Becoming unstuck: how to keep on writing

I am approaching the halfway checkpoint of my doctoral training and research. As I previously mentioned (here and here), I am doing my Ph.D in biology and my work is deeply rooted in the hologenome concept of evolution. I consider myself to be very fortunate to have a supportive/encouraging mentor and amazing technical support to excel in my work. At this stage in my programme, I have my comprehensive exams in a few weeks and it is a very stressful period for any student. In my recent blog, I discussed tips and methods that keep my awake and focused. Here, I want to discuss how to become unstuck when you have been writing for too long and you feel like your brain is about to unhinge 😉 .

phd 2 copy

Of all the aspects of the scientific process- I thoroughly enjoy the writing processes and I find it to be very cathartic to see your ideas on paper, or on your computer screen. However, like many before me, mental fatigue can take its toll on my writing capability. This is my fourth attempt at putting the blog post together! One of my favourite scientific bloggers and academic Raul Pacheco-Vego (@raulpacheco) wrote a brilliant piece on how to become unstuck. In it, he discusses the five strategies that he uses: 1) write an outline, 2) set writing targets, 3) answer questions regarding your work/topic, 4) read a paper and synthesise it, and 5) go for a walk with a pen and jot down ideas as they come to you. As always, he gives pertinent advice on how to increase productivity and writing. I have spent the past week experimenting with different approaches/strategies to get myself unstuck and get back to writing.

It was only when I stepped away from my work/writing for a whole day that the words started coming back to me. Now, I must confess the dreaded ‘monkey demon of PhD guilt’ — eloquently summarised by Katherine Firth (@katrinafee) — is a reality. And, it was only when I understood and tamed my monkey demon that I was able to relax and come back to my work more focused. I take a day off work and I do not think about my work or even discuss it. I find that keeping active and doing tasks that do not require a lot of thinking helps. Now, I hear you asking yourself- what does he do on his off day? Well, I love the being outside and I also take this time to clear up things at home. Often, we get so consumed with work and we tend to let some things at home fall behind. For instance, I use this day to separate my recycling garbage bin and some ironing. I also go for extended walks and picnics in the botanical garden near my house.

One of my friends uses this day to catch up on movies and TV series; frankly, I have never been one for TV. Some draw inspiration from comics… How about you, dear reader, how do you break your writer’s block? Is there a special hobby or regimen you follow to get yourself back in your writing zone?

PhD comics copy

Boosting brainpower: drinking your way to success

The past month has been a whirlwind of scientific activity- starting new experiments, conferences, and writing manuscripts. In my recent blogs, here and here, I discuss how I navigate the scientific twitterverse and the power music has on my mental health and acuity. Notwithstanding all of these, in this blog I want to discuss how maintaining a healthy diet helps me stay focused and calm under pressure. Please note – I am neither a dietician nor a health professional and the tips that I share are what works for ME and may not necessarily apply to you.

 When you visit any graduate student lab there is always a coffee pot brewing, and our office is no exception. But, I remember during my masters I only drank green tea and coffee was never my thing– how things have changed! Coffee culture has become an integral part of the academic machinery; I am convinced that coffee and tears of graduate students fuel the whole machine. I have found that drinking a healthy dose of coffee (about two pots a day for me) keeps me focused and I do not have any adverse side effects. Coupled with my coffee, I find snacking on raw vegetables/fruits keep my system alert and functioning optimally. Also, I find that being a vegetarian gives me more snacking options and energy than my meat-eating counterparts (well, the ones I know ).

The desk of this caffeine-dependent postgrad

In recent years, there has been a growing concern amongst academics regarding the use of brain-enhancing drugs to improve performance. Melinda Wenner Moyer (@lindy2350), a science journalist, wrote a brilliant article for Scientific American, here. In it, she focuses on the issues concerned with the use of Modafinil– a drug prescribed to people who suffer from narcolepsy/sleep apnea, but in healthy individuals, it has been shown[1] to heighten alertness and provide cognitive enhancements. Another report from the UK indicated that 1 in 5 academics have admitted to using Modafinil. However, before you start running to your pharmacy to get the drug- it is worth noting that many neuroscientists are concerned about the long-term effects of these drugs on a healthy brain. Furthermore, the ethical issues that surround the use of these medications are yet to be resolved.

To return back to topic, I am fascinated about what people use to stay awake when ‘burning the midnight oil’ so to speak. For me, it is coffee + snacks, and for my some of my colleagues it is simply taking vitamin B12 supplements and that suffices. A friend of mine can only write when they are in the library – maybe the musty smell of books is a boost? What are some of the techniques that you use to stay alert? Is there a special diet or supplements you take?

[1] Results varied across different studies