A Good Time in My Field

My broad field is public health.  It’s a good time to be a scholar in public health.

As universities are expanding and sort of adopting business models, more and more of them are trying to open programs that will attract paying students and more notoriety.  One of those ways is business schools; I read an article the other day about Johns Hopkins University opening a new business school with a sort of unusual MBA program.  Another way is schools of public health.

Public health is beginning to boom because of a variety of things.  The nation has turned its attention to health; since ACA passed and as we gear up to insure millions of Americans who weren’t insured before, more information and research needs to be done.  We’re more interested in prevention, since prevention can hold down costs and since preventative services are free or low-cost under the insurance plans.  We’re also more interested in policy and implementation.  We’re still trying to solve the problems of HIV and AIDS.  Obesity was recently declared a disease by the American Medical Association, but we don’t really know what causes it.  Cancer is still a specter in our lives.

The other thing is that health has long been touted as a “recession-proof” field, so more students are interested in non-clinical ways they can be involved in it.  An MPH degree is a easy turn for some of them.  MPHs have the potential to be cash cows for universities, since they are usually financed completely with loans.  Also, schools of public health can bring respectability and prestige to a university.  They also tend to attract a lot of research money, particularly from the NIH.  The SPH at my university is actually the highest income generator in terms of research grants at our medical center, surpassing the medical and dental schools (which you wouldn’t expect).

So many universities are establishing schools of public health or expanding existing programs.  Georgia State University is turning their Institute of Public Health into a full-fledged School.  NYU is expanding their Global Institute of Public Health.  Brown is transitioning their MPH program into a full-fledged school.  And I saw a job ad today from University of Nevada at Reno that they are also planning to establish a school of public health, and are hiring a flight of professors to that end.  Many undergraduate colleges are beginning to offer majors or minors in public and/or community health for their students, as they become more interested in it.  Lehigh University is hiring 3 new professors in their Health, Medicine, and Society program; Tufts University has a community health program for undergrads; and American University has a 3-year community health BS.

Yeah, what comes with new schools of public health?  NEW FACULTY.  AKA jobs for me and my colleagues!

Meaning that I’ve seen a spate of pretty cool jobs in desirable places in the last 3 years that I’ve been casually looking (obviously, I still need to write this dissertation, but I look to see what’s around).  Add to that that most public health scientists can also look for research scientist positions at a variety of universities, government agencies, think tanks, and NGOs – and our field isn’t doing too badly.

dissertation progress

I met with two of my committee members (chair and sponsor) on Thursday to talk about steps forward for the dissertation.  My sponsor thinks I should add another (set of) analyses to the dissertation, as he thinks my main aims aren’t ambitious enough for a dissertation.  I agree, but I think where we disagree is what I should do.

I have to say that my dissertation sponsor is pretty much everything an adviser should be.  He’s been my primary adviser since my first year of graduate school, and he’s been really involved and invested in my professional development since the start.  We generally meet every other week (although it’s been less frequently lately, but that’s to be expected).  Because he’s untenured, he needs to be really productive, so that’s translated to me being moderately productive myself.  I’ve got to learn first hand what the role of an assistant professor looks like.  I always proclaim this on boards or when talking to prospective students about graduate school; sometimes they get worried or hear from others that they shouldn’t choose untenured faculty members as advisers because what if they leave?  Not that that’s not a threat, but there are some pros to choosing an untenured faculty member as a sponsor too.

However, my sponsor’s #1 suggestion was to do some coding of a qualitative question in the longitudinal part of my dissertation data (some of the data is cross-sectional, taken at time 1, and some of it is qualitative taken at times 1-8).  I think this is a very very bad idea. I’d have to come up with a codebook and code 8 weeks’ worth of qualitative statements, however short they are.  I really dislike coding qualitative data (as much as I realize that it’s useful).  I’m a quantitative researcher, and I want my dissertation and the subsequent papers to be examples of my work not only as a substance use researcher but also as a methodologist and quantitative researcher.  But more importantly, the qualitative work will take a LOT of time and throw off my timeline substantially, I think.  (I might also add that my sponsor has a little bit of a history of suggesting work that will take a really long time.)

My chair, thankfully, agrees with me.

My idea was to do a latent class analysis or structural equation model looking at one of the constructs I’m investigating as a latent variable.  The idea is to see what elements really make up that latent variable, and try to put some definition to the construct.  There’s been calls in the literature in my field to examine this construct in more depth in the context of my area, and some really relevant recent research, so I’m thinking it’ll be well-received in the field.  My chair likes this idea.  My sponsor does too, but he’s a bit skeptical about whether it’s “enough.”  (I don’t know what “enough” is, unfortunately.)  There’s another person on my committee who’s big into this area of the field and so I think I want to make an appointment with him to ask him about it.

But then a thought just occurred…if he didn’t think it was “enough,” why let me go forward with the proposal?  After all the proposal WAS accepted!  I mean, I don’t mind because I really like thinking about this stuff and the prospect of the new area actually excites me, even though I know it will be difficult.


Yesterday I made an outline of my dissertation.

Five years ago I would’ve never outlined anything – I would’ve just barreled into the project and started writing.  That’s a great way to to get lost, I now realize.  My outline estimates my dissertation at 90-120 pages, which is a short dissertation but a long paper!  So trying to approach this from the perspective of “I’m going to work on my dissertation today,” or even “I’m going to work on my literature review (30-45 pages) today” is not a good idea.  I’ve also discovered that I write best in a non-linear fashion, because I build up momentum as I work.  So it’s easier for me to start with a section that I know I can whip out faster – like the methods section, which is easy to write because we already did the project and it’s straightforward.  That gets some words on the paper, which gives me confidence when I go to write the much more nebulous (but also really fun) literature review.

So now I can say “I am going to complete my subsection on the communal aspects of green reed underwater basketweaving today,” which is a 2-page section and something I can realistically complete in one day.

I used my own experiences to help my students when teaching them writing – I taught them to do outlines over the summer.  Some of them balked until they started writing and then came up to tell me how useful their outlines were.  It keeps you from getting lost in your words!  It’s like a road map.  You don’t have to stick rigidly to it – in fact, you may find a better/shorter way to go, and alter your path.  But when you get lost and don’t know where to go next, the outline helps you find your way back.  I outline all of my papers now, even if briefly and loosely.

The literature review and methods section are much better outlined than the results and discussion, which makes sense given that I haven’t done the analysis yet.  I have my lit review chapters organized into major sections that are 5 to 12 pages in length; those sections are then organized into subsections that are typically 2-4 pages in length.  My methods section is projected at 15-20 pages total, but I also have that split into 5 major sections that are on average 2-3 pages in length, although some are projected to be slightly longer.

I’m a super dork but I’m actually excited about this, especially writing the literature review (which previously was my least favorite section to write).  I’m excited because I get to read about the history of the work done in this field plus the fresh work, and synthesize it all together.  And I’ve learned how fun learning by doing is in the last few years.  Coursework kind of sucks, but I didn’t mind qualifying exams at all – the studying process was stressful but intriguing – and this process has been a learning experience, too.

I also got new running sneakers yesterday.  I am so over the moon about these running sneakers.  I went running in them yesterday and I feel like a new person.  My body wasn’t crying out in protest after the run was over (just my lungs).  I also found out that they are the same sneakers Wendy Davis wore during her 11-hour filibuster, which made me happy.

Hello, World

My name is Lissa.  I’m a PhD student candidate (hells yeah!).  I am starting a dissertation blog.

There are two reasons for that.

The first is very personal.  I wanted to chronicle my year(s) as a dissertator, and all of the thoughts and feelings and frustrations that come with it.  I have a journal that I’ve used during my graduate school years, but I’ve posted in it sporadically and I’ve realized that I have a lot of feelings that graduate school dredges up.  So I want the opportunity to scribble them down, get them off my chest, and reflect upon them years from now when I am past this point.

The second is more communal.  Throughout graduate school, I’ve turned to other grad student blogs (and young academics’ blogs) as a source of comfort and commiseration.  I’ve realized that there are many others out there who feel the same as me, and that helps me press on.  But I’ve seen that there are very few that actually cover the graduate school process itself, and especially writing the dissertation – most of them are by early career professors who are getting tenure.  So I’m hoping by throwing myself out there, I can shed some light on the process of writing a dissertation for other people who may be coming up behind me.

So here’s a little about me, professionally.

-I’m in my late 20s; I went to graduate school directly after undergrad.

-I’m getting my PhD in an interdisciplinary social science field.  I defended my proposal two weeks ago, so I am truly all-but-dissertation.  Broadly, I study the ways in which people’s behaviors affect their health.

-I’m unsure about my eventual career path.  I know I want to do a postdoctoral fellowship in research for 2-3 years.  But after that, what?  Part of me wants to be a professor at a R1 university, and make a name for myself in my field while teaching some awesome classes and mentoring undergrads and doctoral students.  Part of me wants to devote myself to teaching at a small liberal arts college.  Another part of me, though, wants to go take a research position at a think tank, NGO, or government agency.  I think I would enjoy most of any of those three jobs.

-Whatever it is I do, I can see myself rising through to administration.  So if I go the university route, I’d like to be provost some day, maybe even president.  And if I go the other way, I would maybe like to run a national research institute or center.

And personally:

-I’m married to a great guy.  I love him, and he’s very supportive of my PhD pursuit.  We have no children.

-I just started running, so I wouldn’t quite call myself a “runner” yet.  My short-term goal is a 5K, and my longer-term goal is to run a triathlon.

-I love video games, tech gadgets, and anime.  I am the consummate nerd.

-In my spare spare time, I like volunteering in the community.  I mentor some high school kids and also volunteer teach the SAT.

I plan to write about these things.

1. My experience writing the dissertation, and as an advanced graduate student in general.  Part of this may be reflections over earlier parts of graduate school, including the Dark Ages (aka years 3 and 4).

2. My speculations/feelings about my career and my future aspirations.

3. General musings about academia in general, extrapolated through reading and my own experiences.  I go to a lovably screwy university, so I have a lot of feelings about that.

4. My reactions to the news, politics, and current events through the lens of a social scientist.  The reason is because I do want to be able to reflect on the context of my life as a dissertator, but also I want to be able to look at how writing a dissertation (and studying for a PhD) has changed the way that I view things.  And given my field, pretty much any news about people is relevant to my field as a whole (and probably my subfield in some messed way).  Reading the news is the first thing I do every morning, even before checking my email (which is evil anyway).  Most of my interests lie in health, education, science, and a touch of economics.