Coming back to your PhD after a long break?

Despite the best laid plans, sometimes things come along in life which can throw you off track and lead to a long, unplanned break from your PhD. This could be bereavement, the breakup of a relationship, illness or a stress-induced breakdown (or all of the above).

Or maybe there have just been been too many other demands on your time… especially if you have a job which actually pays you money to show up, it’s easy to let the PhD slip away. One week off turns into a month, one month off turns into 6, 6 months turn into a year…

The longer you leave it, the more difficult it is to come back and reestablish the PhD as part of your life, but there are some simple steps you can take to get yourself back in the PhD habit.

1. Reestablish contact with supervisors

This can be daunting, especially if your supervisor doesn’t know you have taken time off. Many students only want to contact their supervisors if they have something to show, but this means that the longer you leave it, the more pressure you put on yourself.

You must reestablish contact and tell them about the situation and that you are coming back. This is the only way they can help you form a plan for how to proceed.

2. Take stock of what you have

It’s easy to forget what you have done in terms of data, results and writing. Looking at the work you already have helps to refresh the memory.

It can be difficult to look. There might be a bit of a psychological barrier to overcome, but it is essential to take stock of what you have before you can do anything else.

3. Pick something simple to start with

There may be many things you have to do to finish, but to get started again it’s best to pick one thing to focus on initially.

4. Create the time

If your schedule has filled up with other things, then you have to create time if you want to go back to work on the PhD.

There will always be other demands on your time, but you must protect sufficient time for PhD work.

5. Decide, and take action

If you have taken time out, you need to make a clear decision whether or not you want to continue with the PhD.

The worst situation is to drift along without making a decision, carrying the burden of an incomplete thesis on your mind.

It is OK to leave, and it is OK to carry on, as long as you make a clear decision and follow through with action.

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Comments

  1. Carli says

    What do you think about starting a failed thesis all over again, new topic and all after FIVE YEARS? I really want to do it and my uni said i can but i dont know if its possible for me to get into it again after all those years!

  2. PHDOLLY says

    It has been a couple of years since I was in thesis zone. Once I have overcome the terrifying step of re-establishing contact with the supervisor after completely petering out (serious doubts she will welcome this contact), my hope is to get it done over the next year. My question is – do you think that, after such a long break (and blemish to the CV), post-docs/an academic career would be a possibility?

  3. BeV says

    I have just stumbled across your blog and am very happy that I have. I have had a few long breaks (babies, moving house…twice etc) and am about to get stuck back in to it. I have been feeling like I have no connection with it any more, but I know I just need to break it down into manageable chunks and take your advice. Hopefully this time next month, I’ll wonder what I was worrying about.

  4. says

    Thank you for this article; the timing is absolutely perfect. I haven’t even looked in my “Thesis” email folder in months and months and months, and then the day I look, this gem is right near the top.

    The only thing this article doesn’t mention is when the reason for having been away from the thesis is a happy one: the arrival of a child! But the points are still very relevant, especially #4: time is definitely being filled with other things, and I must set aside some time for thesis work in order to be successful in my return to it.

  5. Sauleh E says

    Thanks for the interesting Article James.
    I’m in a unique situation where in addition to coming back to my PhD, I’m also not physically close to my school. I miss the school environment around me where I would see and meet other PhD students who are also working on their next publication or their thesis. In the past this helped me in keeping myself hopeful and motivated to work on my PhD. Do you have some suggestions?

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