During a PhD journey, we all reach a point when we say: "I have to start writing my thesis". I have been in contact with PhD students since I was a bachelor student, and up until today I do not recall any PhD student being excited or eager to write their thesis. On the contrary, I think I could make a list of PhDs struggling to leave the bench in an attempt to delay the inevitable thesis writing. I have also met a few ones that almost quit the PhD program because they found writing to be a torment. I was not an exception. When my moment of saying "I have to start writing my thesis" arrived, I was not excited. I rather experienced anxiety.
Apart from some exceptions, most PhD students will experience some degree of difficulty while writing the thesis. And perhaps the one reason behind this is that they have never written a PhD thesis before!
Now, my "I have to start writing my thesis" moment is a couple of years away. And time has allowed me to look at it with gratitude since it permitted me to discover my own creative process. If you asked me to summarize what I learned from those months in one phrase, it would be:
"There is no protocol to write a PhD thesis but you can invent your own and however it is, it is OK"
But leaving it in one phrase would be unfair, so let's chop it and analyze it together!
1. There is no protocol to write a PhD thesis
Numerous articles and videos from PhDs themselves are available online, where they share the way they managed to write their thesis and survive in the process. PhD's supervisors are full of strategies and tactics on how to write a thesis too. But have you noticed there is no consensus? That is probably the number one reason for PhD's frustration.
As scientists in preparation, PhDs are used to precise protocols, many repetitions of the latter and reproducible results -if they are positive or negative that's another story. Before the feared "I have to start writing my thesis", they have been practicing precision, repetition and reproducibility for at least three years. What leads me to these two questions: first, could it be that as PhDs we expect that by following a precise routine the process of writing will deliver the same result day after day? And second, should we instead approach our thesis as if it was an artistic creation?
2. But you can invent your own
I still remember myself, trying to follow a precise routine and setting up a number of written lines as the goal of the day. That worked poorly. Many days, my screen was pristine white by the end of the day.
Most of the time I ended up giving in to what I thought was my tendency to procrastinate. Feeling guilty, I went out for long walks, I slept, I went to the cinema or watched TV. In brief, I had fun whenever I could not write. At that moment, I secretly thought I was an irresponsible and unprofessional person. Today, I am convinced that having fun and doing random stuff is my way of brewing creativity. Indeed, after every walk, nap, movie or TV show, my ideas would seem to finally take form and I would write without hesitation whole parts of my thesis.
I confirmed with relief my suspicions when I came across an article from Jeremy Adam Smith, where he interviews the author of Imagine, Jonah Lehrer, about how creativity works.
Jonah Leherer mentions how from a young age, we are taught that the way to be productive is to focus. We are told not to daydream, not to look out the window, to only look at the blackboard. And although it is true that attention, hard work and persistence are key in creativity, research is clear that our best ideas or moments of insight arrive when we are distracted and in a relaxed state of mind - when we are not focused!
3. And however it is, it is OK
After very productive sessions of writing, I would send my drafts to my supervisor. And very often he would say: It is very good Sara! You have reached a good rhythm of writing, how did you do it? I never confessed to him that my secret was chilling out.
Now, I confess it to you. Whenever you are stuck and can not write, do not waste your time sitting in front of the computer. Use that time to explore what triggers creativity in you. It could be a type of music. Perhaps a place –I realized I could write fluently in airports! Or spending time with a friend or family member. Try and you will be surprised!
Yoko Ono practiced meditation as a part of her creative routine. Salvador Dali practiced a daily power nap ritual. Georgia O’Keeffe used to wake up before dawn and watch the sunrise. Vincent Van Gogh worked until 4 or 5 am and then slept through the morning. Other artists took canvases outside and painted outdoors. Pablo Picasso enjoyed listening to flamenco melodies. So why would we, scientists, be expected to just sit and magically write our PhD thesis?
If after reading this, you still think you would feel too guilty to do something else than writing, remember what Albert Einstein once said:
"Creativity is intelligence having fun"