On the benefits of doing (other) stuff

My rule of thumb has always been, “in case of doubt, turn to the classics.” I see it as the main perk of being a bookworm. While there are many drags, like the insane amount of money you spend on books, the room they take and the constant fear of your house catching fire when you are away, books also provide you with guidance, from Jane Eyre to Good Omens.

When I say “classics,” I of course include modern classics. I am positive that The Magus shaped my opinion on war,, at least to some extent; Fahrenheit 451 instilled the distrust of anything mass (media, entertainment, thought) in me; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy taught me not to try to find a meaning in everything.  In addition, Life of Pi got me all obsessed with hyenas for about a year.

My point is, on top of those valuable life lessons, books can also be helpful when it comes to working out specific problems. For instance, I keep telling my students to disconnect and have true leisure time, as hinted at in Fahrenheit 451 precisely:

“Oh, but we’ve plenty of off-hours.”
“Off-hours, yes. But time to think? If you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the fourwall televisor. Why? The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be, right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'”

And as much as this paragraph teaches us on the necessity to have proper leisure time to think, it is a piece of advice I very rarely follow myself.

Except when I travel. The other day, I was on the road from Calais after a lovely day in Kent, and as the man was driving, there was nothing much I could do. I just let my mind drift away: the nice Cheddar pie I had had for lunch, the polka dot dress I had seen in a shop, the rain on the pavement, the books I had bought.

I had been stuck on the question of my methodology chapter for weeks because I didn’t know how to present what I had done. One member of my committee who had read my chapters had told me that it wasn’t quite right. I had no idea what my next step should be. But then, in the car, at night, thinking of the books, it all seemed to become clearer.

“What if I started with the books?” I thought. “What if I simply started with the basics: reading?” It is not a measuring instrument, but all literary criticism starts with the simple act of reading a book. That piece of information had obviously been there ever since my supervisor had told me to read Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, but it had not computed so far. That car ride forced me to have that leisure time I needed.

This prompted me to think of all the benefits there are to doing stuff that is not entirely related to research. Yes, of course, focusing on the literature and data is absolutely necessary, but there is more to it (and to life) than this.

Merry-go-round I photographed in Le Crotoy (2010)
Merry-go-round I photographed in Le Crotoy (2010)

A change of scenery

I first read about Shut up & Write on The Thesis Whisperer blog (if you are carrying out doctoral research and aren’t subscribed to The Thesis Whisperer, you really need to do it) though the idea first came from the San Francisco Bay area. Basically, you meet up with other people, sit down, and write, as the name suggests. The idea is to socialize as well as to make time for actual writing. The SF Bay area suggests writing for one hour and chatting for about 15-30 minutes, but I’ve found that longer sessions worked as well.

For instance, last week, I met Charlène and Camille at the lovely Texas Coffee House in Mons. We had elected to go there because they sell coffee, which we considered a necessity before we realised none of us drank coffee. All the same, the atmosphere is really nice, they sell tea as well as many other beverages, and they have free Wi-Fi.

We spent most of the day there, from 10 am to 5 pm. The three of us had prepared our goals for the day. In my case, I needed to write 1.000 words of my methodology chapter, proofread a text and draft a very long e-mail. By 5 pm, I had reached all my goals, eaten a delicious Tex-Mex quinoa salad, and discussed some research-related problems with my two group mates (Yes, yes “group mate” is a thing; it is in the Oxford Dictionary).  It was really productive, and the biggest advantage to such sessions is that you do not feel as isolated as you often do when you work at the office or at home. Side benefit: I only smoked four cigarettes in the course of the day.

Another job

Most PhD candidates I know have a day job. Most of them work as TAs. As far as I am concerned, I teach, but I also have my freelance activities as a translator and as a copywriter. As I trained as a translator, it is a bit more difficult for me to see the benefits of translation on my work (after all, translation has been part of my identity for the past twelve years), but my copywriting activity has taught me a few skills that come in handy when writing a PhD dissertation, namely:

  • Write short sentences when dealing with a complicated matter
  • Use a verb instead of a noun
  • Write a topic sentence and build the rest of your paragraph around it (you don’t necessarily need to write it at the beginning of your paragraph)
  • Know your readers and surprise them from time to time

There probably are many other techniques that come with the habit of writing commercial content, but I find those listed above particularly interesting.

Of course, your day job might be very different from mine, but I think we can find positive input in every job-related activity we tackle every day.

A hobby

I know your supervisor, and other PhD candidates, will give you the impression that your life should revolve entirely around your research. You are supposed to sacrifice your holidays, neglect your family, friends, and partner, forget about birthdays, spend feverish sleepless nights working by the light of a single candle — and overlook your personal hygiene. While this must be true for some people, I don’t think it is entirely necessary.

You see, your PhD is yours. It is your responsibility, your goal, and ultimately, your own achievement. As such, you should ideally be able to work on it on your own terms. I know it is not always possible, but I also know from experience that working seven days a week and considering that you have to deserve that shower are destructive habits that will drive you to physical, psychological, and emotional exhaustion.

When you are exhausted, you cannot work properly, not to mention function as, say, a human being. The idea is to keep your balance so that (1) you don’t feel that your dissertation is going to be the death of you, and (2) you can actually work towards your goals.

In my case, I find painting soothing and it helps me focus. I cook, because washing, cutting and roasting vegetables and meat clears my mind (also, I need to eat, don’t I?). I read way less fiction than I would like to, but I still manage to get through a few books that are not related in any way to my research every month. I don’t go out that much, it is true, and I often have to tell my friends that I won’t go to their party/barbecue/celebration because I need that time in order to work on my research, but I do see them from time to time, on lunchdates and weekends. I like to think of my hobbies as the energy that powers my PhD machine.

Social media

I am not a big fan of Facebook (another way to put it would be that I think Facebook is the devil and should burn in the fire of a thousand hells), but I have to admit that some other social media platforms can prove useful. For instance, I like Twitter.

For some reason, most academics in my field use Twitter, which is convenient when it comes to interacting with them. My Twitter newsfeed is where I find the most relevant information about call for papers, conferences, journal articles, and discoveries (yes, people do make discoveries in literature evry day). My favourite Twitter accounts include, but are not limited to (by category):

Victorian stuff
  • @VictorianWeb, one of the first scholarly websites to examine the Victorian Era
  • @Vic_Network, the Victorian Network online journal
  • @VictorianCFPs tweets updates about CFPs and other items of Victorian interest from a variety of sources
  • @VictorianReview, the interdisciplinary journal of Victorian studies
  • @RS4VP, the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals (RSVP), an interdisciplinary scholarly group and publisher of Victorian Periodicals Review
  • @BAVS_PGs, the British Association for Victorian Studies postgraduate account
  • @VictStudies, the Victorian Studies journal devoted to the study of English culture of the Victorian period
PhD-related accounts

I need to add a few of the many accounts dedicated to helping PhD students or discussing their experience. With a quick research, you’ll see there literally are thousands of them: @DocwritingSIG, @WriteThatPhD, @GdnHigherEd (The Guardian Higher Education), @PhDStudents, @Write4Research, @MendeleyTips (dedicated to the Mendeley platform), @researchwhisper, @thesiswhisperer (Dr Inger Mewburn , the woman behind the blog), @PhDForum, @OUPAcademic (Oxford Academic), @timeshighered (Times Higher Education), @docteo_net (in French).

Do stuff

All in all, I remember my colleague Jean telling her students, “get out there and do stuff,” which is a very sensible piece of advice. Whatever takes your mind off of your research will bring you back to it, only with a different angle.

And you? What are your tricks of(f) the trade?

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