Saturday, March 05, 2005

Motivation, PhD's, and running marathons

Caolionn O'Connell posted an article yesterday about her difficulties motivating herself through the tail-end of her PhD.

It's kinda nice (though I don't think "nice" is really the right word) to see that someone else is going through the same thing as me. It seems that whenever I have some success with my writing, my brain takes its foot off the accelerator and decides that I should spend a whole lot of time, bored, depressed and surfing the net. I know this is bad, I know this is dumb, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot that I can do about this.

I'm finding that all the analogies between PhD's and marathon running aren't that wide of the mark. I've done a bit of both and now I'm at the end of my PhD I'm definitely feeling things that I've felt when at the end of a long run.
If you are going to run a marathon, you spend a hell of a lot of time training. You watch what you eat. You drag your arse out of bed in the morning to go for runs. You spend your evenings at the gym. Basically you focus a lot of your life to get ready for a race. The first few years of a PhD is a lot like this lead-up time to a race.
In the last few weeks before the race starts you make plans. You decide on the time that you want to run. You develop a strategy. You spend a lot of time talking to other people about how the race is going to go. Then, comes race day...
The race is where it all gets very tricky. You are excited, you have big plans for how the race is going to go. With some luck it all goes to plan and you come away feeling tired but good and you cross the finish line with a brand-spanking-new personal best time. Maybe though, things don't go to plan. You might find that you are a kilometer away from the finish with no energy left, your hamstrings burning, calves cramping, a pain in your hip-flexors that you never imagined was possible, and a really nasty case of chaffing! All of your wonderful plans have come down to "run for 100 paces, walk for 100 paces".
In your mind you are cursing some day weeks ago when you didn't stretch properly and pulled a muscle. You probably didn't even think about it then, but now you are a few steps away from tearing that muscle in two. Your plan for a personal best is reduced to "I just want to make it over the line" and maybe, "geez I hope I'm actually running when I get to the line and not being carried over by some ambulance officers".
I'm finding that now, at the end of my PhD, I can see the line though I'm all out of energy. I put in a sprint and I get a bit closer but by the end of the sprint I'm thinking that it is too hard, I'll never make it, and I want to collapse. Then I slow to a walk and after a while my stubbornness convinces me to try again. Not long after that I'm sprinting again, and praying that in this sprint I will make it to the line because I'm not sure if I have the determination to give it another go if I don't.
Luckily, I'm also noticing that as I get closer to the line there are a lot of friends in the crowd cheering me on.