No Salad for Long Distance Runners

The PhD Journey and the Time Factor

Some weeks before I started my PhD journey I had met a woman at a friend’s birthday party. The atmosphere was great, the food delicious. She asked me what I was doing and I said – proudly – that I would begin taking a PhD soon. That I was looking forward very much to this adventure, my only fear (I said “horror” to be precise) was that it might take too many years. I knew some people who had needed six or even more years to finish! “And”, I asked her, taking a second helping of the spaghetti carbonara, “what are you doing?” “Well”, she replied, gripping her glass perhaps a little bit too tense, “I am doing my PhD. For eight years now.”

Cut. Three years later. Looking back, I could not blame her if she had hated me then. I was young and innocent and could not know what taking a PhD really means. Now I know and time has become if not an enemy so at least a threatening shadow on the wall. 

Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane /
I take my PhD part time and according to a survey recently published I am perfectly in time. But for some weeks relatives have started to ask how long it will still take to complete. And talking the last time to my supervisor she commented wisely that I should allow the timetable to make the choices. I totally agree and I am aware of the reasons why it makes sense not to spend too long writing a thesis. There is, of course, always the danger to get lost in the jungle of ambitions, facts, perfectionism, fear and pure confusion. Besides, at one level I cannot wait until I can turn to other things because taking a PhD means making sacrifices which I would summarise under the heading “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” and I guess you who share the PhD experience can easily connect to this. 

But: I love to take my time thinking. Perhaps it is nearly impossible to explain to somebody who has not gone through this experience and who is not familiar with doing research what is so time-consuming in reading, writing and doing fieldwork. From the beginning on I had the feeling that somebody stood behind me with a stop watch in his hands, tapping his feet impatiently on the floor, when I tried to understand a challenging article or had to excerpt a text. This feeling became worse when I started working on the case studies. I have to analyse films which includes transcribing them first. Every time I pressed the stop key felt like a test of courage because I asked myself if this detail or that scene was really important enough to describe because it would rob me some more minutes from my precious time account. 

My experience has been so far that doing the PhD means living constantly in a tension between the pressure to HURRY and the wish to REFLECT. And even though, as explained, I accept the mundane reasons for progressing decisively, the most important milestones of my research arose from the hours I spent with just a pad and a pencil excogitating. Every single time felt like a victory over this bloody shadow on the wall.

In the early years of my career I came to sit during a lunch break at a conference at the same table as a man who I learned soon was the director of a museum in my neighbourhood. I am a slow eater and during our conversation I was in a cold sweat because I wanted to cut a fine figure and had to struggle with the unmanageable salad I had ordered foolishly. Observing my struggle he commented at some point: “My father always said: Who eats slowly, works slowly.” Even though he offered me – mysterious ways – a job, I learned my lesson and since then I eat at conferences and similar events only things which I can consume in dynamic sips, but in my heart I am still a person who likes to enjoy her salad lettuce leaf by lettuce leaf.


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