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.
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! 💪🏼