Graduate Speaker Likens Ph.D. to a Trail Ultramarathon “It’s a Little Longer, It’s More Complex…and You Need Much More Support.”

Daniel Griffin was the Ph.D. in Information Science student speaker at the May 2023 UC Berkeley School of Information Commencement

Berkeley I School
Published in
4 min readMay 17


Daniel Griffin delivered the following address on May 15, 2023, at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley —

To my fellow graduates, You did it. Well done.

We all ran our own race — But none of us would be here today without the help of others.

So to our family, friends, the I School faculty, and staff — you did it too. Thank you. Well done. I want to share a bit of what it was like for me to do a Ph.D. at our School of Information.

Some say “A Ph.D. is a marathon, not a sprint.” — from my experience “a trail ultramarathon” is the appropriate analogy. Not because it is harder, but it’s a little longer, it’s more complex, there’s more uncertainty, and you need much more support.

It is not 26.2 miles, but more like 50 miles, or even one or two hundred. Not 2,3,4 hours, but 12, 24, or 96. — Or more like the more than six years that it took Jeremy and me.

When I think of a marathon, I think of a road marathon, where you’re one runner in a huge crowd, a well-marked route, roads closed to cars, little cups of water, random onlookers cheering.

But that’s not quite what a Ph.D. here is like.

Not many of us running. There is a “route”, a few signs and blazes, but no clear, safe path — weaving through disciplines, at times far from your fellow runners— running across established fields, scrambling up collapsing scree, slogging through sludge, sliding down snowpack, and shuffling along a seeming abyss at night.

A trail ultramarathon will require more support than a dixie cup of water, more from supporters than some shouts and a poster.

Imagine aid stations every 6 to 12 miles: all-you-can-eat fruit, candy, hamburgers, buckets of ice, massages. And tips and pep talks from those who’ve done this before. A bag of gummy bears after you said you thought you wanted to quit.

We Ph.D. students also had to have tremendous support, from the staff, faculty, and fellow students. We needed help finding — let alone making sense of — what to read/where to publish, and help navigating bureaucracy. Someone to read a chapter to offer advice and encouragement. And we appreciated the leftover food after every event.

Most people you meet will be confused about why you’d want to run so far/study so long. And it’d be difficult to even explain what you are doing, let alone why.

But, it is a joy and help to run with others.

Learning from peers in class, talking with them in the Ph.D. office, around Berkeley, trails all over the bay, then regular Zoom calls with Anne and Elizabeth, Slack chats with Richmond. Developing friendships through the toil.

Sharing papers and heartfelt feedback in Coye’s Doctoral Research and Theory Workshop — experiencing revelation in Paul’s Classics and his and Geoff’s Concepts of Information. We learned how to provide loving incisive critique and how to share our close-held curiosity and hopes.

And in writing papers together — Anne, Zoe, a “side project” with Emma in the last year — we learned to see the trail, information, and life anew.

While it can be exceedingly solitary, and lonely, including hallucinations in the darkness — and a pandemic — we can share part of the burden.

To help us we have “pacers” join for some of the run — modeling tenacity, providing perspective, being there. Advisors — formal and informal (Deirdre, Steve, Jennan, Marion, Paul, Alex — or — John, Coye, Steven, Giovanni, Antonella) — to practice thinking with. Meetings and emails that give respite from doubt. Advice that helps you focus on putting one foot in front of another and being able to briefly feel that you aren’t lost — a package in the mail from Deirdre helpfully marking up every page of your dissertation in blue pen.

If you’re fortunate, you’ll have a “crew”. Family and friends who drive you to the race, meet you at aid stations — ensuring you have spare socks and can still dream of finishing, ready to laugh and celebrate with you once it’s over.

The folks who let you talk at them about what you are learning, who put up with your pausing mid-conversation to jot down a note, who nurture your excitement.

Their words (especially the reminder to “have fun”) and their love stay with you.

Now to my fellow Ph.D. students — this doesn’t mean you’ll take over six years, and it’s OK if you do. I took breaks. Semesters off after my father was diagnosed with brain cancer and when our eldest was born. Emily taught me to take weekends off, mostly. You can slow down and walk, change diapers and do the dishes, stop and take breaks when you are hurting or tired, maybe even take a nap — at an aid station, on the side of the trail, or under your desk.

Here, at the finish line, we recognize the folks who helped along the way. From those who so many years ago encouraged us to dream, to those we know will always help us find something — a citation, what we meant to write, or another trail to head down. While parts of this might have felt lonely, we didn’t do this alone. No one finishes something like this on their own.



Berkeley I School

The UC Berkeley School of Information is a multi-disciplinary program devoted to enhancing the accessibility, usability, credibility & security of information.