Fabulous Idea: Reframing the Dissertation Experience

By Kristen E. Porter, PhD, MS, MAc, LAc, JP

Life happens.

I was the 67th graduate of the UMass Gerontology PhD program when I received my degree in 2015. I spent one year from proposal to successful defense with no revisions. At the time, I was the 11th fastest to graduate.

But it wasn’t the breeze it might appear to be on paper. While in the program, I was the president of a company, a foster parent to numerous children ranging in age from newborn to teen, and primary caregiver to my mother and grandmother. During this time my mother, grandmother, father, and business partner died and I underwent nine surgical procedures and survived sepsis.

Life happened. But if we let it happen to us it can derail our goals. For me, to not only survive but also thrive required grit, commitment, and creativity. In seeking to find support for my own dissertation writing, I created a peer dissertation writing group in 2013. Writing a dissertation was as much a rigorous intellectual challenge as it was a personal challenge to finish regardless of how life happened. Long past my graduation, the group continues to support UMass students complete their dissertations.

In reflecting upon my dissertating  year, I really (yes, really) enjoyed the process. I want to help reframe the experience for students, from the dreaded dissertation to the fabulously finished.  What makes the dissertation dreaded?  I think it is based in a limiting belief that has been passed down from one generation of students to the next. We’ve bought into the idea that really smart people toil and toil over dissertations. The more we are victims to our dissertation and “life happenings,” the more we validate the idea we are completing a feat worthy of intellectual superhero induction.

When I ran for the chair position of Gerontological Society of America’s Emerging Scholar and Professional Organization in 2015, my platform statement included a pledge “to adapt a peer-led dissertation writing group she previously developed … to a national level to provide ESPO members access to the tools and support to achieve a timely completed dissertation.” I became chair in 2016 and commenced a Special Task Force to do just that. We designed and piloted a free Skype-based Dissertation Writing Group Program with 28 students across five writing groups this summer.

I was overjoyed to read a recent article about the record number of UMass Gerontology students earning doctoral degrees this year. One graduate highlighted the innovative Gerontology Dissertation Writing Group as a critical resource as she worked toward her degree. “Having peers who had already forged the path and could offer advice was invaluable,” she said. “I truly believe this group is why I was able to finish. Everybody should have such a group.”

Now, no matter where you are in the world, as long as you have Internet connection (and are an ESPO member) you have access to such a group developed from evidence-based best practices. For more information or to sign up for the Skype- based ESPO writing groups go to www.geron.org/dwg. For information on the UMass group, contact Andrea Daddato at Andrea.Lindemer@gmail.com.

My dissertation is titled “Resilience in the Face of Adversity: Aging with HIV/AIDS.” Dissertating was a personal process of cultivating resilience. It was a daily practice of saying “no” guiltlessly to activities not in alignment with meeting my defense deadline date. I  considered my word to myself just as sacred as my word to other people. I appreciated my mentors and committee members as collaborators, while taking full responsibility for my experience and outcomes. And sometimes I was willing to let go of being right in order to embrace being done.

What makes the difference between a dreaded dissertation and fabulously finished? I’d suggest it’s your choice of perspective. Being a PhD student is an entitled position. Writing a dissertation is a privilege; it is not a have to or a must do but a get to. Enjoy!

 

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