Run Your Own Race

Photo:  Adobe Stock

Photo: Adobe Stock


Back when I used to run track, my favorite race was the 800m (two full laps around the track). I liked it because you gotta have speed, endurance, and a solid strategy to be successful. Strategy is important in every race. But with the 800m, it's essential because if you start off too quickly, then you might not have enough "left in the tank" for a strong finish at the end. And if you start too slowly (to save your energy for the end), then you might be too far behind the other runners to actually win. Since it's hard to strategize while you're competing, especially in a fast race, I pretty much had to figure out my plan before I stepped on the track.


Before each race, my coaches used to always say, "Run your own race!" They rarely said anything else, but they didn't have to. I knew exactly what they meant. That was their way of telling me to trust my preparation, to focus on executing my plan, and to not worry about trying to keep up with the others. Those four words carried me throughout my time on the track, but they were particularly important whenever I felt like I was behind the other runners. They reminded me that if I just focused on doing my own thing, I'd still have a chance to win in the end. (Because like I said, not everyone who starts off in the front at the beginning stays there after the full two laps.)


My track days have long been over. But what's funny is that, even as a grad student, I still find myself mumbling these words. Because it's so easy to feel like you need to compete with others in grad school. I don't know how many times I've heard someone announce that they've already been published in this academic journal, or that they're submitting something to that journal. Or, that they've already been accepted to present their research at this conference, or that they intend to speak at that conference. And given the culture of some academic spaces, it's very easy to get caught up in this and feel like you need to do everything just to prove that you belong, especially if you're a first-generation grad student. I'm not ashamed to admit that there were days when I found myself counting the achievements on people's CVs, just to make sure that I was "on track." It's unfortunate, but that pressure to keep up with the others is real!


I quickly realized that you shouldn't "compare & contrast" your awards and honors, though. Because if, for whatever reason, you fail to match someone else's accomplishments, you may find yourself internalizing this "failure" and doubting whether you actually have what it takes to do this whole grad school thing. At least that was how it was for me. I mean, if all of the other PhD students already have one or two publications to their name, and I don't have any, clearly I'm not doing something right...... Right? 


"Run your own race!"


I really struggled with this my first year as a PhD student, largely because so many "First-Years" came from backgrounds that were drastically different from mine. There were some First-Years who had already worked for 10 years, and there were some who already earned other graduate degrees. I, on the other hand, started grad school fresh out of college. And initially, I viewed my lack of "real world" experience as a hindrance.


In class, I couldn't connect our discussions back to something that I experienced while working in a previous profession. And I couldn't discuss some theoretical concepts as thoroughly as those who had already had Master's degrees. Because of that, I didn't really want to participate in class discussions. I felt like my remarks were gonna be seen as "basic" or redundant. But with time, and the help of my professors, I began to realize that my thoughts mattered—even if I couldn't articulate them as eloquently as everyone else. 


Now, I'm a Third-Year PhD student. But I can't sit up here and act like that feeling of wanting to be "on par" with my colleagues has suddenly gone away. There are still moments when I find myself wanting to publish just because others have already published. Or, researching conferences just because others have already presented. But I've really tried to stop doing this. That shit just isn't healthy. Period. And two, when I was doing this, I often found myself chasing a dream that wasn't even mine. I've learned to define "success" on my own terms. And these days, I'm much more intentional about figuring out which opportunities are for me.


I can't be out here worrying about everyone else. I gotta run my own race!


About the Author

Bennie is a third-year PhD student at Northwestern University, where he is studying African American Studies. He created Just Tryna' Graduate to help Black students get to & through graduate school. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter.