Why doing a PhD is like training for a marathon!

By Claudette Pretorius
Tuesday, 28th August 2018
Filed under: ESRBlog

I’m about 15 months into my PhD but I am also a runner and about 9 weeks away from a marathon. I enjoy that running gives me a release from my academic work but I can also see a lot of similarities between the two pursuits.

1. You need a training plan

A well thought out training plan helps you identify some realistic milestones in order to help you reach your overall goal of completing the marathon. The training plan is usually set up in collaboration with a professional and gives you a week by week break down of your training activities.

Doing a big project like a PhD can feel overwhelming but it helps to break it down into smaller, more manageable goals. Then take those goals and break them down into the steps you need to complete in order to achieve that goal. Take time at the beginning of each week to outline what you’d (realistically) like to achieve that week in relation to the step you’re currently busy with. It’s also really important to discuss your plan with your supervisors and get their input, they have a wealth of experience to draw on and can often help you identify steps you might have missed or help in setting more realistic goals.

2. No two runners are the same

Everyone’s fitness levels and abilities are different and every runner’s goals are different, therefore there’s no use in comparing yourself to them. The temptation might be there to speed up or beat yourself up for being too slow when you see another runner pass you by and they make it look SO easy. However, you are unique! Your body, fitness level, history and training plan is unique to you.

The academic world can be extremely competitive and the inclination to compare is intense. However, it is important to remember everyone’s academic journey is their own and comparison will leave you undervaluing your own accomplishments and abilities.

3. It’s not for everyone and that’s OK

Like a marathon, a PhD is not for everyone and that’s OK. You probably put a lot of consideration and thought into the decision to do the PhD and your motivations could be career or personally orientated, or both. For others, a PhD doesn’t line up with their own values or goals but rather their strengths and interests are in other areas. Sometimes (especially the older you get) your friends and family might not understand why you’ve made this particular decision. Just keep reminding yourself of why you made the decision to begin with and stick to your guns.

4 Even the bad days count

There are some days when your legs just feel like lead and your motivation is nowhere. These are the days that count the most. It’s your ability to persevere through these tough days and keep moving forward (no matter how slowly) that will get to you to the finish line.

5. Try new routes

It’s very easy to stick to the familiar, staying in the safety of the routes you know well. Familiarity although safe, won’t challenge your abilities. The change of scenery of a new route might re-energise you or motivate you to develop other strengths.

The same is true for your PhD. Try new workspaces, present at doctoral symposiums, try a new technique or methodology. The goal of a PhD is to develop your skills as a researcher, so experiment with the unfamiliar.

6. Listen to your body

There are times when your body will tell you “not today” and then you have to listen to it. Give it the rest it needs and come back stronger and more energised.

Selfcare during your PhD process is as important as the work. You need to listen to your body in terms of activity, rest and nutrition.  Make sure you listen so you stay healthy and ‘injury free’ for the duration of your PhD experience.

7. It’s about the journey, so saviour the small wins along the way

 I remember training for my first marathon and the first time I ran 26km, I was overjoyed. I had never run that far before in my life and yes it was tough, but I had managed. It also meant that I was well on track in my preparations for the marathon. The marathon is the ultimate reward, but it takes months of training beforehand to get you to that point.

I’m still very early on into my ‘training’ for my doctoral thesis but I am trying to enjoy the small milestones along the way and take pleasure in the day to day work that will one make up my entire PhD.

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