Navigating that #phdlife: Dissertation Diaries


Let the dissertation games begin!

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, here you go!

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 imposter syndrome. 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.

Hold on!
A pretty accurate depiction of me, holding on to dear life… Thanks, Charlie 💕

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 Urban Cantina or Sprinkles (seriously – they have a CUPCAKE ATM). 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 past, 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! 💪🏼


I hope you enjoyed this post on navigating the #PhDLife! To receive updates on future posts, follow my Facebook Page or sign-up for blog updates below.

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Navigating that #phdlife: Why do you want a PhD?


PhD

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. Why a PhD? 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.

my-path.pngFast 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.

Will it be easy

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, if you are genuinely considering a doctorate degree, 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?
  • Why now?

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.


I hope you enjoyed this first post on navigating the #PhDLife! To receive updates on future posts, follow my Facebook Page or sign-up for blog updates below.

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