I’ve long held the belief that a PhD is the longest continuous single project one person will work on in their life. When combined with your undergraduate degree it is longer than primary school, or high school — with no term breaks. And few an (unlucky) few of you, your PhD will be/is longer than high school or primary school without adding in undergraduate.
Unlike school, it is essentially all down to you to self-educate and then complete. Yes, there are supervisors, and tech-support and graduate schools. But designing experiments, collecting data, collating it, analysing it and then reporting it as your thesis is all YOU.
Even established academics have a larger number of support people — think other academics, PhD students, and post docs.
Even if they lack the support, the projects are rarely 3 years.
And if we take a step outside academia, there are definitely large and long projects. Construction comes to mind. Bridges. Buildings. Tunnels. But again, that’s a team of people. And rarely does the same manager or worker start the project and stay there to the end. There are promotions. Other projects to manage. So people move around.
I’m sure some of you will read this and challenge me — go for it. Maybe other than your PhD, the next most enduring piece of work is an academic project/grant.
So, PhD’s require endurance, and then so does an academic career.
How can you build that muscle? How can you get good at projects that go for years without first trying projects that go for years?
I think the key is to undertake activities that are endurance on a small scale. Things that require extended thinking and focus. But on a minutes scale not a years scale.
For example, running. I already wrote about the impact and value of endurance running on my resilience. And I think that is the first way to build your endurance. Start an endurance running habit. Maybe you’ll start out running for distance (e.g., 3, 5, and 10 kms) and then start running for time (e.g., how far can you run in 50 minutes). As I wrote in that blog, it’ll teach you about overcoming obstacles, making progress in the absence of motivation, training through adversity. And you’ll get a sense of achievement as your times decrease and your distance increases.
The second example is starting a meditation practice. Doing meditation has taught me so much about what it means to be still and quiet for a long period of time (up to an hour). To be comfortable with myself. To be comfortable with my own thoughts. To be comfortable when uncomfortable. To know that I’m stuck meditating and I’ll have to wait the allotted time before I can stop. To delay gratification. This is building your endurance muscle. Just like with running, start out small (2 to 5 minutes) and then increase the time (out to whatever works for you). Start with something achievable, such as a guided meditation, and then move to silent meditations. If you want to take things to the next level, attend a silent retreat (I’m yet to do that, but it is on my list).
The third activity that I think can build your endurance muscle is fasting. Now, this may seem a bit far-fetched, but hear me out. Especially if you have not fasted before. Firstly, by fasting (I’m taking 24 hours here, and you’re allowed water) you’ll quickly learn the difference between hunger, thirst, and boredom. I think a lot of people, me included, eat our feelings. So if we are bored — we eat. Sad — we eat. Happy — we eat. Anxious — we eat. By fasting once a week for a month or every month for a year or perhaps as part of your religious beliefs you’ll better understand the connection between your feelings and your eating. You’ll learn ways to control or manage your feelings, so they are less connected to eating. And this regulation is part of building your endurance muscle. It is learning and practicing delaying gratification.
Sometimes all you need is an independent umpire. Someone who can read a room, learn about your research quickly and get to an outcome. As a Centre Director, Faculty Dean or University Vice-Chancellor, leading your team through a planning and development exercise is almost impossible. You’re either too deep in the discussion — perhaps even pushing things in a very specific direction — with your team reluctant to bring you back. Or, you’re avoiding making reasonable suggestions, because you don’t want to be that boss.
Dr Richard Huysmans can help with annual plans, building teams or new initiatives, or refining existing activities. If you need help or advice with your strategy and planning get in touch via phone (0412 606 178), email ( ) or subscribe to the newsletter . You can find him on , , , , , , , , and .