Ok, for those of you who came to this post seeking advice: sorry, you won’t find it here! Instead you are going to be treated to my musings on the following question: is there a right way of doing things?
Let me clarify. By “things” I mean the grind of reading, note-taking, writing (not that I’m there yet), and learning that is crafting the thesis. Advice abounds across the internet. Books, and I’m pretty sure theses themselves, have been published. Yet, I am still unconvinced that we can find a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. “But those books/websites are so helpful!”, I hear you cry, “They must be the path to PhD enlightenment!”. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about reading, it makes me feel productive and hopeful and infinitely more skilled. But do they change the way I absorb information? Do they provide life changing results? Not really. They do encourage procrastination, which hardly needs encouraging. Alongside the workshops, graduate skills programmes, and productivity seminars a student could spend their whole PhD learning about how to get a PhD, which would of course lead to failure.
So what’s the point of this ramble? Well, I suppose it is a belief that, whilst all care should be taken to follow guidelines and make sure your thesis will be passed, research is a creative activity. Leaps of thought happen at unexpected times, sometimes springing from the paragraphs that an ‘effective’ researcher would be encouraged to gloss for meaning. Yes, sometimes you need to skim a document to make sure it is worthy of your attention. Yes, looking for keywords in sentences is a good tool to get through a large amount of information quickly. But what about the slow considered delving into a new world of ideas? What about taking time to draw the flow of the text? What about colouring pencils? If collating information was all that was needed then would a robot be sufficient?
Sometimes it’s not about how many journal articles you can get through in an hour, week, month. It’s about sitting and living with the voices you’ve already discovered: asking them questions and taking them out for a stroll. This can’t be used as an excuse to put off doing work, but I think everyone is able to recognise the feeling of denial that occurs when you start browsing imdb for ‘research purposes’. It’s about finding out how you think. If you get your best ideas when you are at home then work from home! If you like being in your office for a normal working day, then feel free to sit at your desk 9 to 5. The biggest, and one of the only, luxury of doing a PhD is that you can do what you like! There are of course other commitments, like jobs and family, that do constrain you somewhat BUT at least you aren’t stuck in a windowless card-factory store all day serving people who get angry about 29p birthday cards.
I know there will be many research students, and even researchers, who are much further along in their careers than me, that will be thinking: “This girl needs to get a grip on reality, there are too many things to do and not enough time”. Some may even be getting angry at this point, getting ready to grasp the mouse in one hand and splurge the pent-up, coffee-fuelled rage over the comments section. That’s ok. I didn’t mean to preach. I just needed to remind myself that it’s ok to sit for 10 minutes, doing nothing but pondering ideas, because if I forget this then the next three years are going to be a lot more painful.
So, for those of you who want to join me, here is something seemingly irrelevant to ponder:
“Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men if they have souls that cannot understand their language”
(Sextus Empiricus, Against the professors, 7.126.8-9 trans. Waterfield 2000)
Now, go put the kettle on and have a think about that.
(Aside – finding that gem actually led me to remember an important source: point proved!)