Take time to explore, time to let your writing breathe

I love doing my PhD. I also love doing things that are specifically not my PhD.

I know it’s often written about that you need to find a balance as a PhD student as to not to tire yourself out, but for each one of those blog posts there are at least three that talk about the stressed out PhD student, and at least five that talk about how to not to become one of those stressed out PhD students. What annoys me about so many of those stressed PhD student blog posts and articles is the romanticisation of being busy. And not just being busy, but of constantly doing, thinking about, and writing your PhD; or even worse: feeling guilty about not writing or working on your PhD. Even the posts that try to tell you not to be so stressed about stuff, kind of in a way seem to romanticise the idea that when you’re doing your PhD that’s all you should be doing, all you should be thinking about.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve been reading articles around how to write a literature review, have been trying to figure out how to turn papers into chapters, and I’ve generally been feeling the pressure a bit more than I did a few weeks and months ago. A couple of weeks ago, I had another one of those moments where I tried to figure out how everything I’ve done over the last year and a half and that I’m going to do over the next year and a half will fit together, so I sat down with my coloured pens and flipchart paper and started sketching out some ideas. This time it was different though. I had more of an idea of what I wanted to do. So I sat down, or well, stood next to an empty desk and started doodling, sketching, writing until it all made sense. After that, I sat down at my desk with my laptop and started drawing up potential outlines for chapters putting in how the paper(s) I’ve written can fit into that. It made clear what else I still had to write up, and how that could fit in with what I’d already written. Since then, I’ve been meaning to start writing on my dissertation, but I just can’t figure out how to start. I know the best way is to just start, but it’s hard. And papers are so much easier. They’re shorter, they have a shorter and more precise argument to make, and perhaps most importantly have a closer deadline.

But why am I writing about this little anecdote when I want to talk about the romanticisation of the busy PhD student? Well, it still doesn’t really make sense to me. I’ve been doing this for a year and a half now, and before that was a really busy MRes student, so arguably have been directly working towards my PhD for two and a half years. In all of that time I learnt how to deal with stressful situations, how to deal with publication deadlines, and how to engage in (at least most of ) the bureaucracy and admin work you have to do as a doctoral student at a university. What I always tell people who are super stressed out is: go for a walk, or go home and rest. Don’t do more work today, and just go home and chill. Read a book for pleasure, go to a coffeeshop and knit, or go for a run. Whatever makes you happy, and don’t force your thinking about the PhD. It works for me. Whenever I have a really productive week, and on Friday feel like I can keep being productive, I take my work home and go to a coffeeshop the next day to do some more work. If I’ve had n unproductive, horrible week, I’ll most likely take my evenings, and that weekend off, because it means I need a break. It means I’ve done too much previously and need to regroup before I can start anything again.

I can’t work if I don’t take breaks. I just need small breaks where I can go outside, not do anything, or just have a sit down in a cafe with a good book or my knitting. Maybe that just means I’m not meant to be a stressed out PhD student, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m not meant to be a PhD student at all. Like I’m doing it wrong. Like I’m doing the whole PhD thing wrong.

Let’s be honest, I haven’t taken many holidays over the last two years. I took a few weeks off over christmas, for the last two years, but since that’s the revisions time for CHI, I didn’t really have a full two or three weeks off. It was just a more relaxed way of editing the paper. Besides that, I haven’t really taken much time off, except for a long weekend here and there to visit friends and family. But the holidays I do take, I make sure they’re holidays. I don’t constantly think about work, and I don’t feel bad about not thinking about work. I don’t plan to do things I know I’m not going to have time to, or want to, do and instead plan to do a little bit of reading here and there, or a little bit of writing in a cafe somewhere. That’s perhaps one of my favourite things to do: write in a cute little cafe in a town or city I’m exploring. I take my laptop in case I get an urge to do work (it happens) so I don’t want to hinder it, but I also don’t actively make space to work. If it happens, it happens.

Sometimes that’s not possible though – sometimes a deadline is looming. And since I work within the disciplinary confines of HCI, that’s not particularly work-life-balance friendly, and has stupid deadlines around Christmas (yea, I’m looking at you, CHI), it’s not always possible to not have to worry about a deadline. So I want to tell you a little story about that first Christmas (the one during my MRes). It was perhaps the one that I learnt the most about being a stressed out student, or well, not being one. It was my first year in the discipline of HCI, and for some reason someone thought the work I had done for my MA in International Development and Education was worthy of being published at CHI. The weird thing was that it was being shepherded (which means that an academic thought it was really interesting, but not quite good enough to publish yet, so I pretty much had to re-write parts of my findings and my entire discussion and conclusion). All of this over the christmas holidays. So lucky me got to sit in a house in Villahermosa, Mexico next to a christmas tree with some delicious guacamole and corn chips, a margarita, and my laptop. Yes, I see how incredibly stereotypical that image is, but hey ho, it’s true. I was staying with the family of my partner at the time who lived there, and they knew that I liked guacamole and margaritas. So they kept them coming. It was amazing. Anyway, I sat down for an hour or two a couple of days a week to work on my paper. The rest of the time I was doing fun things like going to the park, seeing ancient pyramids, or taking an amazing road trip along the Yukatan Peninsula. I guess I should also say that I really like writing, so having to do a few hours of writing every couple of days was not bad for me, it enhanced my holiday.

What I learnt from this was that writing in a relaxed environment is amazing. It’s peaceful, thought provoking, and relaxed. Yes, I was working under pressure because I needed to fulfil certain requirements of it wouldn’t get published, but I was also in Mexico. On holiday. So I took the feelings I had on that trip (I mean, besides the whole personal thing of that now being an ex-partner and the whole thing being a bit of a mess) and continue to try to apply them to what I do when I’m on holidays and trips, but also for when I’m back home in Newcastle.

Exploring is important to me. So I like to explore literature and research methodologies, but also cities, countries, and hiking trails. I like to explore possibilities of thought and adventure; to delve into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to breathe under water. Every week, I try to get out, to see something I haven’t seen before. Sometimes it’s a mundane as going to a cafe I haven’t been to before, other times I like to get on the train or the bus and go to a small town close to Newcastle. Sometimes that’s when I get a spark of inspiration that helps me figure out what it is I am supposed to be doing with my PhD (or my life). At the same time, I really value the time I have at my desk, the time I can spend immersing myself in my writing, and just banging away at the keyboard (kind of like what I’ve been doing here).

And I think that is what the PhD is to me. A chance to explore, a chance to adventure, and a chance to reflect. It’s rare that you have the possibility to work on what you want to work on for three (or so) years. It’s rare that you get the chance to not only write papers about what you do, but also to have 80,000-100,000 words to reflect on how all of that works fits together, how it ties in methodologically and theoretically, and what the role of your work is in relation to so much of the other amazing academic scholarship that is out there. I think that’s it for me. Seeing the dissertation as an opportunity rather than a massive piece of writing I have to do. Giving it space to breathe, and explore, and adventure.

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