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7 Ways Earning a Ph.D. Is Like Training for a Marathon
February 11, 2014 - 9:47pm

Liz Homan is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in English and Education at The University of Michigan. This post is adapted from one she posted on her own blog in October 2013. You can find her on Twitter at @lizhoman or on her blog, Gone Digital.

I always wanted to be a sprinter. As a child, I thought I was very fast.

My middle school track coach helped me realize how wrong I was about that.

As it turned out, it’s a good thing I got over my need for speed early, because when it comes to the PhD it's a marathon – not a sprint. I ran my first marathon in November, and am currently training for marathons 2 and 3. The more I have trained for these races, and the farther I have come as a doctoral student, the more I have come to realize how many things marathon training and earning a PhD have in common.

Before I launch into my examples, though, I want to emphasize that this analogy could easily apply to any task that requires extensive physical and mental focus and exercise. I speak of marathoning only because this is where my (albeit limited) experience lies; insert your preferred metaphor as appropriate!

(1) You start out thinking you're invincible.

Grad School: You've got this. You have plenty of experience with writing -- after all, you wrote that master's thesis. You know how to look stuff up on the library website. You have plenty of original ideas -- plenty!

Training: You have steadily increased your mileage over the past two years, so you know you can keep increasing it. You recently made your best time ever in a 10k race. What's going to stand in your way?

(2) You believe you know what you're doing until proven otherwise.

Grad School: Everything is going well until you get feedback on your first (or second, or third) seminar paper. The professor lets you know that your arguments are surface-level and uninteresting, and that your prose really needs some work because it's clunky and hard to understand.

Training: You bought the decent shoes. You read a book about how to train. Everything is going well until your weak hips result in a knee injury. Before you know it, you're hobbling around the house like you're 80, taking hot baths every night, sitting on a heating pad all day, and praying you won't permanently injure yourself.

(3) “The wall” is relative.

Grad School: That second semester grind was hard this year. You really hit the wall. You stayed up all night in the grad student lounge trying to get just a few... more... paragraphs onto the page. You hit "print" moments before the seminar paper was due. Two years later, you're staring down a mountain of data and don't know where to begin and you realize that this. THIS. is the wall.

Training: In your second mile, you feel really winded. You slow down and suck in air, trying to make it past "the wall.” You gulp down water. You sort of have a cramp on your right side. You run through it. Two years later you're in mile 18 of a four-hour training run and you feel your entire body seize up. You're a little loopy and uncoordinated. And you realize that this. THIS. is the wall.

(4) The gear gets more and more expensive.

Grad School: It’s time to write the dissertation and your computer has crashed three times, and you're a regular at the computer repair shop on campus. You suddenly have opinions about things like video card brands, RAM and hard drive requirements, and data backup subscription services. And you’ve bought a lot – no really, a lot – of software.

Training: Those shoes that got you down the road for your 5k get replaced with a decent pair of running shoes, and you think, “Didn’t I get into this because running outside was free?” Your socks cost more than socks should ever cost, and you get more excited about shopping for running clothes than you do about shopping for regular clothes.

(5) You get faster, but tasks take longer to complete.

Grad School: It used to take you the better part of a day to write a few pages. Now, you can punch out ten pages in a few hours (sometimes). But you weren’t sure how to write this thing called a “findings chapter.” So yeah, you can write ten pages in a few hours, but you're going to spend the rest of the year revising those ten pages.

Training: You start out running as fast as you walk. You are slow and you know it. You are pretty sure that a caterpillar passed you a few minutes ago. Now you can run a 10k at an 8:30 pace, but your Saturday runs take three hours and feature a full tour of your town. You might be faster, but that doesn't mean your workouts take less time.

(6) You get bored.

Grad School: You love your work. But if you have to look at one more article defining the term "literacy," you're going to fall into a coma. And after staring at the same chunk of data for three hours, it still isn't making any sense to you. Because let's be honest -- it doesn't matter how thrilling this stuff is to you; eventually, too much of any one thing is going to turn your brain into scrambled eggs.

Training: In mile 10 you're chanting the school fight song in rhythm with your steps. In mile 14 you're daydreaming about sloths, and kind of wishing you were a sloth. In mile 16 you start drafting the next chapter of your dissertation. But don't get too excited. You won't remember any of those brilliant thoughts you had while you were on an adrenaline high.

(7) Your support networks become increasingly important.

Grad School: Here's the best part -- the further into this you get, the more incredible friends you have made. You're looking forward to an upcoming conference because you get to present with a friend in Georgia and bunk up with a friend from your home department. You've developed a (sort of) respectable Twitter following. You know you can turn to one friend when you need a buddy to cook with, another friend when you need a break from revision to grab lunch, and that friend when you need help making sense of chapter feedback. You realize you aren't as bad at this as you sometimes think you are, making every late night of writing, every embarrassing discussion blunder, and every crashed computer so worth it.

Training: You "like" a page on Facebook. You set up a Pinterest account and get addicted to the running memes that pop up on your home feed. You are able to ask questions of fellow runners, to commiserate when a run sorta sucks, and to provide help and support to beginning and seasoned runners alike. Before you know it, your love of this sport is intensified by the connections you have made along the way, making every boring moment, every achy hip, and every novice mistake so worth it.

I began running at the end of my first year of graduate school, and the sport has helped me make sense of the process of graduate school throughout. It gives me tangible short-term goals in the midst of a doctoral process that often feels unwieldy and hard to concretize. It keeps me accountable to myself and my goals, which helps me hold myself responsible for my work goals, as well. I know many of our readers have similar hobbies that allow them to navigate graduate school as successful, balanced individuals.

What hobbies or sports have you taken up during graduate school that have helped you make sense of the process?

[Image by Ellery Sadler (runner girl) and Wikimedia Commons user Fred the Oyster (graduation hat) and used under creative commons licensing.]

 

 

 

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