#3 2017: Racing to the finish (and, also, running a marathon)

When looking back at their years as PhD students – in thesis acknowledgements, defence party speeches or just in passing conversations – it is common for fledgling doctors of philosophy to liken this experience to running a marathon race.

I guess, superficially, it makes sense. After all, both pursuing a PhD degree and running a marathon are two ambitious endeavours requiring significant amounts of grit, determination, and the ability to put one foot in front of the other when all the energy has been depleted and there is no end in sight. Both a PhD degree and a marathon race will reward the successful finisher with a bragging point at parties, a physical keepsake and not much else in terms of improved life prospects. (Unless you are one of the few who have done really, really well.) Now, I have been a PhD student for a while now. Also, I have run a few marathons – the latest, forth, six months ago. And, personally, I find this comparison a bit…unjust? To the proud institution of long distance running, that is.

When you show up to participate in a marathon, pretty much your every single need is catered to. Do you need a sip of water? This is provided at regular intervals throughout the course. Are your electrolytes low? Have a pickle. Dip in blood sugar? Take a banana. Bored? A samba band will cheer you on in a kilometre or so. As a PhD student, the best you can hope for is a free lunch sandwich and good luck finding sustenance, free or not, if you need to pull a late evening in the lab and your lab is in one of KI’s hospital areas.

Are you lost? Unlikely, if you have a bib number on. At a marathon, every centimetre is mapped out well in advance, with signs counting down the remaining distance and helpful volunteers pointing you in the right direction at every single turn. In the lab, how often do you know where to go and how and when you will get there? Is what you are doing now what you thought you would be doing a year ago? Will you actually be finished when you are done?

When you stand there, nervous, waiting for the starting gun to fire, you know that no matter what happens out there on the marathon course, as long as you put one foot in front of the other 42198 or so times in the allotted – usually very generous – time period, you will have fully earned your medal and your bragging rights. You can do it running, jogging or even crawling. Just get there. Even if you are disappointed by your performance – the next morning you will wake up, duly sore and with a story to tell. A PhD degree, at least the kind of PhD degree I am sure everyone who reads this aims for, you actually have to earn. While the effort is equally exhausting, the finish line does not automatically appear. Unfortunately, there are no medals given for trying really really hard.

And hey, let’s not forget: it is a truth universally acknowledged that prolonged aerobic activity leads to dramatic improvement in cognitive abilities. Does anyone actually feel smarter towards the end of their PhD? I rest my case.

In 2018, I will run yet another marathon. And defend my thesis. One of these events will entail severe fatigue, crashing blood sugar levels, pain, sweat and very likely tears. The other will add a new free t-shirt to my running wardrobe.

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