Writing a Dissertation isn’t Running a Marathon… it’s Training for One

7 April 2021, 0904 EDT

Hilary Matfess is a PhD candidate at Yale University, an incoming professor at the University of Denver’s Korbel School, and a 2020-2021 United States Institute for Peace (USIP) Peace Scholar Fellow. She will participate in the Bridging the Gap NEW Era workshop in 2021. Her work has been published in International Security, Security Studies, Stability, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, and African Studies Review. Her first book, Women and the War on Boko Haram, was published in 2017 with Zed Publishers. Relevant to this article, she has also completed several marathons and looks forward to the return of in-person races!

Throughout graduate school, I heard the same, well-intentioned refrain over and over from fellow graduate students, faculty members, and family: “the dissertation is a marathon.” I generally responded with a half-hearted “yeah” and a shrug – sure, it’s hard and time consuming and long so why not call it a marathon? But now, as someone who’s completed both a dissertation and a handful of marathons, I can definitively say that writing a dissertation isn’t runninga marathon; it’s training for one. 

This difference is more than jock semantics. Shifting from a mindset that frames your dissertation as a singular feat of endurance to one that underlines the process of preparation can help graduate students avoid burnout and right-size their perception of what the dissertation signifies.  A training mindset can help academics better balance work-life balance and identify sustainable patterns of work.

Trust Your Training” 

Running a marathon is, even under the best circumstances, pretty monotonous. You’re going to move your body at more or less a steady pace for 26.2 miles. Training, for a marathon, however, requires integrating several different types of exercises into your routine; there’s the classic “long runs,” easy runsfast runs, and even strength training. A marathoner who only ran long runs would underperform and risk injury. 

Just like you don’t one day go out and run 26.2 miles, you don’t just wake up one day and write a dissertation – both processes require setting smaller, discrete goals that build on one another over time. Writing a dissertation isn’t just setting words to page – it’s a task comprised of a myriad of other cumulative and complementary tasks like identifying a viable research question, producing a research design that leverages the methods best suited to your research question, collecting or generating data, analyzing that data, editing, presenting drafts to peers and advisors, identifying relevant literature, and proofreading.  Setting SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-specific) goals while writing a dissertation can help graduate students consider the different components of the project and consider a realistic timeline for completing each individual component. 

Identifying shorter-term accomplishments is a way to keep graduate students and those training for the marathon on-track and enthusiastic about the process. For example, some marathon training programs actually suggest that runners race shorter distances as a part of their training. This helps runners not only know their true “race pace” and get a feel for what race day will be like, it allows them to pepper a sense of accomplishment throughout their marathon training. So too can graduate students use side projects and intermediate milestones to both further their dissertation efforts and mark their progress along the way. 

There is evidence that “small wins” boost motivation at work, so graduate students should seek out and celebrate their small wins to help keep them on track to achieve their larger goals. Presenting a draft dissertation paper or chapter at a conference, working on a coauthored project on a topic tangentially related to your dissertation topic, or translating your academic research into mass-audience publications can all help keep graduate students motivated and enthusiastic about their work. 

When training for a marathon, you have to balance running with the rest of your life. I’ll admit that the jokes about marathon runners being obsessive and insufferable about their training are warranted to a degree, but ultimately marathon training can’t be the entirety of someone’s identity. Similarly, graduate students need to cultivate a sense of self that’s not related to work. This can be exceptionally difficult – after all, so many of us care deeply about our work and are often making considerable sacrifices (both in terms of salary and in our personal lives) to pursue this degree. Yet maintaining a distinction between the work that we do as graduate students and the people that we are is critical for living a fulfilled life, avoiding burnout, and combatting the culture of “workism.”

One study of economics graduate students noted that “62% of students worry always or most of the time about work when not working” and that 20.5% of students found themselves too tired for activities in private life always or most of the time.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, these students expressed the biggest regrets over “how they organize their timeand engage with their studies.” These findings suggest that preserving aspects of our identity, apart from our position as graduate students, is important for mental health. Given the emergent evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis among graduate students, ensuring that your identity is not enmeshed with your work may be all the more important.

Support Systems

While running a marathon, you’re often surrounded by people. There are other runners, aid station volunteers, and spectators. The mood is jubilant— literal strangers are cheering you on! It’s an incredible experience and a heartening display of humanity and support. In contrast, training for a marathon can be pretty lonesome and requires strategies for maintaining motivation. 

Whether you’re working on your dissertation or tackling your daily run, there is rarely someone cheering you on. Tapping into your intrinsic motivation or identifying external sources of motivation is an important part of finishing the dissertation. Intrinsic motivation is often praised for being more durable and reliable than external motivation. Remembering why your work is important and why you cared about the question in the first place can help cultivate intrinsic motivation, even when the work gets tedious or frustrating. 

Even the fiercest self-starters may also benefit from developing external accountability mechanisms. Just as you may join a running group to get you through difficult parts of the training (and also to make friends), joining initiatives like #ACWRIMO and building your own writing groups can help keep you on track and foster a sense of community. Writing groups, whether convened online or in-person, can provide opportunities for feedback, help academics set aside time devoted specifically to their dissertation projects, and provide powerful accountability mechanisms – in addition to building a sense of community and solidarity. 

Of course, self-bribery can also be effective. To get myself through the hard slog of the last few miles of a long run, I’ve frequently passed the time by thinking about the jar of peanut butter waiting for me at home. Rewarding yourself for getting through a difficult project or for achieving an intermediate goal can also help keep momentum going throughout the course of writing your dissertation. Mirya Holman described her tiered reward system for #ACRWIMO in her #MHAWS newsletter it’s something that I’ve adopted for projects year-round. 

Avoiding Burnout 

Marathon training also involves taking purposeful rest between workouts. In contrast, during the race, you’ll likely only take a few minutes to stop at an aid station. If your approach to rest while writing a dissertation resembles the latter, rather than the former, you’re setting yourself up for mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. One cannot crank out a dissertation with the social equivalent of a dixie cup of Gatorade and a handful of jelly beans. 

Just like people training for a marathon schedule a rest day, so too should graduate students set aside time to rest. My friends give me (well-deserved) flak for sending google calendar invitations to hang out, but if I don’t explicitly schedule time away from work, the impulse to work all the time will take over. Graduate school can be a years-long demonstration of Parkinson’s Law (that work expands to fill the time that you’ve allotted to it); setting aside purposeful times to not work can counter that. 

Something will probably go wrong during the course of your dissertation. A training mindset can help graduate students understand what is necessary to get them across the finish line, despite challenges. Runners that encounter injuries or disruptions to their training schedule can adjust their training plan. Similarly, a training mindset can help graduate students respond to challenges (say, a global pandemic) with minimal despair and maximum flexibility, prioritizing the absolutely critical tasks that need to be done to complete the dissertation (Mara Revkin’s helpful guideon finishing a dissertation under non-ideal conditions is instructive about how to prioritize tasks). 

What Comes Next?

Perhaps the most important way in which writing a dissertation differs from running a marathon is what happens after you cross the finish line. The end of the marathon is the end of the marathon; you get a medal and hopefully a lot of rest. The end of the dissertation, however, is the start of another process; it’s, in fact, just the beginning of your career. Just as those who trained poorly for their marathons are often laid-up on the couch for weeks after the race, vowing to never run again, developing bad habits in the course of writing a dissertation can set you up for failure after you defend. The habits that you are developing as a graduate student writing a dissertation will carry over into your career after graduate school – meaning that developing a sustainable work pattern is key. Both marathon training and writing a dissertation are long processes that prepare you for the next fun, but grueling, endeavor.