Thomas Basbøll writes:
A blog called The Thesis Whisperer was recently pointed out to me. I [Basbøll] haven’t looked at it closely, but I’ll be reading it regularly for a while before I recommend it. I’m sure it’s a good place to go to discover that you’re not alone, especially when you’re struggling with your dissertation. One post caught my eye immediately. It suggested that writing a thesis is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
As a metaphorical adjustment to a particular attitude about writing, it’s probably going to help some people. But if we think it through, it’s not really a very good analogy. No one is really a “sprinter”; and writing a dissertation is nothing like running a marathon. . . .
Here’s Ben’s explication of the analogy at the Thesis Whisperer, which seems initially plausible.
…writing a dissertation is a lot like running a marathon. They are both endurance events, they last a long time and they require a consistent and carefully calculated amount of effort to complete them and not burn out.
But writing a dissertation is a not a single “event” and really doesn’t require “consistent” effort. Certainly not the kind of effort that you have a finite amount of energy for at the beginning of the process (which is what it is: a process not an event). It’s a long term project that you work on in bits and pieces, in fact, one paragraph at a time. It doesn’t really take endurance because you will be taking regular breaks and you’ll be recharging your energy every day. . . .
Writing a dissertation, then, is, if anything, like training for a marathon. And here’s the good news. As some fitness experts will tell you. Running a marathon is not actually healthy. It’s the preparation for the marathon, the regular training, running up to a half-marathon that actually improves your health. It’s not actually an “endurance event”. A little bit of work every day will do. Running the marathon itself wears you down; it makes you less healthy.
Basbøll makes some good points and I think he’s right. The question then arises: What makes the thesis/marathon analogy so appealing (and it is appealing; before reading Basbøll’s demolition of the idea, it seemed completely reasonable to me, at least much more reasonable than statements such as, “Daffy Duck was the first black actor to make it big in Hollywood on his own terms”)?
I’ll take a stab at this. I see two appealing things about connecting a Ph.D. thesis with a marathon:
1. Both activities are similar to what came before (writing term papers for a student, training runs of a few miles for a marathoner) but are qualitatively different. A thesis is not (supposed to be) just a longer version of a term paper, and most of us can’t just run a marathon by extending our usual five-mile run for four hours. (I can testify to the latter; first my legs started to cramp up, then I started to get out of breath, and eventually I felt like my whole mind and body were disintegrating. On the downside, once I started to walk, it felt even worse.)
2. Graduate students generally don’t get much respect. Some people mock them for studying politically-correct or hyperspecialized topics, others point to their exploitation at the expense of universities, etc. If you like graduate students and want them to be happy, it’s natural to want to say nice things about them. Saying a thesis is like running the marathon, that’s a respectful thing to say. It’s a compliment: it’s hard to run a marathon!
There’s also this point, also from Basbøll:
Very few dissertation writers actually do either (sprint or run marathons). So to say that writing a dissertation is “like” these things is really to compare something writers (presumably) have a distorted view of with something they know very little about.
This connects to something that Basbøll and I have been discussing a lot lately: the importance of specificity in stories, the idea that, even if a story is used merely as an analogy or an illustration, much can be learned by interrogating it and picking at the places where its details don’t fit the theory to which it’s being applied.