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A Ph.D. thesis is not really a marathon

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.

11 Comments

  1. David says:

    Would that I could, I would bottle this up:

    “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.”

    And make everyone I know drink it every morning for breakfast. There is a spectacular amount of nuance lost in hand-waving arguments painting pictures with broad strokes.

  2. David says:

    No need to let this comment through the filter. For some reason, your comment system doesn’t seem to have picked up my snarky strikethrough markup around the “hand-waving arguments” .

  3. […] Not to say I agree with all of it. There’s a recent post comparing thesis writing to a marathon, which is a superficially-plausible but bad analogy for reasons Thomas Basbøll lays out. […]

  4. zbicyclist says:

    Ways in which they are similar

    1. There’s a lot of gruntwork involved in both that isn’t glamorous.

    2. Most people only do one, and once they do it they don’t do anything similar again.

    3. It’s sort of a badge (PhD sometimes called a “union card”).

    4. A lot of people complete them who aren’t all that impressive. You wonder how they managed to do it.

    5. If you don’t pay attention to the markers, you can get lost on the route.

    5. People can help you train, but in the end it’s you running/defending.

    6. Less time is better.

    7. It’s good if your results are good enough to get published.

    • K? O'Rourke says:

      7a? The only real purpose is to prove if you happen accross an opportunity to do something important, you have the ability to see it through.

  5. Jeremy Fox says:

    (Further) ways in which they are dissimilar:

    1. Few of the best theses are written by people from Kenya and Ethiopia, but many of the best marathons are run by people from those countries.

    2. All the best marathoners run lots of marathons.

    3. Writing a thesis is not ordinarily associated with risk of blisters or shin splints.

    4. Training at high altitude can enhance your ability to run a marathon, but not write a thesis.

    5. Same for blood doping.

    6. Your performance in a marathon is assessed by one agreed, universal metric (time), which can be measured quite accurately by a machine. Your performance on your thesis is assessed by a committee of humans according to much fuzzier criteria.

    7. People often run marathons to raise money for charities.

  6. Ethan Bolker says:

    This doesn’t address the question of the similarity (or not) between writing theses and running marathons. But it does help people get theses written:

    Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/080504891X/qid=901826172/sr=1-2/002-4265143-0526064

    Truth in advertising: my wife wrote it.

  7. Phil says:

    There’s a really important way in which they’re similar, though: if you simply keep at it long enough, you will eventually finish.

    • Thomas says:

      No, Phil, that’s my point. A PhD dissertation is not something you “just keep at”, like you might “keep at” (walking) a marathon route and then finish. Writing-a-PhD-thesis-like-“just keeping at”-a-marathon would be like walking the route for 30 minutes every day and then going back to your family and your job for the rest of the day and then return to the marathon route the next day and running for 30 minutes. The analogy simply doesn’t hold.

      I’m sort of adamant about this because of what zbicyclist said above, namely, “Most people only do one, and once they do it they don’t do anything similar again,” which is also wrong, at least about PhD dissertation writing. The way you write a thesis is one paragraph at a time, which is how you will do all your subsequent writing as a scholar too.

    • K? O'Rourke says:

      Phil:

      If I recall, in US Universities, the non-completion rate is as high as 50% in some fields.

      (Strangly, this was being presented at Duke in 2008 by a bunch of University deany types (Deans and VPs), but their research student had not heard of survival analysis and was just presenting the results for those with complete follow-up).

      But it is alarmingly high.