rabbit trails

One of the consistent obstacles in the beginning of a PhD season (I’m finding at least) is the encountering of rabbit trails.

Beginning a PhD is akin to beginning a long hike into the wilderness.  You step out on a path of research…and you sort of know where it is going … what how much can you really “know” for certain of wilderness anyway?  You have a hastily sketched map of this path in hand, and the destination seems promising.  But, as you look out ahead of you towards the horizon, you see dozens of side path options – all which look so impossibly enticing:


Each of these rabbit trails may or may not lead to the same horizon, may or may not lead to dead ends, may or may not lead to different horizons so lovely you can’t even imagine them from where you stand.  The problem is – the choice is always and only yours: you can pass the first rabbit trail up and stay on the path you are on, or you can take any rabbit trail you see…but to stay or to pass means that certain avenues of discovery are left behind … or are left waiting.

It is one thing to have a “two roads diverged in a wood” type of situation – an either or, but having handfuls of options of where to navigate yourself to is a different matter.  It leaves you both thrilled at the abundance of possibilities and a bit of a disoriented mess.

Sometimes you try the off-trail tactic: you sneak down a ways on one rabbit trail, just to get a peak at where it leads and then you change your  mind and bush wack your way back to the trail you were on before.  Even if you successfully find that original trail, you aren’t at the same spot of your prior exit – the wind has swept away your footprints, and the angle of the sun has shifted too.

Sometimes you go down a rabbit trail and find it connects nicely back to the trail you were on.   Then that rabbit trail becomes ingrained in your mental map of research, becomes part of your thought landscape.

“This is what is behind the special relationship between tale and travel, and, perhaps, the reason why narrative writing is so closely bound up with walking. To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain that the author as guide – a guide one may not always agree with our trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere. I have have often wished that my sentences could be written out as a single line running into distances so that it would be clear that a sentence is likewise a road and reading is traveling.”

– R. Solnit

Sometimes you try to back-track to a rabbit trail you passed by but now want to pursue.  However, the vegetation has grown thicker since you passed by, and you can’t find the trail head.  You squander time there, trying desperately to find the entrance again, curiosity fully consuming you.

And then you find yourself flustered and frustrated at wasted time.  You tell yourself to stay FOCUSED on a single trajectory.  But, this is NOT advisable either: to develop tunnel vision and refuse to venutre down any rabbit trails at all.  Because, to be a PhD student (especially the first year I feel) is to have the rare privilege of being able to explore the full landscape of your chosen topic and the many side quests that come with it.  Rabbit trails allow you to put foot prints down on the paths branching from your central one, and also allow you to know what new, enriching vegetation is growing on the neighboring pathways to your own.

If you could get an eagle-eye view, if you could have wings, then you could see more clearly how all these rabbit trails relate to your central path…and what the final destination is more precisely too.

But you don’t have wings.  You are not built for flight, but you are called to slowness, you are called to walking.

(Then again, maybe the fact that “walking” is a key theme to my PhD topic research has me thinking far too deeply of metaphors related to bipedal exploration.)

“A walk is a step away from a story, and every path tells.”

-R. Macfarlane


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