viewing of daytime TV and, woo hoo, a holiday where you laze about (at home) – it does not remotely deserve to be thought of as being of this character.
- An Interruption of Studies is not a 100%-guaranteed cure for stress, and that should not even, I think, be the goal of one. Yes, it offers a bit of extra time to address (some of the) circumstances that led to the need for some form of break in the first place; but the end of an Interruption doesn’t mean, ‘Right, all is now PERFECT. Got over it. Done, dusted. Now, where was I?’. I’ve used my time to go back to counselling, which I didn’t really realise I needed at the start, and it has been good to have the space to talk through the various life aspects impinging on my studies. But I am not cured – I have learned new things about myself, how to manage myself in relation to others, how to recognise and not give in to Imposter Syndrome symptoms etc., but I have not banished all difficulties for good. Do we return to study at ‘full strength’? No… but maybe we do so at fullER strength, which is enough. I’m a little anxious/apprehensive about returning to the project, about how smoothly the transition back into both the role and topic will occur, but I think it would be a bit odd if that wasn’t the case, if I were entirely, 100% confident. The value of an Interruption, I would say, is actually becoming more aware of yourself, especially of how to work with yourself, not just with your research topic and/or your supervisors, in managing the intense process that doctoral study is and will continue to be, once the formal time-off period has officially ended.
If I were to briefly summarise then, my Interruption, rather than an unfavourable loss of ‘work time’, can be seen and described as the insertion of self-care, -reflection and -development time that can only benefit my future working processes once I formally re-enrol as a doctoral student.
Now that can’t be a negative thing really, can it?