I liken a semester to a race with three stages. In Stage One I mentally and physically prepare for the race/semester, go through my warm-ups and then bolt out of the starting blocks. In Stage Two I must deal with the fatigue that comes from staying up late at night to complete papers. In the third and final stage of the race/semester, I must dig down deep and find the strength to complete my final assignments and sprint home. Thinking about the semester in this way helps me stay focused because I know what to expect. Below I provide additional details about why I believe a race and a semester are similar.
For me, Stage One actually takes place before the race. It is during this phase that I prepare myself for the journey ahead. Mentally, I will think about what I need to do to stay on track and not get distracted while I am running my course. Countless things can go wrong during the semester. My truck may break down, I may face unexpected challenges at work or additional demands may be placed upon me in my personal life. However, I try to think about how I will handle such things well ahead of time. That way when things go amiss I prepared and can press on anyway. Obviously, I cannot foresee every little thing that can go wrong. But, I have learned that I can push through most things and remain on course if I have the right mindset.
Before the semester starts I try to purchase as much food as possible. This prevents me from spending a whole lot of time running back and forth to the grocery store after classes start. Generally speaking I try to eat things that fly or swim; lots of chicken, tuna and salmon. I also try to purchase snacks, beverages, and any other foods well ahead of time. That way I have something to eat when I am driving from place to place or riding on the train. Since my day starts around 5:00 am and ends around 10:00 pm it is not uncommon for me to get tired during the day. When I feel “down” I drink a V-8 to give me that extra boost to help me make it around the up bend.
The first few classes also fall under the Stage One because it is during this time that my classmates and I are all figuratively just getting warmed up. All of us lace up our sneakers, stretch-out, hit the track and leave the starting blocks at the same time. It’s one of the things I like most about being in a PhD program; my classmates and I are tight. It’s almost like we are in a foxhole together. I haven’t been this close to my peers since I graduated from Palmer Seminary in 2008.
Stage Two takes place between weeks 5 and 10. By this time I have been running full throttle for a while. My heart rate has increased, I am sweating and I can feel my muscles begin to ache. I often feel stressed during this stage because a number of assignments are usually due at the same time. It is not uncommon for me to fall behind at this point in the race. Yet even when I fall I have learned how to pick myself up and move ahead. Check out how this young lady does the same in this clip.
If I am not careful self-doubt and emptiness will begin to sneak in during Stage Two. I will begin to ask “Why am I doing this?”, and “Why did I even apply to a PhD program?” Ironically, I think I have felt this way at some point during every semester! Then, after the pain and fatigue goes away, I return to my normal frame of mind and realize I can make it. Let me offer this little illustration. When I first started running I could only make it around 400 yards. I was surprised how bad I felt and often times I felt like I should just turn around walk back home sit down on the sofa and have a cold drink. It was like I would hit a mental and physical stumbling block. It was a hurdle I had to get over. Then somehow I learned how to actually take a break while still running. By changing my breathing I could regroup, recompose myself and then press on. When I get tired during the semester I utilize this same technique. I can do some breathing exercises to help me relax when I am in class.
During Stage Three I find myself kind of looking around to see who is still on the track (in the classroom) with me. By this time a number of students may have dropped the course or bowed out of the race. In some cases the people who are left figuratively look tired and out of breath. Yet there is no rest for the weary. A final 20 paper is usually due at the end of the semester; either that or a final exam must be turned in. It is not uncommon for my classmates to encourage each other during Stage Three because the finish line is in sight, the race is almost over. All of us can see the tape at the end of the course. While we don’t cheer for each other we do we do tell one another to hold on. Comments such as “you can make it” or “you are gonna be fine” abound in this stage. As the pack rounds the final turn we all try to “kick” as hard as we can to make it to the home. No one is really trying to come in first; by and large we are all trying to cross the finish line together. Check out how this runner finishes her race.
You will note that her peers came to congratulate her right after she won. This reminded me of how we sometimes behave at the end of a semester. Most of us really happy when the race/semester is over and most of us look forward to hitting the payment again after a brief recess.