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Why writing a Phd is the intellectual equivalent of running a marathon

Running a marathon is the intellectual equivalent to writing a thesis. It takes years, a lot of preparation and no one really understands why you'd want to put yourself through that. You'll also spend an incredible amount of time doubting you'll ever get to the finish line.


The irony on writing a higher research paper is that you are trying to bring something out to the masses, something new to learn, something to contribute to the canon. But I'd suggest you learn more about yourself in the process than you do in educating others through your research.


Here are five tips I've learned along the way for preparing for the longest run of your life: the PhD marathon.


Tip #1 - Prepare like an athlete and commit to the work.


A few years back I decided to run a 5k, then a 10k and then a half marathon to raise money for charity on less than six months training. I'm not really much of a runner, so this was an unusual goal for me to set. I did it, but it was painful, hard, lonely and I was grossly under prepared. I was a mess and I'm glad no one saw me cross that finish line. The level of difficulty was humbling. I wasn't prepared and I knew it.


Running a marathon is the intellectual equivalent to writing a thesis. It takes years, a lot of preparation and no one really understands why you'd want to put yourself through that. You'll also spend an incredible amount of time doubting you'll ever get to the finish line. If you want to do it well, you need to clock the hours, the months and years preparing to get to the finish line. This race is all about your own mental discipline and determination. Which leads me to tip #2....



Tip #2 - Don't expect anyone else to understand, or care about your research.


Unless you're being paid to research a topic by your employer, you're likely to be studying in your spare time. You're also likely to be studying something you feel strongly about and want to know more about. You're not doing this for anyone else. So you don't really need to explain why you're writing an essay that no one may ever read.


You're writing it because you can. Just like a marathon runner, you're doing this to prove something to yourself - that you can push it as far as it will go and that you will get it done. This isn't for anyone else but for you.


You need to also accept that other people may not care what you are researching, or that they will make sweeping assumptions about you, your topic and the findings based on your 30 second elevator pitch of what you're doing. They won't get it. They also won't get the right to call themselves a doctor. Whatevs.


Running a marathon is the intellectual equivalent to writing a thesis. It takes years, a lot of preparation and no one really understands why you'd want to put yourself through that.

Tip #3 - Accept that the stupidest you'll ever feel is when you are writing a thesis.


When I finished my half marathon I was physically broken. I wasn't physically ready when I started out that morning and I knew that on a few kilometres in. The whole run was awful and uncomfortable. I knew I could run, but I doubted I could run 21.5 kms that morning. But I did.


When you start writing and putting your ideas out there get used to feeling uncomfortable and accept self doubt as part of the work. Get used to having your thinking challenged and your ideas dismissed. Higher degrees are brutal. None of your ideas are original or logical and no one cares what you think (ok this isn't really true but it feels like that.)


Prepare to write essays or chapter drafts and have them ripped to shreds and questioned. At the time, you'll be offended, hurt and maybe even pissed off. Get over it. You're here because you need to get used to defending your research and proving that your ideas have merit.


Academia is brutal. Get used to feeling stupid and you'll be be pleasantly surprised when someone thinks you've done good work. You started the run, so finish it.


Tip #4 - Stay in your lane and put noise cancelling headphones on.


When you start your research you quickly figure out that all the other people in your class, your year or in your tutorial group are just as smart as you are, and maybe smarter. I'm not even talking about your supervisors or lecturers who are obviously pretty cluey to be in the roles they are. You are in a room of really smart people and while this can be intellectually nourishing, it can also tempt you to compare your writing path to theirs. Don't.


Be interested in other's research and their progress, but comparison is the thief of joy and in academia, it's the thief of self-belief.


Over the course of your degree you will experience so many twists and turns that no one is even in the same running group anymore. Some are up ahead, others have stopped to walk. Others have pulled out and can't continue. Just like any marathon, you'll all clock different times but you'll get the medal if you stick the course and finish it.


Tip #5 - Remind yourself how much you want this.


Only you can do this work. Only you can log the hours. Only you can read the articles, find the citations and swear at EndNote at 2am. You're out there on your own and while you might have the support of supervisors, writing buddies and friends, it's you who does the work.


At points in your research life will catch up on you - for me, my research years encompassed some of the hardest years of my life: a protracted divorce, the Covid years, changing jobs, losing jobs, losing relationships. It would have been easier to give in, to pull out. But I have kept reminding myself about how much I want that two letter suffix in front of my name, not for the prestige (ok maybe a bit) but because it's a symbol of what I could do if I really tried.


Are you at the finish line or starting line?


If you can write a 30,000, 50,000 or 100,000 word essay, you are an intellectual marathoner. The path is isolating, painful and hard. But it's meant to be. Not everyone can run for over four hours and not everyone can write 100,000 words. But you have decided you can and you will.


Drop me a line and tell me about where you're at in your marathon, or better yet, join the community and never run alone.

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