Paper to the rescue

by Eszter Hargittai on November 18, 2005

Following up on the last post regarding dissertation completion, I thought I would acknowledge the role of paper that came up as a theme in the panel this morning. There were two of us recent PhDs on the panel and it turns out both of us turned to playing with paper as a way to take breaks from our dissertation writing. I picked up papier mache the Spring of 2003. Given the results, it is not surprising that I gave it up after the dissertation was complete. The other recent graduate on the panel, Ted Striphas said he was doing lots of origami at the time. Go figure.

All of this relates to keeping healthy during the process. It is important to take breaks. In fact, I do not believe it is possible to do good work without taking breaks. So what is your preferred break activity? I am especially interested in responses other than “blogging”.;)

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Right Reason
11.18.05 at 8:25 pm



anonymous 11.18.05 at 8:33 pm

My wife and I had our first child while working on our dissertations. She completed hers 2 years later when she was 7 months pregnant with our second, when she was about to begin her first tenure-track job (at your fine school). I finished mine about another 18 months after that. Not sure if this is the sort of thing that you are looking for. It didn’t do a lot for our short term sanity or productivity…

Both kids are now in college, and she is full. I on the other hand…


vivian 11.18.05 at 9:39 pm

Do you count food (eating or cooking)?


Zeno 11.18.05 at 10:57 pm

I rather regret that one of my favorite breaks in dissertation writing did not take me away from the computer. I’d fire up Internet Reversi and play a few rounds against anonymous people from around the world. Usually a Microsoft Word window would still be open, with some unfinished chapter visible before me. (Word, by the way, is an abomination.) Eventually the dissertation would draw me back from my idle gameplaying or I would shut down for the night (or morning or whatever).

Since wrapping up my grad program, I’ve taken up strolling the many greenbelts and pathways that my town has for people who want to bike or walk about. It’s helped me shed the thirty pounds I put on during five years of grad school. Too bad I didn’t take up the walking regimen earlier, since it’s a very good time for thinking. Probably would have sped up my writing.


rajH 11.19.05 at 12:33 am

Boomerangs have helped keep me sane through the writing phase. They’re quite easy to learn (as long as you don’t start with an advanced one), and there’s more than enough complexity in them to engage the geek in you for years. It’s the thinking (wo)man’s frisbee :)


sharon 11.19.05 at 3:27 am

I tend to call on my good old friends FreeCell and Spider Solitaire rather a lot these days…


Espen Andersen 11.19.05 at 9:18 am
I say no more.

Actually, during my dissertation years I played a lot of Tetris. And then used that game as a metaphor for technology adoption in my dissertation and subsequent conferences and talks.


Adam Kotsko 11.19.05 at 9:21 am

Playing piano can be good, or washing the dishes.


Rebecca 11.19.05 at 9:34 am

swimming and reading completely non-academic books.


Stentor 11.19.05 at 11:02 am

I do some origami as well, and compose music. They do have an unfortunate tendency to slip from “healthy break” to “outright procrastination.”


ingrid 11.19.05 at 12:03 pm

Given that PhD students are at serious risk of RSI, good activities for breaks are taking a stroll, or going to a yoga class (Yoga of the type that challenges you physically, not sure that the more ‘spiritual’ types are of much use to prevent RSI and get rid of tension in your shoulders and other upper-body parts).

I was very suspicious (i.e. prejudiced) about Yoga before doing my PhD, but together with the Belgian chocolates it saved me and helped me reach my deadline in time and with a finished dissertation.


Ancarett 11.19.05 at 12:16 pm

During my dissertation years, my break time was spent in beading or doing counted cross stitch. Since the kids were born, I’ve put aside such fiddly, small projects that require space and a long term commitment of concentration. Now I usually relax by working on computer graphics, photo manips or vidding.


luci phyrr 11.19.05 at 2:15 pm

Taking a ride on my bicycle through the neighborhood, working out, computer chess, and masturbation.


mitch 11.19.05 at 4:02 pm

Well, while I was finishing experiments, a half hour run at the gym was a great way to relax. When the experiments were done, I moved up to frigid Montreal in the middle of winter to finish writing. That left me with no warm place to run, and so I discovered to NetHack (yeah, yeah, I’m an engineer!) to get me through the days.


DC 11.19.05 at 4:12 pm

There’s two ways of doing three of the above, as I see it. Computer chess and cycling appear incompatible.


Daniel 11.19.05 at 8:06 pm

Yoga of the type that challenges you physically, not sure that the more ‘spiritual’ types are of much use to prevent RSI and get rid of tension in your shoulders and other upper-body parts

I pass this on as an observation; in fifteen years of work, I have never known anyone get RSI who was not also suffering from stress or discontentment in their everyday job or life. I have seen dozens (by which I mean, more than twenty people) of RSI sufferers get much better very quickly when they changed jobs to

My guess is that if you are feeling stressed, your muscles stiffen up and that hitting a keyboard with stiff hands is more damaging than hitting keyboard with relaxed hands. Either way up, I’d expect that the spiritual type of yoga could be as good or better than the physical kind for this purpose.


Donald Douglas 11.19.05 at 9:44 pm

Running. I was probably close to competition shape while writing my dissertation, a level of conditioning that long ago passed into history now that I have a tenured position, two boys, etc. I hike now, mostly on the weekends, sometimes strenuously, when I don’t have papers to grade, lectures to write, case studies to prep, exams to revise, journal articles to catch up with, blogs to check out, and so forth. Although most ABDs can’t wait to finish, that last year is probably the highlight of the graduate career.


agm 11.20.05 at 5:34 am

Well, not quite to the writing stage (there have been, er, some unexpected difficulties), but I took up social dance to keep from going insane. As a fringe benefit, my social life didn’t atrophy the way many grad students’ does, AND I dropped two pants sizes from all the groovin.


Jason Kuznicki 11.20.05 at 9:47 am

As someone who completed his PhD in September, I would definitely second the yoga recommendation.

I also got into making homebrew beer as a grad student. It requires a couple of afternoons of sustained effort, one at the start of the process and one at the end. The result is five gallons of beer that’s every bit as good as high-end commercial brews, but with whatever specifications you like. I’ve made a rosemary lager (“Rosemary’s Baby”), a cinnamon Christmas beer (“Herald Angels: The Porter of Glad Tidings”) and many, many more.

Homebrew also makes you popular at grad student parties.


Eszter 11.20.05 at 11:37 am

Cooking is a good one! I did some of that at some point. I think it seemed like to large a distraction toward the end though.

I tried Yoga a couple of times (some friends swore by it and probably could not have finished grad school without it), but it never did it for me.

How could I forget WEBoggle??:) (I didn’t use that particular version, I’m not sure if it was around. But I used a similar one.)

I would’ve loved to do dancing, but I wasn’t happy with the local options in grad school so I added that to my schedule recently.

To clear my head, I used to drive around a bit before going home (often around 2am), an activity I found very relaxing. It also helped me come up with some really great ideas about work. (I don’t think papier mache ever had that kind of an effect on my research.)


perianwyr 11.20.05 at 3:21 pm

Full contact LARPing!

You spend all the random time you have either making new weapons or thinking up new and wacky ways to make them, and then you spend the weekend hitting people with them. Good stuff.


ImaginaryGirl 11.21.05 at 12:24 pm

My husband is just now finishing his Ph.D (literally — defense in a few weeks). Over the years, he’s had many distractions (not the least of which was meeting me and getting married), including swing dancing and playing drums. But then he got into poker and serious “amateur” photography. Poker and photography have been the great distractions.


Oskar Shapley 11.22.05 at 12:47 pm

Stephen King observed in ‘Shining’ that playing with cars, ordering them, etc., is a simple meditation technique that helps thinking. Using your hands helps to keep busy those chaotic and restless areas of the brain while your consciousness does the higher level work.

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