Why I Should Have Left My Desk During My PhD

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

Maya Angelou

I’m a few years out from my PhD now, and it’s true what they say: hindsight is 20/20. Now that the dust is settled, I have a whole new perspective on the experience; including a few things (*cough* a lot of things) I wish I’d done differently.

One thing that really held me back was an overly simplistic view of what counted as ‘work’. Back then, I felt that working meant sitting at my computer and/or in the library. Anything else was a distraction.

I figured that my reserves of intellectual and creative energy were limited, and the PhD would demand all of them. It felt inconceivable to pay attention to anything except my thesis. The PhD was too important, too all-consuming, too expensive, frankly, to allow anything else into my life.

I assumed that my progress would be a direct function of how many hours I spent with my thesis Word document open in front of me. It was a very simple equation in my head:

Me + time + computer = thesis

Oh how wrong I was.

My chained-to-the-desk philosophy dried me up. The sense of excitement and possibility that I’d once felt upon entering a library, or sitting down to a blank page, evaporated. For years at a time I read nothing that wasn’t directly relevant to my work, and explored no ideas unless I could see them ending up in my thesis. If I spent eleven unproductive hours at my desk, I thought I could improve things by adding a twelfth. I was making little progress, and I felt punished by the work.

The problem was that I was uninspired: driven not by passion, but by a sense of obligation.

In retrospect, this was not only bad for my wellbeing; it also made no sense. I find it so much easier to work productively when I’m stimulated, curious, and genuinely personally invested in my research. How could I be in that mindset when I was stuck thinking of the work purely as a debt I owed to the page?

When I did allow myself an intellectual or creative ‘distraction’ – reading a book for pleasure, say, or going to a film festival, or just walking in the park – I often returned to my thesis with new ideas. Sometimes I’d come out of a film and write screeds because something I saw onscreen sparked a thought; and that thought sparked another.

I got genuinely inspired from having meandering philosophical conversations with department peers; from off-topic browsing in bookshops; from wandering around art galleries. Those were all ways of taking a break, sure. But it was more than that. They were ways to ‘feed’ my intellectual and creative energy.

There’s probably a limit to this. If I had spent whole days on the couch watching the Bravo channel from sheer exhaustion, I doubt I would have gained much inspiration. (Just in case my former thesis supervisor is reading this, please note that the Bravo example is purely hypothetical. Yes. HYPOTHETICAL.)

But when it comes to my intellectual and creative life, I no longer see ‘distraction’ as the opposite of ‘work’. I now see a range of pursuits which will (directly or indirectly) grow my way of thinking. Some are necessary tasks that will directly contribute to my goals. Others are activities that regenerate my intellectual and creative energy and excitement. All are useful.

Much more useful, anyway, than a twelfth dead-eyed hour at my desk.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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