From the Science Student Council

Taking a break: How to transition out of and back into academic life

Learning to take time off from graduate student life can lead to improved productivity.

By Rachel Manes

The life of a graduate student can seem like a rigorous routine of productivity - eat, study/analyze/write/dissertate, sleep, and repeat!  While crossing tasks off of a to-do list is an essential ritual performed throughout graduate student life, research shows that productivity can be improved by taking a break from routine (Kühnel & Sonnentag, 2011).  Although the effects last for only a month, teachers who come back from vacation are more committed to their job and less burned out than when they left for vacation.  Therefore, the designated vacation period seems like the optimal time for graduate students to follow suit, and take a break.  This includes breaking from activities that include, but are not limited to, e-mailing, teaching, analyzing, meeting, and writing.  Shutting down from these sometimes endless and insistent tasks associated with graduate student life can provide a great opportunity to reenergize your battery for the start of a new, demanding academic term.  However, taking a break can also be the source of guilt and anxiety. 

But just how does a graduate student “take a break”?  Transitioning out of and back into academic life can prove to be quite the challenge when taking breaks is not often part of the culture of scientific research.  More broadly, it is even difficult to step away from one’s professional work life within the context of the contemporary world as there is often both internal and external pressure to always be working.  This could lead to guilt when taking time off, but one remedy involves talking to fellow graduate students honestly about how and why taking a break can be useful.  Accomplishing such a feat is entirely possible as well as advantageous for graduate students who are seeking a fresh perspective on their work or research ventures when the new academic term commences.  

First off, consider how long the designated vacation period will last.  While writing up results of a study might seem like a tempting way to spend this time during the extended break, planning non-academic related events is an equally productive way to spend time during the designated vacation period because they stand to improve productivity after the break is over.  These off-line activities could range from travel and recreation to leisure time with friends and loved ones. 

After the designated vacation period comes to an end, though, it will once again be time to start a new term.  A successful transition back into academic life will hopefully lead to a fresh perspective and approach to the usual rigorous routine of productivity.  In order to sustain steady productivity, be careful to shy away from extracurricular activities or engagement with social media sites that might serve as distractions.  Furthermore, set times  to engage with e-mail (e.g., between 1:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon) or not to engage with e-mail (e.g., no e-mail after 7:00 in the evening).  Forming and abiding by these self-set rules might prevent e-mail communications from interfering with productivity at other times of the day. 

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, taking breaks during the day even at the peak of the academic term can have a positive impact on productivity.  When instructors took breaks during the day, these breaks were positively related to positive affect in their subsequent work (Trougakos, Beal, Green, & Weiss, 2008).  Importantly, these breaks involved activity that was completely unrelated to work conducted by the instructors.  Graduate students can also reap similar benefits in productivity by taking breaks throughout the day (Janaro & Bechtold, 1985).  However, be careful not to stop one school-related activity just to do another school-related activity.  Instead, do something every week that is entirely disconnected from graduate schoolwork.  In addition, taking short breaks from sedentary activity related to graduate student work has benefits for health.  Prolonged sitting has been shown to influence key indicators of cancer risk including waist circumference, inflammation, and insulin resistance (a condition when cells in the body are unable to properly use insulin, the hormone that removes sugar from the bloodstream).  Fortunately, evidence suggests you can reduce such harmful metabolic effects by interrupting prolonged bouts of sitting with one to two minute breaks (Katzmarzyk, Church, Craig, & Bouchard, 2009).  Even taking these short breaks can be a relief from the usual routine of graduate student life, and they can ensure that sustained focus and improved productivity prevail during intervals of the day that are strictly devoted to graduate school-related activities.


Janaro, R. E. & Bechtold, S. E. (1985). A study of the reduction of fatigue impact on productivity through optimal rest break scheduling. Human Factors, 27 (4), 459-466.

Katzmarzyk, P. T., Church, T. S., Craig, C. L., & Bouchard, C. (2009). Sitting time and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 41, 998-1005.

Kühnel, J. & Sonnentag, S. (2011). How long do you benefit from vacation? A closer look at the fade-out of vacation effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32 (1), 125-143.

Trougakos, J. P., Beal, D. J., Green, S. G., & Weiss, H. M. (2008). Making the break count: An episodic examination of recovery activities, emotional experiences, and positive affective displays. Academy of Management Journal, 51 (1), 131-146.

Rachel Manes is the developmental psychology representative on the APA Science Student Council. She is a doctoral student at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her research interests include children's perceptions of a healthy habits lifestyle, implementation of developmentally appropriate practices and programs to reduce the childhood obesity epidemic, and the effects of exercise and food preferences on children's cognitive and social development.