Surviving Anything Worthwhile

I gave a talk recently called “Surviving The PhD.” I drew a hijabi crossing monkey bars.

Before I start, I am ready with open arms, I believe I can accomplish the feat ahead and make a meaningful contribution.


Once I start, I realize this is harder than I had imagined. I struggle, sweating and trembling, just to hang on.


I move to the next level. A storm is coming and I am bleeding, too.


I fall to the ground. I have failed so badly I am embarrassed. Why did I start? Maybe I should quit. I could move back home and eat mint chocolate chip ice cream in yoga pants and bliss. No, I talk back to those thoughts. I started with a mission. Pick yourself up and keep going.


I decide to get back up. I find comfort in routine. On Monday I fast, a spiritual and physical cleansing for the week. On Tuesday morning, I meet Amy, Angela, and our four-legged friends for a run that scales things bigger than myself, from the school to prison pipeline in Baltimore to the simultaneous shortage and excess of food plaguing the world. On Wednesday at the crack of dawn, Melissa picks me up for track with the Pacemakers; Coach Hilson tells me to lead a lap, and I pick up my feet as fast as I can to the tune of “Go Sarah! You got this!” The next day, I meet friends in the evening for halaqa, a discussion of verses from the Quran and examples from prophets that we can apply to our lives today. On Friday, I attend Jummah prayer services in a hall overflowing with peers, professors, staff, patients, and friends; we listen to a sermon and pray shoulder to shoulder and foot to foot. On Saturday, I meet the Pacemakers for a double digit running tour of Baltimore; we end in a different café each week. On Sunday, I camp in the library and pour my brain and heart onto paper with diagrams, cartoons, and proofs; at the end of the day, I am lucky if one idea works. In between the set rhythm of the week, I attend classes, meetings, and working groups. I am surrounded by colleagues, peers, professors, mentors, and friends who give me kind words, helpful tips, and faith.

I am back on the bar.


With a boost of strength that surprises me, I swing to the final rung. Days blend into one another as I work through the night. Ideas solidify. Scripts work. Pages turn into chapters. A dissertation is born. Alhamdullillah.


Surviving the PhD is difficult. In fact, surviving anything worthwhile, mental or physical, is difficult. It entails trying something new and giving time, energy, intellect, and passion to the extent that at some points failure and pain occur organically.

The combination of failure and pain, in a classroom or on a race course means that the journey is worthwhile. It is preparation for an encore. Next time, the bar is higher and each rung is farther than the previous one.