Saturday, May 27, 2017

On Patience in Running and Graduate School

Confession: I'm not a patient person. When I was about 7, my Girl Scout Troop made Christmas presents around the first week of December, and I could not wait to give my tiny little tree to my mom, and pleaded with her to let me give it to her early (I think, after much convincing, she got me to change my mind and hold off on giving her this little homemade craft). If any sort of notification of a job or application is due to arrive on a particular day, I repeatedly refresh my e-mail. I remember when AP exam scores were due to arrive by July 1 at the earliest, I'd listen for the mail truck to come around the block, and then hustle out the door each day until the scores finally arrived.

Patience is a virtue, but it is also quite difficult to maintain. People are praised for responding quickly to things and being go-getters: those who know how to hustle and follow up. But the flip side to that ambitious drive ought to be some patience, which is easier said than done. And a lack of patience can be quite detrimental. In a distance race, if you're not patient and go out too fast at the beginning of a marathon, you'll inevitably hit the wall and all of that hard work will go up in a cloud of smoke. Many of the speed workouts I used to do on the track were designed to teach me patience. By doing mile repeats at ascending pace (i.e. Mile 1 7:00 Mile 2 6:53 Mile 3 6:45 Mile 4 6:37 Mile 5 6:30), patience was paramount to a successful workout. If I went out too fast at the beginning, it could wreck the rest of the workout. I'd have to regroup and try again. But because I consistently was assigned workouts like this, that rewarded patience, I learned from the exercise and became a smarter runner as a result.

Facebook's "On This Day" feature reminded me of two opposite experiences that happened on this day: four years apart.

For a little context, particularly on the 1st note. I remember this so vividly. It was my goal during Summer 2012 to hone in on a dissertation topic so I could develop and successfully pass my dissertation proposal. I had been circling around a topic and started to feel excited about it when the semester ended. I had a few books and sources that I knew were valuable, and I set to work. I was so stoked to actually begin the process in earnest: I had already produced about 10 pages of free-writing while I was at home visiting my family.

Then, I remembered that my advisor and other professors suggested keeping tabs on recent scholarship by searching a particular database that published information about history dissertations. And then, I discovered an old dissertation that discussed similar ideas that I had, using similar sources, and employing a similar methodology. I immediately burst into tears. I was at home, all alone, and I picked up the phone and called my dad. I felt so defeated and disappointed. This is so hard! How am I ever going to come up with a unique topic? This is medieval history - people have been writing about this for so long - what will I ever have to say about it that is new and interesting? Why am I doing this? 

I probably wasn't that articulate in the moment, and beyond assuring words of love and constant support, there wasn't going to be anything my dad said that would change my gut reaction.

Disappointed, after a day or so of pouting/mourning/venting, I e-mailed my advisor that the first bout of progress had been derailed, and that I hoped to report back later in the summer with some progress. She wrote back with some words of assurance, signing off, "Vanessa, your reading will not be in vain."

Not in vain. I held onto that phrase and repeated it like a mantra for months. Not in vain as I went to the library for new books. Not in vain as I re-read sources, looking for a new angle. Not in vain as I sat down at the computer, trying to get in a page of writing. I needed patience at this moment, to realize that there would be payoff down the road for this labor, and that the setback was really a set-up for the next phrase of my graduate career.

It took months of work to finally hone in on the topic that would ultimately provide the framework for my dissertation. It didn't appear out of nowhere in an instant: it was a long time of working through ideas.

The mantra not in vain  has also come into play as I've sought to improve my running and return to running after time off. No comeback of any kind is every easy or instantaneous, but requires both patience and persistence.

A lot can happen in four years, as those two Facebook posts reminded me. And just a year after the second, I've finished grad school and am again learning patience as I work towards the next goal.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Post Ph.D. Race - Capitol Hill Classic 10k

To say the least, all of my eggs have been in the Ph.D. basket, particularly since last fall, when it became evident that I could definitely finish and defend my dissertation during the Spring 2017 semester. With that in mind, virtually everything else has been put on hold or just received lower priority. All eyes were on Operation Endgame, and the majority of my time and energy went toward achieving that goal. This meant things like diet and training received less priority. While I was finishing my dissertation, I tapped into running to find sanctuary and sanity, but nothing more. 
 And now that I'm done (yes, it's official - I graduated last Saturday and the School of Arts and Sciences conferred my degree), it's time to start looking ahead in many different ways. Most specific to the blog, I’d like to get back into race-shape, and down the road (maybe in 2018?), consider a return to the marathon. But that takes time and requires a long, concerted effort to get there.

So, without any special training, and with my mileage hovering around 30 miles per week, including a 10-11 mile long run on the weekend, I signed up for the Capitol Hill Classic 10k, a race I’ve always wanted to do, but for scheduling reasons, have never been able to. I knew it would be a hilly course, and I still had in my head my last race (another 10k that I ran in February, during which I felt so sluggish). So, what was I shooting for? At minimum, breaking 50 minutes and getting that shadow off my back, and ideally, running around 45 minutes (about 7:15 pace) would signal some progress. It’s my hope that this summer, I can spend more time running and training, so this race could be a great way to set me up for summer.

I have to recommend this race to anyone in the DC area. The Capitol Hill area is beautiful, and all of the proceeds benefit the Capitol Hill Cluster School, a DC public school with over 1,000 students. It is definitely a local race that runs through neighborhoods, and it was fun seeing families out on their front stoop, and people out enjoying their Sunday mornings. There were also a number of great political/DC signs, including “I just got off the phone with Russia – you won!” “You run better than the government!” and my personal favorite, “Run like you’re under investigation!” There was great music playing before the race, and despite all of the chaos on Pennsylvania Ave, everyone was out to have fun.

I realized running the first mile in about 7:00 flat that that pace was too fast, so I pulled back ever so slightly. And the course was so crowded (over 2,000 runners), that dialing back was probably the right decision – just let people run out and then, do what I like to do best, chase people later on. The second mile was about 7:35 and I started to feel much better. The weather was perfect (60 and overcast, with a slight breeze), and it was just great taking a beautiful day. We then ran past RFK stadium and through this paved trail. Then between miles 3 and 4, we ran past an all-female drum line, and few things can ramp me up during a race than live music, particularly with such a steady beat. I finally felt like I was at a good pace, and got to hone in on passing people, one runner at a time. For me, this turns a race into a game, and the ability to focus in on one person makes the time go by and adds extra incentive to push throughout. I hit the 5-mile mark at about 36-37 minutes, and knew that I had about 10 minutes left, and with that in mind, started to go harder and harder, and as we reached the mile 6 mark, the crowds picked up with their intensity. Making the last turn brought back an old and thrilling feeling, and I had a smile on my face as I crossed the line in 45:24 (7:18 pace). I was 189/1933 overall, 22/1014 women, and 12/451 in my age group.

Woo! This was great. I felt great throughout the race, and now feel so psyched to put some more races on the calendar, and get into some intentional, scheduled training.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Find Your Tribe

With the Ph.D. in the rearview mirror, I've been thinking about what I've learned along the way (beyond the specifics of medieval history). Yes, there are organizational skills I picked up, and certainly writing tips that I've accrued along the way, but there are other life hacks that, looking back, were absolutely instrumental to finishing school.

Find your tribe.

No one is an island and writing a dissertation can often be a very lonely, solitary endeavor. And while your name is at the top of the ticket, a support group or community of family and friends is absolutely important to navigating through the highs and lows of graduate school. There are different kinds of relationships that you'll need to tap into: each will bring something different to the table (and hopefully you'll, in turn, bring something different to support that relationship).

One of my best friends is a stay-at-home mom of 2 kids under age 3. On the surface, our lives look very different. My dissertation days are often very quiet, and the writing days were filled with limited opportunity for human conversation and interaction. Her days at home with the kids are often hectic, noisy, and are filled with limited opportunity for adult conversation and interaction. It used to feel counterintuitive to call her to vent about my writing struggles, when compared to hers, mine were minor and significant. But we were both looking to step outside of our small, isolated worlds, and while I couldn't understand the difficulties of children teething, and she couldn't quite relate to the headaches involved with revising a chapter, we could commiserate. These check-ins were often a lifeline, I think for both of us. Talking on the phone, even for just 20 minutes mid-afternoon, removed us from our lonely silos and gave each of us a breather.

Another of my dearest friends was my roommate for two years during grad school, and she finished her Ph.D. the year before I did. We had different research interests, different advisors, enough differences to separate us that we didn't have to compete with each other. Yet, we were able to push each other and challenge each other. On weekends and in the summer, we'd meet, laptops out, come up with a game plan for our writing session, and get to work. Watching her finish so successfully gave me the motivation to keep pushing. Moreover, she became a confidante towards the end - I needed support from someone who had reached the final benchmark and could truly understand and answer some of my questions about Operation Endgame.

Of course, I also relied extensively on my family: specifically, my husband and my parents. They all offered the day-to-day support I needed unconditionally. I can't put into words how important they were to this process. Again, all part of the tribe.

I had to learn a lot about myself and my writing habits and style along the way, but I also had to learn about creating a supportive environment, and that's where the tribe comes in.

I've found my tribe and they were absolutely instrumental in graduate school. Now, it's time to thank them and lend the ear that they were so willing to offer me.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

When to Ask for (Writing) Help in Graduate School

In grad school, reading for class, comprehensive exams, and for my dissertation was my favorite thing. I've been an avid reader since I was little, and the opportunity to sit down with interesting books was one of the major selling points of graduate school. Even when professors had assigned multiple books to read per week, or as my comps lists required 100+ books of reading, these were challenges I relished taking on.

Writing has been another story. I love to write - this blog is proof of that. And of course, I wouldn't have signed onto a Ph.D. program, knowing that 200+ pages of writing would be a necessary product of my education, if I wasn't passionate about writing. But writing can be difficult, and my early years of graduate school were spent slogging through writing assignments. It was hard to not take the comments personally - I remember one remarked that my writing was "baggy" and it took years to shake that. But, through returning to the keyboard again and again, I made progress, and made it successfully through the dissertation proposal.

But there was a moment during the dissertation writing process where it was clear that just because some sections of my dissertation were well-received, this was not universal, and I was urged to go back to the drawing board. This was excruciatingly painful: it was upsetting to see that I hadn't made as much progress as I had hoped. I feared this was a tipping point and a clear indication that I could wash out of graduate school without finishing the dissertation. But after a few days of wallowing (and yes, it was full-fledged wallowing: many tears while curled up in the fetal position), I knew I needed help. I couldn't just stubbornly push my way through this barrier alone. If I wanted to really achieve a break-through and ensure that I would eventually finish my dissertation, I needed to reach out to those who think about critical writing for a living.

I made an appointment to see Dr. Kevin Rulo, the director of our university's Writing Center. We worked through the main critiques of my chapter and together, brainstormed a plan for moving forward. This tipping point ultimately resulted in one of the great academic collaborations of my graduate education. Not knowing me that well, not knowing my subject matter all that well, but with a background that equipped him to effectively critique dissertations, Dr. Rulo would help me work on tweaking thesis statements and help me work through new ways to conceptualize the organization of a particular chapter. For an hour once a week (off and on - I think we met about 10 times), we'd talk and go back and forth on particular segments. I would only bring 3 pages to him at a time, but we would get a lot of mileage out of those 3 pages over the course of an hour. But more than that, we'd explore ideas for additional segments of each chapter and work carefully to tighten up my argument. These were rich, fascinating conversations that pushed my writing (and progress forward).

There is no shame in asking for help.

Let me repeat that it again, because I've had to assure myself of that many times.

There is no shame in asking for help.

A few years ago, I would've been embarrassed to admit that I was working with a professor in the Writing Center. Shouldn't I, as a Ph.D. candidate, be prepared to fly/write solo? No! Professors asks their colleagues to look over book chapters and article drafts. Writing is never an entirely solo endeavor. To expect good writing to emerge when written in a vacuum is futile: asking for criticism and feedback is a natural part of the process.

There is a popular saying: "a setback is a setup for a comeback," and I found this to be applicable in this instance. It's easier to say that in hindsight. But ultimately, by choosing to lean into the challenge, instead of running away from it, and working through the issues that had held my writing back, ultimately made my dissertation better. It loosened the knots that threatened to slow my progress, and instead, offered a sense of clarity that I longed for.

There is no shame in asking for help and that's clearer to me now. Asking for help and leaning into the challenges helped me earn those 3 precious letters: Ph.D.