By Meghan Hendricksen

Successfully completing the UMass Boston gerontology PhD program is like ending a journey.  A very long journey.

Just ask Ian Livingston, Jane Tavares or ShuangShuang Wang. All three recently defended their dissertations successfully. The Gerontology Institute blog talked with the newly minted UMass Boston PhDs about their experiences — from the original development of their dissertation topic to its eventual defense and how the work positions them for the future. Here’s what they had to say.

Q: Was the topic you chose for your dissertation in the area of interest you had coming into the Gerontology program?

Ian Livingston: It was not. My original interests and the topic of my dissertation were very different, but I was not surprised by that. My dissertation looks at the effects of physical therapists and occupational therapists on quality of care in nursing homes, but my original interests were linked to health behaviors and their association with different outcomes for older adults.

Coming into the program I had a sense of what I wanted to do, but that changed quickly even after just the first year. As a student, you’re exposed to so many broad aging-related topics, many of which are very interesting. My dissertation topic must have changed five or six different times before I even finished my qualifying exam. My recommendation to future students who already have dissertation ideas is to always be open to new ideas or different ways to approach a topic. You may be surprised how a topic that is completely different from your original interests may be the area you become most interested in.

Jane Taveres: Yes, my dissertation topic was closely related to a general area of interest I had coming into the Gerontology program. I have always had an interest in exploring how social relationships impact health. Much of my research has focused on this topic while I have been in our gerontology program. My faculty mentor, Jeff Burr, was also interested in this area of research and we worked together from my very first day, so I was able to really dig pretty deeply into this topic area over the course of my time in the program.

Shuangshuang Wang: Yes but more specific. When I first came into the program I was interested in broadly inter-generational relations and marital relations in later life. And when I was discussing with my dissertation chair about possible dissertation topics she suggested that maybe grandchild care and grandparents’ marital quality is a good one, which interested me as well.

Q: When you think about the entire dissertation process — from the proposal, to data collection and analysis, the writing and finally presenting – what was the most challenging part and what did you find most rewarding?

Ian Livingstone: The most challenging part of the whole dissertation process is the process itself. If you don’t finish, it’s on you, nobody else. If you get to the dissertation phase, that means you have completed all work and have proven that you can conduct quality research. The challenging part is that there is no real deadline; you must rely on your self-discipline and provide your own motivation to complete the dissertation. This is your research, nobody else’s. You are on your own to make your own decisions and it’s on you to finish. You must rely on the skills and knowledge you’ve gained throughout the program and hold yourself accountable throughout the entire process.

Jane Tavares: My dissertation research had many elements to it and a lot of data models, so the most difficult challenge for me was to remember to just take it one piece at a time and not get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that needed to be done to complete the big picture. The most rewarding thing for me was finally seeing the finish line. I wrote my dissertation over a period of time where my wife and I got married, moved, bought our first home, and had our first child. Often that meant only being able to put in a couple hours of work into my dissertation late at night, so it took a lot of motivation to stick with it and I was proud of myself for having done so.

Shuangshuang Wang: To me the most challenging part is the first few chapters, where you have to set up a structure for the whole dissertation, integrate theories and previous literature, and also prepare theoretical and empirical evidence for your hypotheses and study design. My data analyses is a little complicated and time-consuming, but I don’t think it is challenging. In my case, once the first few chapters were ready the dissertation process went a lot faster.  Another thing I think is challenging is time management. Because there are no firm deadlines for each step of a dissertation, I was easily distracted and later I would feel anxious or guilty about not meeting my schedule, especially when I was away from school. I think it is better to keep on track and have someone check on your progress. I think the writing process is most rewarding. By sending my work back and forth between me and my advisor, I learned how to structure a paper and how to express myself more clearly, which are beneficial to my future work.

Q: During your dissertation defense, how were you feeling while you were presenting?

Shuangshuang Wang: I thought I would be very nervous during the presentation, but I wasn’t. I think practicing helped a lot, and also my audience was very supportive.

Ian Livingstone: During the dissertation defense I felt fine while presenting. I tried to treat it as a presentation for class and not let the importance of it take over my thoughts and emotions. The only anxiety I had was due to the unknown, meaning what was going to take place during the discussion/question part or who was going to show up and maybe know something that I didn’t. One of my committee members explained to me that this is all brand-new work I was disseminating, and nobody knows the topic as well as I do. That put things into perspective and it was nice to hear as I prepped for the defense. Overall, the presentation went very smoothly, and I received some nice feedback from students and faculty afterward.

Jane Tavares: I actually felt very comfortable. Between having confidence that my committee felt I was prepared enough to be defending and knowing the area of research so well, I feel pretty at ease.

Q: What was it like once you were done? How did you celebrate your successful defense?

 Shuangshuang Wang: It was a big relief at that moment, and I was grateful that my committee members were very helpful and supportive. But successfully defending a dissertation doesn’t mean you have nothing else to do. I had to format my dissertation and make up the work I put aside while preparing for the defense. So, mentally it’s less stressful. But physically I had similar levels of work to do. After defense I went dinner with my support group and had a “do nothing day” afterward.

 Ian Livingstone: It’s a very strange feeling. It still hasn’t quite hit me yet, but I think it will as it gets closer to graduation. You work so hard for so long on one big paper, then it is all over. The nice thing is that my stress level has declined dramatically, and I have more time to spend with my wife and family. Unfortunately, I haven’t celebrated yet; that will come after graduation. The plan is to go out with some friends and family to a nice steakhouse in Boston.

Jane Tavares: I definitely felt a sense of relief and like a weight had been lifted off, especially because it took me quite a time-span to finish my dissertation. I went out to dinner with my family right afterwards to celebrate, but it turns out we picked the one restaurant in Boston that got evacuated for a gas leak that night. So, I’m still working on getting in a secondary celebration dinner!

 Q: How do you think your dissertation prepared you for your career after completing your PhD?

 Ian Livingstone: I think it has set me up very comfortably. I worked with four data sets that I have never work with before and that helped me to think through data issues more and fine-tune some programming skills. I also noticed improvements in my writing and decision-making as it related to my research. I am currently at RTI in Waltham working as a public health research analyst on a CMS-funded contract developing quality measures for long-term and post-acute facilities and writing health policy in the Federal Register. I do a lot of work on the nursing home/skilled nursing facility setting and the knowledge I’ve gained from the coursework and throughout the dissertation phase has really helped in my day to day tasks and has provided me with confidence in my abilities as a researcher.

 Jane Tavares:  My dissertation has set me up well to publish some manuscripts from my work, which will be a great start as I look for academic positions. It has also set me up to follow through with the next steps in this research area and look into some grant possibilities.

 Shuangshuang Wang: Based on my dissertation, I can develop several manuscripts for publication, which is helpful when I look for a job in academia. More importantly, by conducting this dissertation I learned a lot skills, not only writing and data analyses skills, but also how to organize files, how to automatically generate tables, etc.  I think these experiences will prepare me better for future challenges and opportunities.  I also recommend students who are working on or will work on their dissertations take a note of what changes they made to their writing or data and why, what troubles they came across and how they solved them, even small troubles.  A dissertation might take several years and we forget about things quicker than we thought.