I completed my PhD, so where are the fireworks?

Completing a PhD is like running a very, very, long race, then turning a corner and finding that there is no more road.

Jaymantri on Pexels

How do you just stop?

It’s taken 6 years, part-time, to complete my PhD. I’m a full-time father, husband, and employee, and I’ve tried not to let any of those roles drop along the way - with varying degrees of success. During that time, my wife and I have had a baby, changed jobs, traveled, got sick, got better, laughed and cried, helped our eldest daughter through exams, and seen her leave for University.

It’s life, this is what happens.

In the beginning, there was running.

When I moved to Northern Ireland I was already a marathoner. Runners tend to meet runners, and it wasn’t long before I found a merry band who loved to head off-road and trudge the trails. Before long, and with my newly found guides, I took to the wild majesty of the iconic Mourne Mountains. With care and confidence building, I survived the shorter, fast, steep, muddy and rocky fell runs that risked broken ankles and began to long for something more.

A mountain marathon was the next logical step, and three of us decided to embark upon the challenge. Over the course of the race, as our bodies and minds gradually fell apart, we met people who looked in a worse state than us. Unbelievably, these people were aiming to complete our distance twice, it made no sense.

That was crazy, why would anyone run 52 miles through the mountains.

Once the blisters had healed, and we were able to descend the stairs forwards, we forgot the pain, signed up for an ultra-marathon, and began the training.

Within a year we had survived our first ultra-marathon, and I had found a sport I could fall in love with - I was free. I wasn’t fast, but I could keep running and running, and I could finish. Competing in an ultra-marathon is like living your whole life in one day: the joys, the pain, the ecstasy, and the misery, it was all there. Somehow running for 12 hours is cathartic, a release, from life, a defined goal, and a simple solution, keep moving forward. Run when you can, walk when you can’t.

A chance read of a book on sports psychology led me to a professor interested in what it took to excel in sport, who linked me in with a lecturer at a local university attempting to understand our mental limitations.

An idea began to form around a question:

What is it that makes an ultra-marathoner, physically and mentally?

We talked it through, and with the addition of caffeine, we decided to measure the psychological and the aerobic factors that define an ultra-marathoner through a series of studies. There were 4 studies in total, both in the lab and out at races, completed in a day, or over many months of training. We measured mental toughness, motivation, personality, V02 max, lactate threshold, running economy, perception of effort, pain tolerance and pain threshold, and the expression of key genes.

Time was a huge challenge. Performing literature reviews, planning and running experiments, getting through ethics committees, understanding and writing up results, as well as presenting at conferences is tough, especially while keeping a job that pays the bills.

Completing a PhD is like running an ultra-marathon. You never really tackle the whole thing, it’s too much to handle, to even think about. Rather every single day was about delivering a small part of the bigger picture: email participants, read an article, write a paragraph, or review some results. There were a few false summits along the way; times I thought I’d almost finished something, only to find there was still more to do.

As Winston Churchill put it

Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Once the literature review was finished, and the studies completed, data analysed and conclusions drawn, it was time for the thesis.

During this time, I lost hope and direction. I didn’t know what to do, I felt paralysed, I could not move forward, but I couldn’t leave it unfinished. So, I returned to where I began, running. I entered my first 100km race.

My preparation was limited. That’s an understatment. It would have been minimal for a marathon, but for a distance that amounts to almost 2 and a half marathons, along trails and over hills, my preparation was bordering on the masochistic.

It was brutal, the highs, and the lows were immense. But I completed it; I was cleansed, and the deadlock was broken.

Writing the thesis was a beast, and involved endless submissions to my two supervisors, and limitless changes. Sentences, paragraphs, and chapters were drafted, reviewed, changed and re-drafted. The process repeated, over and over.

When finally the thesis was deemed as complete, and ready for submission, I felt a short-lived wave of relief. It didn’t last. It soon dawned on me that I now needed to cram the content of years of research, data, and findings, into my head, in advance of what is rightly called the ‘defence’ of the thesis.

Defending a thesis, a viva, containing 6 years of thoughts and work, is like trying to internalise a phone book.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed the viva. The build-up, the preparation, the uncertainty, and the doubts were the painful part. The opportunity to share my thoughts and learnings were welcome, and a real buzz. But after the politeness, and the acceptance of some criticisms of the approach or the conclusions, you soon realise you need to defend what you have written or make a lot of changes. I was fortunate, my supervisors were very positive and appeared extremely interested in my work, but a point came, early on the conversation that meant I had to fight.

I passed, with minor changes. The relief, again, was huge.

After a couple of days, the formal comments arrived by email. Though apparently minimal, the revisions were daunting. Another high and a low, I was nearer but still not there. Like running in a race, you misjudge and think you are almost there, only to realise there is more to go.

Again bite off another junk…

Finally, all the changes were completed and submitted. Another wave of relief, I had been here before.

A week later, and an email arrived.

I was now Doctor Sutton…

This was huge.

Or was it? I was sitting at home, alone, working remotely ..

What do I do now?

My brain could not except, or even process that 6 years of work were now over and there was nothing I needed to do to progress my PhD — not today, not tomorrow, not next week, not ever. Even contact with the University ceased. I was no longer under pressure to send something in, nor was I waiting expectantly on a reply.

I felt weirdly numb. And this feeling remained for weeks. What did I expect people to say? Once they had congratulated me, that was it, they couldn’t keep repeating it.

I drifted, melancholy, boosted temporarily by a number of conferences I attended and shared my findings at.

But now, almost three months later, and I have new perspective. I’ve started to immerse myself again in my running, and the thoughts, my research, and my learnings, that have floated to the surface are going to be laid bare online.

The combination of the two may give me the peace, and the direction I now need.

The PhD is over, I need to live again.