Having a Hobby and Doing a PhD

by Matthew Jones, University of Sussex, CHASE Student Committee blog officer and Sussex representative  

A PhD can be an all-consuming thing. Indeed, relaxing while doing a PhD might be harder than doing the PhD itself. Often there is a nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach that you probably should be reading that article about post-colonialism and the materiality of museum collections or writing that thing you promised to write for someone offhandedly in the faculty staffroom. The burden this can have on your mental and physical health can become great, however, this blog is not about doom and gloom. You can take time away from your PhD and build a healthy work/life balance in the process. Of course, there is not a one size fits all solution to this, but I have found that giving time to develop a hobby can be really great way to empty your mind of the anxieties of academia.

I do this by drawing. I have always been drawing since I was a kid conjuring up images of dragons and castles in school exercise books. I remember discovering out how perspective worked when I was in year 3 and becoming the talk of the playground as everyone wanted me to make their pictures look more realistic. This continued all the way through secondary and I took an A-Level in art at sixth form. I even thought about going to art school after my A-Levels but then I realised the life of a starving artist is not for me (so I did history because that makes you way more money).

My art developed through my undergraduate degree to where I focused on making portraits including in my final year where I made portraits of all my housemates and, rather narcissistically, we hung them in our kitchen, so we could stare out ourselves during predrinks. Unsurprisingly my passion for drawing did not abate when I moved to doing an MA in Art History. Now that I am doing a PhD I have come to see that as I have moved up the academic ladder I have become more and more passionate about my drawing. Maybe I use drawing as a way to hide from all my worries or as a genuine safe place where I can be myself, either way, it has become a daily thing that I do to take my mind off the ‘To Do List’ of PhD life that’s always lingering in my head.

Being at University has enabled me to do this. The Art Society at Sussex run a weekly life drawing session and Brighton is full of different galleries and art clubs running sessions on drawing as well as many other fun creative things. Taking a couple hours off on a Wednesday afternoon to go to a life drawing class is not going to harm your PhD. This applies to doing any hobby. Taking time to be yourself, indulge in what you like doing and to grow your sense of self is an actively good thing no matter what your hobby is.

Not to go all Gwyneth Paltrow but consciously uncoupling yourself from your research is not an act of academic self-sabotage. Many people feel like they must spend every waking moment doing activities related to their area of expertise but doing a hobby can actually make you better at working than hitting your head against wall all day because you are tired, and your morale is low. I feel like drawing has made me a better academic. It has taught me patience and the need to look more closely, and multiple times, at what I am drawing. It has taught me that making mistakes is ok as they can be erased and that if you keep working at it something beautiful can come of it.

Basically, as well as being a vehicle for self-promotion and showing off my drawings, I hope this blog has underlined the use and pleasure that can be gained from taking time off your PhD to do something else. It can be scary to do something that doesn’t seemingly contribute to your research, but it can be deeply rewarding, help you grow and can be just very relaxing!