Monday, March 26, 2012

From the PhD Files: A PhD is a like a Masochistic Marathon


 Well the inevitable has arrived, it is that moment that stalks every PhD student, only to jump on them usually when at their lowest – the moment when you question why you are subjecting yourself to this masochistic marathon. Melodramatic you might say but I can say from personal experience, this is not a long stretch.  The marathon – three to four years of non-stop data collection, writing, planning, reading, little sleep and no life. No endurance means no finishing this marathon.  And it’s masochistic because only someone who can take the pain, even like the pain a little will see the light of day on the other side of a complete thesis. There is no doubt about it, you need to expect and even become accustomed to pain.  The pain has many forms – rejections, criticisms, failures all put on repeat for the duration of the marathon. The pain is always there, it just depends what combination of knocks one can take before you pull up on the sideline and prepare to scream “I Quit!”

Well, that time is upon me, and you might ask what’s pushed me from determined to contribute to scientific knowledge to ready to disappear into the night looking for the nearest circus to join.  It’s a combination of things – the time has come for me to bite down, I’m finishing up in the next few months, and part of the reason I’m questioning whether to run is purely because I’m sitting at the bottom of Everest with no ice picks. The amount of work between now and handing up a coherent thesis is nearly insurmountable, and the fact that things still don’t work, I still have lab work to do and a number of experiments don’t have a guaranteed outcome.  Next is the writing – not only do the experiments have to be done, but analysed and written up into nice tidy packages. 

So rather than face the Everest of the lab, it seems easier to run.  Throw in a few weeks of failed experiments, some tense personal situations and a meeting with a supervisor who makes you feel like you aren’t working at all, and it can be seen why the circus seems a viable option. And finally on top of it, is the looming light at the end of the tunnel – what is meant to be a celebration of surviving the blisters, the sweat and tears,

So why endeavour on something inspires fear, and is full of such pain? Like any marathon, it’s the chance to take on the challenge. The opportunity to finish something that is so obstacle riddled, and survive to tell the tale is a reward that needs to be remembered at every obstacle. It is not easy for a reason because if it were easy, everyone would do it. And it’s hard for a reason – a PhD is the research apprenticeship, and research is hard. For me, in the long run, running will leave me with regret. Walking away sometimes has to be done, but in my case, it would leave me wondering what could have been, and whether my mettle would have withstood one last onslaught.

So tomorrow, I will once again down to that track and I’ll get a few more blisters.  The pages of a thesis don’t show the sweat, blood and tears, or the journey to the peak of the mountain, so at the end of the day, I’ll relish the bruises, the scratches and the knocks, because in the end they are the reminders of what the marathon took to complete.

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