If a PhD is like a marathon…

I sometime hear that doing a PhD is like doing a marathon. If thats so what tricks from running applies to your PhD? Here’s my attempt at stretching the analogy as thin as possible:

How not to end your PhD: Robert Cheruiyot slipped across the finishing line in the 2006 Chicago Marathon and had to be treated for internal bleeding.
How not to end your PhD: Robert Cheruiyot slipped across the finishing line in the 2006 Chicago Marathon and had to be treated for internal bleeding.

It’s your run
The most important bit first: this is your run! Many people fret about what their supervisors are (really) thinking about or what their motives are: you shouldn’t care. You are the runner. It’s your ass on the line and at the end of the day and you will gain the glory. Think you are heading the wrong direction? You are the runner. Think you need to go up the hill instead of taking the easy, but dodgy, scientific route? You are the runner. That means you set the pace – i.e. you have to learn when to say yes and no – and that it’s your responsibility to defend the direction you are going in.

To do a marathon you have to run
Doing a PhD will make you sweat. It’s hard work because you have to juggle your time, complex collaborations and tricky work, all on a route that’s not clear – heck, often it’s completely shrouded In clouds (1). It will be frustrating. Simply accepting this can make your life easier: yes it’s hard, but there’s a finishing line out there somewhere.

Learning how to run
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible – even better, it’s something that can be trained for. Runners train all the time: they set up a schedule and try to stick to it. Importantly, they don’t start by running the full marathon, but slowly increment their distance. You should do the same. Try to increase both your speed and distance as you progress, but not at the same time. Remember to decrease your distance every few weeks to allow your muscles – and brain – to regenerate.

What do I mean? First of all, a PhD is mainly about scheduling (2). Think about and identify areas in both your research and personal development you want to improve, but remember you can’t do everything. Make a list, a diagram, anything, prioritize and see how fare that gets you. Outsource stuff. Say no to things. Setting up short-term goals – for example at the start of the week – will make your work more gratifying and it means you don’t have to fuzz about what to do all the time. You don’t always achieve the time or distance you set out for. That’s life. But if you hit a wall, it’s time to utilize your supervisor and colleagues and make a new schedule. Philip Guo has perfectly illustrated when you need to “course correct” your research in this video.

Learn when you have to work fast and when you just have to work a lot. Try to be faster than you were before: many great discoveries were made when somebody cut all the corners they could. Of course, also, many were not. Learn how to work long-term – what’s required to setup complex experiments? But be careful: if you try to be both fast and go long hours, you will fail, or worse, get injured (3).

Learn from others: talk to everybody and spend time reading (perhaps a paper a day?). Learn how to think creatively about your work. Finally, copy the good runners and their techniques. Almost everybody is willing to share their own running stories.

Enjoy yourself – and have a good time
We need to change the culture that most research happens in (4). Marathons – and science – are filled with people who are focused, fast and only care about themselves. Don’t be that person, because at the end of the day, you won’t enjoy your run. Instead, try to run in groups or teams as least once in a while: it’s more fun when you work together and I am sure there’s a plethora of evidence showing that you achieve more this way. You also need somebody to chat, complain and just generally shrug about everything to. They will carry you through the race when it gets hard. There’s a fantastic quote somewhere on twitter: “Science is filled with brilliant people. Stand out by being nice.” I absolutely believe that.

These guys are having a fun PhD.
These guys are having a fun PhD. Photo Credit: http://howtorun101.com

You should also celebrate every single thing you can think of! For all the hard work we do, science is filled with rejection, so we need stuff to cheer us up. If somebody from your lab gets a prize, gets selected to give a talk or finally gets that funky experiment working, whip out the Champaign and party! Give them a clap, a hug and celebrate. If you are not drinking some sort of alcoholic beverage once a week, you are doing it wrong.

Go all in on equipment
Why not make your life easier? I bought a couple of programs to semi-automate the planning and reading I needed to do. 30 dollars might seem like a lot, but if it saves you a couple of hours every week, it’s well worth it. I also set up a ton of keywords to filter out all the unless information that will flood your inbox – probably best idea I ever had. Fight for basic equipment you need to make your day easier: nobody would start a marathon in 3-year-old shoes, and you shouldn’t start your PhD with a 3-year-old computer or a broken chair.

Remember to stretch
If you do not stretch, you will get injured. I remember reading this when I first started running, and shrugged it off. After a weird array of injuries, I now religiously stretch before and after a run – and before I do any science.

Personally that means booking time off every 3 months for a prolonged weekend or week, a trip home or go visit some new spot of the world. I also insist on one day a week where I force myself not to do anything science related, at all – no email, no articles, no nothing. If I am going to spend the next 10 hours at work, I might as well start the day of in a relaxed manner: for me that means spending 20-30 minutes in the morning with a good cup of mocha and a book or newspaper. It’s the best! I also starting running – ironically – as I found it de-stressing.

The end
You made it to the end – thanks for reading. I starting thinking about these things about a year ago, when I was utterly depressed about how my research was going and considered quitting. Something needed to change. I started reading different blog posts about the PhD life and they helped a lot: “this can actually be thought!” I realized. Most of the ideas here are inspired by those others. I am hoping that perhaps somebody will find these quirky notes useful as well. Good luck on your run.

From "Message to a Graduate" by Grant Snider at http://www.incidentalcomics.com
From “Message to a Graduate” by Grant Snider at http://www.incidentalcomics.com.

(1) See Uri Alon’s brilliant video on “Being in the cloud”.
(2) Sherri Rose has written a extremely good piece about being an efficient PhD-research. Highly recommended.
(3) Jennifer Walkers has powerfully written about depression in academia.
(4) Labmosphere is a great initiative “dedicated to life satisfaction in the area of academic sciences”.

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