Are you addicted to your PhD?

On the tram this afternoon a friend commented that learning is a very inefficient process. I think this is especially true for PhD students, partly because it is so easy to get distracted.

When I was doing my PhD I suspended my facebook account -  but the fridge was still a great source of distraction. Aside from eating I managed to get distracted by email, web surfing and – worst of all – Obsessive Article Collecting (OAC) syndrome.

I’m sure I am not alone insuffering OAC syndrome. Plenty of students in our workshops tell me they suffer from it too.  The paper “Innovation in PhD completion” by Kearns, Gardiner and Marshall begins by describing a day in the life of a PhD student, which may sound familiar if you suffer from OAC syndrome:

“You’re sitting at your desk ready to start writing: it’s 9:30am . You think “I’ll just check my emails for 10 minutes and then I’ll get started on the literature review. You open up your email… it’s from an honours student in your dept [is looking for] a reference [in] your field – do you know where to find it? You think, “It’ll only take a few minutes…”. So you log into the library catalogue. Eventually with a sense of great satisfaction, it’s found and emailed off …

It’s 10:15am “well” you think “I may as well get the rest of these emails cleared”; glassware not cleaned in lab yesterday – send back saying it wasn’t me; astronomical society bash tonight – send back saying sorry I can’t come; interesting reference from co supervisor – send back saying thanks and go look up the reference – feel very satisfied when found, printed, stapled and put in a pile with 40 other articles. It’s 11am “Well it’s been a busy morning, time for a cup of coffee with Ben…”

I chuckled, but felt slightly pained, at this accurate description of some of my PhD days. The authors go on to describe an excellent therapy program they have put in place to try to reduce these kind of ‘work deferment behaviours’. But while I was reading the paper I was struck by the repeated use of the word ‘satisfied’ in relation to finding journal articles.

Here’s the thing. Of all the work avoidance strategies, hunting for articles must be one of the most deeply satisfying. It can be hard to stop once you get going – why is this?

Lately I have been browsing a little through the literature on Information Addiction, which I have to say is a little confronting (especially since lately I have had my finger poised over the Twitter ‘refresh’ button for #juliagillard).

The hypothesis behind much of this work is that finding information can cause a rush of dopamine  – which is called in behavioural science circles a ‘reward stimulus’. Over time our brains can become sensitised to the anticipation of the dopamine reward – even though the reward itself brings us diminishing returns. In other words: the sensation of wanting more information doesn’t have an ‘off switch’.

In an interesting post in science blogs, Jonah Lehrer points out that our information addiction is not random: we are not “indiscriminate curiosity machines”. Our cravings for information are personal – and in a PhD student highly so.

According to Lehrer, the brain isn’t “interested in responding to the reward itself” but wants to find the “first reliable bit of information that predicts the reward”. This might provide another explanation for OAC syndrome, especially when you take into account that we tend to get more hooked on finding out stuff we already know.

If consuming the information is not as addictive as looking for it, could it be that the act of searching out articles is a ‘fix’ that we start craving? If you can’t stop searching for articles – and don’t spend time reading them – are you hooked on your PhD?

Someone doing their PhD in this area will probably be able to offer more insight, but just for fun, I’m going to take my theory seriously for a moment and offer 3 ways of breaking the OAC habit, adapted from advice offered to smokers:

1) Go cold turkey: just stop downloading for a week and spend time reading what you already have.

2) Remember the four Ds: Delay, Deep breathe, Drink water or Do something else

4) Remove the props: disconnect from the internet so you cannot connect to databases.

Now I should probably encourage you to go and read some of those articles :-)

20 thoughts on “Are you addicted to your PhD?

  1. I find that turning off the wireless modem is the only way I can get things written… cross-checking facts and looking for more information is helpful to a certain point, and then gets in the way of writing later on.

  2. I totally agree with post. I download papers, read the abstract and results and throw them into a folder. So now I completing my PhD, and for the writing process I went to these folders to retrieve these articles to use in the written dissertation and I found that I had so many of the same papers in the folder.

    Plus, pubmed does not make it any easier because once you search for an article it recommends 5-6 more for you.

  3. I try to enter stuff into Endnote as soon as I download it, then I know if I’ve already ‘got’ it when I fall over it again. Also, I always enter keywords, which refer to sections of my thesis. When I am writing that section, I can bring up all the articles that I thought would be relevant there.

    This is my third thesis, and boy have I learned that a little bit of discipline can save a lot of time-wasting and angst in the long term. Also, being part-time I can’t afford to stuff around when I sit down to work. I still do have issues with information overload – remember that I will be working on this for a lot longer than a full-time student, and people do keep producing stuff for me to read all through that time! But I really try to be focused with my articles – I have a category called ‘tangential but interesting’ where I dump everything that I can’t find an easy keyword for.

    • I like the tangential but interesting category. I think I will put stuff into that one, but where do you stop when your supervisor keeps suggesting these ‘tangential but interesting’ angles as something you should think about in your PhD. I am planning to ignore them

  4. The most significant way of overcoming a problem is first identifying that you have one! So thank you Inger, for giving my ‘problem’ a label: Obsessive Article Collecting (I am an addiced OACer)! I could at least be lulled into a false sense of security – that I was actually doing something related to the PhD. But alas, my cover is blown, and although it is an extremely satisfying activity, it has not directly lead to any significant writing. I am now halfway to recovery! Let us hope I can only progress from here! :-)

  5. This article resonates so much with my behaviour. When I started my PhD, initially on a part-time basis two years ago, I thought it must have been my lack of discipline that I spent so much time looking for articles, taking a quick scan and then filing them for later. This activity was so much more fun than actually writing! Not to mention the tea breaks and then it was lunch time…. So thank you for writing this article. I feel comforted that it’s not just me, it seems to be part of the process. Now that I’m doing my PhD full-time, this now is my work. And I’ve learned to divide my time just like I did when I was in full-time paid employment. It’s all beginning to make sense. Once again, thank you for the reality and sanity check.
    Robyn

  6. hahaha! i am TOTALLY addicted to finding articles. hahahaa. i use leechblock to manage my internet time / stop distractions and sometimes i think i should add jstor to it. ha!

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  8. I’ve always thought it’s not information nor articles per se. But instead dopamine is absolutely released when neurons fire and connect during learning or aha moment!! Nice post today. Congratulations.

  9. I loved this post! I’m preparing to apply for a PhD. Thanks for the assurance that this must be the right path for me, a serious obsessive article collector! :)

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  14. Fantastic post. I am forced to conclude that I am most definitely addicted to my PhD. I think about it when I should be doing other things; I dream about it (- even just about writing it!); and I am always making connections with it & the rest of my life HOWEVER despite all this I am a terrible procrastinator, and certainly recognise those avoidance behaviours. My compromise is finding myriad articles to read later. Collecting articles feels like progress, even if they remain unread for days! Evernote is my organisational saviour.

    • Twitter & academic blogposts are another way I fool myself – I think the collection of information is definitely the key element for me!

  15. the articles is not the only part of the addiction. the long hours just spending writing and rewriting, the million different ways you can analyse the same piece of data, the fourteen different types of software to download so that you can change your pictures in infinitesimally different ways, the amount of blogs sites you can access where people are talking about it – such a lonely isolating process that does not reflect any real world work envirnment and yet strangely compelling and completely addictive

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