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Grad School is a Marathon Not a Sprint: Maintaining Balance and Defining Limits

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

Since beginning graduate school, I have been reminded that pursuing a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. Even for the strongest runner, sprinting at the sound of the gun is not sustainable for completing a marathon. This analogy most definitely applies to completing a doctorate. As we are being paid to be students, it is easy to get wrapped up in the experiments to run, cells to passage, fellowships to apply for and grants to write. However, pushing yourself (or being pushed by your PI) to work tirelessly is not sustainable to finish one’s PhD.

In a marathon, there are times where runners have to sprint; to pass an opponent or make it up the steepest hill of the race. In graduate school, there are also sprints, when you are running experiments on a tight timeline, writing papers and teaching classes! For the majority of the marathon, runners are working to maintain positive progress towards the finish line. In my opinion, this is what graduate students should strive for in pursuit of their PhD, consistent forward progress with sprint sets sprinkled in.

To maintain this positive progress, it is important for graduate students to define their boundaries. This definition of boundaries is different for each student, it could be hitting the waves in the morning, being home in time for dinner with your family or limiting weekend work hours. Coming into graduate school, I made a commitment to myself to make time for my physical and mental health. However early in my graduate education, I went through a period where I found myself sprinting in this race. I felt my physical health slipping as I didn’t have time to prepare healthy meals or exercise and as a result my mental health deteriorated. I was getting less sleep and there were too many nights where I ate cereal for dinner at 10 pm. I had reached my limit. My mental and physical exhaustion made me question whether I made the right decision to pursue graduate education or if I was even passionate about science. This experience made me realize how critical it was to define my boundaries to keep myself from sprinting at the sound of the gun. For where I was in my career, I was able to leave an environment that was not well suited for the balance I want in graduate school. I was in a fortunate position to be able to leave, but this experience has driven me to encourage students to establish boundaries early in their careers. By moving to an environment where I can set my boundaries, I was able to get back to a healthier diet and my normal workout routine as well as restore my passion for scientific research and desire to obtain my PhD.

After being given the advice that a PhD is a marathon and not a sprint, I still got caught up in the excitement of sprinting at the sound of the gun. Although I wish I did not have to go through those months of physical and mental exhaustion, I now see the value in establishing limits and determining your boundaries. I advise all graduate students to establish their limits early in their career (and find an environment best suited for establishing those boundaries) to maintain their physical and mental health as well as continue positive progress toward their degree.


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