Staying Curious About Your Research to Stay Inspired

by | Jul 10, 2018

Most of us headed to graduate school because we were filled with intellectual curiosity, full of questions we wanted to answer and books we wanted to read. Over time though, this early sense of curiosity and excitement can get diminished by the imposter syndrome, hoop jumping, and uncertain futures offered up by the very academic industry we expected to nurture our thirst for knowledge.

And then we write books and dissertations, large projects that bring their own obstacles as the long, slow, lonely research and writing wring the last bits of interest right out of us. By the time the end of the project is in sight we are often just sick of it altogether.

There has to be a better way! How can we stay curious about our research and remember why we are here in the first place?

Cultivate communities for intellectual curiosity

So much of intellectual labor is lonely work, especially in the humanities and social sciences. It can be hard to stay curious without communities to share in our pleasure at new ideas. Cultivating intellectual communities can help us stay curious, if only because our peers can remind us why our research matters when we lose site of it altogether.

How to do this? Reading and writing groups are natural places to make community, but they can also lead to more work and stress in already busy schedules. A regular chat group, online or in person, where participants are there just to talk about what they’re thinking about, can build community without the pressure to deliver another product to another group of people tasked with judgment. Break free from the assumption that you can only meet up if you all have produced something!

Read for pleasure

This sounds counterproductive, especially when there’s a deadline for a project looming, but carving out even fifteen minutes a day to read for pleasure, outside one’s immediate research area, can recharge curiosity in general.

No time for reading? Try watching a documentary about something totally unrelated to your research on a weekend or after a long day of work.

Sometimes getting excited about our own research can seem impossible, but peeking in on another set of questions with no expectation that we’ll do anything about those questions can give us access to those feelings of curiosity we’ve lost. At the very least we might get a brief reminder that yes, learning can indeed still be pleasurable. Let it be a lifeline when you’re stuck in a rut.

Go outside

Research often keeps us inside at computers, in libraries, and in coffee shops. Our eyes focus on the page or the screen, our bodies moving fingers over keyboards or pens across paper. This mode of embodiment can scrunch us up, both physically and mentally, and curiosity can get squeezed right out. Head outside on a break, even a short one, and get the body moving to refresh and remember that there are views outside the research right in front of us. Physically shaking loose can help the mind shake loose too.

Write something else

Staring at the blank page for another day can be daunting, especially when we’ve lost the passion for the project. Try writing for pleasure with no stakes to get back in the writing mood. This might mean journaling, writing a blog, or writing on a creative project. Even if this writing isn’t about our research it can remind us that yes, we are curious people who write to learn—something the rut of work can make us forget.

Take a break

Burnout is a real thing, and sometimes the only way to rediscover our curiosity is to take a real, substantive break from the project at hand and let ourselves get a little bit bored. Summer can be the perfect time to carve out a day or two—or more, if we can swing it—to put the project in the back seat and take real distance from the work.

There’s often a fear that if we take a break we won’t find our way back, but in reality the break itself often leads us back to our work with a refreshed sense of curiosity when we need it most. With curiosity comes pleasure, and pleasure is a better motivator than drudgery.

Staying curious is its own kind of work, but it’s worth doing—and not just because it helps us get through our work. Curiosity is the life force of intellectual life, and tapping into it, finding the core pleasure of thinking through things, this is the stuff we came here for.

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Kate Drabinski is the education director at Ideas on Fire, an avid bicyclist, and a senior lecturer in gender and women's studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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