The parallels between a canoeing trip and doing a PhD

Photo of us in a canoe, 03.06.2015

Photo of us in a canoe // Photo: Chantal. 03.06.2015

At the beginning of June this year, my mum and I were lucky to be invited by our extremely sporty French neighbour to go canoeing in the Ardèche region of France. Just west of the Rhône river, the Ardèche region is a remote plateau area with an elevation ranging from 40m above sea level to 1,754 metres (Mont Mézenc). The Ardèche river has carved out some dramatic gorges as it winds its way eastwards through the area down to join the Rhône river. It is these gorges that are now a major international tourist destination, with dozens of companies offering canoe or kayak rentals. The evening before, the three of us drove the 2 hour journey in our neighbour’s camper van to the start of our canoeing descent of the river, complete with a kayak on the trailer. We pitched up right at a camping site beside the river, and bedded down for the night.

The next morning we awoke bright and early, feeling determined, energetic, and – for my mum and I – a little bit anxious about what lay ahead! We were worried that our neighbour’s view of a ‘pleasant day leisurely canoeing / kayaking 24km down a river’ would be different to our own interpretation of such a day, which involved a lot of lounging around, reading books, swimming, and sunbathing. We were right. After renting a 2-person canoe and getting a quick tutorial on the basics of paddling from my mum (who was passing on her knowledge from a recent sea kayaking holiday in Greece), we set off. A 2-person canoe and a solo kayak. The day turned out to involve going through a handful of rapids, capsizing in one rapid and losing a hat, much hot sun, and a test of our endurance.

Here is my (light-hearted) take on why a canoeing trip is similar to doing a PhD. Below I go through six reasons.

1. Both are a long journey – endurance and stamina needed

Our canoeing and kayaking trip was 24km and took us the best part of 8 hours to complete, including three breaks. I was so tired for the final stretch on the river that I felt like we would never reach the end – I began to be bored by the ‘same-old’ landscape on either side of the river and to resent every next bend in the river. Undertaking a PhD in a UK university usually requires between 3 years and 6 years (depending on your level of commitment and whether you do it full-time or part-time).

2. Rough at times

A PhD, like our canoeing and kayaking trip, can be rough at times. Both can give you euphoric feelings at times but more often feel like a hard slog. After just an hour of paddling in the canoe, I felt the beginnings of blisters on my hands (probably from gripping the paddle too hard, out of stress and uncertainty about what to do). Luckily, borrowing a waterproof glove from my mum helped. You just have to keep going and keep your final destination in mind.

We were warned by the guys who rented us the canoe that there were a few rapids and that to successfully negotiate the worst one (‘la dente noire’, or the ‘black tooth’) you should steer to the right, where the current was slower and there were fewer rocks to hit. However, our teamwork and canoeing skills (see point 6 below) were not at the level where we could manage to follow those instructions…. like around 30% of other people doing the same route as us, we went straight through the middle of the rapid and collided with a particularly big rock – and promptly capsized! My mum was at the back of the canoe, while I was in the front of the canoe and my shoulder took a bashing (which came up in a big bruise later).

Luckily, we came to no serious harm. Our life jackets kept us afloat and we allowed ourselves to be pushed downstream by the fast current, and then recovered our canoe. Our neighbour also capsized (despite her confident assertions that morning about how she ‘never capsizes!’) Sadly, she lost her straw hat which floated away to begin its own little adventure.

3. A beautiful journey – if you care to look around you


View from the road onto the Ardèche river and and gorges. // Photo: I. Wade. 03.06.2015

Doing a PhD and canoeing 24km down a river are both very intensive activities, meaning – unless you are a super experienced researcher or paddler – you need to concentrate on them and work hard to make progress.

However, if you allow yourself to keep your ‘blinkers’ on and not look around you at all, you can miss some beautiful sights. On our journey down the river, we were lucky to see soaring cliffs, birds of prey gliding above our heads, fish jumping out of the water with a ‘plop’, and we heard the songs of countless small birds in the trees and bushes.

Similarly, take time while doing your PhD to look around you, reflect, and consider the broader implications of your particular research topic – and maybe you will find new ideas and directions for your thesis.

4. Noise can be an issue

Particularly towards the end of our 24km river journey, where the river flattened out, the beaches of the river became crowded with day-trippers from the nearby towns and villages. Many of them were clearly enjoying themselves and were playing music loudly from portable radios or speakers. To us, however, their music was just noise and was in stark contrast to the silences and sounds of nature that accompanied us for the earlier part of our journey. When doing a PhD, it is also common to meet a lot of noise – whether that is noise in your data (in economics and statistics, noise means your data are inadequate for various reasons) or distractions along the way that divert your attention too much away from your thesis.

5. Longer than planned

Our super fit neighbour thought initially that we would be finished by 5pm. However, it was after 6pm by the time we managed to drag ourselves and our canoe out of the water and onto the waiting trailer and minibus that drove us back to where we had left our car. Our neighbour overestimated the fitness levels of my mum and me, and often had to wait for us to catch up with her.

Likewise, I have taken much longer than planned to write my PhD. I am now nearing the end of my 5th year as a (part-time) PhD candidate at UCL. Initially, I thought I would have submitted my thesis by January 2015. It is now July 2015 and I am still gathering data and writing. On the positive side, I have been able to experience a variety of opportunities, from spending 6 months in the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) on a policy placement via UCL (more information available here) … to doing a 3 month internship funded by CEELBAS in the online digital commons, openDemocracy Russia (more information here).

6. Teamwork is a not-so-simple necessity

Although a PhD is undoubtedly a solo venture in the sense that only you write the thing and you are the ‘driver’ of your research project, it is important to remember that teamwork also helps. From working in a team to collaborate, knowing whom to ask (and when) for help with data or access to interviewees, to working effectively with your supervisor(s) – the art of teamwork is a critical factor in being able to successfully complete a PhD. Similarly, canoeing 24km down a river relies on effective teamwork between the two people in the canoe. When you get it right, you can really feel the power of the canoe gliding through the water. Yet, if you get it wrong you end up either zig-zagging your way along the river (a very inefficient way of paddling because you have to go twice as far!) or worse, going round and round in circles. My mum and I zig-zagged a lot but also managed eventually to go straight for short distances!

Cathedral Rock_03.06.15_Chantal

Cathedral Rock // Photo: Chantal, 03.06.2015

So, on both a canoeing trip and during a PhD, it is key to define your roles clearly from the start. In a canoe, the person at the back of the canoe steers and helps out with paddling, while the person at the front concentrates on paddling evenly on the left and right hand sides of the boat to make the boat go forward. Clear, reassuring, and unstressed communication between you (and both understanding what certain key instructions – such as ‘paddle hard on the right!’ – mean) are also crucial! It took me until lunchtime to figure this out on our epic canoeing trip… by the end of the day, I had much improved (but still very much a beginner).

Overall, I strongly recommend a canoeing trip in the magnificent landscape of the Ardèche region of France – though avoid peak summer time as this is when the river is most crowded.

I hope that this short, light-hearted account has given some insights into what it is like to do a PhD. It is a journey that has its ups and downs as well as good and challenging parts!