Lab Life

(Re)Defining Moment: Should You View Graduate School as a Race, Marathon, or Something Completely Different?

Kartik Rallapalli

“Just put one foot in front of the other,” my inner voice tells me as I struggle to breathe, “and it all shall be over soon.” Perhaps it is the isolation of the pandemic or the desolation offered by the quiet trail I run along, but I have found my inner voice getting louder recently. It is the same inner voice that made me take up running as my pandemic pastime (the yeast was all hoarded away by the time I got to know about the baking fad, and I am too loyal to my coffee percolator to try the newer coffee rituals). Moreover, a lot of my social media friends and scholars who I follow are into running, hence my inner voice convinced me to run every day. Maybe all brilliant ideas come to these scholars while they are running. Who knows? Maybe even Archimedes was taking that bath after coming back from a long run outside.

So, I put on my shoes, tie my hair, and run, in search of all these fabled brilliant ideas and eureka moments. But every time I stop for taking a breath and actually enjoying the dawn air, my perfectionist inner critic screams at me with contempt, “If you can’t even finish a 5K run, how would you ever run a marathon. If you can’t run a marathon, you definitely can’t ever finish your Ph.D. because after all, a Ph.D. is like running a marathon.”

“A Ph.D. is like running a marathon and not a sprint.” Any advice on how to pursue a doctoral degree is as if incomplete without the mention of this archaic metaphor. The first doctoral degree may have been awarded in 1150 and marathons have existed as a part of the modern Olympics since the year 1896. Hence, sometime during the 1900s a marathon enthusiast with a doctoral degree must have conceived this aphorism. And ever since then this analogy has been stated and restated, written and re-written, by academicians all through the world, making it the default advice that all graduate students are given when starting out their Ph.D. careers.

I can see where this analogy comes from; after all, there are only a handful of ways to describe an arduous journey. Both running and pursuing a Ph.D. are largely solitary endeavours that require minimal stimuli from the outside world. During both activities, you try to test the limits and push beyond them. The sheer egoism of showing to the world what you are capable of accomplishing is also a shared trait among both ventures. If you drew a Venn diagram of people with academic careers and people who are into running, there would be a non-trivial overlap. For researchers as well as runners, there are those “good days” when everything works perfectly according to your plan, yielding a science high or runner’s high that motivates you to keep moving forward. And then there are also those “bad days” when all you want to do is quit and go back home.

[A Ph.D. is] almost as if you are running alongside the endless ocean of human wisdom, drawing from it and at the same time filling it up even more.

The terminal parallel between marathon and sprint does serve as a caution that the strategies which served you well during your undergrad won’t be applicable to grad school. However, this marathon analogy is stale and perhaps even dangerous. A marathon has a well-defined start point, end point, and route connecting them. These features are rather fuzzy for a Ph.D. and get modified as we delve deeper into the subject. Moreover, the activity of running is inherently very mundane, in the words of my inner voice, just putting one foot in front of the other.

However, as academics, we read, we write, we think, we create, and we dream. A Ph.D. is a highly creative pursuit, where you identify a gap in the current knowledge and strive to seek answers to these questions and thereby contribute to the growing pool of knowledge. Almost as if you are running alongside the endless ocean of human wisdom, drawing from it and at the same time filling it up even more.

My biggest grievance with the marathon comparison is that it conjures up the imagery of a race. When you are in a race you are only living in the moment, focusing just on your breathing, and the beating of your heart drowns out the rest of the world and all the myriad of problems in it, which are all too noticeable now. On the contrary, as graduate students, we need to exist beyond the scientific problems that we are so passionately trying to solve as there are many other issues—personal and societal—that need our attention.

Victory during a race is not just measured by your crossing the finish line, but also by how you compare to the others running alongside you. However, defining success during a graduate career is far more complex than it is for a marathon. Extending the marathon analogy to academia would simply mean a successful Ph.D. journey just involves following along the pre-designed route that starts with defining a research project, conducting independent and original research, writing the thesis to describe your results, and crossing the finish line by ultimately defending your research amongst a committee of your peers. Notice how we transition from running to defending as if doing a Ph.D. is a five-year-long marathon that ends with a glorious battle of some sort. For better or for worse, that really isn’t the complete and true picture.

The majority of those who run in the race of pursuing a doctoral degree cross the finish line. So, you successfully defend your thesis, is that enough for your Ph.D. career to be deemed successful? Unfortunately, my inner voice, and maybe even your inner voice, already knows the answer to this question. Over the course of our graduate training, we do become privy to the unstated rule of the academic track that our success is somehow determined through a vague metric whose variables include the number of research papers you publish, the impact factor of the journals you publish in, your citation index, H-index, number of conferences you present at, etc.

This unstated metric is what most graduate students circle toward and away from simultaneously. We run toward it constantly as our inner critic realizes that once we apply for grants, fellowships, internships, and jobs in the future, these numbers would become the currency with which we would navigate through the next laps of the academic race. At the same time, we run away from overwhelming stressors, self-doubt, uncertainty, and the responsibilities of adulthood. All these are issues that need to be addressed at multiple levels of the academic society. But a simple step toward accelerating this transformation is to be conscious of the ideals, idols, idioms, and infinitives that we propagate. Diversifying the definition of our academic idols, and hence scrutinizing the ideals that we hold ourselves up to, are tasks that require systemic changes. At the institutional level, we need to actively strive to introduce students to alternate career paths and alternate idols that are possible after graduate school and to make them aware that happiness can be found along the lesser-known paths which branch off from the traditional academic trail.

Unlike these idols and ideals, redefining the idioms and infinitives that we relay to newer graduate students is a task to be accomplished at a personal level. The marathon analogy is a seemingly innocent expression that ultimately fuels the toxic “publish or perish” culture that has compounded our stress and our declining mental health as graduate students.2 Hence, it is time we retire this dying analogy and stop advising ourselves and other graduate students to behave like horses wearing blinkers in order to be successful. Instead, we need to compose personalized metaphors and thus establish our own definitions of what it means to be successful as a graduate student and as a citizen of this imperfect world.

I would rather consider us as wanderers traversing through the landscape of eternal wisdom, charting our own courses, paving our own routes, seeking our own treasures, learning from the successes and mistakes of those who came before us, and leaving clues for those who shall come after us. And like every wanderlust, the true success lies in what you discover and not in how much ground you covered. 


References

  1. Noble, K. A. Changing Doctoral Degrees: An International Perspective; ERIC, 1994.
  2. Woolston, C. Nature. PhDs: The Tortuous Truth. Nov 13, 2019.