Sink or Swim?

This post is the joint effort of Victoria Graham and Michelle Redman-MacLaren, both of James Cook University.

Victoria is passionate about conservation biology and has dedicated the last four years studying just this. She loves to write and is currently completing an MPhil at James Cook University investigating the potential of a carbon incentive scheme for mitigating climate change and conserving forests in Southeast Asia. You can read about Victoria’s research here.

Michelle is an Australian social worker/public health researcher who has worked in rural, remote and international settings for over 20 years. Passionate about the Pacific, Michelle currently facilitates research capacity strengthening in PNG and Solomon Islands and is completing her PhD about HIV prevention with women in PNG. You can read about Michelle’s research here.

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 3.19.52 pmAnyone 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

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34 thoughts on “Sink or Swim?

  1. Sandy O'Sullivan says:

    I like the idea of a writing process being focused, I think it can help. I also think whatever tricks work in getting a research candidate not overthinking this is helpful, because just getting in there and doing it is great. I do worry about these 10%, 90% notions of inspiration/perseverance, and these sports analogies that align, like it’s something to get through (whether the marathon or the sprint). Is it research training where you learn stuff on the way and are trained in research (to do it later, to have it be a part of your life), or is it just about finishing and getting over the hurdle (okay now I’m using sports analogies).

    My concern with this is what happens when this doesn’t work? And it doesn’t for everyone. I can honestly say that not only would I have never gotten a PhD, but many research candidates I’ve supervised would never have gotten them or worked in research beyond them if they thought it was about sprinting to the end. What if you fall? Is that failure (staying with the analogy) or do you get up and… oh, lordy, seriously it’s just so reductive. I’d much rather think that someone might stop in the middle, go off and have a coffee, read something, ignore your coach and talk to someone else, go back to your coach and ask them about what that other person said, think, talk, regroup and start it all again when they are able. How does that work as a sports analogy? My fundamental problem with this is that it blames the research candidate and sets them up as having all of these resources that should allow them to ‘win’ (finish, whatever it is), as though it’s the only goal. Good luck getting a post-doc or doing further research with that.

    • michelleredman says:

      Dear Sandy, thank you for your thoughtful comments. You are right- this is a reductive analogy that has limitations. The value of this familiar sporting analogy for me (Victoria may have a different response) was that it reflected some structure when structure was hard to find. It helped describe a recursion of process between my sporting activities and my academic pursuits that helped me when I felt a bit lost in my study (which I hear is a common experience when I meet with fellow PhD candidates). My experience when finalising my draft thesis was that I did have to stay focused and stick with it to get it done (with mini breaks, of course). As a mother, a partner, a community member and a worker, the PhD was one of my many goals and this analogy helped me be clearer about the process.

      • Sandy O'Sullivan says:

        Oh I’m so sorry I wrote this ridiculously early this morning and I just re-read what I wrote! I meant to say more about how useful it is to consider these moments in this way before I was banging on about the other stuff. I think my main complaints are nothing to do with your very thoughtful piece and far more to do with the lamentable process that requires people to prove skills, instead of spend time in real training. I think you’re dealing perfectly with a reality of it. The annoying part is that you have to use this approach at all… it’s not common to life as a career researcher (nor should it be) because it’s just unsustainable, frustrating and forgets that we need time with the work at every stage. And I realise, too, that in my mind’s view of the ‘race’ I’m probably focusing on speed, rather than agility and order. There’s a cleverness to the mapping and I redact my original concerns with your analogy and place them on the feet of a government that funds the Research Training Scheme for at least a year short of the idea. In fact I suspect that Csiksentmihalyi’s idea of the ‘flow’ is as much applicable to sport as it is to the race to the finish… finding yourself in these out of time moments where the world stops and you get lost in the work for mere minutes at a time, which is – according to his theories – enough time to effect change or action. So… I guess maybe it’s not even a metaphor there.

  2. yaseminilkay says:

    Reblogged this on Kelebeğin Tez Günlüğü and commented:
    geçtiğimiz yaz deniz korkumu yenmenin bir kazanım olduğunu düşünebilir miyim o halde? 🙂 demek ki neymiş? hem tez yazarken hem de yüzerken ‘ritim’ önemli bir meseleymiş… 🙂 ee ben de dememiş miydim, tez yazmak göle açılıp okyanusta kaybolmaya benzer diye… Keyifli bir yazı. İyi okumalar yazmalar efenim…

  3. Bridget says:

    Thanks for your post. I’ve found the marathon analogy helpful throughout my PhD to remind myself just to set my pace and keep at it. The sprint analogy I’ve found tricky. I’m just at the cusp of what I hope/think is my last three months. Just like in a race, I’m wondering, do I start sprinting now? Will I be able to keep the pace or is it too soon? But more difficult is the question, can I really sprint at all given I have kids and have very fixed hours I can realistically do work in? The sprint analogy might be a burden (something I should be doing but can’t) rather than a help.

  4. Tori Graham (@ToriGraham_Aust) says:

    Hi Bridget, thanks for sharing your comment. The tendency to sprint in the immediate lead-up to a deadline would be different for everyone. I imagine it can also be in different forms; whether it is putting in more hours, working faster or simply being more focused. For me personally, it is a combination of all of those. As the end of anything substantial approaches, I feel that high (running on adrenaline) to reach the finish and get the extra motivation to move along. With the PhD/MPhil, I can only imagine there would be many false starts with the sprint, when we believe we are closer to the end than we really are.

  5. nico says:

    this is really great. It touches something in me because during my first month of PhD my director told me ‘around here you either sink or swim’. Unfortunately, it was not such a beautiful analogy as you have presented here. It was more like when my father threw me in the pool at 6 yrs old. Haha….now I have finished and I did not sink, only there is a new game in the pool which is big fish eat the little one…..

  6. Dani says:

    Love the analogy guys- I’m a postdoc who spent yesterday writing a journal article, and I can entirely relate- I loved swimming (writing) my thesis once I got into the swing of it, and it is a major reason I decided to stay in academia.

    So I guess on that note- know that if you do want to stay in academia, then you will be swimming laps for a while – so start training and enjoying it during your thesis years, as having a positive attitude towards it pays off once the “publish or perish” cloud seems to be hanging around constantly on the horizon!

  7. pindanletters says:

    Thanks for your blog Michelle and Tori! I hope my PhD is not like my last attempt at swimming. It was in Broome at Cable Beach. I’m not a swimmer but decided to give it a go, on a social swim. It was an unusually wavy day for Cable Beach and although my limbs were moving, I essentially didn’t move! A little while in the murky warm ocean, watching my friends get smaller and smaller, thinking about what may be lurking underneath, I decided I’d revert to my strength which is jogging 😉 It’s funny, because I still feel as though I am showing weakness and even failing if I can’t ‘conquer’ this skill of swimming. As though I need to master every skill that my body is capable of…

    Perhaps as long as I look at swimming as my pet ‘failure’ and I am motivated to conquer it only to prove myself better, rather than, say, enjoy myself (!) or just make a game of it, it won’t happen. And perhaps it’s the same with my PhD tasks…

    But running is my real love (after years and years of cultivating it mind you!). I have run two half marathons in the last two years. The first year I trained by myself. I wouldn’t push myself overly hard and if I wanted to walk little stretches, I would. On the day of the half marathon (~20kms), I got to the last 5 kms and I was in struggle town. I was battling my mind more than anything, which had had enough. I walked a little, then forced myself to keep jogging. I did a PB but it wasn’t particularly fun.

    The following year (last year) I had a running buddy, the first time I have ever consistently run with anyone. Often neither of us wanted to run. But my friend would turn up on my doorstep none-the-less and off we’d go. We didn’t run at the same pace, but she was always there. She set one rule for us “Never walk”. “You can slow your pace down, but never ever walk” she coached, as she had been coached. At first my inner voice said “I can’t be told what to do”, but the challenge had been set. After a few months, I didn’t feel like walking anymore. My friend also introduced me to running nutrition – we bought little gel packs to suck on during the race and we tried them out on a training run beforehand. Which reminds me of her other key advice: “Never do anything new during the race. Make sure you’ve tried everything out first, your gel pack, your clothes, your socks, even your undies”.

    During the half marathon that year I had the time of my life. Unlike the first year, the last 5 kms were the best. I was enjoying myself so much I practically skipped the last few kms. I had trained, I had what I needed, I was ready.

    So, after that long story, I feel my running (especially my running friend) has taught me some good principles. Find my pace and stick to it. At the times that I feel like avoiding a task I have set (and I want to ‘walk’), just keep pushing through, no matter how slow, and trust that I fill find my groove eventually. I should also continue to ‘try out’ all of those skills that I will require to submit my thesis; writing, editing, analysis, writing and more writing. Also, I think I should find my PhD buddy, someone who will turn up at my door to write even (especially) when I don’t feel like it. An online ‘shut up and write’ community comes to mind, which I am yet to join (I’m an external student).

    Thanks again Michelle and Tori for your thought-provoking post!

    (PS. I’ve also used this response as a blog on my own page )

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Michelle- your running experiences sounded amazing! I really liked your comment, “trust that I fill find my groove eventually.” I am sure everyone’s groove is different, but it is a pleasure when it is found! Thanks for sharing your blog post with us! ps I will be in Broome in a couple of weeks- will have to try a swim there for you 🙂

  9. the édu flâneuse says:

    Michelle and Tori, I really enjoyed this post. The analogy of swimming (and sinking!) seems apt for the PhD.
    You balance elements such as the individual slog (‘this is your race’) and the coach/supervisor role, reminding us that it is not a solo journey. There are certainly peaks and troughs: flow time, rest time, out-with-injury-time and sprint-like-crazy time!
    I think metaphors like this can help candidates visualise their way to the finish.

  10. thegrailquest says:

    I have completed my PhD in English 1 year ago, and I am actively involved in equestrian sport. Like PhD, working with horses, especially young horses, you need tonnes of patience and daring/courage. At times it feels like you are making no progress, or, worse, one step forward two steps backwards (deleting the pages you have written before, for instance). Then in a week, you are back, and your stubborn misbehaving foolish horse is an intelligent little agent. You capitalise on your success for a while, then again you hit the wall. Horse taught me: don’t hurry, but never give up.
    By the way, I work at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education, so I read and think a lot about sport and research. Thank you for the article – it will be something to discuss with my students next time

  11. michelleredman says:

    Thanks for sharing this new angle of equestrian sport. I liked the ‘horse’ wisdom you shared, “don’t hurry, but never give up.” Thank you and all the best, Michelle

  12. Carla Jardim (@CarlaJardim89) says:

    I think this metaphor is spot-on. I started teaching myself to swim about two and a half years ago and I realised the other day that so many of the mental habits that I’ve developed through learning to swim are direclty applicable to the PhD, and you’ve identified all of them.

  13. Sharon Ford says:

    But what do you do when you start to experience the illusion of paralysis during the last laps of that swim? I have written five chapters of my dissertation, the first three needed for the defense of the proposal (which went swimmingly well, sorry could not resist), followed by data collection and now the process of analysis, findings, and interpretation. My chair exists I am so close, yet I feel so far away finishing even a first draft of the last two chapters. Feelings, real or not, of incompetence are interfering to the point of missing deadlines.

  14. Tori Graham (@ToriGraham_Aust) says:

    Hi Sharon, that sounds like a tough place.. Would love to hear how you get past it. I think getting feedback on what you have done so far – as unpolished as it may be – is always a good start. Sometimes getting a fresh pair of eyes to look at it is all you need to keep going. Good luck!

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