Academic writing – hiking or building?

For me, academic writing is a creative activity.

I know it’s not that way for everyone – my partner, an ecologist, never felt that his writing was a creative activity. For him, creativity occurred mainly during the design phase of his research, and when he needed to solve problems. Writing was a fairly dry reporting process for him, and he’d just sit at his computer for 8 hours a day and tap his article/thesis/report out. For him, writing was hiking. He had a route planned out, was prepared for the trip, had all he needed in his pack, and just had to walk the path. That’s not to say it wasn’t difficult at times – most hiking routes have difficult patches, sometimes a lot of them, and it requires a lot of preparation, dedication and stamina. But he was following a path, not making a new one – once he picked a route, he knew where he was going and how.*

My experience was/is different. For me, writing is a creative activity, a thinking activity. Of the insights I arrived at and the connections I made in my work, a good proportion of them came about as I wrote. It also couldn’t be forced – if I didn’t have some kind of inspiration, some kind of creative spark, all I could do was tinker at the edges of what I already had. I couldn’t do anything new.

Rather than hiking, it felt as though I was building something off concept plans. I had a vague idea about the kind of thing I was hoping to build, but I didn’t have clear specs or measurements. I built walls only to discover they weren’t square, or wouldn’t connect, or that I just didn’t like them there, so I knocked them down and started again. Some of my original ideas just didn’t, couldn’t be made to work and had to be scrapped altogether. In fact, the floor plan changed quite a bit, and new foundations had to be added – but there was no way of knowing when I drafted the plans that I’d want to, or need to, build over there. And some things just came together in unexpected and pleasantly surprising ways. Some of my plans didn’t just work, they managed to be beautiful, too.

And, like building work, it was a mix of hard labour and creativity. Some days were tremendously productive, other days very little got done – I didn’t have the creative spark needed to move forward. And some days it rained, so not only could I not get anything done, I had to spend the next few days mopping up.**

At times I envied my partner’s writing experiences; he knew he’d get it done if he just kept going, and he moved forward every day. Me? There were times when I wasn’t sure the house would get up, or would stay up, and I didn’t know where the next creative burst of inspiration would come from. Or when it would come. Or if.

Now, I have my building. There are things I might have done differently, but there was really no way to know that when I started, so I’m kind of okay with it. I’m cautiously proud of it…but really, I’m still waiting to see how it holds up in a storm. Hopefully the roof doesn’t leak too badly. Hopefully the doors don’t jam. Hopefully it harnesses the views I planned it to. Hopefully it catches the breeze. Hopefully it’s genuinely something new.  I’m waiting to see.

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This is all a really roundabout way to say that I need to be writing journal articles right now and I am tapped out. The creative spark hasn’t quite come back yet, and I’m not sure when it’s coming. I still have bruises and aches from the last build.

I kind of wish I could just go hiking.

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*I don’t mean to suggest that his research wasn’t innovative – it was. Amazingly so, in fact. But his writing followed the typical science/ecology dissertation structure, and his articles follow the established formula.

**Can you tell I’ve been watching Grand Designs? Ahem.

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The Cruelest Error Message

Went looking for jobs today. Seek, then the various state, territory and federal government job websites. Tried to access UniJobs, got this message:

“We’re Sorry.
But it seems our site is currently undergoing an abnormally large amount of traffic at the moment.”

In other words:

“We’re Sorry. But it seems that there are an abnormally large number of people seeking university-sector jobs at the moment, probably due to redundancies, reduced research funding, and the higher-than-ever number of doctorate holders. In fact, our website can’t cope with the amount of highly qualified people with mile long publication lists looking for work. We don’t mean to be discouraging…except we do. Maybe reconsider your options, Nat.”

Okay I’m possibly seeing too much subtext, but come on. Can’t they just have a picture of a cute but confused monkey holding a spanner upside down, and leave it at that? No need to tell us you’re overloaded, we’re scared enough already.

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Post- PhD, Pre- Anything Else.

It’s a cliche, but it’s a New Year and a New Start. But seriously – for me, it is. On the 22nd of December, 2014, I submitted my PhD thesis. It’s now 2015 and I have to Do Other Things.

I started it almost five years ago, and the thesis represented nearly four years of full time work. In those five years I had one year “off”, where I did little work on my thesis but never stopped thinking and worrying about it.

It has been a huge part of my life for a long time – longer than five years. It entered my life when I was a third year undergrad and started tutoring work; it was then that it first occurred to me that I might want to be an academic. It was with me when I did my Honours project, when I was testing the academic waters, so to speak. And now, it’s almost gone – I still have feedback to receive, and revisions (probably substantial ones) to make, but for now, there is nothing more I can do to it, about it, on it. The feeling of being without it after so long – it’s almost loneliness.

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When I was a teenager, I did a lot of theatre. Mostly musicals, some straight plays. I was never the star, but then, I never thought I would be.

I loved it. I didn’t have many friends in high school, though I had my share of the opposite. But in theatre, I had friends. I loved the spirit of camaraderie in undertaking something difficult and dangerous (dangerous, at least, to one’s self-image, self-confidence). I loved the buzz that we shared when we succeeded – when we had the audience’s attention, when they laughed at the right time (or at unexpected, but appropriate times), when everything seemed to work. And I loved how we looked after each other when things didn’t work – when someone slipped, or forgot a line, or had a costume problem.

I didn’t have many happy times when I was that age, but of the ones that I had, almost all of them happened in theatre.

But despite my love of theatre, I never aspired to a professional performance career. I had no illusions – I knew that very few people can make a career in the performing arts, and I knew that I simply wasn’t good enough to make it a risk worth taking. I had a little talent, and responded well to practice and training, but that came too late to do much good, and I wasn’t amazing, or even great. And I thought that if you’re going to try for something that so few manage to achieve, it’s only worth the risk if you’re fantastic at it, and if nothing else could make you happy. Neither of those things were true for me.

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Now, however, I find myself pursuing an almost equally competitive career. I want an academic position – a full time one, and eventually a permanent one. Turns out, success in academia relies on much the same things as success in performing arts – you need to work hard, be highly trained, but you also need a measure of talent, and to be memorable. You also need to be able to perform for a critical audience, and submit yourself and your work for judgement throughout your career. And you need to be lucky – it helps if you know people.

And, as in theatre, for every full time position advertised there are dozens, even hundreds, of qualified applicants. Whilst I’m a much better fit for academia than theatre, I don’t have a lot of confidence.

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I find myself two weeks on from submitting my thesis, feeling lonely and a wee bit lost without my constant companion for the last five years to occupy myself with. I’ve started job hunting in earnest. I applied for two academic jobs in December last year, and have applied for three other positions this week (one academic, one local government, one state government).

And now I wait. Wait for the judgements on my thesis. Wait for the outcomes of job applications. Wait for more posts to be advertised. And try to find the energy and creativity needed to start writing new things – I’ve got R & Rs to do, a book chapter due in a couple of months, and heaps of new papers that are in the abstract + rough outline stage. My academic applications will be stronger as I start getting those finished, submitted, published.

I never thought I’d say this, but as much as I’m glad it’s finished (at least, for now), I miss my thesis. I have lots of little things to do, but I miss the obsessive, anxious simplicity of having that one task – FINISH THE THESIS – dominating my days and nights.


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Anyhow, in this blog I intend to document the post-PhD-submission period (I wanted to say ‘malaise’ there, but I hope it will be something other than that). Writing papers, job hunting, waiting for examiners’ reports. I can’t imagine it will be much to read, but I’m hoping that establishing a writing habit will help my academic writing – I’ve found blogging helpful for writer’s block before. That’s the plan.

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