Paid vacation and graduate school

No, the title isn’t meant to be a punchline.

I was reading an article about the United States’ abysmal paid vacation and holiday policies. What makes them so abysmal is that they don’t exist. A study from The Center for Economic and Policy Research explains:

The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation. European countries establish legal rights to at least 20 days of paid vacation per year, with legal requirements of 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries. Australia and New Zealand both require employers to grant at least 20 vacation days per year; Canada and Japan mandate at least 10 paid days off. The gap between paid time off in the United States and the rest of the world is even larger if we include legally mandated paid holidays, where the United States offers none, but most of the rest of the world’s rich countries offer at least six paid holidays per year.

I really encourage you to read the rest of the article if you’re interested. It addresses things like the paid vacations given by employers (they still suck compared to other countries) and how it breaks down depending on your pay level (poor people get screwed, what a shocker). It baffles me why employers wouldn’t want to make their employees happy, since happy employees are more loyal and productive and ultimately benefit a business in the long run. Everyone wins!

As someone who has been a perpetual student her whole life, I’ve never really experienced a “real job.” Working minimum wage at a golf course doesn’t seem to count for this discussion, since I didn’t have any benefits. But grad school has its own unique situation when it comes to things like paid leave, partially thank to the weird student-employee limbo it puts you in.

Other programs may work differently, but I’m paid on a stipend through a fellowship from the National Science Foundation. What that means is I get a paycheck deposited into my bank account every 2 weeks no matter what. It doesn’t matter if I’ve worked 80 hours or 8, if there were national holidays, if I took a vacation, if I got sick, etc.

It’s both a blessing and a curse.

The blessing part is obvious – I get paid no matter what. The potential problem is that because of this lack of regulation, workplace standards are basically up to your adviser’s whim. My adviser happens to be extremely hands-off and doesn’t care what hours you’re in lab, if you’re working from home, or if you’re taking vacations. He just cares that you’re getting good work done, even if that takes less than 40 hours a week because you’re efficient. He allowed a grad student to work from abroad a month at a time because she was in a long distance relationship and her work was purely computational. You don’t have to approve vacation times with him ahead of time, or even really warn him about it . He expects you to be motivated enough to manage your own schedule and only take vacations if you think you can. So when I wanted to see the Postal Service play in Portland last Wednesday, it was no big deal to take a day off in the middle of the week. The downside to all of this is that our lab tends to get empty thanks to our random hours not really overlapping, and sometimes I wonder how long it would take him to notice I was gone if I dropped dead.

But the curse is more obvious if you have a more stereotypical, demanding professor. From talking to other grad students, the following experiences seem all too common. Many professors expect you to work weekends and put in more than 40 hours a week despite us not having paid overtime, arguing that’s just how grad school is. If your vacation request isn’t outright rejected, expect emotional manipulation to try to guilt you out of it. You’ll be compared to “harder working” grad students and be told “this is just how things work in academia.” Your desire to want your job to be treated like a job will risk you getting labeled as unmotivated and not willing to make sacrifices in the name of science. You’ll worry that attempting work-life balance will lose you that letter of recommendation, regardless of the quality of your research. Yeah, maybe what you did was excellent, but you could have always done more.

PhD comics by Jorge Cham

Regardless of the type of professor you have as an adviser, there’s another element to the curse: Without set hours and policies, you feel like you’re always working. Your research never stops. You may have headed home for the night, but you’re still thinking about how your experiment went wrong or what analysis you can do next. You feel obligated to read another paper or keep working on that code you couldn’t debug during the day. There’s always something more you could be doing with your project. But when you feel like you’re working every minute of the day with no reprieve, you become exhausted. It’s harder to focus when you’re actually at work because you’re burnt out. And that in turn makes you feel guilty for not working hard enough, so you keep working when you’re at home, which makes you exhausted…etc, etc, cycle of doom.

But without set policies, it’s difficult to set a regular schedule. Having “sick days” you can use lets you know its okay to take off work when you’re sick, instead of feeling guilt to come in or keep working from home. Having “vacation days” encourages you to actually take time off for your physical and mental well-being instead of burning out from feeling required to work 24/7. Some people are great at self imposing work restrictions, and I think that’s often a key to success in academia. It’s still something I’ve yet to figure out, and its made more difficult by the “You Must Always Be Working And Only Care About Your Science” mentality that grad school promotes.

Unfortunately that mentality is pervasive through academic culture. You see it when academics tell students they shouldn’t care where their postdoc or faculty position is located because they should just be happy they have a job. They should be nobly pursuing SCIENCE; the fact that the job is located in a place that makes them miserable or separates them from a significant other should be irrelevant.

I’m certainly not trying to say grad students have it the worst. With the right adviser and self control, we can have amazing flexible schedules that don’t drive us crazy. I’d say I’d wish grad school was treated with the same standards as a “real job,” but then I remember the sad facts I presented at the beginning of this post. Many Americans don’t get paid vacations at all. Even when paid sick leave is required, employers don’t necessarily give it. And all of this isn’t even getting into bigger workers issues like minimum wage vs. living wage, or wage theft, which arguably also happens to graduate students in the form of required student fees. In what other job would it be acceptable to have to pay 5% of your salary to keep being employed?

I guess I have to keep things in perspective. At least I don’t work for Walmart.


  1. says

    As someone who was effectively chased out of grad school by an advisor who expected 80+ hour weeks and guilt tripped about sick days, I’m with you on this 100%. I can’t work a job where all the incentives go against me taking care of myself or where my commitment is questioned when I do…. I go crazy.

    Of course, I also don’t get sick days or vacation now, as a person scrapping together a living from multiple part-time jobs (a temporary-ish situation while I figure shit out after leaving grad school with my master’s instead of my phd), I also set my own hours and don’t have any bosses breathing down my neck when I don’t take as many hours on as humanly possible. Still far from ideal, but I’m less crazy than I was before I graduated.

  2. says

    This is why Ben is glad he has me. I force him to take breaks and time off. Fortunately, he has a pretty lax advisor too, which also helps.

    Once again, I’m glad I didn’t end up in grad school, lol.

  3. biogeo says

    Agree, agree, a thousand times agree. My adviser is like yours on this issue, for which I am immensely grateful. My university implemented a stricter leave policy for postdocs a few years ago to address some postdocs (particularly foreign nationals) being exploited by unscrupulous PIs, but grad students remain in student/employee limbo. And while I am very, VERY appreciative of how much better my situation is than that of, say, someone working in retail, it is nevertheless true that the result of having ill-defined hours is that even when you’re not working, you’re still thinking about work, and/or feeling guilty for not working. Even vacation time becomes tinged with the thought, “I should probably pull out my laptop and run one more analysis.” It’s stressful. Between undergrad and grad school, I worked in what was essentially a lab tech position for a year, and in that job I had more or less set hours. It’s probably the only extended period in my adult life during which, when I was hanging out with friends, spending time with my girlfriend, playing video games, or otherwise relaxing, I didn’t have the constant background guilty feeling that I should be doing something else. It was fantastic.

  4. MadHatter says

    I was scared away from grad school years ago by a professor who told his entire undergrad class that they could expect to be in the lab 60+ hours a week and if he didn’t see them on Sundays they weren’t working hard enough. So I worked a “real” job for nearly 10 years. For part of it I had shit for vacation/sick days and that was pretty awful. For the rest I had really good vacation benefits, except I rarely used it. I think American’s are bad about using vacation even when they have it. Maybe out of fear of being replaced by someone who will work harder.

    I’m doing grad school in Europe now, so I have mandated 5 weeks a year or something like that, and an advisor like yours. But I also don’t know how to take vacation apparently as I probably won’t use more than half of it before the end of the year…too much concern about all the things I need to get done.

  5. CaitieCat says

    One way in which Canada allows the poor to be screwed over despite the mandatory holiday/vacation thing is that contract employees – a large part of the market in all but high-end jobs anymore, since they figured out they don’t have to offer benefits to contractors – get paid “vacation pay” in lieu of days off. Generally, this is 4%. Also, contractors aren’t necessarily entitled to notice of termination.

    Frankly, I’d much rather have the days off, but that’s not on offer for most who contract.

    This, of course, along with my disability, is why I’m glad I have a skillset that allows me to work for myself. I’d be gladder if doing so actually paid all the bills, but one can’t have everything. :/

  6. says

    Note that in Germany, many firms offer more than the legal minimum, 30 being not uncommon.

    Of course, important as well is continued pay if one is sick, perhaps for months.

  7. John Horstman says

    In what other job would it be acceptable to have to pay 5% of your salary to keep being employed?

    Let’s see, off the top of my head: service industry jobs that make employees buy their own uniforms and other equipment; union jobs with mandatory dues payments; my state employee job, with mandatory contributions to an employee retirement fund from which I will never reap a dime, unless we somehow manage to oust our asshat Republican legislature and executive branch and state supreme court before they manage to engage in some shady combination of legal and legislative maneuvers to raid it; any job that pays people a wage on which they cannot afford to live nearby, necessitating commuting and the associated costs; a teaching job in a district that cannot afford sufficient supplies; any job with a dress code that requires a significant expense to meet; and every contract job ever. A lot of them, actually. It’s not an acceptable state of affairs, but it’s not especially uncommon.

  8. says

    One minor (but I think in several ways significant) correction:

    The United States does in fact have legally mandated paid vacation…for the military (possibly also for G-rated government employees, I didn’t check that just now, but as a vet I can vouch that it’s so in the military). Military mandated paid leave is 30 days a year. It’s cumulative. And if you don’t take it after accumulating enough days (I think it was 90 when I was in), they either have to force you to take it (on orders) or give you the cash equivalent. On my discharge, I was even paid for vacation days I hadn’t taken before departing the service.

    People often forget the military when they talk about American law and society and social policy. And yet we have fully socialized medicine, guaranteed room and board (legally mandated “three hots and a cot” as they say, although “hot” and “cot” do get a little metaphorical for those in the field), family services, even free haircuts and subsidized clothes and family housing. It all works pretty well (though some exceptions are infamous, e.g. veterans are being ignored compared to active service).

    But it is odd that we recognize the value of 30 days a year of legally required paid vacation. We just won’t give it to everyone. Because, freedom. Or something.

  9. Karen Locke says

    Where my husband works (a large tech firm) they’ve abolished vacation. Instead, you get to take as many days off as your supervisor approves, when s/he approves it, based on the state of your work and deadlines. Husband happens to have a generous boss, although this year he is working, in effect, 24/7 whether he is in the office or not since his engineering testing takes so long to run. There is no down time, not even on weekends; Weekends are filled with: test fails; spend hours chasing bug; fix bug; restart test; spend rest of day doing weekend chores, always popping into the office at intervals to see if the new test has failed yet. If test fails, drop everything and work on the bug. I don’t know how he does it; it would drive me crazy.

  10. says

    when i lived in Germany i had a part-time job at McDonalds. It came with paid vacation, paid sick leave, and if i had stayed for more than a year, a Christmas bonus. it was still a shitty job that would have been hard to live off, but at least it didn’t feel abusive the way U.S. McJobs do (that’s partially also because there was less of the “customer is always right” fawning that means U.S. managers almost always side with customers instead of employees).
    And cashiers in Germany have cushioned chairs at the register, instead of having to stand like in the U.S.

    I think American’s are bad about using vacation even when they have it.

    I really think Americans are culturally trained and structurally prodded into becoming workaholics. Which sometimes manifests in pride about not taking vacations, sometimes in guilt about taking sick days, sometimes in retirees who go back to work because they’re bored, etc.

  11. says

    oh yeah: that job at McD also came with overtime pay for working longer than 8 hours a day (which effectively meant nobody ever did) and with overtime pay for working holidays

  12. says

    My adviser sounds like yours, and my work is purely computational all the time, so I can work from anywhere on my own laptop without having to worry about hours, except for TAing. On the other hand, I also keep up a full time job with the company that helped pay for my master’s degree. We get decent vacation benefits (probably very generous compared to the rest of the country) and most of my work can be done remotely if necessary. As a result, I’ve been able to keep up with both sides of this equation without going insane (yet) and still maintain a semblance of a home life and hobbies. I have the benefit of generous policy on both sides, so I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who didn’t luck out like I did.

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