Recently, I wrote about how taking up long distance running affected how I approach my PhD. I was writing in the week before I was due to take part in the Great Scottish Run Half Marathon in Glasgow. As the big day approached I felt increasingly nervous, and seriously considered dropping out. In the end, I managed not only to complete the 13.1 miles faster than I thought possible, I actually (whisper it) found myself enjoying the experience! This week, as I have been approaching a big PhD deadline (the first-year upgrade chapter) I’ve been also reflecting on what the essential ingredients were for such a successful and enjoyable race. It occurred to me that many of the same features apply to PhD life too.
I trained even when I didn’t feel like it. I ran when I was tired, when I was busy and even when it was pouring with rain – which was good practice, it turned out, as it poured in Glasgow on the day of the race, and I was soaked before I got to the starting line! Most of the time in training, once I got started it was much easier to keep going, and I tried to keep it interesting by trying new routes and running with friends. On some days I did the bare minimum and didn’t beat myself up about it – allowing myself to run very slowly and badly, as long as I actually ran.
The same attitude has been important for my PhD. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to writing in particular because I’ve recently been concentrating on writing a chapter for submission. It can be hard to maintain a writing routine, and I haven’t written as much as I’d hoped to in my first year. Taking on the SGSAH Blog has been an important part of getting back into the habit of writing regularly, and with PhD work I’ve been trying to make sure I write even on days when it doesn’t come easily. It’s tempting to get sucked into other tasks, which genuinely do need done, such as reading, planning fieldwork, attending conferences, or routine administration. As I enter my second year though, I’m more aware than ever that I have to have a ‘training routine’ for writing which I stick to, even if this means writing terribly on some days and coming back to edit it later.
A half marathon is of course an individual achievement, but I doubt I would have even attempted the run if I didn’t have such a supportive network of friends who offered practical and moral support. The night before the race, a good friend joined me to carb-load (Italian restaurants are good for this!), offered me a place to stay in Glasgow so I didn’t have to worry about travelling, and gave me some excellent practical advice: ‘eat jelly babies during the race’ (I didn’t need to be told twice!). I got all sorts of texts and encouragement on the morning of the run, which were a great distraction from my nerves. Afterwards, another kind friend let me take over her flat, have a bath and eat all her bread whilst being very understanding that I had absolutely no energy for conversation whatsoever!
The same sort of practical and moral support has been vital throughout the first year of my PhD. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated friends and family so much as I have over the past year. A PhD can be so isolating, especially in the first year as many of us relocate, try not to panic as our projects and research questions shift and develop in new directions, and get to grips with a lot of new material and ways of working. It can be a huge upheaval, on top of the pressure we put on ourselves to perform highly straight away. I’ve benefited from the support of friends and family, as well as an amazing network of PhD students in Scotland through Twitter, Facebook groups and Skype. Without that support, I doubt I would have made it to my second year.
The last time I attempted a long run I was so nervous about being able to run the longer distance that I kept training right up until the run itself. As a result, I was absolutely exhausted, hated the experience and really struggled to finish. This time, I decided to make sure I rested properly in the week before the run, with only a short jog a couple of days before the race. I think this might have been one of the main reasons it went so well. Having forced myself to take time off, I was really looking forward to being able to run again, and actually enjoyed it as well as performing much better than I expected.
All runners know (and many of us have learned the hard way) that rest is part of the training, not an optional extra. The same is true of a PhD, or any longer-term project, as I’ve written about before. A bit of time away from PhD work allows me the time to reflect and see things from a new perspective. Regular breaks allow me to keep enjoying research, but more importantly they allow me to perform better too.
I worked really hard to get to a level where I could run a half marathon, but I also had the time to train, the money to pay for associated costs and all sorts of other support that it’s easy to take for granted. I’m always mindful of the privileged position that I’m currently in: having PhD funding and the support of my family frees up my time and energy to concentrate on my own research and professional development. This wasn’t the case for my undergraduate or Masters degree and so I’m very aware of all of the things I haven’t had to worry about over the past year.
There are many PhD students in Scotland who balance their studies with caring responsibilities, severe financial constraints, full-time jobs or long-term health conditions. In my eyes, that’s much more impressive than jogging for a few hours. The SGSAH blog is an amazing platform for all Arts & Humanities PhD students in Scotland to share their research and to participate in important conversations about what it is like to do a PhD here. I write about my own experience, but the blog is also here to showcase lots of different perspectives, and I’m really passionate about making this happen. If you do want to write an article for us – please do get in touch!
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