Crossing the finish line: Parallels between PhD and running

I’m (please please) very close to finishing my PhD. I’m also a runner, borne partly out of a need to let off steam and give my brain a rest when thesis work got too much, which it frequently does. I enjoy that running gives me different experiences to academic work: predominantly physical challenges rather than mental; a reason to get outside away from a screen or a lab; and of course shiny shiny medals.

A conversation with a friend recently prompted me to think about running differently, though. In one of our embarrassingly semi-regular phone calls where I whinge about my thesis instead of just getting on and doing it, I talked about how difficult I find it to see others passing their vivas without corrections. He said “Why do you run? Do you run to beat other people?” I thought about it. “No, I mean it’s good to overtake someone here and there, but I run to beat myself, to prove that I can do it.” And it’s the same with a PhD. Of course you compare yourself to other people, it’s really quite hard not to, but the reason you push yourself is to achieve it for yourself, not to get your doctorate before your labmate.

On thinking about this some more, there are really quite a few ways in which running*, and the process of training for a race, is actually pretty similar to slugging your way through a PhD.

*insert almost any other sport here

Speed

Unless you’re training for a 1-mile race or are a 100m sprinter, you don’t run as fast as your legs and lungs can possibly take you for the duration of a run. It’s the same with a PhD. You have to pace yourself, think about what you’re doing and how it feels. You should listen to yourself; you need to know when you can push yourself harder, and equally when to put the brakes on for a bit. As you get more confident, you can push a bit more often, but having a rest is always important, no matter how experienced a runner or graduate student you are.

Training

If you want to get better at running, you have to do it regularly. The same with your thesis work – you can’t leave it for weeks on end and come back to it and hope to be as good at doing it as you were! You know you have train regularly or you’ll pay for it later, with injury or with a really awful race. Same goes – if you don’t put in the work, the months before the end of your thesis are going to be horrid, and you might have a crappy viva.

Training is all about self-motivation, too. Others can encourage you and cheer you on, but ultimately it’s your dedication, your legs/brain that get you across the finish line/a doctorate.

Races

Races essentially serve as deadlines for your training. Say you’ve signed yourself up for marathon: that marathon race will be your ultimate goal, like getting your doctorate. But you’ll work up to it gradually. You’ll probably start off with some 5k races (narrowing down your topic and getting a literature review done), some 10k races (getting one or two conference posters and talks accepted), a couple of half marathon races (getting a paper published, or getting through your final appraisal without too much of a grilling), and a long run to really test if your legs can take the distance, which the first time you really know if your training has paid off (this is clearly your viva).

Smaller races are ways to assess your progress, just like these common stepping stones in the path to achieving a doctorate. Yes, individually they’re all pretty daunting and often horrible, but having achieved them you can feel proud and move on to the next stage with confidence. The thrill of having successfully beat your previous 10k time isn’t dissimilar to having a really cracking day of work on your thesis where you feel completely in the zone and, for once, like you know what you’re doing.

 

The final goal is of course the one that will be the most difficult, but will be the one that gives the ultimate reward. Imagine completing a marathon. Imagine handing over the final final version of your thesis and being able to call yourself ‘Doctor’. Having never achieved either, but seriously hoping to get both under my belt this year, I can for now only dream of how they may feel. It’ll be sore getting there, and there will be (and have been) ups and downs, but it’ll be so worth it.

Michelle Reeve

Michelle is the host of Clutter, and a recovering spider scientist. She now does a whole bunch of science communication things, and still regularly wrangles arachnids.

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