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Top ten reasons why grad school is like a marathon

Monday, April 08, 2013

Last week I presented and passed my dissertation defense for grad school. After, I was physically and mentally spent. I had a snack (a bagel), got changed, laced up my running shoes, grabbed my garmin, and went on a LSR to help clear my head. I ended up running 10 miles in about 86 min, about an 8:35 pace or so, which gave me plenty of time to think about what I had accomplished and had been through. Upon reflection, I decided that finishing grad school was similar to running a marathon in many ways.

I have done two marathons (Portland, OR in 2001 in 4:02 and Lincoln, NE in 2008 in 4:25). Each was challenging and I finished exhausted but with a feeling of pride and accomplishment.

Here are a few reflections on how grad school is like a marathon:

1. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” Philippians 4:13. A marathon forces you to tap into inner strength, to have faith that you can complete the training and the race. Belief in Christ and in His strength working in me helped me through the rough times. Also, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”

2. “If you believe you can or you believe you cannot, you are right.” I don’t know who said it first, and have seen it many times on SP, and have come to accept the truth in this simple adage. You need to go into marathon training or grad school knowing that you can and will finish.

3. Your performance and successful completion depend on your training. The miles that you log build up your strength and endurance, helping you gain the physical and mental capacity to complete the race. For grad school, the training is the coursework, the presentations, the reports, the pages and pages of writing. While it seems like much of the writing ends up in the digital circular file, the process of writing builds up your capacity to write, and you eventually find yourself writing material worthy of inclusion in journal articles and your thesis/dissertation.

4. You cannot neglect your health! Healthy eating is important to physical well-being and success. About half way through grad school, I realized that I was neglecting my nutrition, over eating and snacking too much. I realized that I needed to eat better to maintain my health and to fuel my efforts, both in physical exercise and in mental exercise. One of my friends who worked on a master’s degree in an evening program would drink a 2 liter bottle of mountain dew every night to get himself through his studies. As a result of the short term abuse he subjected his body to during grad school, he ended up developing diabetes. If you neglect nutrition during marathon training or grad school, you can develop negative (and lasting) side effects.

5. The goal is the goal. In the book “The non-runner’s marathon trainer”, the authors emphasize that realistic goals are important, especially for your first marathon. If you go into your first marathon with the goal of qualifying for Boston (a goal one of my friends had for his first marathon), you will be disappointed (unless you are a genetic mutant). If you have a more realistic goal of completing the marathon, the chances of your success (and being happy or satisfied with your success) are greatly improved. I have heard a lot of folks disappointed with their marathon or HM times, when in reality they are doing something that many people do not and they should be thrilled to be able to say, “I am a marathoner!” In the same way, finishing grad school is the goal. Some people take longer than others, but getting to the finish line is the goal. There is a joke about what you call the person who graduates at the bottom of their class at med school. You call them doctor.

6. Perseverance. Sticking to the training day after day, when it seems like the race is far off, when it is raining, when your tummy feels rumbly, when it is too dark out or cold out to run, or through any number of other excuses is essential. Making your goal is possible through the perseverance you show during your training.

7. Rest and recovery. R&R are essential to any good training plan. Rest days and light weeks help your body recover from hard runs and long weeks. They help prevent stress fractures and overuse injuries. You work in cross training like swimming, biking or ST to balance the running miles you are putting on your legs and the stresses you put on your system. In the same way, grad school requires you to plan in some down time. For me, exercise has been a great way to get in some down time throughout the week. Sometimes I thought about the project step I was working on, but often I used the time alone to take a mental vacation from working. Also, when I got home in the evenings, the time between getting home and getting the kids in bed was a no-work time. I fully focused on my family during that time. Because they needed that, and, to be honest, I did too. Similar to cross training, I found that reading non-work related material at night was a healthy distraction from work. (I am partial to a good crime/mystery here and there) Additionally, taking vacations is important. A week during the summer to hang out at Lake Erie or a week in the winter for a family ski trip, completely unplugging from work/research/writing helps one refresh and refocus.

8. Support. It is difficult to go it alone. Even if many of your training runs are solo, it is great to have the support and encouragement of a training partner who supports you and your goal. In addition to support from my family, I have benefited from the grad students I work with (both on the grad school side and on the fitness side). Also, since I joined SP almost a year ago, I have gotten a ton of support from the SP community. The community has been a real blessing, providing support, advice, humor, and friendship. A good support network can keep you going when things get tough, reminding you that you can do it, urging you not to give up, cheering your milestones and getting you back on your feet when you fall.

9. Celebration. An important part of reaching your goal is recognizing your achievements! You just finished a marathon, you get your finishers medal, you celebrate, you get lots of pictures and snacks at the post-race refueling station, and you hang your bling on the wall with your other finishing medals. Same with grad school, you finish, you get your diploma, and you get lots of photos, you go to a post-graduation reception or party, and you hang your diploma on the wall. You have set a goal and successfully met it, you should feel pride in accomplishment and take a minute to pat yourself on the back!

10. Life is full of many different challenges that we can tackle. While it is good to take pride in your accomplishments, don’t let it go to your head. Remember that finishing a marathon (or grad school, or ranger school, or the Appalachian Trail, or anything else difficult that you can think of) doesn’t make you better than other people, but it does make you a better person!

Thanks for reading! Spark on!

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