Wednesday, April 9, 2014

My Other Marathon

In between my morning runs and evening carbo-loading sessions, I am a scientist. Or, at least, trying to be one. I have spent the last five years working towards a PhD, the two years before that working towards getting into a PhD program, my undergraduate years working towards getting a job that would get me into a PhD program... All the way back to elementary school adventures with exploding volcanoes, science fairs, and cakes decorated to look like animal cells. (The mitochondria were delicious.)

My first science fair. Told you I was a nerd.
People tell you that a PhD program is so hard, that it really takes something out of you, demoralizes you, makes you dig deep into reserves you didn't know you had. 

I thought, whatever, I'm a marathoner. I can do this. 

But they were right. 

Years of failed experiments. Committee meetings where the end seemed further and further away. Countless days that ended in tears. 

I wanted to give up and quit. Why am I doing this to myself? At one point my dad tried to put an end to my complaining, reminding me that no matter what, "You will never give up now." The defeated voice in my head silently responded, "Oh yea, watch me." I was so close. But no one--husband, family, friends, teammates--would let me.

So I kept going. 

Up the hill. Exhausted and demoralized 20 miles in. Aching to drop out, sit down on the curb and end the misery. 

Slowly milestones ticked off and things came together. This past January, my committee gave me permission to set a defense date. The end was in sight. And yet, there was still so much to do: write up five years of results, present the data in front of the department, friends, and family, and respond to an onslaught of questions in such a way that would convince people I deserve those extra three letters at the end of my name.

"Good for you! You've spent six months training for a marathon! Now you just have to run 26.2 miles, in a row, and you can really celebrate."
"Congratulations! You qualified for Boston! Now run 21 miles, climbing three hills, and then take on Heartbreak. Oh yea, and then 5 more miles."

The end is near, but no celebrations yet.

As the morning of the defense neared, I took all pre-race precautions. I tried to get my sleep, eat well, and eliminate any possible last minute mishaps. When the day came there was nothing else I could do. Time to pray for a favorable tailwind and no mid-race nausea.

The defense was terrible and awful. Like the final miles of any marathon, as soon as it got tough, I ached and mentally pleaded for it to end. And yes, there were moments when I wanted to throw up.

But by midday, it was over. I had done it. It is taking a while to set in, that this Huge Life Moment I ruminated about almost constantly for more than 5 years has finally come and I can stop stressing about it. There were so many moments when I thought I might not make it. But no, I did not DNF. I finished.

Nearly two decades later, explaining something
slightly more complicated on a slightly bigger scale.
And now for the sappy part, to justify a post complaining about graduate school on a blog dedicated to running:

Everything worth doing has a 20-miles-in-and-I-want-to-drop-out-and-curl-up-in-the-fetal-position Moment. (Or many moments, because it doesn't magically get easier at mile 21.) Moments of doubt, of panic, of hating your previous self for signing up for this torture. Find the person/people that will push you, that will hold you up when you want to sit down/pass out/give up. Keep going. Keep fighting. Up the hill and over the other side. Through the finish line. You'll get there.

And then you can really celebrate.

Dream big, 
Teal, PhD


  1. congratulations Dr. teal! so proud of you! you are such a hard worker and you are my favorite sceincey dr nerd.

  2. You have also earned a secondary degree in Inspiration and Causing Happy Tears. Does Georgetown offer a PhD in those pursuits? Congratulations, Dr. Burrell!

  3. That is wonderful news - congrats. Love, Uncle Greg, PhD

  4. You don't know me - I am a friend of Jesse and Jack. I am thrilled for you upon accomplishing the PhD. I will think of you the next time I face a challenge.
    -Barbara Miller

  5. Dr. Teal:

    Congratulations on completing your multi-year run at such high speed. What a triumph of ambition, steely determination, personal philosophy, and plain ol' smarts!

    Nacote Jack