Holidays, waves and PhDs


For many it’s the time of year for rest and holiday. A time to forget about studies? I would say yes. Remove yourself from the desk and discipline and put it all on the back burner while you do something completely different. Or nothing at all. Let it lie fallow. In my experience these breaks are as important as the ‘productive’ times for helping clarity and insight. What happens, though, if PhD inspiration strikes mid-beach, mid-family gathering, mid-‘break’? Should you ‘ride the wave’ of creativity, or let it pass and hope it comes back? A story that may help.

I have a friend who ran a very successful creative business employing women making beautiful home ware and jewelry from waste. Really, it was stunning. She also had two children who were young when she started up the business from scratch. She was a keen cook (in fact had run a restaurant of her own) and delighted in providing family meals for them all to feast on each evening. What happened, then, I was curious to know, when inspiration struck? Did she feel the same frustration as I did then at having to stop mid-flow and go cook? She looked at me, aghast. I waited for her (the culinary Superwoman) to blast me about the absolute necessity of putting a fine meal on the table each day so that the family unit could stay united. “So what happens?!” She squealed. “They eat porridge! If I am riding ‘the wave’ [of creativity] I am NOT going to jump off!”

These ‘waves’ of creativity, she taught me, are powerful gifts that need to be ridden regardless of what else is going on around. Would the surfer ask the wave to come back a little later when it’s more convenient?! No! Why should we? Instead, when the wave comes, then hop on, say “thank-you”, enjoy the ride. In practice this means taking one of those notebooks wherever you go and if possible excusing yourself from whatever is happening for as long as it takes to record the insight. As soon as this is done then your mind can let it go and get back to ‘relaxing’. Or whatever!

Any thoughts about managing inspiration?

PhD starting out: notebooks


At a student seminar early on in my PhD process a professor urged us to keep a full series a notebooks: a ‘field’ journal (for detailed empirical observations); a ‘daily diary’ (to record dates of interviews, libraries visited, time and money spent); a ‘theoretical’ journal (for reviews of papers) and a ‘personal’ journal, (for musings). I was fascinated by such systems but was never terribly systematic myself. My own set of journals morphed into one morass of reflections-reviews-visits-musings-discussion notes. This meant that my fertile imaginings could run freely (which allowed me to range far and wide), but my ad-hoc approach also had some serious shortcomings (which I will come to another time). The notebooks, though, were (and still are) a reminder that researching is intimately entwined with writing. Buying a good notebook which feels ‘writer-ly’, allowing the physical expression of words, habitually reflecting, reworking words and idea-thoughts freely, scribbling and all for my own satisfaction….to allow this was a significant breakthrough for me (the engineer) on my PhD journey.

When I took breaks from studying for family it was easy to forget how far I had come and the notebooks were my reality check. When I was struggling with low energy, they reminded my of my reasons for starting and when I felt completely blank, they were a source of inspiration. Before I had a PhD proposal, a registration, a supervisor, a PhD desk or an office I had a restless mind, a notebook and a pen. That plus a coffee shop and a clear half hour was all it took to get started.

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