Teaching-free but Not Study-free – Doctoral Students on Thesis Writing in Summer

Nordic summer – plenty of days free from meetings and teaching – brings pressure and high expectations for productivity. With summer schools and conferences, the finest period of the Northern light may thus be stressful for academic newcomers, especially after an unusual spring term at home. We asked some Nordic doctoral students how they will stay both disciplined and relaxed during the upcoming summer.

In the academic discourse, summer breaks are often periods dedicated to conducting and proceeding with studies that were waylaid by the workload of teaching and administration. For newcomers, the academic work obsession may come as a surprise. Even if there is no official academic summer term at Nordic universities, a number of conferences and summer schools, especially for doctoral students, take place in June, July and August.

How do doctoral students adapt to this situation? Do they manage to find time for a true break in the summer? Or, are they using summers for advancing their thesis? We asked three, at different stages of their studies.

“Study-free does not mean writing-free”

Ingrid Forsler, PhD, Södertörn University in Sweden

“I have just completed my PhD studies. I started my PhD education in 2015, funded by the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies (Östersjöstiftelsen) an part of the research area Critical and Cultural Theory at Södertörn University. Due to the corona pandemic, the defence took place online via Zoom, and the time was adjusted to accommodate the opponent who was in California.

A study-free summer is not a writing-free summer. I have gathered quite a few pleasure projects that I plan to finish during the holiday. I also plan to read up on some literature for a new project.

But of course, this kind of reading and writing is much less angst-ridden than finishing a PhD dissertation, and it feels really good to be able to say ‘of course!’ and not ‘sorry, I have to write’ when my kids ask me to go swimming with them. 

The summer writing became more intense at the end of my PhD, but, to be perfectly honest, I did not suffer that much from it. I have never worked from the office during the holiday, but went with my family to our summer house where I generally spent the mornings writing and took time off from lunch to be with them. It worked quite well since I wake up early, and my recommendation for contemporary doctoral students would be to find some kind of routine that works for them rather than planning to work eight hours a day all summer through. At the same time, they should not be too hard on themselves if they occasionally deviate from the planned routine.

I attended the IAMCR conference in July one year, but I will think twice before going away from my family in the midst of summer again. For that reason I never attended any summer school, either, although I have heard that they can be very beneficial.  

Next autumn, I will be teaching full-time, divided between two different universities. I have also got a small research grant that allows for about 15 per cent research, and I will use some of this time to apply for post-doc positions and other research funding. I have been quite stressed about what will happen after the defence, but it so far it seems to work out and I must say a life in academia already feels a bit less scary.” 

“I try to squeeze in at least one week’s break”

Anna Rantasila, doctoral student at the Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences at Tampere University in Finland

“Summer means waiting. I’m currently waiting to receive statements from my pre-examiners, so I’m almost finished with my PhD. Because of the corona virus pandemic and travel restrictions related to it, I don’t know if my opponent can attend the defence in person or if she will be participating remotely. The restrictions on gatherings of people will probably also have an effect on how the defence is organised at the campus.

I started my PhD in September 2014. Between 2014–2016, I worked as a project researcher while working on my PhD, and between September 2016–May 2020, I had a fully funded PhD position at the faculty.

I like to get writing and reading done during the summer, but I try to squeeze in at least a week for an actual summer holiday where I do absolutely nothing work related.

I think it is very important to take rest seriously, even though there is a lot of pressure to be productive all year round.

This year I started working on a new project in June, so I’ll be saving my holidays for the time around my thesis defence in the autumn.

I started working on a new research project in June that is related to my post-doc interests. I have all kinds of plans, I just haven’t decided which direction to take with them yet. All I know for certain is that I need to start preparing for the autumn round of funding applications.”

“Writing isn’t a huge concern yet – I’m taking it as it comes”

Dom Ford, PhD Fellow at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen in Denmark

“I started my PhD at the beginning of August 2019, so I’m still in my first year. Project-wise, I’m still very much in the stage of gathering my thoughts and figuring out a clear direction for the project. It’s a theoretical monograph, so I have no data collection to do beyond playing the games I plan to use as case studies, and no other preparation beyond reading academic works and thinking, essentially.

I’m employed full-time by the IT University of Copenhagen for the duration of the PhD, which is 3 years.

I’m taking it as it comes. The global pandemic really scuppered any motivation I had to properly plan a summer regime, as it has been difficult to know what the next week would look like, let alone the next few months. Fortunately, I’m at an early enough stage in my PhD that actually writing the thesis isn’t a huge concern yet. So during lockdown I’ve mainly focused on catching up on the long games I need to play for my thesis and reading. I have struggled to write much, working from home, so this strategy has also suited not being able to get to the office.

A few months into it now, however, and I am feeling the pressure of having been ‘unproductive’ when it comes to writing. I try not to get too hung up on the obsession with productivity that has caused mental health problems in so many in academia, but of course the anxieties creep in anyway.

I certainly feel stressed. But I also feel very fortunate that I’m at a stage in my project where it’s not crucial to be super productive, and that there are other useful things I can focus on.

My supervisor agrees with my thinking here – he stresses that it’s a very strange and difficult time for everybody, so changes in how and how much we work are to be expected.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted into three conferences at the beginning of the year. I had a really exciting summer planned, heading to Kraków, then Tampere, and finally Malta a month or so later. These conferences meant a lot to me. First, I got a chance to connect with fellow scholars as I’m establishing my name in the field. Second, they were a significant opportunity for feedback on my core thesis ideas at this relatively early stage. Third, they gave me a structure for working – deadlines for papers, and so on – and a chance to travel to some places I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. All of those had kept me well motivated at the beginning of the year, so my motivation took a huge hit at the beginning of the pandemic when every one of those conferences was cancelled or postponed and turned into an online format. With lockdown combined with a large gulf in my schedule of no conferences, no travels and no teaching, it was very difficult to find the motivation and structure to work from home.”

Photos: Maarit Jaakkola, Ingrid Forsler by Anna Hartwig/Södertörn University, others from the interviewees’ personal archives