The PhD Climb

It’s hard to believe it’s already 2018. Around a year ago I started a new hobby: climbing. This was quite an obvious pastime to take up after moving to Lochaber for my PhD: Fort William has been labelled ‘The Outdoor Capital of the UK’ after all. Having moved back to the area after many years away, I was looking for an activity where I could meet new people and take my mind off my PhD after long days at my desk. Climbing was meant to be (and is!) a fantastic way to take a break from studying, but recently I’ve realised that there are a lot of similarities between climbing and my PhD journey so far:

When I started, it seemed too big to manage

climbing ratho

Climbs like this seemed impossible when I started: but amazingly, that’s me at the top!

Climbing uses a lot of muscles which aren’t usually in day-to-day use. When I started, I would tire out so quickly, and found even the ‘easiest’ climbs impossible. I remember watching other climbers and being astounded at their skills and endurance. After climbing regularly for some time, my fingers got stronger, and my stamina improved enormously. Almost a year later, I can now manage climbs which seemed impossible before.

I’ve noticed the same sort of incremental improvements in my academic life too. When I started the PhD, I’d been out of academia for a couple of years, and simple things like reading papers and taking notes were difficult to do efficiently. It was particularly tough to get back into writing regularly. I’ve noticed though, that I’m finding these things easier as I use those academic ‘muscles’ more often.


Simple is best

With climbing, I’ve now gotten to the stage where I know I should be able to manage certain routes. If I’m really struggling with one, the chances are that I’m making it more complicated than it needs to be. It’s tempting to break out that new technique I just mastered, but just because it’s more technically advanced doesn’t mean it’s the best tactic for every climb. Sometimes keeping it simple is the most efficient, straightforward way of getting from A to B!

This is true for academia too. Occasionally I get very excited or intrigued by a new theory or framework I’ve learned about. It’s tempting to show off this newfound knowledge by incorporating it into my project somehow, but I’ve learned that just because I’ve added it to my repertoire I shouldn’t necessarily try to use it straight away. It can be frustrating to spend a lot of time reading up on a specific theory, and then decide it doesn’t fit, but it’s good to know I have those skills in the bank. I have no doubt they’ll all come in useful at some point.

Concentrate on one thing at a time

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed halfway up a wall. You’re so tired, you can see how far you still have to go and each move seems harder than the next. There’s also the psychological effect of knowing that the higher you go, the further you have to fall! When I find myself in this situation, I deal with it by concentrating only on the next move, rather than allowing the scale of what I still have to do overwhelm me. Once I’ve achieved that small step, it’s a case of taking a deep breath and moving on to the next one.



One move at a time (and get used to falling!)

This tactic helps when I’m feeling overwhelmed by my PhD. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m now in my second year, and there’s so much still to do, but I have recently found myself being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the task in front of my. It can be utterly paralysing – not unlike getting halfway up a wall and freezing out of sheer fear (it still happens to me!). When I feel like this, I try to focus exclusively on the day’s task, and concentrating on doing it well rather than thinking about everything else that still needs done. It’s a great way of regaining a sense of control over the project.

Sometimes, it’s tempting to stop

I love climbing, but on some days, I get halfway up a wall and for some reason I really feel like getting straight back down again. Perhaps I’m tired, maybe a route I found easy before is suddenly seeming far too difficult, or possibly my confidence has been shaken. The thing about rope climbing though, is that there’s a person on the ground holding the other end of the rope you’re attached to. My friends tend not to let me give up until I’ve really given it my all. So whilst in that moment my first instinct might be to come back down, they’ll shout up encouragement and tips while kindly making it clear that my only option is to keep going up.

mallorca climbing

Climbing after a conference in Mallorca this year with some professors!

I also love my PhD, but there are days when I struggle. Again, there are all sorts of reasons why this happens, and although I haven’t ever considered stopping completely, on these occasions it’s easy to feel a wee bit defeated. It’s been invaluable to have a support network of other PhD students as well as friends and family to figuratively hold on to the other end of the rope whilst firmly encouraging me to keep going.

I like to call this the ‘Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway’ approach to my PhD!



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