Extra-curricular activities, or ‘doing things that aren’t the PhD’

Extra-curricular activities, or ‘doing things that aren’t the PhD’

During my first week as an undergraduate, we were all packed into a hall and spoken to by various people in various positions of authority. Most of what was discussed that day has long faded from my memory, whether through lack of necessity or as a consequence of my brain’s sieve-like tendencies, but one piece of advice has lodged itself persistently in my mind, sticking around doggedly even six years (!) after I first heard it. The advice came from the Senior Tutor, and it was on the topic of time management. ‘Treat your degree,’ she said, ‘like a full-time job.’

I’ve found this nugget of wisdom helpful over the years, albeit as more of a guide to the right mentality rather than as a strict barometer of how many hours a day I should be ‘working’. A key part of this mentality, though, is not trying to do too much, or focusing on work at the expense of everything else: indeed, another pearl doled out that day from the Senior Tutor was that ‘most people have one other significant extra-curricular activity, in addition to their degree.’ Nowadays, I take this to mean that, in addition to researching medieval French literature, I have one other Big Thing that I do with my time, plus several other smaller activities. And these things, as it turns out, matter.

To be clear, I’m not trying to say anything revolutionary here – the value of ‘extra-curricular’ activities has been discussed in a variety of contexts, from university applications, to supporting wellbeing at university, to (inevitably) improving job prospects for graduates. Hopefully, though, my particular experience will go some way towards dismantling the myth that postgraduate study must come at the expense of ‘hobbies’. A friend of mine, Daniel Sawyer, put this very well in a recent blog post:

I had a couple of weekly non-academic, social things which I kept going throughout the doctorate. Neither took much time but I refused to compromise on them. Looking back, I think these were really important. They helped me remember that I am a human being as well as a DPhil student and they helped me befriend people who weren’t writing doctorates. They also offered some structure for my weeks, which would otherwise have been troublingly shapeless when term-time teaching wasn’t happening.

Ladies and gentlemen: the very definition of ‘hitting the nail on the head’.

For me at the moment, my Big Thing is coxing. For the approximately 1% of you who haven’t heard me talk about this before, it basically consists of being the small person who steers the boat, tells the rowers what to do, and acts as an intermediary between the crew and the coach. Coxing is one of the most unusual roles in sport: as the only person in the boat who’s not doing any physical work, you’re also expected to be able to tap into the minds of those who are, getting them to push themselves further than they often think possible. Sitting still in the stern, or else lying down in the bow, the cox is an object of curiosity: simultaneously rower and coach, their job is akin to that of a jockey, steering a boat the length of a bus with a rudder the size of a credit card.

To the uninitiated, however, the biggest contrast between coxes and rowers is often physical. The cox is almost always the smallest person in the boat, since any weight above the mandated minimum of 55kg (if you’re coxing men) or 50kg (if you’re coxing women) is weight that your crew will have to carry down the course. As a consequence, it’s not unheard of for a cox to weigh half as much as some of his or her rowers, at least in heavyweight men’s boats. Like many coxes, I don’t naturally ‘sit’ on minimum weight, and am having to work to lose as much excess as I safely can (all without compromising academic performance). Thankfully, there’s a great deal of support available at the University of Exeter’s rowing club, and it certainly feels like my coxing has improved, both in terms of performance and in terms of there being slightly less of me to drag down a 2000m course.

The first term at Exeter University Boat Club has certainly been a successful one, with a really satisfying win at Wallingford Head (a 5km time-trial over the Thames near Oxford) and a productive few days spent at Dorney Lake, the Olympic rowing venue. More than that, though, it’s also been a wonderful opportunity to tap into a ready-made community of friends, and while I’m not exactly ever-present at the club’s socials, getting up at 6am every weekend is made a heck of a lot easier by the knowledge that people at the club will greet you with a smile.

So, what’s the ‘take-home message’ here? It’s certainly not ‘everyone should start coxing’, nor is it necessarily about encouraging PhD students to take up sport (although it’s certainly a good idea …). The important thing, to return to what the Senior Tutor said to us as new undergraduates, is to have these extra-curricular activities: as a way of providing perspective, and as a way to get out of the office every once in a while, they’re absolutely invaluable.

Photo: me and my lightweights at Wallingford Head 2016, from Exeter Rowing Videos.