Pavlov’s Inbox and Other Social Experiments

Some days, I feel like the opposite of ‘thesis’ is ‘admin’. Today is definitely one of those days. Among the many things they don’t tell you about PhD research is that there is a bewilderingly high level of admin involved in academic life. Research? What research?

There is the stereotype of graduate students working away alone, barely speaking to anyone and barely able to if the scenario arose. I do work alone, most of the time, and sometimes I like to be away from distractions (and possibly in my PJs, maybe eating instant noodles). However, alone does not equal lonely.

Research networks and associations, mailing lists, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, emails about faculty admin, training and teaching, emails about conferences and seminars, emails about organising your own conference or seminar, notes from your supervisor, emails about university club/society updates, college emails. We are definitely not alone in the universe. In fact, it is sometimes impossible to get a little bit of quiet over here.

I can ignore things if I really need to, but most days I’m like Pavlov’s dog – a slave to the ping my inbox makes. I discovered recently when I listen to music I sometimes hear a similar noise and without even noticing flick to my inbox. The sad truth is that I do quite like all the admin and communication because it breaks up the day and gives me short term goals. Every time I tap out a response and click send I feel like I’ve achieved something else on my to do list. Only, that email wasn’t on my to do list at the start of the day, and when the reply comes back it’ll add something *else* to the list. Somehow it doesn’t compute with me that short term pleasure will result in more work whenever a response arrives.

It is all very well to argue that if I need to get my thesis done I should just ignore emails, but it doesn’t take a theoretical mathematician to work out that that just exacerbates the problem in the long(er) term. It seem a key part of balancing research and other academic requirements is email management. And possibly turning the email ping off.

The Artist as Pavlov's Dog by Timothy Ralph

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