The PhD Race

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Photo credit: Kenny Craig

Last Sunday I ran the Mull of Kintyre Annual Half Marathon. It was a beautiful sunny day and the course was equally as beautiful out of Campbeltown, along the beach where we were met by pipers spurring us on with tunes, and back to the town by country roads. The atmosphere, like at all of these types of events was great, energetic and inclusive. I’ve always loved races because of this, it allows you to forget what’s going on in your day to day life for a few hours and focus purely on the race event. All through the months running up to the day I felt a building anxiety that I had  to train, didn’t have time to train enough, and was I even going to be able to complete it. Particularly in the last few weeks, my PhD work had ramped up as I was gathering data for a conference and paper submission, it felt never ending and all consuming. But of course, the way this is meant to go is that having a separate focus such as running, is good, it’s a coping mechanism, it gives us breathing space… it didn’t feel that way to me, it felt like one more thing I had to get done in a day!

So I got thinking, and it turns out there are a lot of similarities between running a long distance race and doing a PhD. Since I’ve not quite ventured past the 13 miles mark, I’ve based my comparison on this but I think it can be applied to any distance race.

Pre-race – First and foremost, the feeling that this is your only shot. This isn’t a training run, this has to be your best performance. Of course this isn’t true, the only real competition and standards are your own and you can only do your best.

There will be other races.

If you take a little longer to reach each stage, it’s ok, enjoy the experience and get stronger with every milestone.

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At the start line ready to go!

Mile 1 – Your legs are moving too fast for your heart rate to keep up, you’re trying to catch your breath and get into a rhythm that’s sustainable.

In the first few months of your PhD it can often seem like this, you’re overwhelmed with information and things to do and you’re not quite sure how you will managed or which order to do them or how to find the right level.

Mile 3 – You’ve started to find your feet and breathe a little more normally. But you’re aware that there’s still a long way to go and you don’t want to burn out too quickly and not reach the finish line.

You’ve got a plan in place for your project and the general direction it will go, but you’re apprehensive still, you don’t want to get too settled at this early stage when there’s still a big scope for things to go wrong.

Mile 5 – Things are ticking along quite nicely, you’ve found your pace and begun to take in the surroundings a bit more.

Same goes for your work, you’re plodding on and ticking boxes, perhaps collecting preliminary data and feeling good.

Mile 7 – Your feet hurt, your knees start to ache, you’re just over half way and you have a little voice of worry that you collapse before the last mile. Is it energy gel time yet?

At the half way point of your PhD is often when you need to start making decisions in order to achieve your end goal. Which branches are you going to explore within the time left, which will you need to keep for a potential post-doc or Masters student to help with?

Mile 9 – The mid-race blues. Over half way, but not quite on the home straight. This stage sucks. It can be long and lonely and you question why you even started this in the first place. Common thoughts: “I hate running….why did I start running….I would much prefer yoga”.

The so-called Second Year Bluesare definitely a thing. You start to question absolutely everything about your work, your direction, the purpose and value of your research… It can feel really lonely, sometimes it can feel like your family and friends don’t really understand and find it hard to relate. Why did you start this journey in the first place? You could be travelling the world, at the pay-rise stage of a graduate job, finishing work at 5pm and not thinking about it until 9am the next day…

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The long lonely road we sometimes face

*Disclaimer: I am 1 year and 7 months into my PhD so past this point I am purely speculating and basing my assumptions on what other PhD students have told me*

Mile 11 – The end is in sight but you’ve still got a lot of hard work to do to get you there. Sometimes your body can be so tired (particularly if you haven’t trained enough like me) and you have to change tactic mentally or physically. For me, it is changing the goalposts to be smaller and more manageable: for example to tell myself to just make it to the next water station, then the next lamppost.  There’s so many unknowns, but you’re focused. There may be a wall you need to somehow break through.

Same for PhD I imagine, making the steps manageable and achievable and focusing on keeping strong until the end despite the unknowns.

Mile 13 – You can see the finish line! For this last mile you give it all you’ve got, even picking up the pace. The crowd starts to gather momentum, shouting out encouragement, they’re with you. You know you’ve got this.

In the final stage of a PhD, typically when you are writing up, friends have told me that that’s when they appreciated little coffee breaks with friends the most during long days of writing. You need your cheerleaders to complete your chapters.

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Post-race Analysis ­– truth be told, I don’t think I would have managed it round the Mull of Kintyre half marathon route last week without my friend and pacer being with me the whole way. At the times I felt I was struggling, he was there to keep me going and instilling my belief in myself. I wasn’t even aware of what I was capable of and needed that extra push and support to get me through. Most importantly, he helped me to gain some perspective. I was doing just fine, afterwards we would get donuts and sit on the grass.

This really highlighted to me the importance of this kind of moral support from your peers during a PhD. Those who are running the race with you will be your strength. You’re all experiencing a similar thing, you might hit the wall earlier or later than each other but the point is, that you need each other to help you to overcome obstacles. Especially at mile 9 when you feel like giving up, a network of peers around you can really make the difference between being overwhelmed with a fear of failure and being able to relax and look at this with some perspective. Although it might feel like our life’s work, it’s important to remember this is only a very short period of our lives, it will end and we will have many opportunities to eat donuts (or whatever else you dream of at mile 11) in the very near future.

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Pizza and beer
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Department subcrawl

And so I want to thank Chris, my crazy ultra-marathon running friend for keeping me going through the half marathon, and also thank you to the amazing group of researchers I am so fortunate to be in this PhD with. I don’t think I would have even made it this far without you guys and our extended lunch breaks, exchange of knowledge and of course mutual love of a few beers.

Sara xox




Anatomy and Medical Visualisation Graduate, completing a PhD in Biomedical Engineering. A forever student with a passion for medical technology, human movement and public engagement in science.

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