I guess it depends on your department/group policy. In my group, a PhD was treated very much like any other job i.e. you have n days allocated for your annual leave and a record is kept so that you have a log of time taken and so your coworkers know when you expect you in the lab/office or not (for fire regulations if nothing else!!).
In our group, if you want to take a day off, you can and don't need to tell anybody. If you want to take a week off, you tell your supervisor, simply so he/she knows you are okay. My supervisor has the philosophy that so long as you get your work done, doesn't matter when you do it.
Jen, if I were you, I'd just drop your supervisor an email. I always used to tell mine if I had the off day off, but she'd always forget and not be bothered, so once I didn't tell her. Typically, she was looking for me so I could help someone with an assay, and I ended up getting snotty emails about it being helpful if she knew when I wouldn't be in.
We're allowed eight weeks, including bank/statutory holidays (which there are 10 of, 12 at a push - Christmas, New Year, Easter, May and August holidays). General opinion is that this is too much! But in your first year I'd say go for it, take the whole eight.
I think it really does depend on your department. I work from home and so take the view that I work flexi-time. But I know many in my dept who are in the lab most days and therefore under the watchful eye of their supervisor and thus need to ask permission (out of courtesy). At the end of the day, we are doing the PhD for ourselves and if you need a day off - take a day off, I say! Ok we are paid a stipend, but this is not a salary as such so we are not bound by employee regulations etc. Yes 8 weeks is what we are allowed, but you will find there are times when you put in the hours (big time!) and other times which are slower or more relaxed so as long as you think you are being honest with yourself and not taking too many holidays then you should be alright.
I would also add that I don't think when you are doing a PhD you can ever really "take time off". It is always there in your mind because for the three, four, five, six years you spend doing it, it is for most of us our life. So I usually think of my days off as thinking time. Boundaries between on/off time are very blurry!
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