Earlier this week, I read an article from The Chronicle titled, “Running the Zombie Marathon.” Of course it was the title that drew me to the article, but I had no idea that it would be so incredibly relevant to my own life and story. You see, four years ago this week, I was sitting in my office (in industry), anxiously awaiting admissions decisions from the University of Georgia, Indiana University, and North Carolina State University. When I made the decisions to finally return to graduate school, I thought I had prepared myself for what was to come. The economic climate was somewhat dismal. My own financial future was a tad uncertain. Higher ed funding was being slashed, especially in colleges of education. Would I be able to find an assistantship (I did)? I was worried about being able to sell my house and move a thousand miles away. And then there was the concern about finding a job after graduating and being able to resume student loan payments. Would any job I found pay as much as the job that I was leaving (I have)?

Now, I find myself standing on the other side of that journey. Amid all of the current headlines surrounding “The Sequester,” I’m likely in the minority of those who aren’t panicked. Amid my fellow students who are dashing for the Spring 2013 finish line, I’m likely one of the few who is strolling through the garden. Funding cuts? We survived those years ago in my field. We got crafty with how to supplement budgets and find money for research elsewhere. Graduation deadlines? No problem; I’ve already met them all. Job search? Done it; already signed my offer and submitted paperwork to HR at my new institution for a tenure-track faculty position.

You see, when it comes to running this particular marathon, it turns out that you can prepare for what’s to come. To help me illustrate, let’s turn our attention back to that Chronicle article I mentioned earlier. Noah J. Toly said it well with:

In a typical marathon, one might aim to finish the course. One might aim for a personal best or to place among the first finishers or even to win. Finishing the race requires serious training, strong will, no small measure of good fortune (like not falling ill or suffering an injury during the race), and support, both moral and material. Spectators stand along the course to cheer on the runners and to provide energy drinks and water. Some racers finish. Many don’t—which sounds a lot like the odds of finding a tenure-track job these days.

Likewise with writing a dissertation and earning tenure: There are no guarantees, but with training, will, good fortune, and support, one is well positioned to run the race.

The marathon metaphor endures in academe because it rings true. But it is not precisely true. It could stand to be refined.

When it comes to a marathon, there may be no shame in not finishing the 26.2-mile course (anyone who knows me would guess I’m in no shape to do it myself). But the runners who don’t finish can fault only their training, their stamina, or their luck. No one is trying to stop the marathoner from finishing.

Until I shared this article on Facebook earlier in the week, I hadn’t really given my journey much thought. That is, I hadn’t yet reflected on where I’ve been and where I’m headed. Honestly, I think I’ve been afraid to breathe too deeply for fear of blowing out the candle. But the article rings true.

The first “marathon” I ran  was that of completing my dissertation. I completed my coursework in two and a half years (a semester longer than I would’ve liked). Within three months of finishing my last course, I submitted my Prospectus to my committee, which had included completing a pilot study. Nine months later, I finished my data collection and began writing up my final two chapters (Merry Christmas to me!). On January 25, 2013, my committee signed off on my dissertation with minor corrections. As of this week (still two months from graduation), my final dissertation has been accepted by the Graduate School. I’m finished. As far as my university is concerned, I have nothing left to do other than walk across a stage and receive the honor of being hooded by my advisor.

My second “marathon” started in August; the academic job hunt. I had paid attention as an eager graduate student, attending special conference sessions related to finding a job or transitioning from graduate student to faculty member. So, when they said you have to start looking a year before you graduate, I took them at their word. I started crafting my online professional presence early, making sure that I had a professional looking website that could serve as a portfolio, sprucing up my LinkedIn profile to make sure I highlighted all of the pertinent information, and changing/resetting usernames to be more congruent (to make it easier for searches to find “the me” I wanted prospective employers to see). I even asked a photographer friend of mine to snap some professional looking photos so that my profile pictures looked spiffy. As for the jobs themselves, I took a spreadsheet given to me by a friend to track her applications and turned it into a Google Form that I then shared with my adivsor. This way he could easily track all of the job openings I already knew about and my progress in the application process. From color coding entries to emailing each reference with specific details with each application submitted, I took a very organized, proactive approach to my final year in graduate school. By the time the dust settled in December, I had submitted 18 different applications and netted 4 phone interviews (all of which materialized into campus visits). As prepared as I was, I could not have foreseen my January schedule:

  • Jan 14-15: Campus visit #1
  • Jan 16-17: Campus visit #2
  • Jan 22-23: Campus visit #3
  • Jan 25: Dissertation Defense
  • Jan 28-30: Campus visit #4

The unintentional positive outcome of this harried, but amazing experience was that when my defense rolled around, I had been too busy to stress about it and the interview process itself had more than prepared me to defend my work. I had already delivered three job talks to complete strangers (and a few friends in the room). If I had managed to explain my work to these people, I could most certainly explain my results to my own committee. As the dust began to settle, and I was nearing the finish line of this particular race, I realized that I was standing on the ledge of my future. Where would I wind up? They were all great schools with fantastic people. Campus visit #1 was the first to make an offer. And while I absolutely adored the people, something inside told me that I wasn’t sure if that was where I wanted to start my career. With a leap of faith, I declined the offer and proceeded to hold my breath for more than a week. When the call from Campus visit #4 finally came, I was beside myself with giddy happiness. I had known from the first few hours of my trip there that it was where I wanted to be…needed to be. I took a deep sigh of relief as I gratefully accepted their offer and crossed the finish line of my second “marathon.” I will add that it was comical to me when later in the same day I received an email from Campus visit #3 asking about a good time to call and discuss their position. As it turns out, I was likely their second choice since a friend of mine had only an hour earlier declined their offer. Still, I’m incredibly honored and humbled to have been considered for all four positions. However, I am most definitely relieved to know so early in the game where I am headed for my next chapter in life.

But back to Dr. Toly’s observation. There is honestly no way I could have completed two “marathons” without being well-prepared. I would have to say that it started with having good coaches. When I sat there in March 2009 weighing my options between three admissions offers, I turned to my first mentor from my masters studies. She told me that all else being equal, I should pick the one that would focus on the mentor/mentee relationship. So, that’s what I did. In doing so, I was effectively selecting my next running coach. And I have to say, I picked a damn good one. Whenever I have had a question, no matter how silly, he has been there to answer me. He has opened doors for me that I didn’t even know existed. And he has prepared me for my next “marathon” by providing an excellent example for me to model.

So, yeah. It’s kind of like that…running a “marathon.” And here I stand on the other side of two finish lines, preparing for my next race. Rather than feeling battered and bruised from my previous two races, I feel refreshed and ready. It’s as if I’ve only just caught my second wind, and I’m ready to go. Again, I’ve picked a coach (or two) who I think will prepare me for this next phase. I’m constantly shifting and adjusting my training routine to make sure that I don’t injure myself or have to drop out. Most importantly, I make time to enjoy the journey and thank those around me, especially my spouse.

I’m prepared to tackle the challenge of seeking tenure by having potential publications squirreled away for later submission. I’m cultivating existing relationships in preparation of future collaboration. I’m scanning the horizon for non-traditional sources of funding to support the exciting ideas for research in education I have. I’m looking forward to establishing myself in my field as a potential leader. With a little preparation, and a lot of hard work, I’m confident that I’m well placed for the future. And I have phenomenal coaches to thank for that.


photo credit: Moriartys via photopin cc