A year of accomplishments, scatterplots, new resolutions

Poor, sad, little neglected blog. I used to think that I did not have time for writing while I finished my dissertation. This year demonstrated that a preoccupied mind prevents reflection as well. I have been working on this draft for many days and struggling to verbalize the happy and not so happy of it all. Americans are supposed to be the outlier on the happy scale, more upbeat about their days than most people. When we are not in that place, it can be hard.

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At the end of last year, I was not selected for a promotion that I fiercely wanted and had stringently prepared. It was a position I had strived for in the past, only to be discouraged from applying due to lack of a terminal degree. This “job” was not the driving force behind completing my Ph.D., but the degree was one of a series of steps that I took to prepare for a “next step” in my career. Side note, being rejected from a dream job five days before holiday vacation is not ideal for one’s self-esteem and seasonal jocularity. I recommend against it all costs.
This year began with a new boss (not getting the “job” meant working for the person who did) and the adjustments that come with a change in leadership. It also began with a new opportunity.
A position with an education non-profit came on the horizon and a new job search began. For those of us who lament the prodigious time required for campus employment, this process reached new heights. Non-profits include a scaffolding of decision makers. Whether in discussion with a screening committee, organization leaders, elected board, and the membership; each audience sought a different answer and a different set of skills. The job posted in January and concluded with a hire announcement in late September (more on this later). A colleague termed it as the job search that rivaled a pregnancy.
Meanwhile, real life work this year included financial shortfalls, intense budget negotiations, staff reorganization to address financial shortfalls, a staff member on family leave, and a staff member following a partner to new employment. Even knowing in advance, it is difficult to prepare for the transition of a dedicated colleague. Rewriting position descriptions, preparing a search committee, waiting on HR approvals, the calendar was inching along. And all of this while attending to the needs of smart and amazing students (who sometimes have tragic days) and doing my best to be a good leader and mentor for the amazing student staff and graduate assistants that I am lucky to employ. The wiser than her years, Stacy Oliver-Sikorski, recently opined “There are really awful days amidst the really great days, and we need to be more honest with ourselves and others about that.”
Facing those “awful” days and separating work from family needs was complicated this year. I am enormously grateful for a loving and supportive partner who keeps me grounded. I am happy and proud to be mom to an amazing teen and tween who are high achieving and in search of their strengths. They are my most important work every day.
I will be embarking on a new adventure in the not so distant future. Despite every obstacle, 2014 will be remembered on the happy scale as the year that I resolved to get my dream job. And succeeded.
More soon. Happy 2015!

It’s a Post-Doc Life (Part II): Tips and Advice

Part II of It’s a Post-Doc Life is a bit of wit, wisdom, and advice for friends and other doctoral students approaching the writing phase. See Part I if you require more introduction.

Contract with an editor in advance. Determine mutual expectations for the process. I hired an editor late in my writing process at the advice of fellow doc students in my cohort and did not have adequate editing time built into my writing calendar. I thought my editor could be working on edits for Chapters 1-3 while I put the finishing touches on my final chapters. Wrong. My editor required everything in advance so as to get a feel for the entire topic. The substantial amount of tables required extra time including several horizontal pages that were incredibly ornery for pagination. Fortunately for me, my editor was patient and well versed in the requirements of our graduate college.

Make every paper support your analysis. My faculty was supportive in allowing personal research for final projects for students who had a concrete research topic. For a qualitative research class, I redesigned my quantitative topic as a case study. For program evaluation, I reviewed how my research study would contribute to program enhancement. For statistical research, I focused on a test sample of my population for the final project and was later able to refine and submit that work as my capstone. Each of these papers shaped and enhanced my final project.

Keep your focus. Post your dissertation questions where they are clearly visible at your workspace. Even on days where no writing is accomplished, reading and processing your questions is progress. I kept a list reminding me to be positive right next to my research questions. I created Pinterest pages on focus and finishing. This may seem like procrastination, but they provided good left-brain alternatives to statistical writing. Blogging also helped.

Read dissertations. I read as many dissertations related to my topic as I could locate and found off-topic examples that had been highly praised by my department. Knowing what your faculty recognizes as good research is a great motivation and resource.

Feed your brain. Skittles and pretzels are not brain or body food for any length of time. Thank goodness I was guzzling green tea. Any semblance of a healthy diet or exercise program that I had prior to writing went out the window. In its place were the bits of time that I reserved to maintain normalcy for my family, a stolen few hours for a soccer game or baking cookies. My muscles suffered from constant sitting and I made many adjustments to my workspace. I am working hard to regain a healthier self.

Take some personal time following your defense. Immediately following my dissertation I was engaged in a campus conference then traveled away for another conference before moving into the busiest weeks of my spring semester. I struggled to quickly revise my project for an article submission, submit my final work to the grad college, sign up for commencement, and close our programs for the semester. I had little time for myself with the exception of a mani/pedi and a bit of shopping. And I was exhausted.

Don’t be surprised by Post-Dissertation Stress Disorder or PDSD. Unlike many post-docs, I was lucky to already have a wonderful job in student affairs. Although I am researching and entertaining next career steps, I already have a salary and satisfying work to wake up for each day. However the lack of deadlines, lack of pressure, decreased ability to function in the normal, and deadlines that are suddenly manageable is surprisingly stressful. A professor recently described it as similar to retirement. For my fellow doc moms out there, it’s like having a baby, but nothing to cuddle with post-delivery. If you are work and project driven, the adjustment takes time.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. There will be errors in your final submission. I have found two so far, just minor things, but our grad college does not allow corrections after submission. Although incredibly frustrating, I will live. You will too.

It’s a Post-Doc Life (Part I)

It’s the last day of the first half of the year and four months following the defense of my dissertation. My writing has been stunted since that time; or rather my blog writing, and I feel the need to finally put to print the journey of my dissertation. This first part is a bit wordy. Feel free to skip to the next post for my dissertation tips.

I began a doctoral program in education and educational leadership in summer 2009. My institution provides 3 credits of tuition support per semester (student is responsible for anything above 3 credits, all fees, books, supplies), so I was a part-time student for the next three years. Last May, thirteen months ago, a member of my dissertation committee outlined how I could complete my doctoral work more quickly than planned with a few course changes. The original idea was to defend in fall of this year with a December graduation date. Always up to a challenge, I added the final courses to my summer calendar, moved to full time student status (expensive), and gathered my committee for a preliminary research discussion.

I worked with my advisor to schedule dates for a preliminary oral defense and dissertation defense. Our graduate college requires filing of intent to present a dissertation and committee in the term prior to the oral defense. And the final defense must be at least six months after the preliminary oral. My committee paperwork was submitted in May 2012, summer term, my prelim was on August 22; the third day of the fall semester, and my defense was scheduled for February of this year.

Those summer classes were essential for defining my theoretical perspective and Chapters 1 and 3, the introduction and methodology of my prospectus. I had a solid Chapter 2, the literature review, developed over the prior year. I hastily prepared for my prelims and capstone defense (final project) in August, one of the busiest months of the year for student affairs professionals. I was underprepared for this step, failing to adequately prepare my committee, but managed to muddle through. There was great benefit from having not only a student relationship but also a professional relationship with my committee. They were incredibly gracious.

And then I ignored my research. For six weeks.

With the school year securely under way, I burned vacation days and went back to writing. After several false starts on analysis, I consulted my advisor and hired a statistician to assist with the more complicated calculations. As the statistical work began to fall into place and I developed rudimentary skills for analytical writing, I sent my completed questions to my advisor for review. Four of the seven questions required nine tables each of painstakingly intricate ratio analysis. The final paper included 54 separate tables and figures. I wanted to club myself over the head on many occasions.

As I was finishing my results and powering though my final chapter at the end of the semester, my editor suffered a broken elbow and notified me that she would not be able to do any work until after the first of the year. With a late February defense date, this seemed minor, so I kept at it, taking some time though the holidays, but working, writing, revising, lather, rinse, repeat.

January was spent in edits. My editor made recommendations, I would approve or rewrite a bit. I primarily used the editorial process for structural detail such as the table of contents, placement of tables, and pagination. Also, there are rules for publishing from our grad college that are not strictly APA style, and my editor was well informed.

With advisor approval, I was able to send a draft to my committee on February 12, fifteen days before my defense date. This may seem late for many writers, but being early in the semester, there were not yet many defenses scheduled in our department. I moved into fine-tune mode and began work on my oral presentation.

The very next day, my advisor, faced with a medical situation, requested that we move my defense date ahead a week to February 20 or 21. Now you recall that my grad college requires that a defense must be six months at minimum between prelim and final oral defense. As such, moving to February 20 or 21 required special permission. After significant wrangling by my advisor and committee, the grad college approved the request, and my defense was moved to February 20. I requested more vacation days to prepare and ultimately, a week early, I defended.

And I passed.

Ph.Done.

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For several weeks now, since completing and defending my dissertation, I have wanted to write about the process and share some words of wisdom for my  friends and colleagues who are still in process. The mere quest to do so has been exhausting. I can barely put pen to paper, let alone fingers to keyboard.

Several tasks have kept my brain occupied for the last month, an on-campus conference, the departure of a colleague, a professional conference, and some much deserved spring break R&R with my family. I completed text revisions for my committee. I condensed my dissertation to an article for a research competition. I forgot, then remembered, to order my commencement regalia. I reacquainted myself with the elliptical. I watched this thing called television.

And yet I still feel in a state of flux. As if the pattern buffer shifting my subatomic particles for transport back to the real world is having trouble locking on my position.

While I check in with fleet engineering, enjoy these posts that were helpful during my writing process.

From the Lab to the Laptop: Writing your Thesis

How Blogging Helped Me Write My Dissertation

10 tips for being a happy thesis writer

Why writing from day one is nuts