Over spring break, I took a vacation. Not an academic vacation, where I go to a conference and then spend an afternoon wandering around some beautiful city. Not a vacation where I sneak off into the bathroom and check my email. I took a real vacation. One where I was completely disconnected from work, and from the world, really. I’m not very good at not working – I love my job and find it difficult to take a break. I also find that I get anxious about all the work piling up when I’m away and if I can at least check in from time-to-time and clean out emails that I can deal with quickly, I feel a little less anxious.
Anyway, this past March, I took a real vacation. My husband and I took our kids backpacking in the Grand Canyon for 4 days. Four days in a giant hole in the ground, with no Wi-Fi, no LTE, no contact with the outside world, and no showers. Four days with everything we needed on our backs. Four days where our “home” was a 7 foot by 7 foot space (with no privacy). Four days with only each other, Uno, Phase 10, and a Choose Your Own Adventure book to entertain us. Oh, and the great outdoors – it’s pretty entertaining, too.
It was AMAZING. As soon as we stepped off at the top of the trail, I felt my anxiety begin to melt away. The deeper we got into the canyon, the less anxious I felt. By the time we stopped to set up camp for the first night, I don’t even think I could spell “biostatistics.” Work was the farthest thing from my mind. And watching my children approach a 1600 foot climb with gusto, seeing them work hard to make and break camp, watching them sitting by the water playing cards together was a gift I didn’t know I wanted or needed. I am incredibly proud of my children, who hiked nearly 30 miles over 4 days with heavy packs on, with no showers, sleeping on the ground, eating mostly dehydrated foods, with no whining and complaining, and no arguing, and loving the challenge of the trip.
By the end of the four days, I was more relaxed than I’d been in a long time. After our hike, we had a few days to visit with friends and family in Arizona before heading back to reality (and the beginning of our Spring quarter), and I found that I didn’t have any desire to check my email or reengage with my work. I needed that vacation, more than I knew. When I returned, I felt refreshed and rejuvenated, and ready to get back into the swing of things.
Interestingly, almost 20 years ago when my husband and I were graduate students, some of our friends, also students, suggested a group of 6 of us (3 couples) go backpacking the Grand Canyon. None of us had ever really backpacked before, so we approached this as any good scientists would. We did our research. We spent nearly a year planning. We had weekly meetings to share our research and discuss our plans, and drink some beer. What else would you expect from 2 biostatisticians, 2 physicists, a chemist, and a mechanical engineer? It was an amazing time: we all accomplished goals that we didn’t think we could accomplish, and learned a lot about ourselves and each other. We supported each other through challenges, celebrated our successes, and laughed a lot. Looking back, I don’t remember a lot of specifics of the hike, but I do remember the joy we felt when we reached our goal. In retrospect, this was an amazing metaphor for our PhDs… we did our research, we planned, we worked hard, we drank beer. Things didn’t turn out exactly as we’d expected, but we accomplished our goals. And throughout the rest of our graduate programs, we supported each other through the tough times, celebrated together, and laughed a lot. A lot.
But we also faced some who didn’t think that we should be taking a week vacation away from our labs, our work. As graduate students. What message are we sending about academic life if we tell graduate students that they should not take vacations? Graduate school was the most flexible time of life for me (and likely is for many graduate students) – if it is going to go downhill from there, why wouldn’t people opt out of academic careers in favor of jobs that allow them the luxury of vacation, family leave, access to on-site daycare, etc…
Some research has suggested that vacations and leisure time may be beneficial to employees, both from a health perspective and from a productivity perspective. Inc. describes 4 “scientific” reasons why vacations are good (although they do not cite their sources, and most of the research out there is correlative, not causative), including: resultant reductions in stress, improvement in health, improved productivity, and better sleep. Other research suggests that higher marital satisfaction and lower stress is associated with more vacation among rural Wisconsin women. But according to some sources, only 25% of Americans take all of their paid vacation days, and 61% of Americans work while on vacation. What’s wrong with us?
It’s hard to find data specifically about the vacation habits of academics (although it is easy to find out which institutions actually offer paid vacation time). Most people have the misconception that professor→summers off. While some faculty do have a break from teaching in the summer, other academic activities continue. Even faculty who are on 9-month contracts often use the summer months to catch up on research, enhance their course materials, or for administrative activities. But besides anecdotal evidence that professors don’t have their summer off, it’s hard to know whether academics take more or less vacations than other folks, and whether those positive effects translate to this unique population.
Just prior to my vacation, I was at a meeting of the North American Biostatistics Chairs, during which time we talked about why women are getting PhDs in Biostatistics at roughly the same (or higher rates) than men (American Statistical Association data here; AMS data here), but faculty do not reflect this equity at any rank. We discussed what we are currently doing to discourage women from seeking academic careers, and ways we can help change that. One of the things we discussed was modeling better work-life balance “behavior” to our students and junior faculty. The majority of the people in the room have children, at various ages and stages of life. And one of the reasons we love being academics is the great flexibility we have to spend time with our children, to play an active role in their lives. But maybe we don’t talk about this enough with our students? Maybe they don’t understand that the reason I sometimes work at 10:00 at night is because I sometimes leave work at 3:00 so I can be there when my son gets home from school? Modeling good behavior doesn’t mean only going home early to be with my kids, though. Modeling good behavior extends to other ways to balance work and life (like taking vacation). However, it’s not enough for scientific leaders to model good behavior when it comes to work-life integration, it is absolutely our responsibility to do so. As a leader in my field, it is contingent on me to model that work is important, but so is being away from work, and to encourage that among those I lead.
As I write this, I’m preparing for a 2-week summer vacation. I can’t tell you whether I’ll disconnect completely during that time, but it is highly unlikely that I’ll go two weeks without checking in at work. This time, I won’t be forced to disconnect, as I won’t (intentionally) be in a giant hole in the ground. Hopefully, I’ll choose to disconnect – at least for part of the time – not only for my own sake, but also for the sake of those that follow me.