By Cally Guerin
I was talking to a PhD student today who is in the final stages of writing. It’s a very difficult patch for anyone, both physically and mentally, and I believe that all students go through a phase at the end of a PhD where they need to become quite obsessive (even irrationally obsessive) before they can emerge into the bright sunshine on the other side of submission. This student was saying his main struggle was trying to stand back from all the material he had collected and written about over the years in an attempt to assess it objectively. Instead of being able to notice what has been achieved, he was experiencing the temptation to give into doubts about the worth of his efforts: is the research valuable to the discipline? Is it sufficiently original? Is it a substantial contribution to the field? After years of working with the same ideas, it is easy to understand how they can lose their freshness and no longer seem exciting.
In an attempt to be reassuring and to offer a practical solution, I suggested that he think through ideas when walking to university and then again when walking home. He looked rather bewildered (and maybe thought that I too was going mad in a kind of folie á deux). But I genuinely believe that a great deal of very useful thinking can happen while walking.
The best advice I ever received as a doctoral student myself was to try and keep the idea I was working on at the front of my thinking all the time—while waiting for the bus, while doing the washing up, while watching the photocopier, while doing any other mechanical, mundane task (not cycling or driving!). The point is to keep turning the idea over and over in your mind until the pattern or connection appears.
This has been extended to walking in my own circumstances. There is something about the soothing rhythm of walking that seems to aid thinking—it needs to be fast enough to get the blood pumping, but not so speedy as to take up all your concentration. For me, this is much more effective than sitting staring at the computer and drinking yet more coffee, nibbling on yet more dry-roasted almonds (or, preferably, chocolate sultanas). So you can imagine how pleased I was to come across a recent study by Oppezzo & Schwartz that provided some serious evidence for what many of us have suspected for a long time: walking outdoors really does stimulate creative thinking. Even Nietzsche is supposed to have said that “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking”. So I advocate walking and thinking as a regular part of academic life.
Last week was mental health week in Australia, and everywhere we’ve been reminded of the importance of maintaining our mental health, encouraged to take up moderate exercise and do enjoyable things to help cope with the stresses of modern life. This is a timely reminder when there is a parallel discourse about the apparent increase in mental illness amongst academics and doctoral candidates. So, I’m forced to consider how my advice fits with the recommendations to exercise but perhaps licenses obsessive work patterns by focusing on an idea and constantly it turning it over in one’s mind. On balance, I hope that these two approaches to doctoral writing create a manageable equilibrium. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be comfortably mobile, but those who are should be grateful and make the most of it.
Have any of you tried getting off the bus a few stops early and striding briskly to your desk when your thinking is stuck? What advice have you given to students stuck in this space?
Nietzsche, F. (1888; 1998) Twilight of the Idols, Or, How to Philosophize With the Hammer. Trans. D. Large. Oxford: Oxford UP.