At the 2015 Doctoral school graduation Mark Smith (outgoing Director of the Doctoral School) borrowed Fernando Lagraña’s (DBA 2011) analogy of marathon running in relation to completing a doctoral degree. In his last post, Mark joins forces with Fernando to develop the idea, and promote a bit of sport. As a former high-level runner, and now expert Argentine Tango dancer, Fernando regularly uses running and dancing to explain the doctoral journey to incoming DBA students in Switzerland and Grenoble.
The clearest link between a marathon and the doctoral degree is the duration. At the start it seems like an impossibly long journey and it is hard to imagine the end – 42.192 kilometres or 80,000 words are a tough call. Like any long journey you need to be prepared with the right training, preparation and equipment.
But, as well as being prepared, it is a question of breaking down the journey into manageable sections that you can get your head around: reading that paper, writing a section of a chapter, that page or grasping that concept – just like on a long run – this kilometre, this next hill, the next corner or (when it is really hurting) this step.
One of the key tips for a long race is pacing. Try to run consistently at a pace you can maintain for the duration is good advice. Not too fast at the start so you run out of energy before the end. Not too slow thinking you can catch up later (this is hard!). That is also why structured doctoral programmes set intermediate deliverables so students can get some of the work ‘under their belts’ before the tough final write up.
Another aspect about running a marathon is the lonely part when you pass through the quiet part of the course. It can be lonely without the support of the crowds and supporters. Doctoral degrees can be like this too – the part when you are alone writing up, no more workshops or methods courses to provide a bit of support. It is just a case of knuckling down for those tough kilometres (pages) and keeping the pace. And if you are tired of being alone, talk to others! There is always a fellow student, a colleague in the office, your partner in life, whose ear you can borrow over breakfast, coffee break or an improvised lunch.
Quick, Quick, Slow
Just like a marathon there are also parts of a doctoral degree where you are cruising and everything comes together – data collection, understanding of concepts or data analysis. Then, sorry to say, there are other parts where it seems a struggle and even the easy things seem hard. Just like running a marathon it is not always easy to anticipate when these tough parts will be.
What do you need to do? Keep your concentration and focus. Draw upon your reserves of mental strength. As Fernando said to Mark when he was training for his last half-marathon: “What’s the most important step when running a race? Not the last one, not the next one, this one, just this one!” Concentrate on the immediate task and get that done. You will keep your pace during the tough part and soon the cruising speed will return.
It is Yours!
Once you leave that empty part of the course the crowds and supporters are there again as you approach the marathon finish line. The final sections can seem easier even if your body (brain) is aching from the effort. At the finish the elation is something that only those who have experienced it can understand. Only fellow holders of a doctoral degree can really understand the pain and the joy of the journey.
One of the most powerful things that Fernando says is that completing a marathon is an achievement that nobody can take away. It stays with you forever and changes you for the rest of your life. A doctoral degree is the same: nobody can take it away and it will change you forever.
So congratulation to those to have finished a marathon (doctoral degree). For those still on the course you know what you need to do. And if your knees hurt when you have finished you can always stop the running and start dancing. Thankfully the passion for research is normally unshakable and does not require good knees.