Most grad students dream of being on fellowship, especially when we’re up at three in the morning grading a stack of undergraduate papers with the knowledge that some paper or other of our own is due in a few days. The idea of getting paid, sometimes quite well, to do nothing but work on your research…to wake up every day knowing that you are responsible only to yourself…to work from home, or from the library, or from a coffee shop, for however many hours you see fit…it seems like a lifestyle that only existed in ancient Greece. No wonder fellowships are so competitive.
Having been on fellowship for four months now, I can say that it is indeed an idyllic existence. But it comes with a few unpleasant realizations. For me, the hardest parts have been 1) realizing that, given unlimited time, few deadlines, and a generous amount of money, I’m not nearly as self-motivated as I should be, and 2) I spend a lot of time feeling really guilty about how I’m living my life, especially when so many people around me are working their asses off just to make ends meet.
Like a lot of creative types, I always imagined that if I had plenty of money and time I’d devote myself wholeheartedly to producing great work. Instead, I’m discovering that I spend a lot of time…meandering. Sleeping in the afternoon. Reading online newspapers. Thinking about what to cook for dinner.
For the record, I *do* work–in the past four months I’ve managed to finish a forty-page chapter draft, read a half dozen or so books in English and Japanese, network regularly with other scholars, attend several workshops & academia-related events, and commute once a week to Tsukuba University to attend a Japanese grad seminar. But I still feel woefully unproductive. Maybe that’s the problem–when someone gives you money solely for the purpose of conducting research and producing academic work, you will never, ever feel productive enough.
I realize now that I’ve done some of my best academic and creative work under harsh deadlines, surrounded by intense distractions of coursework, teaching duties, or part-time jobs. In a way, having plenty of other responsibilities forces you to focus your academic work–when time is so limited, you can’t spend any of it trawling the internet or watching TV. Under these conditions, the final push to finish a paper or other project is usually a sleep-deprived 48 hours of mad typing and reading. It’s kind of a thrill to work that way, even if it probably isn’t the healthiest.
Other grad students have told me that they had similar problems getting motivated to work during their fellowship periods. I marvel at those people I know who can just set a routine and stick to it–get up in the morning, have their cup of coffee, work for three hours, have lunch, work for another three-four hours. I wish I had that kind of discipline. Microsoft needs to invent some kind of virtual whip-cracker–a digital assistant who will berate you if you slack off too much. I’d probably just disable the program, though.
There’s a lot of research out there that suggests procrastination is actually a fear of success. People don’t put off doing something–or dance around doing it–out of a fear of failure or rejection, but out of a fear that they might actually accomplish something. Because with that accomplishment will come evaluation, judgment, and perhaps the realization that the end result wasn’t worth all the work. I can relate, particularly in recent weeks, when my procrastination seems to have taken on an almost manic quality. At times I will do anything to avoid finishing this dissertation, and facing the inevitable judgment (always harshly negative in my mind) that comes with it.
In the end I have to remind myself that distractions and meandering are part of the whole research process–dissertations rarely happen in a smooth, linear progression of research and writing. There are plenty of bumps and gaps along the way, and some of those bumps and gaps can lead you in new and interesting directions. Right now, though, I would be really grateful for some program that I’ve heard about which will apparently disable your internet connection for several hours at a time. Sometimes you need stuff like that.