What I talk about when I talk about running (and doing a doctorate at Oxford)

Juan David running
Juan David at the National Cross Country Championships

“Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day”, wrote Haruki Murakami in his 2007 best seller What I talk about when I talk about running. I cannot be as assertive as the famous contemporary Japanese writer, but running has significantly influenced my life and my current doctoral research at Oxford University. For me, running on a regular basis is not just a matter of physical and mental wellbeing; running is also a constant source of ideas, such as writing this piece.

I started a DPhil (PhD) programme in public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government in fall 2014, and since then I have enjoyed all the possible and beautiful routes that Oxford city offers for runners. Moreover, I have run races in different cities of the UK and successfully finished my first marathon at Manchester a couple of weeks ago.

Training for a marathon not only helped me to cope with winter, but also gave me a better perspective of what doing a doctoral research means. I will give you eight reasons why the analogy between training for a marathon and doing a doctorate may render interesting insights about the nature of these activities.

1. Endurance and rhythm. Long-term projects are not about small sprints, but about constant and patient effort. Training does not render its benefits when you run 21k one day and then procrastinate the rest of the week. Similarly, a doctorate requires coping with a rhythm where you repeat similar processes over and over. Basically, you require a persistent pace of reading, drafting, re-drafting and discussing your research with colleagues on a daily basis.

2. Self-discipline and independence. Having an experienced coach in sports or knowledgeable supervisors in a doctorate is key for staying on track. But progress depends entirely on your determination. Setting your own schedule and planning ahead are important to stay focused on the final goal. For example, setting a daily routine for writing your ideas, even if it is just for half an hour, is a very fruitful exercise that depends entirely on you.

3. Staying focused. Concentration is a key trait of good runners. Similarly, a doctorate requires you to stay focused on your ultimate output: finishing your thesis. This does not mean that you should disregard other academic, social and cultural opportunities. Such attitude would be counter-productive. Besides, having time to do things different from your research project is one of the DPhil’s charms. However, progress in your research demands concencentration and prioritizing.

4. Training and best practices. Talent may determine the result of any endeavour, but training will definitely take you beyond. There are different training methods for a marathon or for a doctorate, but only following your instincts is not a good idea. Millions of people have undertaken your same route before you, and there is much to learn from them. Reading “how to” texts, especially evidence-based guidance, is key for an amateur runner and researcher. In the case of a doctorate, the Oxford Learning Institute has a wealth of resources in case you are considering on doing a DPhil.

The Isis towpath in Oxford
The Isis towpath in Oxford

5. Making mistakes and adjusting is part of the journey. Decisions on which paths to take are ultimately your own responsibility. Hence, novice marathoners and doctorate students may take “wrong turns”. Researching is an iterative process, where initial plans may change as you learn more about your subject or as you analyse the data you collect. Thus, being able to redirect your trajectory is a crucial skill.

6. Setting clear and achievable goals. When you plan to train for a marathon you start by defining a desired finishing time. Similarly, one of the first milestones of a DPhil student consists on framing a pertinent research question and designing an adequate research strategy. Sports coaches and DPhil supervisors are very strict on controlling the clarity and feasibility of your plans. Otherwise, the goals may not be achieved at all. Hence, it is important to know your limitations and set clear and achievable objectives.

7. Peer and family support. Training for a marathon and doing a DPhil has ups and downs. As much as I like running, reading and writing, the process is not a bed of roses. Since these long-term projects entail physical and mental challenges, it is necessary to have support from your peers, friends and family. I cannot understate the importance of the milieu where you study and of the role of friends and family in keeping you afloat. Engaging with peers in a regular basis may inspire new avenues of research and the love from your family will keep your spirits high when in need.

8.    Marathons and doctorates are not for every one.  As much as I like doctoral life and running, I don’t think everyone should feel the same. Not everyone enjoys hours of pounding with your feet or sitting days and days reading and writing on the same subject. Even for experienced athletes and researchers, the routine may be hard. Hence, if you intend to do a DPhil or run a marathon, be sure that you feel passionate about it.

I have enjoyed the process of becoming an independent researcher at Oxford as much as running in the city’s cobbled streets, parks, meadows and river paths. There is a symbiosis between these activities: running takes me out of my desk, helps me ponder arguments and ideas, relaxes me, releases valuable endorphins, and then when I come back I am ready to sit in my desk and confront the blank screen… This reminds me that I should go back to my process of reading, writing and re-writing and wish you the best if you think a marathon or a doctorate is your next goal.

Juan D. Gutiérrez-Rodríguez is studying for a DPhil in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government.

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