A marathon, not a sprint…

Guest Post: “A marathon, not a sprint – how training for a marathon is helping me to conquer my PhD doubts one step at a time”

**With marathon season upon us, first year PhD student Catrin Owen discusses how training for the big 26 miles isn’t all that different from starting a doctorate**

Over the past year I’ve simultaneously managed to morph into two types of people. The first is the fully fledged runner, the lycra lout who’s all about training plans and stretching. This time last year I signed up to run the Rock n Roll half marathon in Liverpool in order to give me something to get me out exercising when I was busy doing my Masters. When I started I was slightly overweight, loved food and going out drinking. Now I’m still overweight and enjoy my burgers and beers but I have an additional love: running. Since completing that first half marathon in 2 hours 3 minutes and 50 seconds I’ve joined a running club, completed two more half marathons, a handful of 10ks and am now getting ready to run the Liverpool Rock n Roll marathon this May.

The second persona I’ve taken on is that of a PhD student. Whilst in the middle of really enjoying my Masters in Politics and the Mass Media, I also started to think about whether undertaking further research could be an option for me. I didn’t like the idea of scraping a living whilst trying to study full time (having seen others struggle with the experience) so I said to myself I’d only look at doing a PhD if there was funding available. I applied for a Future Academic Bursary, the golden combination of fees and living expenses, and I got it. So, two weeks after handing in my Masters dissertation, I found myself embarking on a PhD in Communication and Media at the University of Liverpool.  I realised I was incredibly privileged to get the funding to do a PhD on a topic of my choosing, in my fabulous home city. However, for the first few months I was plagued with doubts about whether I was doing the right thing, finding it difficult to make the transition between Masters and PhD.

graduationmeMasters Graduation Day.

On New Years’ Eve I noticed a Tweet on the hashtag #PhDforum which asked ‘what have you learned this year which will illuminate your development in 2016?’ I wasn’t feeling very illuminated so responded flippantly with the Tweet “A PhD is a marathon not a sprint. That’s a polite way of saying it’s very bloody hard”. However, as I’ve started to get serious about my marathon training, those endless hours of running gave me time to think about how pounding the pavements had actually given me a set of ‘commandments’ for undertaking my doctorate:

1. Improvements don’t happen overnight: When I started serious running I imagined that I’d see drastic improvements within a few months: I’d lose those extra few pounds quickly and get more miles in the bag with every run I went on. With the PhD, I imagined 6 months in I’d have drafted chapters and a fully formed plan for the next few years. The reality is that I’m still not past the piloting stage in my PhD and I’ve yet to run more than 15 miles. But, as I keep telling myself as long as I can run 26 miles by race day and have a PhD to hand in by September 2019 (!), I’ll be ok. Every day I do something small in both my running and my work which will contribute to the finished product.

2. It can hurt: The pain or running is obvious, sore muscles, upset stomachs and the occasional injury induced by a chafing sports bra. The pain of a PhD is much more subtle and less graphic, but learning the iron self-discipline required not to throw something out the window when it feels like you’re going round in circles with your methodology isn’t the easiest skill to master. The temptation to put my head under the covers when my alarm goes off to avoid another day of research has been something I’ve faced far too regularly. But, there are good runs and bad runs and there are productive days and not so productive days with the PhD.   I try to bear in mind that, for every bad day, I’m one step closer to making a breakthrough in my research.

3. Some things may seem painful and pointless but they’re good in the long term: For running I’m thinking about the many agonising sessions I’ve spent in pain on the foam roller. For the PhD I’m thinking about the endless recording of supervisory meetings and the ‘Development Needs Analysis’ which I should be filling in now. However, you need to treat tired muscles correctly or they’ll get worse, the same way you need to step back and reflect on your development to make any meaningful progress academically. Even though at times it feels like just another satanic hoop to make me jump through, the extra bits are worth it in the end.

4. It can be a lonely business. But it doesn’t have to be: You don’t have a team around you when running, so lacing up your trainers can be an isolating process. Similarly, for me, it was a massive culture shock going from being a taught Masters student with a set of great friends to a lone wolf with a beast of a PhD to contend with. But I joined a run club, the Dockside Runners, and got to run with people of all abilities who can provide company, motivation and chat on long runs. I’ve also tried my best to make time to attend training courses and stay in touch with other postgraduate students I meet to share ideas and stories. I now share an office with other first year PhD students and I always find chatting to them really valuable and reassuring.

after the Liverpool halfAfter completing the Liverpool Half Marathon.

5. However, ultimately it’s me that matters: When I say I’m training for a marathon some people are initially impressed but then say: “Why? You must be mad. I could never do that.” It’s not a dissimilar reaction I receive when I say I’ve started a PhD. So I’ve learned to smile through gritted teeth, remember that I’m not mad, and take what other people say with a pinch of salt. Also, though it’s good to talk to other researchers (and runners), it can be easy to get scared that they’re doing more and making more progress than you. I’ll take advice from other people but rather than worry about them, I try and focus on number one and measure my progress – not that of my peers.

So as I get closer to the date of the marathon and my annual PhD review, I’ve tried to put my doubts to the back of my mind and solider on. I know that as long as I keep in mind my goals, my training plan, my research aims I’ll get there. One step at a time.