PHDs and Marathons

Updated 25 days ago.

In the wait to defend my thesis I read Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”. So I suppose it should be no surprise that, struggling to push through the final few days of corrections, I had the thought that completing a PhD is not unlike completing a marathon. The point Murakami makes isn’t far removed from that, in fact. He makes the point a couple of times (in a couple of ways) that there’s a lot to learn about the process of writing that can be learned through running. Unlike Murakami, I haven’t written a novel, or been awarded a Nobel prize, and I haven’t run a marathon or written a book about that either. Having said that, I’m about to submit a final draft of a PhD thesis, and running’s certainly helped me get to this point, so I suppose I have something to say about the interaction between the two.

I got thinking about the similarities between completing a thesis and completing a marathon when I was wondering why it was so challenging to get the final few corrections completed after so many years of grinding away at the document. The first few years of the PhD involves some writing, some reading, some experimentation. The balance shifts over time. By the end, of course, the aim is to have completed any experimentation long ago and be entirely within the getting-the-actual-thesis-done phase.

The process takes a while even for the most tenaciously devoted student. Three years is the minimum duration for a full-time Computing Science PhD at the University of Glasgow. I went part-time to work while writing up and grabbed some extensions — for example, when Covid came and turned the world upside down — so submission took me a little over six years, I reckon. But the journey doesn’t end there: once a student has submitted, their work is ready for examination. The process involves selecting two examiners (one within the institution of study, and another external to that institution who’s ideally an expert in the student’s research domain); once those examiners have accepted their roles, they read the thesis cover-to-cover, in detail, making notes as they go. Sometimes of course they skim the document, particularly if it’s long or if they’re busy, but the principle is to give it a close, interrogative read. They’ll then set a date for an oral examination — usually a couple of months after submission — and, after spending a few hours on that day grilling the student on their work and, depending on their opinion of the document and the answers given by the student, will send a set of “corrections” — which can be empty, or require a significant rewrite of the thesis containing additional research contributions — which, if implemented in the thesis within a deadline the examiners also set, will bring it to a sufficient quality to be awarded through PhD. Of course, unimpressed examiners may also reject the thesis as an outright failure. Corrections constitute up to twelve months of additional work.

In short, the first few years are the easy bit.

Why, though? What makes it so hard to get through those final few steps? After all, once the thesis is submitted, the bulk of the work is generally done and the viva, while not exactly a formality, is a low-risk component of the process. Most students escape with some list of corrections, and the remaining work is not all that far from a tick-box exercise if you’re so inclined.

Marathons are similar, so I hear.

Save the odd ambitious exception, people who run marathons have trained to run marathons. That is to say: the race day is kind of a repeat. They already go for runs. They go for long runs. A marathon is a long run. They trained for this.


Marathons are curious because the final six miles — ten kilometres or so — aren’t really a part of the training. They can’t be, because to run the full marathon (close to the event, at any rate) would ruin the training: the body runs out of fuel as those final miles start, and switches to burn muscle in order to keep going. Legs scream. The runner pushes through. Mind games abound. Our instincts in the face of such a step change in the body’s energy reserves is to stop running, because no evolutionary strategy that involved actively becoming weaker would have served us, out in the plains millennia ago, running for our prey. And, because the runner’s legs would weaken practicing those final few miles, it’s also not something that’s easily prepared for.

No trial runs: you have to get it right on the day. (No pun intended.)

Outwardly, the run looks like a series of steps. Left leg forward, we observe, right leg forward. Left leg, right leg. Left leg, right leg. Left leg…

Of course, that’s not how a marathon goes. There’s more to it than that.

When I run, I often listen to guided runs recorded by Coach Chris Bennett from Nike. He recently released a podcast differentiating constant running and consistent running. To run constantly is to always be running or preparing for a run; to run consistently is to run with intentional regularity. Paraphrased.

A PhD is constant effort, but it also requires you to be consistent. Consistency is the difference between waiting — possibly forever! — for inspiration to strike, and applying yourself to the task even when sitting to focus is brutally tough. But we can consistently do that work for a short length of time — I could consistently sit to write a novel, for an hour every morning, or constantly write until the work is done.

In a way the difference is intensity. In another, it’s in the gaps between. Consistency leaves room for rest and recovery, that’s all.

Murakami says something about the process of writing.

If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.

There’s an obvious comparison he’s making to running. The labour of writing consistently and constantly is a physical one. I’ve certainly found this to be true in research.

Coach Bennett has talked in some guided runs about “mental callousing”. I haven’t gone on many of those runs, really, but I think it’s fairly clear from name alone. So, my understanding of the idea is this: in the same way that repeatedly wearing at some part of skin hardens it and makes it better able to endure hard work in the future, running produces mental callousing when pushing through a psychological challenge. We build callouses of the mind in the same way we build callouses on our hands and feet.

There’s an obvious analogy to research, and to writing.

Why is consistency “better” than constancy?

I think it’s because consistent work allows the worker to be smart about rest and recovery. Constant work does not give room for rest. Constant work does not give room for recovery. Constant work does not give room to respond to the worker’s needs. Constant work takes a constant rate of effort and energy and does not relent.

Consistency, though: well, I can run consistently but give myself a short, slow run to recover between long runs or speed runs. I’m not constantly running to exhaustion and then waiting until I’m just recovered enough to lace up again.

That’s the smart way to run, of course: if I ran as soon as I was able until I couldn’t again my runs would be relatively short and slow, because I’d be running on empty except for the tiny bit of figurative fuel I’d save up before putting rubber to tarmac again. Waiting longer — or just giving space for recovery — means I can do more interesting, challenging runs, because I’d be physically and mentally able to.

The same, by analogy and experience, is true of writing.

There’s a core truth that binds the analogy together, that’s pretty obvious in spite of the parables I had to lead with:

Some of life’s hardest challenges and greatest achievements are difficult and impressive because they require constant effort, not just a consistent one.

Consistent training is the best way to train for a marathon. Consistently reading, writing, and researching is the best way to apply oneself to a PhD. But they’re toughest when the physical and mental muscles that are worked by those efforts are put to a constant test. They’re hard because you have to keep pushing through, even when you’ve worked constantly for so long.

The PhD (or any long-term writing project, says Murakami) involves consistently writing. But the constancy of it in the hardest moments works the psychological muscles needed to overcome writers’ block that the effort is palpably physical.

The marathon requires consistent training, but like the PhD it’s constant in its final moments. The constant working of those physical muscles requires psychological effort.

In both cases, the worker constantly exercises a relatively small group of muscles (literal or figurative).

Consider carrying a heavy shopping bag for a long walk home. After a while, you’d swap the hands carrying the bag or shift the weight — holding it differently, perhaps slinging it over your shoulder — in order to relax the muscles that were tired from constantly carrying the bag.

For the endurance efforts of writing or running, there’s no other muscle group to shift to. Your only task is to write and write, with nothing to break the monotony; your only task is to run, your legs are tired, and you can’t run on your hands. Your mind is tired. Your legs are tired. You continue, despite the constant effort.

Having finished my corrections, I’d like to try running a marathon.