Riding towards a PhD

This post is by Scott Daniel, a final year PhD student in the STEMed Research Centre at Swinburne University of Technology. His research has focused on making the most out of lectures and trying to understand why so many interesting people give boring lectures. In a past life, he taught high school science and maths, and has since worked as a consultant and facilitator with World Vision, Scope Global, Engineers without Borders, UNESCO, and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority.
Like me, Scott likes riding his bike. In this post he tells us how he combined his passion for writing and riding in one fabulous journey. If this doesn’t make you long to jump a train to an unknown destination with just your laptop in hand, I don’t know what will

scott_bike1By mid-September 2014, my thesis writing had stagnated. In August that year my scholarship had ran out, my lease expired, and so I moved into a friend’s spare room, who was promptly incapacitated by a bike crash.

Between looking after my friend and doing RA work to eat, I hadn’t done any writing since July, when I had house sat for a friend in Tasmania with my laptop and an empty house as my muse.

When my injured friend got back on her feet, an opportunity came up to house sit another friend’s house in Mount Gambier. I jumped at the chance. I had wanted to go to the Mount ever since I found out about the spectacular caves there, but the only catch is that it’s a few hundred kilometres from the nearest train station.

I would have to ride my bike.

scott_bike2So, one early morning in late September, I found myself on the train to Murray Bridge, bike and heavy panniers in tow. There’s something about train travel that motivates reflection. The momentum of the journey drives the flow of thoughts and ideas, and whenever that well runs dry it is quickly refilled by staring out the window at the ever-new scenes. And despite the finger buns and meat pies I always feel like I’m in an Agatha Christie novel in the dining car.

After working for a few hours on the train and then getting some supplies in Murray Bridge, I wanted to make some headway so rode until the late afternoon, crossing the Murray on the ferry at Tailem Bend. I found a small bit of flat ground next to a lagoon on the Murray and set up camp, and was enjoying the beautiful sunset when I heard what sounded like a thousand propellors starting up all at once: huge formations of birds flying into the sun.

scott_bike3

The next morning I hit out on the bike for a few hours to reach Meningie, where I found another café for a belated caffeine hit. By the time I got there I’d had time to think, was ready to write, was *itching* to write, whereas in Melbourne I’d still be washing the breakfast dishes, listening to Life Matters on Radio National, and mentally composing a domestic to-do list. The open road gave me all the mental space I could hope for, so instead of wasting down time checking Facebook or finding meaningless procrastination, I had time to refuel myself.

scott_bike4A few weeks before leaving Melbourne, I’d seen the film “Ringbalin: Breaking the Drought”, a documentary about Aboriginal River Nations’ deep connections to the Murray-Darling river system. Keeping me company on the trip was the Ringbalin app, geo-located to identify nearby locations from the film and add more to the story. Through that I found out about Camp Coorong, an Aboriginal cultural museum south of Meningie, and was delighted to find out the museum guide had danced in the film.

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By now I was well into the Coorong, the spectacular system of saltwater lagoons and wetlands. The pelicans and beautiful desolate beaches of this place had featured in my personal mythology ever since seeing the classic Australian film Storm Boy as a child.

scott_bike6And so the days continued, exploring the stunning countryside, battling the mosquitos every time I set up or took down my tent, writing for a few inspired hours, and finding deep wells of reflection and solace in the journey. As environmentalist Colin Thiele wrote, “The Coorong is spirit – peace of isolation, regeneration of solitude, therapy of loneliness. Spirit that man desperately needs.”

Spending so much time in my own thoughts and ideas, everyday observations or small details seemed to take on a profound significance from which I could draw long metaphorical bows of deep meaning. Maybe their meaning is there all the time and we’re too busy to notice. Here’s some moments:

Contemplating the early morning mosquito onslaught

Contemplating the early morning mosquito onslaught

A moment of reflection at the Coorong hotel

A moment of reflection at the Coorong hotel

 

Exploring off road

Exploring off road

Gold rush era 'chinamen' stone wells

Gold rush era ‘chinamen’ stone wells

It’s all too easy in the final stages of writing up a thesis to become lost in your own little world of ideas and paragraphs, references and word limits. But it’s strangely comforting to realise that in a few decades, years, or even months and weeks, my current agonising over how to rephrase an awkward sentence, how to disentangle some counter-intuitive subtlety, or whether every list of examples has to have three, and only three, items, will no longer be important to me or anyone else.

This was what resonated in me witnessing the gentle acceptance of the people of Robe as they allow their iconic obelisk to slowly crumble into the sea as Cape Dombey erodes

scott_bike12

In the evidence of past flood levels in a lagoon in the southern Coorong, now become hyper-saline through evaporation.

scott_bike13

… and in what I took to be an ancient shell midden at 42 Mile Beach.

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I’ve done quite a few cycling adventures like these: different places around Australia, as well as in Europe and Africa, and just cannot get enough. What continues to draw me to these journeys is the adventure and serendipity of exploring new places, the challenge and joy of independence, the flights of imagination and depths of introspection, what some have called deep play.

scott_bike14There’s a romantic parallel with the trajectory of a PhD, and perhaps research in general, of a journey through ideas, the excitement and anticipation of setting out, the developing sense of confidence and intellectual freedom, and the rare opportunity to reflect on and pursue ideas to their endpoint.

I’m on the home straight in my PhD, so now for me, it’s back to the books – time is ticking by, and this blog post unfortunately won’t add to my word count. But in idle moments my mind thinks back to this trip, and I hear the wind whispering against the grass stems in the sand-dunes, gently tracing the passing time.

Thanks Scott – I feel inspired! How about you? Have you taken a journey with your laptop and found yourself being unexpectedly productive or good for your mental health? Love to hear all about it in the comments.

Related posts

Why you should create your own writing retreat

PhD paralysis

13 thoughts on “Riding towards a PhD

  1. Hi

    Maybe even a peaceful walk each day could be your thesis contemplation time. Linda

    From: The Thesis Whisperer <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Reply-To: The Thesis Whisperer <comment+ew-4qunp5w92rzwziuds1oh@comment.wordpress.com> Date: Wednesday, 2 September 2015 5:01 am To: Linda Newman <Linda.Newman@newcastle.edu.au> Subject: [New post] Riding towards a PhD

    Thesis Whisperer posted: “This post is by Scott Daniel, a final year PhD student in the STEMed Research Centre at Swinburne University of Technology. His research has focused on making the most out of lectures and trying to understand why so many interesting people give boring lec”

  2. Enjoyed this post, Scott! I also went on a journey very near the end of writing my thesis, although a less adventurous one than this. It was a bit of a spontaneous decision, but it turned out to be highly refreshing to be in a different space during a period of finishing off the writing that felt like it would never end.

  3. I wonder how many PhD students will flock to the murray-darling basin and the coorong after reading this post..;) Maybe someone should set up a retreat for PhD students there

  4. i had taken laptop in one of the travel thinking I would do work in the field but I could not do anything serious in the laptop but I felt really refreshed once I was back from the field

  5. Thank you Scott and Thesis Whisperer, I’m also in the ‘final’ stages of write-up and this post might have saved me from drowning. Ironically, I’m attempting to investigate The Contemplative Spectator!

  6. This was refreshing but I must admit I am a wee bit jealous. On the home stretch of my PhD work, finally not drowning. But it would have been so much nicer to get to the point I am through other, more enjoyable means.

  7. Your article gives a great direction and a sense of focus. By the way I understand that customessayhub.com is the best custom writing service and solution. With the knowledge I have gained from there, I think you wrote a great article

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