6 ways training for a marathon is making my PhD thesis better

I’m nearing the year-and-a-half mark of my PhD, and in most respects am doing pretty well so far. But what I realised at the end of my first year was that I made the near-fatal mistake of the typical type-A: I went too hard, too fast. I spent my first year working way too much, and relaxing way too little. The result was a pretty spectacular burnout and some intense anxiety.

After a holiday, I came back to work and decided that enough was enough; it was time to put my mental and physical health first. I knew I would need a goal to make me commit to spending more time away from the desk. And, go big or go home right? So I decided to train for a marathon.

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I’m about three months into training with 6 months to go, and have realised that this big, non-work related goal is having a positive impact on nearly every aspect of my life (the blisters on my feet and my social life are the only exceptions).

In particular, it is making my thesis better. Here are 6 reasons why.

1. It gives me goals that aren’t work related

A PhD can be all-consuming, infecting every waking moment. We all know the feeling of guilt every time we try to do something other than work, telling us that we should be working. Training gives me goals that aren’t work related, which helps me to feel like more than just a student. And I don’t feel guilty when I take the time to train, because I’m still working towards a goal that is very important to me.

2. It makes rejection easier to handle

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Academia is all about rejection. Your papers get rejected, your grant applications get rejected, your job and committee applications get rejected, and so on and so on. But when you’ve just reached a big running milestone, the setbacks land a little more softly. It’s hard to feel like a total failure when you’re meeting targets in at least some parts of your life.

3. It gives me time to think

Training for a marathon takes time. A lot of time. I currently run for over 8 hours per week, and other people run many more. That’s a lot of time with just you, the road and your thoughts. Unsurprisingly, I come up with most of my ‘epiphanies’ when I’m on the road, when I can truly work through all my ideas and calmly piece them together. My best insights never appear when I’m staring at my computer.

4. It’s helping me develop psychological endurance

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You’ve probably heard the phrase “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” at some time in reference to your PhD. A PhD is a long slog – up to 8 years if you’re doing it part time. It’s a slog that does not give fast rewards. You will reach your goals slowly and have triumphs only every now and then to make it all worthwhile. If fast gratification is what you’re after, this isn’t the field for you. Long distance running teaches you to cope with slow rewards, and that every step forward is a step closer to your goal. It teaches you to keep pushing even if you hit the wall because there is always another wind behind it.

5. It forces me to take non-work time.

I doubt anyone could get through a marathon without a significant amount of time devoted to training (see point 3). A goal that is not related to your PhD forces you to spend time doing things that are not related to your PhD. It also helps you make friends who enjoy things that are not your PhD. Spending time away from your PhD is incredibly important to your mental health, and will actually make your thesis better. Having time dedicated to other tasks helps with focus and motivation when working, meaning that you will be less likely to procrastinate.

6. Running is good for me.

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The final point is an obvious one: physical exercise is very good for you. It’s good for your heart, your lungs, your brain. More than that, it can have a remarkably positive impact on your mental health. These things are essential for and more important than PhD success. What is the point of earning a PhD if you have to sacrifice your health to get it?

So get out there!

These points apply to any goal that grows from a hobby. Knit a rug! Write a book! Learn a language! Anything that will get your focus away from your thesis is a good thing. 

What non-thesis goals do you have? Share below!

10 tips for surviving a move to a big city

About 7 months ago I made the move from Adelaide to Sydney to start my PhD at the University of New South Wales. The prospect of moving from a ‘big country town’ to the ‘big smoke’ of Sydney surprisingly didn’t daunt me too much at first. I was excited about what I saw as my ‘new life’. A place where nobody knows me, or my complex past. It felt like a fresh start and an opportunity to completely reinvent myself.

The reality was a little different. It didn’t take me long to get really, really lonely and really, really stressed. I thought I might write some tips for others planning a move to a big city, from what I’ve learned over the past seven months:

1. Get a GPS. NFcuavw

I can’t even believe how often I get lost. I was pretty bad with directions already, but moving to the hell-mouth that is Sydney’s road network has been a nightmare. It is easily the worst thing about Sydney, and I’ve not met anyone who doesn’t agree. There is SO MUCH TRAFFIC it’s hard to fathom and GOD FORBID any of Sydney’s streets go in a straight line. Oh no, there is no simple grid system like Adelaide or Melbourne, it’s this complex labyrinth of tunnels and bridges and overpasses and exits and nightmares. So my point is, get a GPS. Getting lost is really annoying and stressful.

2. Don’t believe everything you hear.

When you move from a small town or city to a big metropolis like Sydney, people love to tell you all of the horrible things they’ve ever heard about that big city. Like that it’s “impossible to rent anything for under $400 a week”. Or that “the people are really cliquey and bitchy”. Or that “you can never even get a spot on the beach because there’s too many people”. Don’t believe them. I’ve found that people are very eager to protect the reputation of their own city, and do so by trying to convince you that your next city is horrible. I will never understand why a person would do this just before I moved, but hey, people are assholes.

3. Be patient

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I had been warned plenty of times about the loneliness involved with moving to a new city, and spent lots of time preparing myself for it. I was determined to make the best of it, to join lots of new groups and sports and try to meet as many people as I could. These are all good things to do, but in truth the only thing that makes it easier is time. Give it time and acknowledge that you’re going to have your lonely moments. Moments in which you want to go home (I nearly did at around 3 months). But then you develop great friendships and find your favourite spots and before long you can’t imagine living anywhere else.

4. Get recommendations

Ask anyone you know / meet in your new city for recommendations. About everything! Who your new GP should be, where’s a good running spot, who sells the best coffee, what you should explore etc etc. It makes settling in a lot easier than finding them all yourself.

5. Remember your boundaries.

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The number one piece of advice I got before I moved was to go along to any social event that I could. This was my best chance to meet new friends and ease the loneliness. Again, sound advice but I want to add a bit of a clause. The thing is, there are assholes everywhere. Beyond that, there are just people that you won’t click with. So if you get invited to something and you really just don’t want to go, don’t let anyone make you feel guilty or that you’re not trying hard enough. You’ve got to do what’s right for you.

6. Go home as much as you want.

Especially in the first few months, head home as often as you want. This was a little more essential for me, as my partner still lives in Adelaide. But I would argue that if you need a bit of your Mum’s home cooking and a hug from your best friend, just go. It’s part of the adjustment process – and HOT TIP (don’t tell my friends back home), it helps you realise how much better you like the new place you live!

7. Explore.

Go out and discover your new city. You might even find you enjoy spending time by yourself!

8. Do something you couldn’t really do before.

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The big advantage of moving to a big city is that there is SO MUCH to do! It can be really overwhelming at first, but pick out some things that are just not as accessible in your home city. For me, that was joining a really well organised Feminist Collective. For you, it could be a cool exercise group or beach yoga or poetry slams or whatever you like!

9. Check the parking signs.

Closely.

10. Remember that it gets easier.

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Every day you’ll settle in a little more, find your rhythm and build your relationships. It’s tough at first, but just grit your teeth and it gets so much easier. Goooooood luck!