This time last year, I was preparing for a surgery which required three weeks physical recovery. I suspended my PhD for these three weeks in order to navigate this period. During this time I looked around for advice about managing short-term planned leave from a PhD and found very little. So I started keeping a record of the things I did and what I found helpful. I’m now writing this post which will hopefully help someone else out there facing short-term leave from their PhD.
When I was looking back over my notes, I could clearly see there were things that came before, during and after the leave, which made the process easier.
If you plan to officially suspend from your PhD for your period of leave, there will be paperwork. You will probably need to request permission for your leave from your University, Director of Studies and/or your funding body. Look into this early. Contact the person in charge of these things and return to your handbook or online guidance for information. Officially suspending will probably require some for of evidence, which allows you to have an extension on your submission date. It is usually reserved for things that are considered unavoidable or undesirable (health issues), or that will significantly improve your PhD experience (placements). That being said, you might be taking leave for a long holiday, which is totally fine. However, you are unlikely to be able to suspend your PhD. The earlier this paperwork is sorted, the better.
Sort your finances
How are you going to fund your period of suspension? You might be self-funded, or through a research council. Some, universities and research councils offer funded suspension. In my case, my stipend for the period of leave had already been paid. So I was able to keep that and was given the payment for the leave at the end of my funding period. Not all research councils do this, so you might need to look into applying to your universities hardship fund or a charity that might be able to support you. Once the admin and the finances are sorted, you can start to think about the most important thing – YOU.
How might it affect you?
It was important for me to take stock of how the reason for taking time off might affect me. On this occasion it was a surgery, but it could be a short placement, a family event or a holiday. Personally, I had to think about what sort of place I might be in, physically and mentally, upon my return to work.
It was obvious to me that I probably wouldn’t have tons of energy, and I might feel a bit fuzzy headed. I also realised I wouldn’t have seen my friends for a while, but I might not be in a position to catch up with them all in my first week back to work. This meant I could plan ahead and somewhat have an idea of what to expect upon my return to work. I let people know that whilst I was back at work, I wouldn’t be up for meeting for a week or two. I needed time to settle back in and find my bearings. Same with supervision meetings. Although my leave would be over, I’d still need some warm up time, to get back into work mode.
Let people know
There is obviously the official people to notify of your leave, such as your department and your supervisor. But also let the other people in your life know. Collaborators, friends, people you are working for. If you let them know you’re going to be away, they are more likely to understand if there is any radio silence. Also, letting people know you are going to be away opens the way for support. Perhaps your collaborator can take the lead for a few weeks to relieve the pressure? Perhaps that meeting could wait, or could be done over Skype rather than require you to travel in your first week back?
Of course, now is a good time to consider your out of office, if you’d like to set one. You can be as honest as you like, or you can just keep the basics and necessary information in there. Whatever you need to say in order to feel happy that people know you’re away and when they can expect your return..
Jot down where you are at
This was possibly one of the most helpful things I did for myself before my leave. On my last day of work, I set aside an hour to jot down all the things I was working on. Not only that, I wrote down the last few steps I had taken with the project or task, and also the next two or three steps in the process. This meant, that when I returned to work, I had cues, to remind me of where I was at with things. This saved me having to trawl back through documents or contacting people, to try and remember what I’d done and what came next on projects. This is actually something I do at the end of the week, ready for Monday morning, but also at the end of the day if I’m working on a particularly tricky or complex task.
Resist the urge to work too early (or at all)
If you’ve taken the leave for medical reasons, it’s really important to follow doctors orders. Rest and recover as much as you need to. Make sure that you have a ‘buffer’ period and don’t expect too much of yourself. If the doctors says two weeks, consider giving yourself three. When we’re in our brains so much as PhD students, it can be really hard to listen to our body’s messages. Going back to work too early is unlikely to be helpful in the long run. There’s a chance you’ll over do it and need even more time off. Chances are, this time won’t have been included your suspension period.
If you’re period of leave is for a placement or holiday, ask yourself what you’ll really get out of working during this time. You might be avoiding something else that needs attending to, mentally or emotionally. Ask yourself whether doing work will allow you to get the most out of your experience. Remind yourself of why you took the holiday or placement in the first place. What value it held, and whether you’re tapping into this if you spend your time working.
Allow people to help you
This is particularly important if you have taken time off for medical reasons. During your period of leave, if people offer their help and support, and you need it, accept it. It can be really hard to do, but is valuable and it is an act of self-kindness to allow support in. Perhaps you might need to ask for it. Maybe you could request someone pick you something up from the shop for you, post a letter or make you a meal. A friend of mine, taking maternity leave, recently requested freezer meals as baby shower gifts. To nourish her and her baby, rather than clothes or toys, which she had plenty of. Think about how your life could be made easier during this time. Be brave and ask for help.
Have a check in buddy
If you’re worried about how you’ll cope during leave, perhaps find yourself someone that you can check in with whilst you are away. Whatever reason you are taking leave for, it can be useful to have a way to ‘touch base’ and stay in the loop. Ask this person to contact you occasionally, or ask if they’re willing to receive updates from time to time. This is also especially useful if you can be honest about what you might find tricky. If you think you’re at risk of returning to work too early, perhaps ask them to ask you why it was important for you to have the leave and not come back to soon.
Look at your list of where you were at
If you start to feel panicky about returning to work, or a bit disconnected from your work – that is normal. That list of where you were at can be really helpful at this time. Just having a brief read over it, can refresh your mind and help you to remember where things were left. This really helped my anxiety during my leave. In a post general anaestescia state, my mind was foggy and I was finding it hard to even imagine being at my desk. This list of where I’d been when I hit pause helped me to remember that I was on track and I’d find my way back.
If you really want to do things whilst you’re on leave, stick to admin based, non-important tasks. Things that don’t require too much brain power and that you can dip in and out of at will.
You’ve had your leave, now it’s time to return to work. Hopefully, you’re feeling rested, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t feeling anxious.
Change your out of office
So chances are, you set your out of office for your leave. But what about when you’re back at work? Something I think a lot of people don’t maximise is the use of an out of office upon their return to work. Personally, I have a two stage out of office procedure. I set my usually out of office message when I am away. Then when I return I set a follow up message. Usually along the lines of ‘I am back at work after a period of leave, I am attending to emails as efficiently as possible. Please excuse any delay. If you require an urgent response, please email me again’. This is a way to keep people off your back, and remind people that you might need some time once you return.
Ease in gently
I love using sporting events as a metaphor for the working day, week, month and year. Preparation is key, a warm up is required, you do your best, and then you cool down and review. Same applies for returning to work after a break. You wouldn’t expect a marathon runner to have a few weeks off and then go blitz that 26.2 miles, would you?
Give yourself permission to take things slowly in the first few days, or even week, back to work after leave. Depending on how long you had off, and for what reason, you might need less or more time. Even after a lovely holiday, you’ll need to ease yourself back in.
Consider part time hours for your first week back to take the pressure off. This can also help with any guilt or disappointment you might have if you set yourself too high expectations and need to take some time off. You can keep this decision to yourself, or you can let people like your supervisor know that you’ll be having a gradual return to work.
Look at your list
It can feel super daunting coming back to work, especially if you were spinning lots of plates before you left. This where that list you wrote before you left becomes your best friend. Look at it, spend time reviewing what you’d done, where you left things and what your next steps were. Don’t put pressure on yourself to do anything on the list. This is about reviewing, and warming up. Refreshing your mind and seeing how the land lies. You might choose which projects you are going to work on and assign some tasks for the next few days. Choose small, achievable tasks which will help you get back into the swing of things and boost your confidence in your ability.
Again, ask for help during this time if you need it. Maybe some of the responsibilities you usually have could be picked up by someone else. Maybe you could ask your buddy to touch base with you during your first week back. Perhaps you could ask your supervisor or another mentor, to sit down with you and review where you’re at. Or you could ask friends whether you could come over for dinner, if you feel like cooking during your first few days back might be a challenge.
Have, and ask for, patience
This goes two ways. Have patience with yourself. Chances are, you won’t be firing on all cylinders, so be patient and kind to yourself. You’ll get back to where you were, once you’ve had a chance to warm yourself up.
If you face push back from other people when you return to work, ask them politely to give you some time. Assure them that you will meet their request or deadline. If you need to, ask people for their patience as you ease back in. Make sure to let them know that you appreciate it during this time.
Taking a period of short term leave can be really difficult. Some of the challenges are the same as taking long-term or unexpected leave, whereas some are different. Planning is key, as is self-kindness, asking for help and having realistic expectations. Sometimes the hardest part is managing the expectations and impatience of others. But the most important thing is how you fee. You are the one who has to work, play and live in your mind, and your body. Nobody else. Which is why you are the only person you have to answer to.
I hope this has been a helpful post. I will be taking a further period of leave at some point during this year, which will be a bit longer than the once last year. I’ll keep a note of any challenges or things that help, and share them if I think it would be useful.
Have you taken short-term planned leave? How did you manage it? Did anything help or hinder this period?
Until next time 🙂