Doing the Creative Work of the PhD

I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog recently because I’ve started the creative work of my analysis chapter.

For the first couple of weeks I was stumped at how to “do” the creative work. It’s different to the data. My data is a historical narrative of presidential leadership in Venezuela. The process of writing it has been one of investigation and a fairly straightforward recount of past events. I became used to that style of writing as I’ve been working on the data since 2013.

Yet, as those who have completed an analysis chapter know, the approach is different.

How do we “do” creative work in academia?

For me, the chapter requires a creative synthesis of literature, events, policies, decisions, and speeches to generate my original contribution. While I have kept track of my ideas for the analysis chapter throughout my program and I have been looking forward to reaching this stage of the PhD, I was not quite ready for the change the analysis would bring.

This is not to say that I haven’t done any creative work until this point, however the stakes feel higher, and I realised that I had no clear or consistent strategies for encouraging my creative side.

And, I also have to admit, despite having a pretty good relationship with my PhD gremlins these days, I was not prepared for the intimidation I felt at the prospect of finally doing the creative work. These gremlins said to me that I was not cut out for the creative work. That, despite the years of working with my data and my literature, I would not be able to produce an adequate original contribution.

In an attempt to combat my gremlins, I paid a visit to our trusty old friend Google. I searched for resources that dealt with creativity and dissertation writing. And I came up with pretty much nothing. The one blog post I did find was by the Thesis Whisperer on starting work on the discussion chapter. It contained some good, practical tips on generating ideas. However, I was looking for something else to help me get the creative juices flowing.

creative strategies

To an extent, gaining an understanding of the strategies that best draw out your creative side is an individual journey. Strategies that work for someone else may not work for you, and vice versa. However, the advice and reflections from a book called “The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity” by Louise DeSalvo have been helpful to me. I really enjoyed this book. Though its writing tips are predominantly targeted at novelists, it was not a difficult feat to apply them to academic writing.

The first strategy I adopted was a mindset change. I gave myself permission to take the time to not produce work. In other words, I gave myself space to think and to dream. This is hard when you feel the pressure of deadlines, but creativity needs space. Moreover, I think we too often get stuck in this idea that the only work of value is the kind that produces words on a page. The cult of busyness in academia is one that is well documented, and it is hard to fight those gremlins sitting on your shoulder, whispering, “dreaming is not real work”.

In actual fact, however, it is important work for research.

Dreaming is creativity, and it is essential for the analysis chapter of the PhD and broader academic work.  

To nourish and draw out my creativity to assist my “dreaming”, I use the following strategies, adapted from DeSalvo’s advice:

  • Go for a walk in nature. Don’t listen to music or podcasts – go unplugged, so to speak. Feel the space around you, and let your thoughts gently drift over your data and literature. Don’t hurry; instead enjoy the opportunity to dream and think.
  • Keep a process journal. This is a journal that serves as “an invaluable record of our work patterns and feelings about our work, our responses to ourselves as writers, and our strategies for dealing with difficulties and challenges” (p.70). According to DeSalvo (p.220), John Steinbeck was a big fan of the process journal, recording his daily concerns and tasks in it so that when he was writing he could solely focus on the creative work. It was crucial to his creative process and enabled the development of his ideas.
  • Understand my “rhythms”. This means both knowing and accepting how and when I work best. For a long time, I tried to fit myself into a mould of how I thought the ideal PhD student would work. I held a belief that I should work consistently and productively from 9am-5pm every weekday, no matter what was going on in my life. If I had part-time work, I tried to force myself to make up for lost time on weekends. However, that rigid work structure only induced stress and anxiety in me, to the point that I’d often find myself paralysed. One day, I came across a workshop on YouTube by Associate Professor Alexis Shotwell called “Suffering Free Academic Writing” and it fundamentally changed how I approached the PhD. I encourage all of you going through the same thing to check the workshop out.

One other strategy I use, not included in DeSalvo’s book, but which I’ve somehow developed/adapted for myself, is akin to self-reflection/self-conversation:

  •  Written conversations with myself. I open a new document on my computer or grab a notebook and pose a question to myself when I am feeling stuck.  Often, this first question will ask, “What do I want to say?” My response inevitably leads me down a rabbit-hole of simple questions and answers that allow me to get to the heart of my idea without the pressure of formally writing it in my chapter. I guess, in a way, it’s a form of free writing. I give myself the time to explore and answer the questions I generate, however, unlike the traditional free writing approach. I slow down the process, as Professors Maggie Berb and Barbara Seeber have argued in their book “The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy”.

This whole experience with attempting to generate creativity as I write my analysis chapter has made me realise that there is not much training for PhD students in “doing” creative academic work. In my own experience, there has been no training or resources provided.

 I believe this is an untapped area of growth for universities and PhD programs, but what do you think? And what do you do to encourage your creativity in your own research?

Persistence = resilience

I’ve heard it said on multiple occasions that a successful PhD candidate needs 10% intelligence and 90% persistence. Early on in my PhD, when I was in the grips of impostor syndrome, this little saying got me through. If I could just be tenacious enough, dogged enough, persistent enough, that doctorate would be mine, even if I wasn’t the perfect student. While I’m not quite there yet, I’m hanging on pretty tightly and it’s within my sights.

PhD Persistence

What does persistence look like in the every day life of a PhD student?

What does it actually mean to be persistent?

Well, to me, persistence is resilience. And it is the key to slaying those gremlins.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of organising a workshop shop on resiliency for PhD students at my university campus. Facilitated by the postgraduate student counsellor, Dominique Kazan, the workshop opened with everyone sharing their worries about the PhD process.

It confirmed to me the need to encourage more sharing and discussion between PhD students about the doctoral process in order to reduce isolation, learn from each other, and find solutions together.

These worries, while too numerous to mention all of them, include that old, trusty goalpost of “being good enough” and meeting expectations, finishing on time, managing burn out, managing supervisors and personal relationships, having the patience to wait for findings/results, dealing with writers block and procrastination, and feeling alone in their worries.

Becoming a resilient researcher

A student can become a resilient researcher, however, by adopting a growth mindset. Such a mindset acknowledges that the student is a lifelong learner, and that every setback or challenge is an opportunity for improvement and further education. In building on this, the workshop dealt with the concept of internal and external locuses of control. When you have a strong internal locus of control, you acknowledge that all you can control is your perception of the event. For instance, the rejection of a paper can be viewed as opportunity to learn and improve rather than a rejection of the usefulness of the research (and therefore your time and ability to be a researcher). 

I’m curious – do you see a setback in an experiment, the rejection of a paper, or the inability to meet a deadline, a condemnation of your ability to “do” the PhD, or do you see it as part of the process of learning? To me, the latter view is a much more mentally peaceful perspective to adopt, as it gives me the space to learn and grow as a researcher. In a way, such a mindset is a practice of self-compassion within the academic context.

Finally, instead of just focusing on all the worries of the PhD process, we also shared what we love about research and the PhD program, and it struck me that, just as many of the worries are universal, so is the love.

As PhD students in Australia, we appreciate the time and flexibility of the program to explore our research area and structure our hours so that it works for our personal lives. We appreciate the opportunity to deeply research a topic, to contribute to knowledge, to learn more about ourselves and how we work and want to contribute to our world. We have become more comfortable with uncertainty (a good sign of resilience), and we have developed emotionally to manage critique and expectations. These are all indicators that we are developing our “resilience muscle” as researchers.

It can take a lot of emotional energy to “persist” in a PhD program when we feel that we are alone in our thoughts of inadequacy. The key takeaway from this workshop, for me, is the need to facilitate peer mentoring to reduce isolation and learn resiliency from each other. In many ways, the PhD process is just as mentally and emotionally challenging as it is intellectually challenging (if not more), yet not enough is done to train PhD students to manage the emotional landscape of research and “persist”.

Resilience takes away the power of the gremlins, yet it’s a muscle that needs to be trained. I think this is an area where universities have a lot of potential for growth and improvement, and I look forward to taking part in this continuing conversation. What are your thoughts?