Relationships. They can make us, and they can break us. I find this is particularly true during phases of uncertainty and personal growth. These phases tend to bring self-doubt, internal monologues that challenge you at your core, and just general growing pains. So, the relationships you choose to foster during these moments are pivotal.
I have recently been experiencing one of these moments of change. It’s been exactly two months since I was last able to sit down, decompress, reassess, and write about life – mainly due to a hectic teaching and traveling schedule. Yet, in the midst of all of this, I have attempted to be present and deliberate in my choices. One of these has been to focus on the people currently in my life that complement my journey and push me to think bigger, be better, and smile brighter.
I have always loved to engage with others. Connecting fills me with immense joy (which is probably why I am most content when teaching and sharing stories). The ability to use the right words to express ideas – and to listen to how others interpret their world – is a beautiful part of being alive. Yet, the older I get, the more I realize it’s hard to find the right people at the right time to share the randomness of life. As my favorite movie quote says, “I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.” (Thanks, Celine.)
For those of you who have been following my #phdjourney, you know I’ve been pretty vocal about the challenges it brings. It can be a pretty lonely and daunting process at times, particularly if you embark on a more independent path. That is why this at Oxford was so special.
During the first two weeks of July, I had the pleasure of experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with 29 other magnificent individuals at the ‘s Summer Doctoral Programme (). The OII SDP is a two-week intensive summer program tailored to doctoral students who are focusing their dissertations on topics related to the Internet and how it continues to shape society. During the program, faculty from the OII provide multiple seminars and workshops related to their research and the current Internet landscape. As a public health practitioner, I can now confidently say I know what TOR, the dark web, STS, and affordances are… and can proudly differentiate between supervised, unsupervised and reinforced machine learning. It was also mad entertaining: I mean, where else do you get to have academic discussions about the importance of memes and their role in society? 🤓
While these two weeks are designed to give students the space to learn about a myriad of novel topics related to Internet studies, they also provide the invaluable opportunity to learn and receive feedback about your dissertation from faculty and – most importantly – your peers. This, I would say, is one of the most rewarding aspects of the program. These are people going through similar hurdles and understand the challenges that come with researching an ever-changing media landscape. Being able to listen to and constructively critique each others work in a collaborative environment is something every PhD student should have the opportunity to experience.
Another strength of the program is the diversity among the student body. Not only is it culturally and geographically diverse (literally every continent but the penguins was represented), but it is incredibly interdisciplinary: Communications. Law. Journalism. Science, Tech and Society. Media Studies. Health. Anthropology. Sociology. Critical Theory. And the list goes on. As a PhD candidate in Public Health, this was exactly where I needed to be to gain exposure to new literature and novel research in the realm of social media. It provided me with additional methodological rigor and validation that my innovative methods are in line with how others are approaching social media research in their respective fields.
What made this experience even more rewarding is that I didn’t just meet 29 PhD students who happened to be at Oxford at the same time. I met 29 brilliant, vibrant, soulful humans from around the world, all critically thinking about how the Internet continues to shape our lives and society. I learned so much from each and every person there. We are all doing such creative and important research, full of passion and thoughtfulness. The input provided has been invaluable, and couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. It re-energized me and let me know I am not crazy for doing the kind of work we do – so thank you! I now have a group of friends and colleagues whom I will not only cherish forever, but also bug whenever I have a question or unconventional idea to research.
Yet, it wasn’t just about the seminars, presentations, and workshops. It was about the laughs whilst exploring Oxford, the 3am courtyard “shut ups”, the punting and unexpected diving into the river, the Five Guys evening runs, the morning coffees at The Missing Bean, the “chisme”, the Ashmolean memes, the World Cup escapades, the 7:30am “wake-up calls”, the late night conversations about life, the lovely hugs, the epistemological bonding… and all the other things I’m missing here, yet we all cherish.
So, to anyone considering applying to the OII SDP, I would encourage it wholeheartedly. Not only will you gain incredible colleagues and networking opportunities, but you will have the unique pleasure of bonding with talented, young professionals with passion for the work they do. And that is invaluable.
And a special thanks to Vicki, Jordan and Solenn for making this experience so special. Your thoughtfulness, attention to detail and planning of fun events made our time there that more incredible.
Lastly, to my OII friends: I am truly honored to have been part of the OII SDP 2018 cohort. You are all brilliant – but, most importantly, BEAUTIFUL – humans. So much joy! I already miss you all dearly. Thanks for making this experience 1,000 times better than I ever imagined! Can’t wait until the next conference to see you all again!
When I first envisioned this series of essays about the PhD experience, I thought I would write about them chronologically… how to apply, what to expect, how to pick your mentors/advisors, how to manage the first few years versus the latter portion of the doctorate trajectory. However, I’m currently smack in the middle of collecting data for my dissertation… as a matter of fact, I just got back home after a month doing fieldwork in Tampa. So, instead of waiting to write about this later, it feels right to share my experience – and all its challenges – as it happens.
(If you want to know a little bit about my dissertation, )
Prepping for data collection
When the time comes to decide what your dissertation project is going to be, you have several choices. Of course, there’s deciding what methods you will use: Quantitative? Qualitative? Both? Then, there’s deciding how you will get that data. Some decide to work on an existing project, teaming up with an advisor or another faculty member to add-on to a study that is already ongoing. This may entail in some primary data collection, but not necessarily. Others may decide to embark on a project that uses already existing data to conduct a secondary data analysis. And yet some others (like myself) may decide to develop something from scratch.Primary data collection and starting a project from scratchwas the right decision for me, as I really wanted to delve into a topic that hasn’t been explored in public health and cancer health disparities research. It was fun to develop my proposal and go through the oral examination process (I’ll write about that at some other time) – especially because my proposed (highly qualitative) mixed methods are a novel approach to social media research.
That being said, doing something from scratch means extra work: you have to secure funding to conduct your study; you don’t necessarily have a study team supporting the little things that need to get done (like printing flyers, recruiting participants, organizing materials, budgeting expenses, scheduling travel, etc.); and you are responsible for all facets of planning and implementation.
While I defended my proposal a year ago, it took until this summer to start data collection (in part, due to my focus on relief efforts in Puerto Rico after the hurricane). Getting ready for data collection required a lot of prep time: submitting to IRB, preparing study tools and resources, preparing a data management plan, securing sites to conduct my private one-on-one interviews, and recruiting up the wazoo. Not only this, but I decided to conduct my study pretty far from where my PhD program is located, meaning I had to schedule travel, lodging and transportation.
Given some other projects I have on my plate, my first data collection trip was limited to June… which meant I had less than 30 days to recruit and conduct as many interviews as possible. This meant a lot of hands-on work, planned and managed by myself. My goal: to get 15 of the total 30 interviews finalized by end of the month… and not lose my mind while at it. 🙃
A visit from Mr. Imposter Syndrome
When I finally arrived to start recruitment and data collection, I was a little overwhelmed. Even though I had previously lived and worked in Tampa (where study interviews are being conducted), I still had a lot of hands-on work to prep and start recruiting participants. Since it’s just me, I had to make sure I was really organized and had every day planned out.
As I tried to secure my interview sites, recruit participants, and have a few practice runs of the two-hour interviews, I started to have a lot of self-doubt and anxiety. In essence, I was dealing with a major case of . What did it look like? For starters, lots of sporadic ugly crying. Even though I knew I had extensive experience conducting quality qualitative research, and that my proposed methods were very well thought out, I was still having a hard time believing in myself. The days leading up to that first interview had me questioning my approach, my ability to do a good job… even second guessing my research proposal. Anxiety kept creeping up, while I constantly envisioned worst-case scenarios: What if I panicked and forgot an important question? Would they know? What if my findings weren’t rigorous enough? What if I made a mistake in my proposed design? What if? Those “what ifs” got to me – especially the day before my first interview, while I was practicing with my husband and had a hard time getting through my interview guide. Cue the waterworks. (In hindsight, I was really rough on myself and was extremely exhausted. I started my practice round at 9pm, after a long day of flyering. NEVER DO THAT. Give yourself time to rest.) This self doubt continued the morning of my first participant interview, when I woke up with some crazy heartburn that was thankfully tended to by a Zantac and Kaopectate cocktail.
Thankfully, this experience didn’t last too long: the first interview was amazing! It was the exact boost of confidence I needed to keep going. But, it wasn’t just a good interview that helped me get out of the I.S. funk. I am lucky to have a strong, supportive network of colleagues, friends and family who were just a phone call away when I needed it most. My husband always picked up the phone to hear me out when I was having hard time, and reminded me of all the hard work I had put into designing this research. Multiple friends and colleagues told me how excited they were about my study, because I always spoke about it with so much passion and enthusiasm. One friend in particular told me how much she admired my dedication and desire to pursue my goals – and that she, too, had gone through moments of feeling like an imposter, but that we should never doubt our capabilities. My advisor and mentor sent words of encouragement to remind me they believe in my work. I’m also part of a lovely doctoral support group, with three amazing women who share words of encouragement and positivity that keep us going during this intense process. It’s these types of relationships that are essential during the dissertation process to keep you grounded and remind you that you are READY and ABLE to conduct quality research.
Ask and they will come… all at the same time
Like I said above, the first interview was fantastic. Once it started, I knew I was onto something new, exciting and *hopefully* important as hell. We addressed all the questions I wanted to tackle, and had some interesting conversations emerge from these discussions. Once that interview was done, I had another two interviews scheduled (each on a separate day) and was hoping to start hearing back from others. But in the back of my head, there was that constant, “Oh no… they aren’t calling! I’ll be lucky if I hit 5 interviews…”
That’s when recruitment efforts started to bear fruit. Before I knew it, I was scheduling two interviews a day – up until my last day in Tampa. Not only did I hit my target 15, but I also had to start scheduling interviews for when I return in August.
While that has definitely been exciting, it’s also quite exhausting. Each interview takes approximately two hours, and it’s hard to debrief when you have to drive to another location, or if interviews are scheduled back-to-back because that’s what works for participants. That’s one thing you need to take into account when scheduling your data collection plan, particularly if you will be traveling to do so. Ideally, I would have spaced out my interviews to have time to debrief and write detailed memos that capture my thoughts on each interview. Even better, only have one interview a day. In the real world, though, you won’t always have time and resources to space out your interviews. There were several occasions when I was rushing to buy a bag of almonds, an RX bar and bottle of water to wash it all down while I was driving to my next location. Or a banana and a bag of salt and vinegar chips… because, BALANCE, right?
About balance… or lack thereof?
Before arriving in Tampa to start data collection, I thought I would be able to keep my Baltimore daily routine going. In my mind, this entailed exercising at least four times a week, eating (relatively) healthy meals on a set schedule, and even reading a book or writing in my “spare time.”
Truth be told, there was no spare time. Although I managed to keep a relatively normal schedule the first week and a half, things quickly picked up. That meant being flexible and reminding myself that I had to re-shift some priorities for a short period of time.
Yes, I was still able to squeeze in some exercise while I was in Tampa. During the first few weeks, I managed to do some yoga, spin and HIIT to release stress. However, this became increasingly difficult as time went by and I had to schedule two interviews a day. Although not ideal, I reminded myself that the whole point of being in Tampa was to focus on the dissertation. I could have been hard on myself for not being able to work out, but I instead chose to be kind to myself and acknowledge this was a difficult time to keep my regular routine going. Yes, exercise was a fantastic way to decompress, but not at the expense of stressing out because the only classes available coincided with participant interviews. Given my abbreviated timeline, I prioritized data collection and worked around this schedule to fit in exercise whenever I could. (I also prioritized sleep over exercise; de-stressing is great and all, but holding interviews without a full night’s sleep is impossible).
Oh, and cooking happened once. That’s all I’ll say about that. Instead, I tried to pick healthy options when possible. Expect when I desperately wanted or (seriously – they have a ). I also tried to schedule dinners with friends who live in the area, which was a great way to decompress after a long day and enjoy some good company.
In essence, I focused on being kind to myself, given the current circumstances. I reminded myself that I would get back to my routine once summer is over and I’m settled back in Baltimore. In the meantime, my priorities were to focus on the dissertation and be kind to myself.
Keeping your eye on the prize
Although this past month was extremely challenging, I am really proud to have met my goal of 15 interviews – which means I’m at the data collection halfway mark. Being malleable allowed me to roll with the punches, and having a supportive network was essential in being able to do so. While “dissertating” feels lonely at times, having people to rely on when you need to talk it out (or just vent) makes it more manageable. So THANKS to all those who were (and continue!) to be there during this process. You know who you are.
I haven’t had a chance to process all the information shared in these interviews, but I’m hoping to be able to do so in the upcoming days, as I had out to Oxford Internet Institute for the Summer Doctoral Programme. ✈️🇬🇧I leave tomorrow (still haven’t packed, thank-you-very-much), but I’m so excited to share where I’m at with the dissertation with another 29 international PhD students doing internet research on a myriad of topics! I’ll also get a chance to nerd it out with professors from the Internet Institute and learn new ways to approach social media research. 🤓 Then, it’s off to some well-deserved off time in the U.K., before finishing up data collection in August.
So… still have lots to do, but looking forward to it! On my way to turning these Facebook interviews into something special…
We got this.
As I continue to share my journey through the dissertation phase of the PhD, I hope they shed some light to the different experiences and emotions you may encounter during the process. As I’ve said in the , it isn’t all easy, but it’s definitely worth it if you are doing it for the right reasons. So, keep your eye on the prize and remember: you’ve made it this far because you have what it takes. We got this! 💪🏼
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When I started this very young blog back in the cold, snowy month of March (which feels like eons ago), I thought I would be able to write at least once a week. I figured it would be a way to channel my thoughts and process my emotions as life happens. However, the past five weeks have been pretty intense… not so much in the negative sense of the word, but in the pace at which things have been occurring. Ergo, writing here fell to the wayside.
I’m currently juggling several facets of my life that are all in alignment and important, yet managed to speed-up simultaneously. Since my , I was involved in back-to-back activities related to relief efforts in Puerto Rico post-María. I first moderated a regarding the social, economic and public health impacts of the hurricane six months after its passing (it was really informative – you can watch it ). The following week, I took over my university’s Instagram account to share a for community members in Sector Maná. Thankfully, both events were incredibly successful at raising funds and getting the word out about the needs Puerto Ricans are still facing. This also led to more exposure about , which has brought about opportunities for new projects, partnerships, funding mechanisms, membership growth and other very exciting things that require lots of time and planning.
Yet, my month didn’t stop there. Simultaneous to the growth of our organization, the also picked up. I received IRB approval for my dissertation research, which is scheduled to happen over the summer in Tampa. With IRB approved, I finally had the green light to start planning my trip and data collection timeline. A few days later, I received the amazing news that I was selected to attend a summer program for doctoral students at the Oxford Internet Institute for two weeks this July… so I had to start scheduling that in as well. Then, another email came in: I had a manuscript I’ve been working on for quite some time accepted with minor revisions (finally!), which were due by the end of April. Oh, yeah – I also had pending data analyses for a study exploring Snapchat advertising among adolescents… plus two personal trips scheduled smack in the middle of April: one to Puerto Rico to visit my sister, and another week-long trip with my husband to New Orleans.
Needless to say, I’ve had a lot going on; so much so, that the end of March and beginning of April felt like a blur. I was going through the motions, but didn’t have the time to process and contextualize my emotions given the pace at which things were happening. The events related to PR relief efforts left me with conflicted feelings: I was elated that our efforts were successful and impactful, yet I was frustrated with the current situation in the island. I mean, just recently there were two major blackouts within a week of each other, and there are a myriad of social and political issues being trampled upon by the island’s current administration – which is why thousands are marching . I was also really excited about the professional and academic opportunities coming my way, but felt anxious about getting everything done on time and in a way that meets my standards. It was a lot to try to put my finger on, and it took a bit of mental gymnastics to figure out how to manage it all.
Although things are not slowing down quite yet, I’ve managed to get a handle on the speed at which things are happening. How? This is what has worked for me:
(1) Make a list.
When things start to feel chaotic and messy, I try to realign myself by making lists of what needs to get done. It may sound somewhat mechanical or overly simplistic, but it really forces you to think about what it will take to get things accomplished and how much time is needed to do so. It also compartmentalizes your thoughts into plans that are easier to digest. Making detailed lists for each project has helped me identify what needs to be resolved immediately, and what can be tabled for later. It also lets me visually compare tasks and make a timeline; mine is currently out until the beginning of August. Now that I mapped it all out, it’s easier to tackle each day and build in time for myself. Personally, I use several journals and a weekly/monthly planner to break down my days and write down my thoughts as things come up. Whatever methods works for you, the most important thing is to remember that there are only 24 hours in a day – no matter who you are. So, manage them wisely.
(2) Say no.
One of the harder things in life is saying no, both to things that are out-of-scope and to people who take you off track. Again: our time is limited. Every thing you do takes up a portion of that time. Therefore, when you say yes to things and/or people misaligned with your goals, you are saying no to yourself. Recently, there have been several opportunities that I’ve had to politely decline because I knew that the quality of my work would suffer if I took on another project. And, even if the quality of my work didn’t suffer, my mental health would. Meeting other people’s deadlines and priorities at the expense of unnecessary anxiety and stress is not a worthwhile investment. I’ve also had to say no to people – those who truly matter will understand when you need to disappear for a while and take care of what’s important. Here’s a great essay on .
(3) Surround yourself with similar vibes.
Energy flows from person to person. In my experience, this energy has the power to fuel you when life gets difficult. When those around you have ideas and priorities that resonate with your own, it’s much easier to stay motivated and use their energy to fuel your own. Being around friends with similar values has allowed me to stay concentrated on things that matter and refocus my energy on getting tasks accomplished. It also keeps me positive, which is so important when life starts to get stressful. Yet, not everyone has energy or values that align with your own; some people’s energy can be draining. It’s okay to remove yourself from this negativity, if it is starting to influence the way you approach things or the way you feel about yourself. It may be temporary, but it could well be permanent – that’s for you to decide. In the words of , “You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.”
(4) Share your emotions.
With time, I’ve learned the importance of expressing my emotions when I start to feel overwhelmed. Doing so allows me to process things that don’t quite make sense. Sometimes this takes place in written form, when I start making lists and jotting down random thoughts. Other times, it’s more helpful to talk to someone who might be able to share valuable insight – or just lend a friendly ear. There are times when all it takes is listening to yourself say something out loud to find the answers you are looking for! That’s the great part of surrounding yourself with people who care and bring out the best in you: it is easier to share your thoughts and figure out how to best navigate present challenges. Regardless, my experience has been that the more you articulate situations and the accompanying emotions, the easier it becomes to identify how you feel about them. Getting clarity in this regard can help you figure out how to tackle what’s right in front of you.
(5) Take a break.
Seriously, find a way to stop the madness and center yourself. At first, I was somewhat anxious about my two pre-scheduled trips, because that was time I wouldn’t be able to get work done. Then, I decided to do the exact opposite: I did zero work those 10 days. Instead, I used that time to enjoy myself and let my mind relax. Rather than chastise myself for taking this time off, I gave myself permission to do something fun and soaked in every second of it. Whenever I started to feel anxious, I reminded myself I deserved to take a break. Once I returned home, I had the energy to hit the ground running with a new sense of clarity. Although I know it isn’t always possible (or realistic) to take a vacation when you need a break, it is feasible to take some time for yourself – exercise, mediate, sing, dance… whatever feels right. Do it – your mind will thank you!
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when multiple things – good or bad – happen all at once. Instead of letting it overpower me, I’m embracing the ebbs and flows of life and findings ways to manage the things that matter. Taking this approach has allowed me to find balance and tackle things with a new sense of purpose.
And, before I knew it, time did its thing: it’s no longer snowing or 30 degrees outside. Instead, April showers brought beautiful May flowers… and lots of sunshine. Like I said, a lot can happen in a month!
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Three simple letters with so much meaning. A terminal degree. Subject matter expertise. Street cred. The pinnacle of your academic training. For me, it’s the ability to finally become an academic researcher and a professor.
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to teach, mentor and explore new ideas. I was an extremely inquisitive child – I constantly sat in the front row and raised my hand to ask my favorite question of all: WHY. I also loved the feeling of creating something new, whether it be through dancing, singing, acting or writing. That is why it doesn’t surprise me that I gravitated towards research.
I distinctively remember being in a high school seminar where we were discussing what professions to explore in college. My hand shot up when they asked who wanted to be a scientist. Since I loved genetics, I was convinced my career goal was to pursue a PhD in Biotechnology. Well, the few scientists I knew all had PhDs, so it was pretty simple: I need a PhD to be an academic researcher. The plan? Linear and concrete: Go to college, get a bachelor degree and go straight into a doctorate program.
Fast forward to today: while I’m finally pursuing a PhD, my path was anything but linear. It took nine years after graduating from my undergraduate program to finally start my PhD. During that time, I transitioned from basic sciences to public health, got an MPH, and worked within multiple job settings: Lab Research. Federal Government. County Government. Academic Partnerships. Health Education. Even some retail and serving in between. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because these experiences gave me invaluable insight… the exact insight necessary to once again answer the question:
Why a PhD?
If I’m being completely honest, knowing the answer to this question from the start is the key to a successful doctoral experience. Few people openly talk about the difficult aspects of pursuing a PhD. And, guess what: It is scary, daunting, and by far one of hardest thing I have ever had to do.
Yes, pursuing a doctorate degree is an exciting, stimulating process. It is extremely rewarding to finally be immersing yourself in theory and literature, designing your own dissertation and pushing boundaries. However, it can also be incredibly lonely. Although your advisor is there to help guide you, you are expected to delve into a topic and become an expert on your own. On top of that, you will be partaking in required coursework, completing comprehensive exams, and most likely engaging in other research projects and extracurricular activities. So, finding a way to juggle it all, while also trying to keep your personal life afloat, is taxing.
In my case, I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD after exploring different career options and realizing I was happiest when I worked on designing and implementing new research projects, and while I was teaching. I am also extremely passionate about mentoring others. Academia offers a venue for me to do all of these things. Being clear and decisive about my reason to pursue a doctorate degree has been instrumental in staying motivated and making the journey much more manageable.
Know there will be periods of darkness, frustration, and doubt. Every PhD student I know has gone through them, at least once. You will inevitably go through phases of the imposter syndrome, and don’t be surprised if you start questioning your beliefs and other aspects of life. If you don’t know why you are pursuing a doctorate degree, these moments will seem much more difficult than they actually are.
So, , I would encourage you to ask yourself the following questions:
Why do you want a PhD?
What is a PhD going to provide you that another degree will not?
What do you envision using your degree for?
These questions may seem obvious now, but trust me when I say that this will be one of the most difficult phases you will ever go through. Write down your answers and revisit them every time things get challenging, lonely, or you start to question why you are doing this again (because, you WILL question it!). Having a clear end goal has truly helped me navigate my emotions during the process.
Also, be open to these answers changing slightly (or entirely) throughout your doctoral trajectory. Your personal journey may challenge you to reevaluate your end goals, or you may come across something new that inspires you to move in a different direction. The important thing is to have a reference point that will help you navigate your experience and allow you to constantly check-in with yourself.
To clarify, I am not trying to deter anyone from pursuing a doctorate degree. This period has been so fulfilling and I would do it again in a heartbeat! The road to getting a PhD has challenged me in so many facets of life, and has definitely made me a better, stronger version of myself. I only encourage you to make sure you know why this matters to you. Know your reasons for pursuing the degree and have them serve as an anchor and as motivation throughout the process. And, remember: there are no wrong reasons, as long as they make sense to you.
As for me, I’m less than 15 months away from graduating and achieving a goal I’ve had since high school. Although my path here couldn’t be farther from what I had envisioned, I’m sure my 15-year-old self would be incredibly proud.
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