How to be creative in an academic environment?

This question has been haunting me for the past six months. I may have already told you this, but I am a graduate student in French literature at McGill. I am doing my dissertation in both research (30 pages) and creative writing (70 pages).

For the past six months, I have been struggling with – what I call – an « administrative paper ». A seven-page paper describing and explaining my dissertation to convince my thesis a committee that it is interesting enough for the university and that they should allow me to start the writing process.

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @na0mirlima

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // Photo by @na0mirlima

I had an interesting conversation with one of my fellow GradLife McGill team members. She was taking a class in which she had to be creative and write about her thoughts on a subject. Since she works in science, she is more used to experiments and results, not necessarily giving her opinion on her work. In my mind, I had the exact opposite dilemma. I was faced with an assignment asking me to prove – based on sources and research – the interest in my field, while I’m used to giving my opinion.

I discussed this with different people in various disciplines and encountered a contemporary artist from London. He told me about his experience at Oxford University, saying: « We were the only ones creating in an environment where everyone else was analyzing. »

Here it is: I need to analyze things as a first necessary step towards creating.

My conclusion is that: in order to be creative in an academic environment, you need to follow the steps. You can’t rush things and create without a well thought out and well proven process. Don’t forget, you are writing a dissertation that might inspire others after you and that needs to add something to your field of study. You are contributing to research! Isn’t that what grad school is all about? Contributing.

What about you? Are you more of a creative or a research type of student? Do you sometime doubt how your work can « fit » within the academia standards?

Thinking days ≠ procrastination

What I call “thinking days” are the days you take for yourself. It can be to sleep in, to organize non-school related appointments, to meet a friend for lunch, or even to watch Netflix. Whatever you need to do! Whatever you want to do!

In the meantime, while you feel like you’re procrastinating on your thesis work, you allow your brain to breathe in order to think better.

It took me a while to realize and accept the fact that: in order to be productive on my “writing days” I needed “thinking days”. My first reflex was to feel guilty about not reading or not writing for an entire day when I had a day off work. I forced myself to study on any available day but the result was just a disaster. Any fly or dirty dish within a mile seemed way more appealing than the blank page staring at me.

Instragram @gradlifemcgill photo by @na0mirlima

After that was my “couch potato phase”. I picked one day, let’s say Wednesday, and I turned all my Wednesdays into home-bound days. I stayed in my pyjamas, didn’t see anyone and consumed way too much junk food and Netflix. Not my finest moments. I was basically forcing myself to procrastinate, as if this would help me to be more productive later on.

Finally, I realized that consciously taking some time for myself was the healthier option. No matter what you feel like doing, it’s a day just for that: do exactly what you want to do. In the meantime, your brain is still being stimulated. You might even surprise yourself by finding something interesting related to your research along the way.

The next day, when I got back to my desk, I was full of ideas and excitement. I also felt that the ground breaking thought I had two days before got processed without much effort, just by staying there, on the side of my brain during my “thinking day”. What a relief! What a great sensation to have!

Have you ever gone through similar phases as I did? What is your secret weapon to fight procrastination?

How to be a full time graduate student with a dream job?

Studying hard, getting into graduate school to get a better job – yes! Working part-time on the side to pay for your studies, your rent, food or any activity – yes*2. Finding your dream job while you’re still studying, keeping it for experience and potentially as a first job? Let’s try it.

A STUDENT JOB

Let’s talk about the different types of student jobs. You can work anywhere just for the income, with no particular interest in the field, potentially with a good team, close to your place or your university. Any convenience will be appreciated for this type of job but mostly, it pays your groceries and that’s all you need.

Then, there is the golden nuggets kind of student job. Basically, your dream job but two years too early. That’s what I got. I started working for an art gallery two years ago. It was an “on call” job where I was supervising art pieces during private events at the gallery. After a few events, they asked me if I wanted to get a part time job, two days per week working at the front desk. I had to welcome customers, answer the phone, learn a bit about the art, smile and basically just be there. I could even do my homework while working. The perfect combination.

Photo by Marion M.

That was a year and a half ago. I finished my bachelor degree, took some time off whenever I was in a rush for finals or needed vacations.

September 2015, McGill University. A whole new chapter of my life. I started with absolutely no idea of what being a graduate student meant. I thought it was going to be just like undergrad with longer papers and less exams. At the exact same time, I got an offer from the gallery: to become the new community manager, which meant, back then, maintaining our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts up to date. I said I would try it for a month and see how it would fit with school. It worked pretty well.

MY DREAM JOB

I loved having the balance of work and school. On one side I was learning so much from amazing teachers, meeting new people in my field, discovering a new student life, a new campus. On the other side, I had concrete and instant results. I would write a newsletter, translate it, correct it and send it to 2500 people in one click. After that, those people would come and see our exhibitions, they would take photos, post them, tag us, like us, etc. You know how social media works.

Photo by Marion M.

Although I felt like I had found the perfect balance, I realised this only happened because I had seminars to take and credits to earn, in a nutshell, short term projects to focus on. Writing a 100 pages thesis seems like a completely different rhythm.

BALANCE?

Now the dilemma. I spent 20 hours per week at work versus 6 hours per week at school. Since I work on social media, I also get constant notifications and emails that go with the job. Our Facebook page response rate is 3 minutes… You see my problem? I love it so much and I take so much pride in this concrete result that I can’t disconnect. I want to (or do I?) but I don’t know how. I’m physically and mentally always working. At the same time, my thesis subject is great, I’m passionate about it too, but every time, it takes me a while to get into it. I need a few days to focus on school, not think about work and then I can write.

Summer is passing by, September is staring at me wondering how am I going to balance both my job and my thesis.

So far, the best solution I found is this new retreat concept called “Thèsez-vous“. More about it on my next post.

Do you also have trouble balancing your job and your studies?

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