In the competitive world of science, it is not surprising that many graduate students are forced to compromise social activity and vacation for their work. While this might lead to increased productivity, it often results in stress, emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion, known more concisely as ‘burnout’. Some schools, such as Michigan State University, dedicate whole sections of their website to understanding and prevention of graduate student burnout. A possible consequence of long-term exhaustion is attrition (aka dropout). The PhD dropout rate in many universities is not trivial, as evidenced by the existence of the Council of Graduate Schools’ PhD completion project, which is meant to address the issues surrounding PhD completion and attrition. As graduate students, we are often stereotyped as miserable and overworked. In fact, during my research I came across a book entitled “Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School” in which graduate students are literally referred to as “suffering, unshaven sad sacks”. At the risk of living up to our stereotype, we decided it would be worth taking a look at the University of Toronto School of Graduate Studies’ policies on breaks.vacation-seneca

At the University of Toronto, graduate students are allowed time off during all statutory holidays and Christmas break, as outlined in the School of Graduate Studies calendar. On top of that, most students generally take a brief vacation or ‘personal time off’. Often times, students that get to travel to international conferences will choose to extend their stay afterwards and take advantage of the free flight. But how long are we allowed to stay? Like many other Universities, our School of Graduate Studies offers no official policy regarding personal time off. In fact, the University of Toronto 2012/2013 School Of Graduate Studies Essential Grad Guide makes no mention of the word ‘vacation’ or ‘personal time off’ in any of its 44 pages. However, in the Faculty of Medicine there is a general rule allowing graduate students to ‘expect up to 3 weeks (15 business days) of vacation per year’. This careful definition of vacation allows for a wide variety of schedules to be set according to the PI’s liking. The unfortunate truth is- some researchers simply do not believe in giving their graduate students free time.

A 2011 Nature article entitled “The 24/7 lab” profiles the work expectations of Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa, a neurosurgeon and big fan of Friday night lab meetings. His views on taking a break are clear: “Vacations are great. Take a weekend off”. On the other hand, Dr. Stephen Buchwald, a Chemistry Professor at MIT, encourages students in his lab to take a month of holidays every year: “The fact is- I want people to be able to think. If they’re completely beaten down, they’re not going to be very creative.  It is no surprise that taking a break reduces stress and enhances productivity.vacation-sticky Emotional and physical detachment from work has proven positive effects on health and creativity. During complicated tasks such as problem solving, short periods of time spent away from the problem are enough to significantly improve performance. Termed by psychologists as ‘incubation’, this phenomenon was found to consistently correlate with enhanced results in creative and analytical tasks. The length of your ‘incubation’ time might range from an hour to a whole month if you are lucky and brave, but all it really takes is long enough to escape and forget the stress that burdens us. We don’t have to take all of our entitled vacation time at once, especially since this can be quite difficult on a grad student budget. If you can extend a weekend here or there, take a road trip to visit a friend in another city. No car? Check out the ViaRail or Porter Airlines deals (they seem to always have sales, don’t they?). Weekday evenings can be used for de-stressing as well, so if you finish your day with enough time to shave your sad suffering face, take advantage of the pub nights and social events that your grad student association plans. Pubs not your thing? Head to the Athletic Center or Hart House to join a sport club or take a fitness class. If all else fails, you can hit up the rollercoasters at Canada’s Wonderland and while everyone else there is screaming because they are scared, you can secretly scream about your upcoming committee meeting or that Western blot you accidentally transferred backwards.

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Jelena Borovac

Jelena is a PhD student in the Department of Molecular Genetics.
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