Who run the world?

Posted in News on Apr 15, 2019

Robyn Millar draws parallels between running and her journey to a PhD. Robyn's blog was originally posted here: https://phdwomenscot.wordpress.com/2018/11/09/week-44-who-run-the-world/

“Learning to walk before you run” …

“Life’s hurdles” …

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint” … (disclaimer #1: I have never run a marathon)

Many of the age-old running metaphors ring particularly true when I think about the PhD journey.

I run. I don’t run to be the fastest (that I certainly am not). Rather, I run because it’s guaranteed time in my week when my head space is my own, and not plagued by research-related thoughts, imposter syndrome or general life worries (this is most likely the case as I’m concentrating on not falling over something). This time in my week is golden and it always surprises me when I’ve managed to spend an hour or two without any PhD thoughts running around in my head (excuse the pun…).

So I thought I’d write this blog on just that, running. Well, not running specifically but on the parallels I draw between running and the PhD journey.

I’ve found it comforting to think about these things and how the challenges we face during the PhD journey can be found in other areas of life. More importantly, how, using these other experiences, we can find comfort, coping mechanisms and motivation. So here we go … if anything, the pictures here might give you a laugh. My ‘race-face’ is something else!

1. Starting out

I first started running because I couldn’t afford a gym membership on my exchange semester in Vienna (oh, the joys of student life). Not as glamourous as being a born-ready athlete but hey, it was sunny in Austria and this gal enjoyed the tanning time.

Nothing quite prepares you for that first step out on the pavements. Dressed in my best Lycra (from H&M, the well-known sports clothing store …) and my 5 year-old trainers, out I went. Exposed.

‘People are going to stare, they’re going to know I’ve not done this before’ I thought. A slow jog for about 500m was all I managed. I walked and enjoyed watching some seriously athletic Austrians fly by me on ‘the ring’ in Vienna.

Not quite like walking into PhD-land for the first time but some of those feelings resonate with early feelings in the PhD process (and actually still do now, over 2 years in). You make the choice to begin the PhD journey yourself, you walk into the department by yourself. You can feel alone, exposed and like everyone else is already a million miles ahead of you. Luckily, it’s not entirely the case.

You quickly learn that those first 500m can turn into 800m then a mile and then, here you are at your first 5km run realising that you’ve managed to survive your first 6 months of PhD-life. Here’s me at the end of my first ever 10km race (Great North 10k) … looking pretty chuffed with myself and also somewhat shattered … much like after 6 months of PhD life!


2. Joining ‘the club’

Joining the PhD student club can seem daunting, a whole new group of very clever people who are most definitely very good at what they do.

It was much like making the jump from running by myself to joining a full-blown harriers club (disclaimer #2: I was NOT a harrier at school, I dabbled in rounders). However, you soon realise you are being welcomed into a group of like-minded people all working towards a similar goal, albeit with different ways of getting there, whether that’s working to publish a paper, present at a department seminar, run a 5km race, or even an ultramarathon (THAT WILL NEVER BE MY GOAL). The point is, we’re all on the PhD journey together and all ultimately aiming towards the same qualification, maybe through different means, but we’re all doing it together, in ‘the club’.

3. Training

Training for runs is the metaphor which resonates most for me about the PhD journey. There is NO WAY I will shave 2.34 seconds off my 5km best time if I don’t train … it just won’t happen. I won’t get faster, stronger, or more confident in my running unless I’m out there at 7pm on a dark night in December doing 1-mile reps in the gale force wind and rain (character-building if anything) when I’d much rather be cosied up on the sofa.

I’ve learnt that this is much like doing a PhD … without the hard graft and work day-in and day-out, you can’t make those small steps towards achieving the ultimate goal.

You may want to cry (metaphorical rain-drops) when it seems the most difficult, but you have to remember inside that it is sometimes the sh*tty, rainy, windy days that help you develop your ideas and thinking and ultimately make things better in the long-run … (we hope anyway!).

Here’s that beautiful ‘race-face’ I promised you … that’s the ‘graft’ right there!


4. Taking the good with bad days

…but ultimately, despite the hard work we all put in, there will be really bad days.

I ran the Great Scottish Run half marathon in 2013 … I cried at mile 9 … I cried at mile 12. It was a bad day (during the race anyways). We can only hope that during the PhD journey, the good days out-weigh the bad ones.

I’ve (almost) forgotten all those feelings I had during that race in 2013, but from time to time, I still have runs where it feels like it’s the first time I’ve ever put on a pair of trainers. Sometimes, sitting down to write, or think up a new idea, or re-think an old one can feel like this and it can be disheartening. I’ve come to realise that this is part of what the whole journey is about. Even though it’s very hard to convince yourself of this sometimes, learning from the bad days can help when you have a really good day.

5. Wading through the mud

As I embark on a fresh new season of cross-country running, I reflect on the PhD process as a process of wading through the mud.

It can feel like you’re wading and wading and the ‘race’ is never-ending but then you get to the end (in a year I hope) and you feel relief and most importantly, you can reap the benefits of your hard work. In the case of cross-country, that means I eat my body-weight in chocolate.

Metaphorically speaking, the chocolate in the case of finishing our PhDs will be the career opportunities ahead of us and the personal sense of achievement of doing something pretty damn amazing (chocolate and wine will also be on the cards, FYI).

Nevertheless, at least we’re all wading through this mud together:



6. Support networks

It is only over the last year (my 2nd year of PhD) that I’ve really sought out support from people around me.

PhD women in Scotland for example has been such a great source of comfort and support. Nothing can compare with knowing that people are feeling the same as you or in a similar situation to you. Same goes for running. Nothing quite beats hearing someone on the side-lines of a race shouting your name (or telling you that the finish line is ‘just around the corner’ – I know we’ve all heard that one before).

These support networks are not only there for us on the important or difficult days, they are there all the time. Whether that’s on a cold December training night or on a Friday afternoon in the office when the weekly PhD Women blog comes out.

I wouldn’t still be running or studying if it wasn’t for these support networks.

7. Comparison is the thief of joy

Just don’t (or try your best not to) compare yourself to others. It’s literally the hardest thing to stop yourself from doing (I do it all the time), especially when colleagues are publishing, presenting, and being the super clever marvellous people that they are.

All I think sometimes is that ‘I’ll never be that good’, ‘I’ll never achieve that’, and that I’ve somehow managed to slip through a 2-year net and now I have one year to magically become a ‘proper’ PhD student.

As they say, comparison is the ultimate thief of joy. When I’m running, I always try to remember that I’m here to better myself, to feel good in myself and my only real ‘competitor’ is me.

It doesn’t always work but when I do well, or beat my previous time, I feel proud … even if that means I’ve come 2,765th place.

8. Enjoy it …

Absolutely the most hypocritical thing I’ve probably ever said. It’s most definitely easier said than done. But remembering that there is more to life than PhD (or to running for a personal best time).

Life still happens and enjoying yourself sometimes is an escape and time to remember just that, that life doesn’t stop just because you’re doing a PhD. Maybe at the weekends I embody this a little too much (oopsies) but hey, what’s a gal to do if she wants a night out?

Sometimes, I take time to enjoy running, to enjoy the non-serious side of my hobby and make me remember why I love it, or I just take a night off training or a day off PhD work. It’s about doing what your body and mind need and want.

This is the ‘fun’ side of running: a (very) hungover Santa at the Santa Dash and a splash of colour on a jog around the dams.



“You end up exhausted and spent, but later, in retrospect, you realize what it all was for. The parts fall into place, and you can see the whole picture and finally understand the role each individual part plays. The dawn comes, the sky grows light, and the colours and shapes of the roofs of houses, which you could only glimpse vaguely before, come into focus.” - Haruki Murakami, from his book ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’