Not a Marathon, Not a Sprint


When I first started my PhD I was told over and over (and over and over and over) again that this was “a marathon, not a sprint.”

After spending more than 3 years as a student, I can confidently say that all those people are WRONG. This is not a marathon. And thinking that it is can have serious mental and physical health consequences.

Not a Marathon

Having never trained for more than a 5K, I assume that when people say “this is a marathon” they mean that I should aim for a slow and steady pace in my progress, in a way that trains for endurance. A lot of the popular advice for PhD students follows in the same general direction:
I could go on citing examples, but my point is abundantly clear. Everyone (and this includes PhD students perpetuating the message) likes to remind us, PhD students, that we are running a marathon.

But these are all lies. LIES, I tell you, LIES!

Why are those lies?

The best lies carry an element of truth. It is true that a PhD requires endurance. In my experience, it is more about the emotional endurance to keep going, rather than the endurance to work hard for a long time. But it is endurance nonetheless.
But other than that, working on a PhD is nothing like running a marathon:
  1. Running a marathon is a distance-delimited event. When you start, you know the exact number of miles you need to cover. With a PhD, on the other hand, you will only be finished when your chair and committee decide you are done. And who knows when that will be. Most likely, it will be much later than you anticipate.
  2. Completing a marathon is based on your effort alone. No matter how much help you had, and how many people cheer you on, only you can put one foot in front of the other to finish. And the only thing that can prevent you from stopping is you. With a PhD, there are many things outside of your control that can go wrong. For example, your committee does not like the idea, the data does not support your hypotheses, you may not be able to get funding, or your chair may not get tenure and leave.
  3. Running a marathon is a structured event. There is a course payed out ahead of time, and runners understand the incline and overal conditions of the track. A Phd has no such thing. You need to search and find a path, only to discover that is the wrong one and backtrack or change course. If you are lucky, your previous efforts are not in vain. However, they often are.
  4. Training to run a marathon helps you build endurance to succeed at one event. When people say that training for a marathon is like getting a PhD they forget that after you run the marathon, you are done. After you get your PhD, you begin yet another marathon, the quest for tenure. You may or may not get tenure immediately, so you start yet another marathon. This analogy has us running at least three marathons back to back.

Not a Sprint

The second part of the tired advice is true. This, indeed, “is not a sprint.” You cannot pull an all-nighter and be finished with your doctoral work. And while many joke about the procrastination cycle, which includes some sprinting, we all know that that is not how it works.

So, if getting a PhD is not like a marathon, and not like a sprint, what is it?

Interval Training

Interval training requires you to sprint and to rest. Both are required: without rest, you just have a sprint, and without a sprint you have nothing.

But why do I think this is the more accurate comparison? 

The nature of PhD work – write, send off for feedback, revise, repeat – is very similar to the cyclical structure of interval training. Sprint when you write. Rest while the paper is being revised. Sprint when you get it back. Rest when you send it off again.

Why is this a better way of thinking about a PhD? 

It is no secret that doing a PhD is grinding – emotionally and physically. There has been a lot of press recently dedicated to the poor mental health state of PhD students. The most difficult challenge I have found in this process has been my ability to stay emotionally healthy (not to mention my actual physical health), and my ability to rest.

When I started, most people around me talked about 80-hour work weeks like it was the norm. My environment often reinforced the idea that if I was not working all the time, I was doing it wrong. For example, in my first week of grad school, I was told by a faculty member that I was already behind because I did not have an idea and I was not collecting data. Another faculty member even encouraged me to work while I relaxed: “when you watch Doctor Who, you can also collect all this data on your laptop.” Students reinforced this too. During orientation, the older students talked about all the hours they put in to study, creating the expectation for the new students to follow suit.

All these things combined made it practically impossible to rest. I never gave myself time to relax. And when I had to take time away, even a few hours, I was overcome with guilt.

The “marathon training” mentality reinforces the idea that you have to work all the time, because you do not stop running during a marathon. You have to keep pushing. You have to keep running, albeit slowly. You do not stop. And so for years I did not stop. My mental health deteriorated: I did not stop. I wanted to be there for my family: I did not stop. My first marriage was in trouble: I did not stop. I went through a divorce: I did not stop. My physical health deteriorated: I did not stop. After just three years in the program, I was falling apart because I refused to stop. I refused to stop because if you do, you fail. And as the only under-represented minority in my program, I could not afford to fail. I even used to fantasize about being in an accident – bad enough that I would be required to take a break, but not so bad that my long-term well-being would be compromised. And what is worse, I was under the impression those wishes were normal. This is alarming in retrospect, but a natural consequence of the priorities of my environment at the time.

The “interval training” mentality, on the other hand, acknowledges the important role of resting and recovering between activity bursts.  The single greatest lesson my new husband has taught me is the importance of resting. Also a PhD student in my program, he seemed to be the only one who did not work all the time. And yet, he was progressing just as well as anyone else. He was the only voice of reason in my environment, but it was very difficult to listen to it when everyone else’s voice shouted that his approach was wrong.  I did not really listen until I was forced to stop because my body and my mind could not bear it any more. I wish I had not waited that long to understand what he was saying.

Not everyone has someone to remind them it is OK to take a break. So then what we need is a new way to think about PhD work. We need a framework that takes into consideration all the aspects needed to succeed in this journey: diligence, hard work, down time. I think Interval Training fits the bill. It creates the expectation of hard work AND rest. It can help normalize that idea that you can and SHOULD take a break. And most importantly, it may help mitigate some of the more harmful ideas about the nature of work in academia.

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