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Vacations from Grad School: Is it possible?

Woman sitting on beach reading a book
by Katie White Austin

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It likely comes as no surprise that there are many mental and physical health benefits from taking a vacation from work (e.g., Fritz, Ellis, Demsky, Lin, Guros, 2013; Hartig, Catalano, Ong, & Syme, 2013). However, approaching a supervisor to ask for time off can feel awkward, and there may spoken or unspoken pressure to take a “working vacation.” Particularly early in graduate school, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Here are some tips to help you navigate this situation.

Prior to your time off…

  • Ask early and clarify expectations. Approach your advisor early to let them know when you would like to take time off. Different advisors may vary in their preferences for how much in advance you should let them know, but it is better to error on the side of asking too early, then asking too late. In this conversation, outline how you envision your time off to go. Discuss whether you plan to work at all while you’re away or if you’d rather take a reduced load. Also think about bringing up how much you’ll work if you will be working and what you plan to have done before you go. Be honest and realistic about your expectations during your time off. It can be helpful to try to schedule major deadlines (e.g., project submissions, sending out papers for feedback) before your trip, so there’s less pressure to work through your vacation.
  • Reminders. A few weeks ahead of time and then again right before you leave, remind your advisor about the trip, and give them a status update on any ongoing projects. Especially if it’s been over a month since you first asked, your advisor may have forgotten. You don’t want to disappear and leave them wondering where you are and why you’re not responding to emails.

During your time off…

  • Stick to the expectations you’ve set for yourself. This may seem obvious, but with access to emails and the internet at your fingertips, it may be easier said than done. If you’ve decided to take a true vacation away from work, honor that. If you’ve decided to take a reduced load, it can be harder to draw clear cut expectations for your trip. Maybe set a time limit each day for yourself, and then step away. Creating a plan for what you would like to have done each day and scheduling in fun activities for yourself may also help you accomplish what you need to if you have to do some work and still enjoy your break.
  • Ask someone to keep you accountable. See if whoever you’re vacationing with (be it a partner, family member, or friend) can remind you if you’re not sticking to the plans you’ve set for yourself. They can help you step back when needed or encourage you to get the necessary work done so you can enjoy your time together.
  • Drop the guilt. Again, this can often be easier said than done because graduate school and academia can promote a culture of working long hours and a sub-optimal work-life balance (e.g., Badri, 2019; Evans, Bira, Gastelum, Weiss, Vanderford, 2018). It may be worth setting an away message on your email, temporarily disabling email on your phone, or turning off your devices when you step away from work.

While it can be a challenge to carve out time in your schedule and communicate your desire to step away from work, taking a break can stave off feelings of burnout and replenish cognitive resources which may ultimately make you more productive (for review, see Toker & Melamed, 2017). If COVID-19 has disrupted your vacation plans, strive to take a long weekend (even if you’re just at home) to recuperate and relax. You will feel better in the long run.



Badri, S. k. z. (2019). Affective well-being in the higher education sector: Connecting work-life balance with mental health, job satisfaction and turnover intention issues inside the academia setting. International Journal of Happiness and Development, 5(3), 225–241.

Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36(3), 282–284.

Fritz, C., Ellis, A. M., Demsky, C. A., Lin, B. C., & Guros, F. (2013). Embracing work breaks. Organizational Dynamics, 42(4), 274–280.

Hartig, T., Catalano, R., Ong, M., & Syme, S. L. (2013). Vacation, Collective Restoration, and Mental Health in a Population. Society and Mental Health, 3(3), 221–236.

Toker, S., & Melamed, S. (2017). Stress, recovery, sleep, and burnout. In The handbook of stress and health: A guide to research and practice (pp. 168–185). Wiley-Blackwell.


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