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Escaping the Valley: why sometimes a break is all you need

Escaping the Valley: why sometimes a break is all you need

I've been thinking carefully about whether I wanted to write this post or not. A couple of weeks ago I took some annual leave from the PhD (a 'staycation', if you will, as I didn't actually go anywhere!) and I mentioned it briefly in my last post about social media and the PhD.

The reasons I've been considering not writing the post is that my week off wasn't something that I'd planned far in advance. I went through all the official channels for requesting time off (this is a requirement for PhDs at my university and is actually quite a good way of keeping track of exactly how much time off you are, or aren't, taking) but it was by no means something I'd planned to do this year.

We're allocated six weeks annual leave each year (October-September) and I used up three of mine back in November to learn Chinese and one over Christmas/New Year. I hadn't really thought about what I would use the other two weeks for, other than a vague idea that they might come in handy closer to our wedding in October, if any intensive planning was needed (or more likely, if I was forced to put aside some time to have a complete meltdown about chair ties or bridesmaid dresses... the world of wedding planning is, if possible, even crazier than PhD writing...).

But there I was, in February, emailing supervisors and completing a little online form for my impromptu holiday! I had come back from Christmas break, not with a renewed enthusiasm and energy for my PhD but just with a general feeling of being completely overwhelmed by the whole thing. It might have been the second-year slump (or the 'Valley of Shit' as ThesisWhisperer has christened it) or a touch of the winter blues, but I lost all perspective on the PhD and all confidence in my ability to write or research. I was still writing but every word I put down, every argument I tentatively made, I doubted, which doesn't really make for quick, efficient work or indeed a healthy PhD mind!

So rather than sit and sulk, increasingly frustrated by re-drafting the same sentence over and over again, I decided to take a step back. I didn't necessarily think that one week would be enough to pull myself out of my slump but I thought that it would, at least, be a start. So I had my week off, completely, trying not to think about, or look at, the PhD - I met up with friends, took my puppy on long walks, read non-academic books, had a manicure, had a haircut, sat (and passed!) my driving theory test and briefly looked at alternative careers.

And that was it. It was all I needed. I don't know if it was the breathing space, the good company, some of the ideas I encountered in the books I was reading or a combination of all of the above but I felt completely renewed and ready to tackle the PhD.

Since then I've made lots of progress on databasing my archival work and have written a big chunk of the chapter I was struggling with. I've had a paper accepted at an international conference in Paris and have been accepted as one of the University of St Andrews Library Visiting Scholars for 2016. I completed an internship with SGSAH and created a set of resources for PhD and early-career researchers. Most importantly though, I experienced the 'valley of shit' and lived to tell the tale.

Has anyone else experienced this type of slump during their PhD? How did you/do you cope with it?

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