21.1 ways half-marathons are like a PhD

On a cold Sunday morning in September, I joined thousands of other runners in downtown Montreal to run my first ever half-marathon. During this race – the longest I had ever run, both in distance and in time spent continuously jogging – I noticed how similar a half-marathon can be to a PhD:

  1. They require a lot of preparation. In the months preceding the race, I ran ~120 km to build up my strength and endurance. Likewise, every single experiment that yields useable data requires dozens of optimizations and troubleshooting. Races and publications are but the tip of massive icebergs of effort.
  2. During this training, you need to plan rest days so that your muscles can knit themselves together. If you really want to learn, take regular breaks from the material: rest time is necessary for brains to consolidate information and encode it into long-term memory.
  3. Crosstraining is useful. To become a better runner, don’t just run – do some other kind of exercise once in a while so that you can reduce the risk of injury (and avoid getting completely sick of running). All good training plans will recommend 1h per week of doing something else. Likewise, don’t just do your PhD – while you’re in grad school, develop other skills (by, say, blogging, making art, organizing social events, or volunteering)
  4. Everyone starts with a lot of other people – our corral, our cohort – but we won’t all finish at the same time. This is totally normal.
  5. As you run, try to pace yourself and go at a steady rate. If you go too fast too soon, you risk ending up with a stitch or injuring yourself. Likewise, if you work too hard for too long, you risk burning out.
  6. There are upfront costs: to register for a race, to pay tuition fees, to pay for a conference (and then wait for weeks while your reimbursement request gets processed)
  7. There are opportunity costs: of training instead of taking on part-time employment, of taking a student stipend instead of getting a better-paying job.
  8. People travel for these things. Passionate runners sometimes plan their vacations around particular races; graduate students often take a few days before or after conferences to explore new parts of the world.
  9. Appropriate footwear is important. Don’t wear flip flops in a lab! And learn from my mistakes: make sure your running shoes won’t give your blisters by the 9 km mark!
  10. I like to listen to podcasts and music as I slog through the boring moments, doing repetitive movements.
  11. When it comes to completing the thing, stubbornness is more important than raw talent.
  12. There’s free stuff along the way: sports drinks and energy gels on the road, bananas at the finish line, free beers and snacks at departmental social events.
  13. If quantitative data motivates you, try keeping track of your metrics. You can time the number of hours that you jog, that you work; you can number your experiments; you can measure the distances you’ve covered; you can quantify how many papers you’ve read, how many words you’ve written, how many pages you’ve revised.
  14. You will get help from other people along the way. Volunteers hand out cups of water and clean up the prodigious mess that’s left by a mass of marathoners; all research is supported by an intangible network of collaborations and favours, of one-time advice and sustained mentorship.
  15. The mental game is challenging. You will need to find ways to continue even when things aren’t going well, when the road ahead seems impossibly long, when it seems like the tunnel of data collection only keeps getting longer.
  16. There are time limits. After 3.5 hours, the streets of Montreal had to reopen to traffic; and McGill has the PhD7 hard deadline of graduation.
  17. You are not the first to do this thing. Look online to find training plans, suggested timelines and general advice about how to do various aspects of your PhD project.
  18. There are online communities to talk about those endeavours – #runchat and #phdchat are active Twitter conversations to check out.
  19. It’s really tempting to compare your speed, your progress to other people’s. Try not to. You may run the same race, but you do so in different bodies; you don’t know about all of the pitfalls and particular challenges of someone else’s project, just like how you don’t know about old hidden injuries of your fellow racers.
  20. Your family and friends may be a bit baffled about what you’re doing – but when they tell other people about what you’re doing, they are so, so proud of you!
  21. As you do the thing, you will be surrounded by other people who have already done it or who are doing it at the same time as you – so it can start to seem like the expected thing to do.
    21.1.  But outside of the academic or running bubble, only a small fraction of the total world population actually completes these things. They are big accomplishments! If you accomplish them, feel free to brag – I want to congratulate you!

Can you think of any other parallels between running and grad school? Do you have a favourite half-marathon course that I should go check out? Leave a comment below, I’m looking for new races for next year!


Header picture by @yogipetals for @gradlifemcgill

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