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PhDs and ‘The Power of Procrastination’

Part 1

It’s that time of year. PhDs are applying for grants and fellowships, running around frantically organising events, marking essays, and coming up with conference papers for those abstracts that looked so brilliant some time ago and now seem like rubbish. The usual. And yes, PhDs are also writing their theses. Needless to say there is some stress floating around the postgraduate community and everyone is working incredibly hard. But what do we say that we are doing? ‘Procrastinating!’ Chances are you are reading this because you are procrastinating. Welcome to the club!

We joke about it, we brag about it. Admit it. We’ve all laughed and talked about getting our ‘PhDs in Procrastination’. On facebook I have PhD friends who are pulling their hair out, sharing videos of ‘I dreamed a dream… my PhD!’ ( and praying ‘Forgive us our procrastination, as we forgive those professors who procrastinate against us’ (PhD Comics a Prayer for Grad Students). For more of these, I refer you to Jorge Cham’s ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’ Comics (or PHD Comics). Jorge Cham, who was himself a PhD student at Stanford University, tapped into the main anxieties of PhDs and turned them into a joke. The comics poke fun at the main anxieties of the postgraduate species: free food, keeping supervisors happy, and procrastination – I know because I spent a whole evening reading the comics. I hear there is even a PhD movie. The result: we can laugh at ourselves and our self-dramatised existence.

Not only did Jorge channel our anxieties over procrastination and allow us to be amused by them, but he also delivered lectures on it. In fact, he gave a talk called ‘The Power of Procrastination’ at Warwick in March! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend, but I did some research and found a video on youtube ( Forty minutes later I came to the conclusion that the PhD obsession with procrastination is mainly because we feel guilty that we are often doing things other than our research (like watching the video). Jorge argued that we need to embrace the ‘Power of Procrastination’ and admit that we do other activities because we want to. Nobody forces us to do these things, he said. So go for a run, check your email, cook a meal with friends, eat, sleep, rinse and repeat. As well as do your research.

But the question remains, how does procrastination affect research? Some people seem to work methodically, day by day, gradually creating astounding pieces of work. I sincerely admire such people. Others seem to work more effectively under pressure, with energy peaking just before deadlines. I suspect that these, among which I include myself, are probably the procrastinating type. Moreover, some of us actually enjoy the experience of typing away for hours under the dangling sword of a deadline, oblivious to the world, when ideas seem to turn in circles around you until they collide in a burst of inspiration and you are knocked off your chair by how brilliant you are. I rather like that feeling. Still, it’s not something that happens every day. That said, it doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking about my PhD while away from my desk. I have discussed this subject with one of my officemates while we compared our different routines. We concluded that PhDs benefit from what I will call ‘brain time’, a length of time when we (un)consciously process our reading and make creative connections between ideas. If we can do that while swimming or running, why not?

I realise however that my post has gone way over the word limit, so I will have to discuss how to cope with procrastination (which is what you wanted to read about in the first place) in Part 2. In the meantime, please tell me your thoughts. Do you procrastinate? Do you feel guilty about it? How do you prevent it from becoming extreme? We all know that the thesis is the priority of a PhD student, but within reason, we can allow ourselves some fun, no? Call it ‘procrastination’ if you will. Or should we call it ‘having a life’?


Photo Credit: Gavin Owlsen/Creative Commons