Weathering Research – Thomas Bray

No-one, and I mean no-one, could ever accuse the British summer of being annoyingly consistent. Quite the contrary: this year it seems to have run the complete gamut, from A for angered storms to Z for Zeus’ revenge (yes, I know that’s a deeply esoteric description for weather, but YOU try and find something for Z). Sometimes I have looked up from my laptop to find that it is magically sunny down Library Road, and that everyone has lost their clothing and gained a tan, while on other occasions I have peeked through the curtains and immediately googled “How to build an igloo in the Midlands”.

This up-and-down, east-and-west, inside-out crazy state of affairs has, however, sent my mind wandering as to which strains of weather best suit which kinds of work. The never-ending story which is the PhD involves a variety of different tasks, often very different; one day you are conversing with world leaders about the future of academia, the next you are claiming travel expenses for a mundane trip to the middle of nowhere. All of it, of course, is equally important, and all these activities require ideal conditions.

Here’s what I’ve found. Please, please do comment and tell me if any of this sounds about right, or, even better, if you think I am a blathering fool who doesn’t know my sunshine from my moonshine. In short, opinions please.

Lying on grass during a long, warm summer’s day is, I posit, very good for creative ideas. After a few minutes of horizontal thought, the eyelids begin to droop, and one enters into a heat-induced slumber. Stay prostrate long enough, and a breakthrough is never far away. This is best if one is alone, in the middle of the countryside, not least because it means that no-one is too scared when you inevitably leap to your feet and shout, Discourses of identity? Of course! It’s so simple. I once went through this whole process whilst lying in an English Heritage garden, and I swear, I managed to convince a small group of pensioners on a day-trip from Billericay that I was the original menace to society.

Meanwhile, I’ve long felt that short but somehow biblical downpours of concrete-like rain are ideal for ploughing through lengthy articles and books. Maybe it is because there is a constant rhythm as droplets threaten to shatter the window, but there is nothing like the heavens opening to get you powering through those pages and nailing those notes. Perhaps it is due to the fact that you dare not venture outside, lest you are carried off in a sudden freak flood. In my experience, supervisors do not count such occurrences as viable excuses for missing draft deadlines.

And then there is snow, which I find invites one to consider the more public aspects of one’s research. Sun and rain encourage individual thought and toil, but if you are unsure how best to begin a conference paper or teach your seminar group a difficult yet essential concept, then there is nothing like the crunch of white powder underfoot and the opportunity to make a snowman to help you. In fact, I am surprised that snowmen are not more often used for conference and teaching purposes. The dull ache of admin, meanwhile, can be soothed by strong winds; your hair may be ruffled, your umbrella may be ruined, but my word, you will never again complete an expenses form or a self-evaluation with such flair, such panache, such downright audacity. Good editing, meanwhile, requires cloud with occasional bursts of sunshine, to give you a chance to stare out of the window and think, “What the hell was I thinking?”

I would like to think that this fair isle caters for all tastes weather-wise, and that it provides the right conditions for all sorts of work. Then again, of course, I may well only be saying this because I was born and bred here; it’s not the only place I know, but I can’t say that I am accustomed to month-long blizzards or the kind of heat which makes cats start playing Scrabble. I would be very interested as to where other people stand on the weather-work issue. Are there any important weather conditions which I’ve missed?

Oh, and as a final note, I thought up this article while doing pencil rolls down a hill (cue grass stains galore), and then wrote it at the kitchen table in my parents’ house whilst eating a combination of cheese and slightly hallucinogenic chilli peppers. It was sunny. This may explain the nature of the article.

Happy weathering!

This post was originally published on the PhD Life in 2014

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