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PhD - A journey of guilt?

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

During my PhD, I often felt guilty about taking breaks and not working at weekends. There was always so much more to read, to do, to write. On top of that, I spent most of my time during the week at my part-time job at the university, which required a lot of overtime. So when I did have time to work on my PhD, there was often no concentration left. I felt tired, drained and just needed a break away from my desk. And when I did "allow" myself a break, a guilty conscience crept it. I could hear myself saying: "You don’t deserve a break yet. You have to work on your PhD first.”

Studing in libary

Unfortunately, the guilty conscience and negative self-talk did not make the situation any better. On the contrary, I could no longer really enjoy my free time and felt even more stressed. Based on my own experience, I am therefore not surprised that the number of PhD students suffering from depression or anxiety is alarmingly high (Hazell et al., 2021; Kafedjiska et al., 2022; Levecque et al., 2017; Satinsky et al., 2021).

Recently I read an interesting perspective on guilt that helped me shift perspective and enjoy some guilt-free time out. In his book When the Body Says No. The Cost of Hidden Stress, Gabor Maté, a renowned physician, author and speaker, talks about guilt as a sign that you have decided to do something for yourself. Guilt as a sign that you have done something right and acted for yourself for a change. You have put your needs first.

"I feel guilty?" Ed could say. "Wonderful. Hallelujah! It means I must have done something right, acted on my own behalf for a change." (Maté, 2019, p. 257)

Even though this view of guilt in the book relates to people with serious medical conditions, it offers a new perspective from which we can draw. In academia, it seems to be common practice to feel guilty about taking time out and saying "no" to the expectations and demands of others – as we could also see from my example. There appears to be a deeply ingrained belief that only "an overworked researcher is a dedicated one" (Kafedjiska et al., 2022, p. 3). This is modelled to us by other more advanced PhD students, researchers and professors, leading us to see it as normal and expected to be exhausted, overworked, stressed and restless.

But it is not only at universities that we learn that success has to be worked hard for, we are also often taught this in family and school. We may fear rejection when not working hard enough and performing well. We may fear failure and not being good enough. You might call it a culture of "hustle" where we belief that hard work, perseverance and relentless pursuit for perfection are the keys to success.

However, taking breaks and getting rest are crucial for our mental and physical health and overall well-being.

Taking a break

Taking breaks is important to reduce stress and improve our health.

If we do not allow our bodies and minds enough time to rest, we fail to return to a state of calm and relaxation called homeostasis. It is the body’s self-regulatory process for maintaining inner stability. It is the opposite of the state of stress.

If we fail to restore our inner balance, we run the risk of developing chronic stress, which can seriously jeopardise our mental and physical health. Chronic stress is highly demanding for our brain and body as it requires a higher neurochemical, biological and physical activation of the nervous system. When our brain and body do not have time to rest, repair and enter a state of relaxation, our system becomes dysregulated, which can cause severe damage to our brain and body.

Taking breaks promotes creativity and productivity.

Breaks allow us to step back from our work and look at it with new eyes. In this way, we find it easier to develop new ideas and solve problems. This is because when we are stressed, the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that plays a crucial role in creative thinking, is deactivated. We find ourselves in a state of high alert, ready to fight, flee or freeze. When we enter a calm and relaxed state, our nervous system regulates and reactivates the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making, problem solving and planning.

It is therefore not surprising that it is said that we have the best ideas in the shower. These are moments when we are calm and relaxed. Ultimately, taking breaks can significantly increase our productivity in the long run.


"Feeling guilty about taking time off from your PhD is a sign that your basic need for rest and relaxation is not being met."

When we are too busy trying to fulfil our own and perceived expectations and demands of others, we easily forget to pay attention to our own needs. A guilty conscience when you take time off from your PhD is therefore a sign that your basic need for rest and relaxation is not being met. It is a confirmation that you are going for the right thing: taking care of yourself, your basic needs, your health and well-being. In my opinion, it is also a sign that you are taking your PhD research seriously, because only a rested researcher can work successfully and achieve good results.

So let's change our perception of guilt.

Instead of punishing ourselves for not working and taking a break, let's try to acknowledge the guilty conscience as evidence that we are on the right path to a healthier, more mindful and balanced life.

I invite you to try this thought experiment the next time you feel guilty about taking time out from your PhD. Does anything change - your thoughts, your feelings, your behaviour? Let me know about your experience.

Remember: You deserve to rest and unwind - no matter how hard you work.

Rest and relax


  • Hazell, C. M., Niven, J. E., Chapman, L., Roberts, P. E., Cartwright-Hatton, S., Valeix, S., & Berry, C. (2021). Nationwide assessment of the mental health of UK Doctoral Researchers. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8(1).

  • Kafedjiska, I., Heckmann, L., Pires, V., Pankhuri, S., & Lasser, J. (2022). The Mental Health Crisis among Doctoral Researchers – Findings and Best Practices. Zeitschrift Für Beratung Und Studium,17(1), 1–7.

  • Levecque, K., Anseel, F., Beuckelaer, A. de, van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868-879.

  • Maté, G. (2019). When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress. Vermillion.

  • Satinsky, E. N., Kimura, T., Kiang, M. V., Abebe, R., Cunningham, S., Lee, H., Lin, X., Liu, C. H., Rudan, I., Sen, S., Tomlinson, M., Yaver, M., & Tsai, A. C. (2021). Systematic review and meta-analysis of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation among Ph.D. Students. Scientific Reports,11(1), 1-12.

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