Riding towards a PhD


\"scott_bike1\"By mid-September 2014, my thesis writing had stagnated. In August that year my scholarship had ran out, my lease expired, and so I moved into a friend’s spare room, who was promptly incapacitated by a bike crash.

Between looking after my friend and doing RA work to eat, I hadn’t done any writing since July, when I had house sat for a friend in Tasmania with my laptop and an empty house as my muse.

When my injured friend got back on her feet, an opportunity came up to house sit another friend’s house in Mount Gambier. I jumped at the chance. I had wanted to go to the Mount ever since I found out about the spectacular caves there, but the only catch is that it’s a few hundred kilometres from the nearest train station.

I would have to ride my bike.

\"scott_bike2\"So, one early morning in late September, I found myself on the train to Murray Bridge, bike and heavy panniers in tow. There’s something about train travel that motivates reflection. The momentum of the journey drives the flow of thoughts and ideas, and whenever that well runs dry it is quickly refilled by staring out the window at the ever-new scenes. And despite the finger buns and meat pies I always feel like I’m in an Agatha Christie novel in the dining car.

After working for a few hours on the train and then getting some supplies in Murray Bridge, I wanted to make some headway so rode until the late afternoon, crossing the Murray on the ferry at Tailem Bend. I found a small bit of flat ground next to a lagoon on the Murray and set up camp, and was enjoying the beautiful sunset when I heard what sounded like a thousand propellors starting up all at once: huge formations of birds flying into the sun.


The next morning I hit out on the bike for a few hours to reach Meningie, where I found another café for a belated caffeine hit. By the time I got there I’d had time to think, was ready to write, was *itching* to write, whereas in Melbourne I’d still be washing the breakfast dishes, listening to Life Matters on Radio National, and mentally composing a domestic to-do list. The open road gave me all the mental space I could hope for, so instead of wasting down time checking Facebook or finding meaningless procrastination, I had time to refuel myself.

\"scott_bike4\"A few weeks before leaving Melbourne, I’d seen the film “Ringbalin: Breaking the Drought”, a documentary about Aboriginal River Nations’ deep connections to the Murray-Darling river system. Keeping me company on the trip was the Ringbalin app, geo-located to identify nearby locations from the film and add more to the story. Through that I found out about Camp Coorong, an Aboriginal cultural museum south of Meningie, and was delighted to find out the museum guide had danced in the film.


By now I was well into the Coorong, the spectacular system of saltwater lagoons and wetlands. The pelicans and beautiful desolate beaches of this place had featured in my personal mythology ever since seeing the classic Australian film Storm Boy as a child.

\"scott_bike6\"And so the days continued, exploring the stunning countryside, battling the mosquitos every time I set up or took down my tent, writing for a few inspired hours, and finding deep wells of reflection and solace in the journey. As environmentalist Colin Thiele wrote, “The Coorong is spirit – peace of isolation, regeneration of solitude, therapy of loneliness. Spirit that man desperately needs.”

Spending so much time in my own thoughts and ideas, everyday observations or small details seemed to take on a profound significance from which I could draw long metaphorical bows of deep meaning. Maybe their meaning is there all the time and we’re too busy to notice. Here’s some moments:


It’s all too easy in the final stages of writing up a thesis to become lost in your own little world of ideas and paragraphs, references and word limits. But it’s strangely comforting to realise that in a few decades, years, or even months and weeks, my current agonising over how to rephrase an awkward sentence, how to disentangle some counter-intuitive subtlety, or whether every list of examples has to have three, and only three, items, will no longer be important to me or anyone else.

This was what resonated in me witnessing the gentle acceptance of the people of Robe as they allow their iconic obelisk to slowly crumble into the sea as Cape Dombey erodes


In the evidence of past flood levels in a lagoon in the southern Coorong, now become hyper-saline through evaporation.


… and in what I took to be an ancient shell midden at 42 Mile Beach.


I’ve done quite a few cycling adventures like these: different places around Australia, as well as in Europe and Africa, and just cannot get enough. What continues to draw me to these journeys is the adventure and serendipity of exploring new places, the challenge and joy of independence, the flights of imagination and depths of introspection, what some have called deep play.

\"scott_bike14\"There’s a romantic parallel with the trajectory of a PhD, and perhaps research in general, of a journey through ideas, the excitement and anticipation of setting out, the developing sense of confidence and intellectual freedom, and the rare opportunity to reflect on and pursue ideas to their endpoint.

I’m on the home straight in my PhD, so now for me, it’s back to the books – time is ticking by, and this blog post unfortunately won’t add to my word count. But in idle moments my mind thinks back to this trip, and I hear the wind whispering against the grass stems in the sand-dunes, gently tracing the passing time.

Author Bio: Scott Daniel is a final year PhD student in the STEMed Research Centre at Swinburne University of Technology. His research has focused on making the most out of lectures and trying to understand why so many interesting people give boring lectures.