Sink or swim?



Anyone who has swum for exercise will know it can be grueling. We are talking about lap-swimming-in-a-pool for exercise here (not long, leisurely strokes in the warm Pacific Ocean for example). Both of us love to swim (well, ‘love’ might be a stretch for Michelle) and at the end of a recent #ShutupandWrite session, we talked about our respective progress with our swimming. During the discussion, we realised there are many parallels between swimming and writing a research thesis. So let’s jump in:

It is hard to get started and warm up, even with instructions and lanes to follow

When you first jump in the pool, there is a sense of both excitement and duty. You know a challenge lies ahead. The first few laps are the hardest as your body adjusts to being in the water. It is a struggle to regulate breathing as you adjust to the underwater-world. Swimming with limited breath can sometimes feel scary, but once you slow down and let yourself flow into the rhythm, you gradually unwind and take control. You recall the coach’s instructions and concentrate on the lane markers below – eyes pinned to floor. Focus, focus, focus, turn – and now onto the second lap.

Getting in the flow is pure joy

Like starting a research thesis, getting started is often the hardest part of the swim. The initial wobbliness is forgotten as you use your stroke to find rhythm. Perseverance is as essential to swimming laps as it is to writing a thesis. Gliding through the water without a worry in the world can be like the initial drafting of the thesis. Once you really discover what your research question is and better still, you think you know how to answer the question, writing can be pure pleasure. Maybe you will contribute something towards solving that biggest of environmental (or social) dilemmas of the 21st century.

Sometimes it hurts after a big session and you just need to rest

Usually after a big swim you feel exhausted. Goals have been set and attained. However, thinking about how challenging that swim was and how much you have yet to overcome is scary. Like in swimming, ‘thesis triumphs’ are short-lived as you realise this was only one day out of one thousand and ninety-five (365 x 3 years). The Imposter’s voice starts, “Maybe I should get out now while I can” and “What was I thinking taking this on?” Do not entertain said Imposter. Instead of swimming that extra lap (or writing for just one more hour), finish your session on a high and leave yourself wanting more. The next day your body will thank you. Remember, if you finish a session feeling defeated rather than exhilarated, it makes it that much harder to start-up again next time.

Sometimes there is no time to rest (and the coach won’t let you)

Rest in short breaks and rest in moderation. It is no good swimming flat out until you can’t swim anymore and then taking a long break. When you return to swimming after getting out of routine, it is harder to achieve your goals. Sometimes there are deadlines to be met “10 x 100 metres in 20 minutes”, and your coach is watching. Remember you approached your coach (or someone approached them on your behalf) because you knew you could achieve this goal with some support, so you had better listen to what they say. In the beginning, the coach will explain the finer details – lift your arm higher out of the water more, pull your stroke right through…but as you improve and grow in confidence, you will need your coach less. This also holds for doing a research thesis- enjoy your supervisor’s interest in your progress (and the cheering as you earn it) because it will not last forever.

Swimmers around you may not be swimming at your pace – swim your own race

All swimmers need to swim at their own pace. If you start too slow, you feel left behind. But if you start too fast, you risk peaking too early. Swimming is less about intensity as it is about patience and perseverance. The first two laps always feel hard, not matter how fit you are. But get through them and you fall into a languid, fluid stroke. Just like swimmers, graduate researchers need to swim their own race. Sometimes you feel productive and awesome, other times you feel overcome. However, persevere, set your own goals and do not compare yourself to those around you. This is your race.

You need to sprint at the end – it’s the only way to make it on time

Most PhD students in the ‘final-lap’ of their thesis are sprinting. You know the research thesis is a marathon not a sprint, but like any good marathon swimmer, you know you need to sprint the final lap. You want to bring it home strong. The final lap is the best lap and you swim your best time on the home stretch. Once you reach your final lap, everything has crystalised. You have relaxed into your stroke, got your breathing pattern under control and you feel like you could keep going forever. In the final-lap’ of the a research thesis, you know what you are talking about and better still have the ability to express it up clearly. The end stretch needs to be focused for you to finish on a high.

So what have we learnt and what can we do differently:

Accountability is key – be it your peers, your family or friends. Writing goals are short-lived if you have no-one to be accountable to and worse still, no one to share your successes with (note the use of the plural here, because there will be many).

Perseverance is essential.
You have probably heard it said a research thesis is 10% intelligence and 90% perseverance. Don’t force yourself into going too fast at the beginning; remember it is a marathon, not a sprint. Make sure you leave enough energy for your final lap. You will definitely want to sprint then!

Savour your energy. When you are feeling worn down after a big session, be kind to yourself. Rest and regain your strength. Remember; try not to finish each session feeling exhausted. Always, reserve a bit of energy for what’s around the corner.

Does our swimming metaphor resonate for you? Do you participate in a sport that has taught you something about writing a postgraduate thesis? Do you disagree? We would love to hear from you. Post your thoughts on twitter using the hash tag #sinkorswim