In the opening part of this series, I discussed several aspects of our personal and professional lives that must be harmonized to live a well-balanced academic life. This time, I focus on a much more specific issue: taking vacations.
First, a bit of clarification is in order. I don’t consider a weekend trip to go hiking in the mountains (a not-so-uncommon practice here in Tennessee) a vacation. I also don’t consider a week where one works slightly fewer hours a vacation. I consider a vacation to be something more substantial—a sustained change in lifestyle, location, or both that usually involves very little professional work. For the typical academic operating on a semester system, there are two intervals where these kinds of vacations usually take place: winter and summer. The interval in winter between the end of the fall semester and the start of the fall semester is usually only a few weeks, but the summer break can be several months. So one of the questions we have to ponder when we make our summer schedules is how long our summer vacations ought to be.
I’m seen a great deal of variance among graduate students and professional philosophers in this regard. Sometimes, they leave campus for months to travel abroad or visit their hometown. Other times, they stay on campus the entire summer, teach a course, and work on their research. I tend to fall somewhat in the middle. This summer, for instance, I am currently teaching a course in professional ethics, but I also took a 2-week hiatus at the end of the spring semester. Once the course concludes on July 3rd (and I’ve gotten grades entered), I plan to begin work on my Master’s Thesis, but I also aim to squeeze in a visit back to Topeka, Kansas (my hometown).
Is there a best strategy in how to plan your summer vacations? I doubt there’s any one-size-fits-all formula, but extremes strike me as undesirable. Imagine one extreme—no vacation at all. I imagine that there could be some philosophers who don’t need a vacation, but I don’t know of any. We all need some time, especially after the end-of-semester crunch, to relax and intellectually recuperate. Considering how many graduate students I have known who have admitted to burning out at some point in their careers, I can’t imagine that the no-vacation strategy is advisable.
But consider another extreme—total disconnection from philosophy for 2-3 months. I’ve known some graduate students who appear to follow this strategy: they leave campus in early May and do not return until late July or early August. Perhaps they’re doing some philosophy while they’re away, but I doubt it’s very much. Obviously, one disadvantage of this strategy is that summers are an ideal time to revise old papers, submit to journals, etc., and taking such an extended vacation largely squanders this opportunity. Another is that when one returns to philosophy from such a lengthy absence, it can be difficult to scrape away the mental rust. I spent most of my summers as an undergraduate focusing on tennis (practicing, playing tournaments, etc.), and I always found it difficult to re-engage with academics in August after neglecting them for so long. I suspect this effect would be even more profound at the graduate level because graduate academics are far more rigorous than undergraduate academics, but I admit I have no data to back up this claim.
Since these extremes seem undesirable, I think a balanced approach is best. Some time off seems vital to staying sane and not burning out, but some engagement with philosophy over the summer seems crucial to one’s career development and to avoiding some rough adjustments in August. Thus, when I schedule my summer vacations, I try to abide by a 2-week rule: never totally disconnect from philosophy for more than 2 weeks. Sometimes, that means making sure I don’t leave campus for more than 2 weeks at a time during the summer. If possible, I also try to teach a class so that I’m forced to maintain a normal schedule and engage with philosophy frequently.
Now I’m curious as to how your summer planning differs from (or is similar to) my own. How do all of you plan your summers? How long do you take vacations (if you take them)? And how should graduate students and junior faculty spend these months?