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What does a PhD and an Olympic medal have in common?

I have been distracted by the Olympics the last week or so and, as I watched Team GB scoop up medals, I noticed certain similarities between a PhD student and an Olympic athlete. (Of course, in its totality, doing a PhD is nothing like an Olympic sport.)

One could argue that it takes 3-4 years of intellectual training and gymnastics to produce a thesis. But it all comes down  to your performance in the viva, which I understand to be a stressful and nervewracking experience. Of course, there has to be something to defend, so the time and commitment to research and write and learning to be a researcher are one’s training for the viva. Indeed, Professor Vernon Trafford argues in his book “Stepping stones to achieving your doctorate” that preparation for viva begins on day one of the PhD programme, just as training for London 2012 arguably started when Beijing 2008 ended.

Submission is therefore qualification to take part in viva, which is where the real testing begins. Our thesis is subjected to real examination and only those that are strong enough get the medal of a PhD. As in the race between Victoria Pendleton and Anna Mears or in the individual showjumping, it comes down to discussions between the examiners and we’ll get either gold (no amendments), silver (minor amendments) or bronze (major amendments). Of course, we’ll train and hone our skill through conferences, articles, teaching and so on but without the PhD, nothing else really matters.

At the end of the day, we have to have confidence in our thesis as the athletes do in their ability. our success depends on our own entourage too. Unfortunately, we can’t look to the atmosphere of the crowd in the viva, but I guess we could simulate it beforehand using social media.

There are probably other parallels I could draw. But there are two key differences: an Oympic career is usually over by the age of 40 (unless you are a showjumper) but a PhD can be done at any age and it can often mean the start of something new. Also we get to wear funny costumes (again, like a showjumper).

If you can think of any other parallels between a PhD and an Olympic medal, please comment.

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