I used to have a normal job, with set working hours, drinks with colleagues on a Friday night and a desk in an open plan office.
Back then, I was a normal person whose idea of exercise was occasionally visiting the gym, having a go on some of the machines and then sitting in the sauna feeling smug.
But a few years ago I moved back to my home city of Liverpool and gave up my full-time job for academia, first to do a master’s and now, thanks to a fortunate funding application, a PhD.
I abandoned the gym and joined a running club. As the end of my first year as a PhD student approaches, I’m preparing to run my first marathon. My annual PhD review (where I have to present and defend where I’m up to with my thesis in front of academics and other students) is actually scheduled two days before race day.
Combining the rigours of a PhD with a marathon training plan – and also a part-time job and trying to have a life – isn’t easy. With eight weeks to go until the race, I know I’m in for a busy time but, in the strangest way possible, I’m looking forward to it. That wasn’t always the case though.
I hated the first few months of my PhD and my training. I would regularly think to myself, particularly when getting up in the morning “Why am I doing this?” and “Why can’t I just go back to my normal job?”
The lack of structure in my academic work meant I felt constantly guilty, and believed that I should always be working or that. I wasn’t doing it properly. The freedom of being a researcher initially attracted me to PhD life, but taking charge of my own schedule was daunting.
There were so many things I felt I should be doing – conferences, teaching, professional development workshops – and I had no idea how I would fit everything in. Though I have a very supportive supervisor, I missed having regularinteraction with colleagues and peers.
The guilt also started to creep in to my running: I’d look at the distances and speeds other people were clocking up and feel like I should be keeping up. There is conflicting advice all over the internet about training plans, nutrition and scary sounding stuff like “strength and conditioning” which, I was told, were essential to the successful runner. In November I got a cold, missed a few runs and convinced myself all my fitness would melt away in a few days.
It was only after my master’s graduation in December that I started to feel more positive. Seeing other students receiving their doctorates in red robes and floppy hats made me realise that a PhD was something I really wanted. In the midst of the graduation celebrations, I thought back to how scared I had been about starting a master’s, after a few years out of university. But being handed a certificate with “Distinction” on it made me see that doubts are natural when you start anything new – and they can be worked through.
Moving from a half marathon and a master’s to a marathon and a PhD is taking things to a whole new level, demanding more time, discipline and endurance than anything I’ve ever done before.
I’ve learned to break tasks down into what I need to achieve each week – whether it be adding an extra mile to my run, or writing a section of my literature review. I chat with other academics, runners and students for inspiration and guidance but realise that ultimately, it’s my race and my PhD. Crucially, I’ve learned to spend time resting without guilt, understanding that rest is what will make me stronger in the long term.
I’ve also realised I can embrace the freedom that my PhD provides, using it to my advantage when running. I don’t have to clock in and out at certain times, so I can easily finish up early if I want to go for a run, or squeeze the exercise in during a working day. Doing a Saturday morning run has made me much more productive when working weekends – if I’m done running by mid-morning, I’m motivated to work in the afternoon rather than laze around in my pyjamas.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but I enjoy having a hobby that takes me away from the computer screen and gives me time to think. I won’t pretend I’ve had any flashes of genius inspiration while running, but I’ve been able to clear my head and organise my thoughts. I use running to gain perspective on any difficulties I’ve been having during the day and find it works wonders for my mental health.
Do I still sometimes think, “Why am I doing this?” Absolutely! But after a shaky start I’ve learned that both running and my PhD have made me a stronger, more disciplined person . And now I never want to go back to “normal” again.