How Completing a PhD is like Running an Ultra Marathon

A couple of thing you should know about me. First, I am in the process of completing my PhD and second, I have recently taken up running. I began both of these pursuits reluctantly.

I began my PhD course work in 2005. I did not want to be a PhD student as I already had two masters degrees in very diverse fields (History and Computer Science). But I had met a very interesting professor who invited me to take just one class – the one she was teaching the next semester – as a non-degree seeking student. So I did. It was a fantastic class and she is the best professor I have ever had. And then near the end of that class she asked me what class I was going to take next. And then when was I going to apply to be a full PhD student. And there I was, a full time PhD student wondering how I managed to get talked in to this, always reserving the right to quit because after all, I didn’t want to do this in the first place and taking in every bit of knowledge and experience that came my way.

In January, my husband said he want us to start running. I ignored him. New Years’ resolutions are best ignored if you don’t really want to do them anyway. Every month was the same. We should start running once the weather warms up. It was a really long and really cold winter. It did not really warm up until mid April. We should start running he said. I found this program that takes you from totally out of shape to running a 5K in 9 weeks he said. It was starting to get serious. I am an asthmatic I said. Running is out of the question, I protested. But the program combines walking and running. So, I agree to give it a try, reluctantly and mostly to encourage my husband to get started. My thoughts went like this. I will do the walking part. I will try to do the running part and have to give it up because of the asthma. But, by the time I give it up my husband will be into the program and he can continue on without me.  Then two things happened. First, with a little help from my inhaler, I did not collapse into an asthmatic heap, wheezing and choking. I lowered my resting heart rate the first week by ten points. Second, I actually like running!

So, I am a reluctant PhD student and a reluctant runner.

I have been listening to a couple of audio books about ultra marathoners recently. They are incredibly inspiring and make me want to stretch my running goals much further than I could have imagined. And they have suggested some interesting parallels between completing an ultra marathon and completing a PhD.

An ultra marathon is by definition 50K at a minimum and often 100K or more. There are some milestones that ultra marathoners go through that sound very much like what I am going through with my PhD work.

The race begins and there is a great deal of strategy going on among the racers. Who gets out front first, who hangs back saving their energy for later. There are aid stations set up along the way to insure that the runners can refuel, rehydrate and have a health check.

In PhD programs, you begin with course work. One class at a time and there is always the strategizing. Some students are determined to prove they know more than everyone else. They are the ones out in front, looking for an in with the professor, taking more classes than most with the goal to finish the course faster. There are those who hang back, take the course work more slowly and let the other race ahead. There is advantage to letting someone else experience a class and tell you the up and downs in the class. Because part of the strategy of the PhD is knowing which classes to take, the order to take them in and who to take them from. Even the choice of advisor is part of the strategy.

In the ultra marathons there is always the turn around point – the half way mark. This is a critical point. Some get to the half way mark and want to quit. Some do quit knowing they have still run farther than most people could ever run at one time. IT is at the half way point when friends, family, or coaches will be at the aid station to provide the encouragement needed to push the runner back on to the course and towards the finish line.

The end of course work is about the half way point in a PhD program. You may argue with my math, but in truth, once the course work is complete there are exams followed by research and dissertation. This second half is just as daunting as completing the course work itself. And, after spending the years it took to complete the course work it is very easy to think of quitting. After all, you have already completed more formal education than 90% of the population. And this is when you friends, family and advisor are there pushing you to keep going and not give up.

The ultra marathon (assuming a 100K race) has another critical point. This is the aid station located when there are about 20 miles left – less than a standard marathon.  Runners are tired at this point. They have been running literally for a day. They have gone farther and accomplished more than most runners can even imagine. Many people call them crazy for even trying to run such distances. They are called fanatics. And, there at the aid station is one person willing to run the rest of the way with them. I have called this person called a pacer; someone who can keep the runner going to the finish line.

If you are familiar with PhDs, you are familiar with the term ABD. This stands for All But Dissertation for those not familiar. It is a significant milestone in the life of a PhD student. It means the only thing standing between him or her and the PhD hood at graduation is one document – the dissertation. This is, however, the point when many PhD students quit or slow their pace as to seem to never be done. You are considered a serious applicant once you are ABD. And many people who started never get past ABD. In the world of ultra marathons, this would be a DNF – Did Not Finish.

Part of the PhD strategy is to make sure you have that one person there at the end who will be your pacer; run with you and keep you going to the finish line. It is critical in the ultra marathon and it is critical in the PhD.

My husband started his PhD before I did. He is still slightly ahead of me. But, we have been each others support and in the end, we will be each others pacers insuring that we both make it to the finish line, walk across that stage and receive the hood that signifies we have completed the race.

My goals as a runner are currently very small. Today I ran for 16 minutes with 9 minutes of walking interspersed. My goal is to be able to complete a 5K run maybe even in 2009. After that I am not sure.  But I know that from the 5K an ultra marathon is within my reach if I only keep running and keep my eyes on the goal – one stride at a time, easy, light, smooth and maybe even fast with my pacer right there with me.

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