Graduate school is tough. Imposter Syndrome is real, and it can leave you with a crippling sense of insecurity. Factor in the new environment and new ways of learning, and you have a perfect storm brewing.

Has it ever gotten so bad that you felt like you can no longer stay in your graduate program and perform well? If you have ever felt like this, you are not alone. Many others like myself have gone through the same, and have decided to take a leave of absence to deal with these feelings.

elisabetta-foco-smallTaking a leave of absence was the hardest decision that I have ever made. Academically speaking, everything ran surprisingly smoothly until then. So when I considered taking a leave, many people, including my own parents, could not fathom why, especially since in their eyes, I had finally reached where I wanted to be. I felt weak to even consider a leave – I thought that I had not made enough progress on my project, and therefore did not deserve a break. Because of this, I felt compelled to lie. During discussions about my leave of absence with anyone, especially my parents, I put the emphasis on my need to tend to my freshly broken ankle. But I was not about to lie to myself; I knew that I was doing this as much for my physical health as for my mental health.

Because I was willing to risk everything – respect from others, academic progress, etc. – just to take care of myself, I have since found a new level of respect for myself that I never had before. I know now that I can trust myself in the future to do what is in my best interest, no matter what others think.”

As it turns out, taking a leave of absence was also one of the best decisions that I have ever made, even though I’ll admit that my life would have been much easier had I remained in school. I would have still had health insurance, and I would have still gone to physiotherapy. My ankle would probably be miles better than it is now. And my parents would have still treated me like they were proud of me. But in many ways, this period of hiatus from school was everything I needed. Because I was willing to risk everything – respect from others, academic progress, etc. – just to take care of myself, I have since found a new level of respect for myself that I never had before. I know now that I can trust myself in the future to do what is in my best interest, no matter what others think.

During my leave, I was able to let my mind and body relax fully for the first time in five years. I finally had time for some much needed introspection to ask myself the important questions, like “what am I doing everything for?” I realized that I had not explored enough avenues in my life beyond the academic bubble, and that my interests were limited by that to which I had been passively exposed. The leave from school gave me an opportunity to test the waters outside, to try things I had never prioritized before and to meet new people from other walks of life. Perhaps this gain of perspective was exactly what I needed to get back into the groove and grind of research.

So is taking a break from grad school a good idea? As is the case with everything, there are both upsides and downsides, and figuring out which path to take is a very personal decision. According to a survey taken by our department, about 30% of graduate students have contemplated taking a leave of absence. That is to say, you are absolutely not alone if you have considered taking a break, and there are many in the department who would understand your decision. To ease the financial pressure of losing your stipend, a Leave of Absence Stipendiary Fund has recently been instated owing to the efforts of our graduate coordinator Dr. Jennifer Gommerman. This fund is available to eligible students for one term of leave, for up to $5,000 on a one-time basis.

Just as we cannot plan for much in life, we also cannot plan for the circumstances that sometimes arise that lead us to require a leave of absence from school. Sometimes we just need a break. And that is okay.

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Miranda Shi

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