Comparing the Ph.D. Program to a Marathon

by Gary Grobman

In my Ph.D. program, the director always referred to his Ph.D. program as a marathon, not a sprint. As someone who was, and still is, a competitive runner at distances from 400 meters to the marathon, I often shared my irritation with that analogy.

Yes, I would concede, there are some things in common between this program and a marathon. It does help to keep a steady pace and not get too distracted and upset by minor, mid-course corrections and strategies in your plan to complete the event. One such common mid-course correction for me during both the Ph.D. program and the marathon was the uncontrollable urge to scurry as quickly as possible to the side of the road (or out of the classroom or dissertation proposal meeting) and spill my cookies.

Both running a marathon and getting a Ph.D. require no special talent and can be achieved by almost anyone who is willing to do the training and pay the “entry” fee. Marathons and Ph.D. programs can be competitive or noncompetitive. Running the marathon, runners can work together to provide the psychological support needed to finish—many runners who have met for the first time during the race will bond, run together, and share the triumph by finishing arm in arm. Or runners who are competing engage in tactics that try to break their competitors physically and psychologically, in order to be the first to cross the finish line. Some Ph.D. programs purposely isolate their students, discourage collaborations, and pit students against each other. Other programs, such as the one in which I taught, encourage group projects, and try to build a community among their student populations.

Both finishing a marathon and completing a Ph.D. program are significant, lifetime accomplishments, which convey bragging rights to those who complete them successfully. Only a limited number of people do so—although it isn’t clear whether this is because few people can or few people choose to because they know better (or perhaps because they have read this book). It is common to hear marathoners say that in a marathon, when they reach the 20-mile mark with 6.2 to go, they’ve just started the race. In the same way, completing your classwork and comprehensive exams is a significant milestone; it only gives you a hint about whether you will finish the program successfully, as the “race” to the finish has just begun when and if you reach the milestone of starting your dissertation.

And you could make the case that a Master’s program is a sprint in comparison.

My own experience is a salient validation of this point. I was in a mid-career Master’s in Public Administration program at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. I could schedule any courses I wanted from the entire Harvard campus, provided at least four were offered by the Kennedy School. I had hundreds of courses to choose from each term, all of which would “count.” I needed just eight courses to graduate. School began in September. My graduation was the following second week of June. I hardly figured out where the bathrooms in my building were by the time I was presented with my sheepskin. I didn’t want this educational experience to end. But I knew in advance it could end, and could end with me receiving my degree if I scheduled and passed enough courses. I took 11 courses and sat in on parts of others. I learned a lot of useful skills and met some really interesting people, both student and professors. Among my professors were the Democratic Party’s standard bearer in the 1988 Presidential election, a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, and President Carter’s Domestic Affairs Advisor. Some of my student colleagues had been cabinet members of national governments and were potential heads of state. And most important, of the 165 students in the program, 163 received their Master’s degrees, as I recall.

In contrast, my Ph.D. program had no standard requirement for the credits needed to advance to the stage at which one was finished with classwork and ready to take comprehensive examinations. A candidate got to that stage when the doctoral committee agreed that it was time. There were required classes to take in the program, but they were offered infrequently, and there were many instances of students in the program being unable to even take one course that would “count.” No one really could be sure how many courses were needed to pass. Other scheduling problems tended to stretch the time students would be in the program. And, unlike in my Master’s program, it was my opinion that my colleagues tended to be all burned out losers, like I had become, with little future other than the hope that they might be able to jump-start their failing careers if they could only obtain a Ph.D. and start over. Most of my colleagues who were not burned out losers, and there were some, quickly realized that they would inevitably become that way if they didn’t catapult themselves as far away from the program as possible and as hastily as they could. And for these, finding a way to leave the program with their dignity intact became a sprint, not a marathon.

Dr. Grobman’s Ten Differences Between a Marathon and a Ph.D. Program

  1. In a marathon, you pay your race fee upfront and receive detailed instructions about the course and amenities available along the route. If a marathon were administered like a Ph.D. program, you would make a small payment at the beginning of the race, and you would have no idea what the final costs would be for completing each segment of the race. As you passed each milestone, you would be required to make a payment based on whatever the market would bear, and if for some reason you weren’t able to make that payment, you would be summarily removed from the race, even if you had only a mile to go to the finish.
  2. In a marathon, when you get to mile 25, it would be quite unusual for the race directors to make a decision to lengthen the course to 30 miles because they don’t quite think you are “ready” to finish the race or they’ve judged that you haven’t expended enough energy to justify completion.
  3. Marathon officials generally let you run the course unimpeded, rather than having the course monitors come out and try to trip you or otherwise knock you down so you can’t ever reach the finish line.
  4. In a marathon, the closer you get to the finish line, the less distance you have to go to complete the course. In a doctoral program, this is not necessarily the case!
  5. In a marathon, all of the competitors run the same course, at the same time, under the same conditions, and get rewarded based on their effort. You don’t win the race simply because you were physically attractive, because you brown-nosed the race director, or because the officials capriciously moved the finish line up or back a few miles only for you to meet some political agenda. Women and men alike run the same distance. In many Ph.D. programs, women are asked to do more simply because they are believed by predominantly male faculty to be more easily exploited and because they are seen to have a higher threshold for pain.
  6. In a marathon, the physical and emotional pain one suffers is usually temporary. In a Ph.D. program, the emotional scars almost never heal.
  7. In a marathon, only a few people have died trying to complete one. This is not the case for students in Ph.D. programs, who die of old age, heart disease, cancer, and other maladies before they finish their programs, either triggered by or exacerbated by the stress of being in a program. And this list does not include those who died as a result of doctoral students “going postal” or inflicting fatal wounds upon themselves.
  8. You can drop out of a marathon at any point for any reason with few consequences. Okay, perhaps you have wasted your entry fee, although you still get to keep the commemorative T- shirt, gorge yourself on Gatorade and energy bars, and revel at the post-race party. If things don’t seem to go right, particularly at the beginning, you can wait for the straggler bus and enter another marathon the following week. Dropping out of a Ph.D. program has more serious consequences. You’ve wasted years of your life and have virtually nothing to show for it— as the actual “educational value” (i.e., education that can be applied to making your real life decisions better) of typical Ph.D. level classes is typically only a fraction of comparable classes at the Master’s level, if there is any educational value at all. It is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to be admitted to another Ph.D. program once you drop out of one.
  9. You have a good chance of successfully completing your marathon once the gun goes off and you have made it to the start. It is not unusual for more than 95% of starters of a marathon to finish. This compares to well less than half of Ph.D. program “starters” in the social sciences successfully crossing the “finish line.” And finishing a marathon is mostly dependent on things within your control, such as your training, your diet, and your stick-to-itiveness. In a Ph.D. program, finishing depends on the good will of your faculty, the internal politics of the program, blind luck, and many other factors that you cannot control.
  10. Running a marathon is fun.


The above is an excerpt from Just Don’t Do It: A Fractured and Irreverent Look at the Ph.D. Culture, to be published by White Hat Communications (print edition) and Science and Humanities Press (Kindle Edition) in January 2010.©2010 Gary M. Grobman. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission from the author.
Comparing the Ph.D. Program to a Marathon