Faculty Development

Earning a PhD: 10 Problems That Could Blindside You

By Jennifer Coombs, PhD, MPAS, PA-CJune 17, 2015

Photo credit: Shutterstock

The road to a PhD is strewn with potholes, detours, and even road rage. Here are some tips for dealing with the unexpected and avoiding potential disaster along the way.

When I began working on my PhD nearly 10 years ago, I knew I would encounter difficulties along this arduous path. Of course, I expected challenges with biostatistics and epidemiology, but the speed bumps I experienced often weren’t the ones I had anticipated. Little did I know that the problems I would face — both the simple and complex — would have unique solutions.

#1 Problem: Family

In the week leading up to my thesis defense, every single member of my family picked a fight with every other member. The mathematical permutations were stunning. Who knew teenage boys could experience PMS? And why would I ever want to pick a fight with my own mother, who has been my biggest fan? What I learned was that I was the anchor in my family, and my bad mood and lack of calm destabilized the whole complex interconnectedness. The only advice I have here is that this too shall pass. Once the defense was mercifully over, everyone went back to “normal” — sleep came again, appetite returned, and everyone was holding hands and singing camp songs. The mantra I repeated over and over on that fateful defense day was “Just keep it together.” I had my oldest son and two of my best friends attend the defense. I looked at them often.

Ultimately, family was the key. They really were supportive throughout the process. Night classes? No problem, my husband took over the cooking. Weekends? Again, my husband ran the kids around. Sick kids on the day of a final? My mom took them in. Homework? The kids and I all did our homework together. My complex biostatistics classes with their long calculations looked impressive, yet fourth grade math remained just as difficult. Websites like “Math Help for Moms” were essential for remembering how to add and subtract fractions. I had one Internet window open to SPSS and the other to Google search terms such as, “What is an isosceles triangle?”

#2 Age

I did well in my classes. I enjoyed the lectures and writing papers. I took all the core courses and passed my Qualifying Exam, then my Comp Exam. I took electives and found classes and knowledge I never would have experienced if I hadn’t been tackling a PhD. I met fantastic people and professors I loved. My mind sharpened — I now could recall anything. I went on a camping trip away from the computer (no Google to help me now) and could recall movie and music trivia. I instantly answered questions such as, “What was that movie with Mel Gibson set in Jakarta in the ’80s?” Or “What was the name of the band that Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel played in together?”

I was a walking Wikipedia — until I encountered That One Hard Class. It was SAS, otherwise known as Statistical Analytic Software. I had to write code. I had a Mac and the software was written for a PC. I struggled with the two platforms, and my computer just wasn’t up to the task. I began going to the library and using a PC there for my homework, which did help. But I was still struggling. I became panicky. I thought about dropping out.

Then one day I saw a woman walk into class and sit in the front row. She had on those super high heels the young women wear these days. Who wears 4-inch heels to a computer programming class? After class I approached her and asked her to be my study partner, saying I was having trouble and needed someone to do homework with. I did tell her this was not going to be a two-way street — it basically would be her helping me. In return, I would provide company, wonderful conversation, and soup at my house. She agreed! Luckily having a homework buddy was the key. I even procured an A on the final. Her youthful computer skills (like breathing and walking in high heels to this Millennial generation) was exactly the remedial help I needed.

#3 Writer’s Block

For over six months I had writer’s block. I didn’t even know I had it. After the dizzyingly difficult Qualifying Exam and its accompanying Oral Defense, the newly minted PhD candidate is cut loose to now write their dissertation. No classes. No deadlines. No finals. No new young friends and fantastic professors. I felt like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” when Shelley Duvall looks at the stack of papers he has been working on, only to find he has been writing the same sentence over and over again, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

While visiting my brother in Los Angeles over Christmas, we went to the UCLA bookstore. On the discounted books table, I caught sight of a book called Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. I read it in two days, and it became my Bible. In a nutshell, it told me to put my behind on that chair and write every day. Don’t worry about what you’re writing. Just write like your fingers are on fire, every single dang day.

#4 Co-workers

Getting a PhD as a PA will not earn you any extra respect. In fact, it may cause jealousy and other types of trouble. You may upgrade your skills to the point where others turn to you for answers. Unfortunately, a class or two or three or four in statistics does not make you a statistician. On the upside, however, you may now know actual statisticians and can say, “I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know who I might be able to ask to find out.” Having friends who are statistically inclined certainly adds to your intellectual cache, which could translate into increased interest in collaboration.

 #5 Friends

Again, friends are the make it or break it part of the equation. Fortunately, my running partners were a captive audience for my problems. Stories of trials and tribulations were the drama of the run. I remember a mountain bike ride where the entire up track was me talking on and on about possible dissertation topics. Often just talking about a difficult dilemma could help solve the problem. And friends who are not in your program and don’t have anything invested in the situation are the best at looking at things with a cool and steady reasonableness. Mainly, they were good at listening.

The downside is the lack of time to spend with friends. I found I became nearly non-existent to most of my friends except for a special group of four friends with whom I ran or biked.

 #6 Sustaining Commitment

Sustaining commitment may be the biggest challenge of all. Early in the process, one of my friends who had completed her PhD asked me, “Why are you doing this?” I didn’t really have a good answer. She looked at me long and hard and said, “You are going to need more than that to keep you going.”

Money is not the motivation. I won’t be making any more money, and in fact it is going to cost me money. Having the initials after my name — well, that isn’t a good enough reason either. Because I want to learn how to do research so I can write scholarly articles so I can be a faculty member. Because I want to contribute to the scholarly activity of the profession. Because I started it, and now I have to finish. Because I just want to be done with it. Because I want to have a party at the end. Sustaining commitment is going to take all of it — all of your bad reasons for doing this in the first place and all of the good reasons for finishing.

When I ran the New York Marathon I got to Spanish Harlem in Manhattan, which was about mile 23. The place looked terrible, worse than the Bronx, and worse than 5th Avenue and Central Park was going to look for sure. I felt dreadful. I couldn’t get my legs to move. They felt like cement blocks. The wheels had come off and I had hit the wall. And then this woman in a chair got up and came over to me (I was walking slowly). She got in my face and said, “You are gonna do it!” and gave me a swat on the butt. I kind of giddy-upped and ran a bit, and then I ran a bit more. And I did finish. I was moving slowly, kind of a death march-run-shuffle, but I did finish.

Doing a PhD is a lot like a marathon. It is actually like running two marathons. The first marathon is the course work. The second marathon is the dissertation. Each one is subject to “hitting the wall.” But sometimes if you just say you are going to do it, and you keep moving forward, you will eventually finish.

 #7 The Committee

Choose your committee wisely. One of our faculty members gave a talk on the selection of the committee and said, “You want to choose people who love you.” That is a particularly apt way of summing up the committee, because it is a one-way street; they are going to invest a lot of time and energy in you. And like a parent with unconditional love, they are going to help you with no possibility of remuneration. You will not necessarily love them. Like a teenager who “hates” her parents, there are going to be times when you’re not going to like what they tell you to do.

But you might find one committee member who you do absolutely love. In fact, this love fest might be the only thing that keeps you going. This extraordinary cheerleader member of your committee will be essential for pushing you to finish. So choose your committee based on those people who you know can love you, even when you are struggling, surly, procrastinating, resisting, and basically acting like a real teenager. Remember, you were cute once. Now that you are writing your dissertation, you have an attitude and a bad case of acne.

#8 The Multiple Drafts

One of the problems with just sitting down and writing everyday is the fact that you end up with a lot of writing but not much dissertation. This is OK. Just getting the words down on paper — especially the ideas — is extremely important. But once you are beyond the words and into the second and third drafts, a new strategy needs to be employed. This is where the University Writing Center came to the rescue for me. I needed a professional editor. There were several advantages to this — one being that she knew nothing about my subject. If I’m not communicating it to her, then I’m probably not communicating anything. It wasn’t that I needed to dumb it down; it just needed to be clearly stated. That’s good writing, and that’s what she demanded of me.

After working for a few years together, one day we miscommunicated about our meeting time and place. I found myself sitting there going through my draft and hearing her voice in my head correcting me. I realized that now I could hear everything she had taught me in my head when I read my paper and basically didn’t need her anymore!

#9 Formatting

Many people hire someone to do their thesis formatting for them. This can cost a lot of money. Instead, I ended up going three rounds with the thesis editor. This apparently did not earn me the dunce cap I thought I should be wearing — many people go seven or eight rounds. The best advice here is to do this early in the semester when you can get lots of time and attention from the thesis office. Or hire someone.

#10 Being Finished

When I was finally and mercifully done with everything, I thought I would have more time to spend on my life. More time to exercise, more time for cooking, my house would be clean, my kids would get better grades, my work output would increase, and the sun would shine every day. It didn’t quite work out that way.

There is never enough time to earn a PhD, and there is no more time when you aren’t working on one. It’s like when you take maternity leave after having a baby and think you’ll have time to remodel the kitchen, raise a new puppy, or do Rosetta Stone in Farsi. Not going to happen. There are just too many other things to do. And for some reason, there is no more magic time available when you’re not working on a PhD. So my advice here is to stop and smell the roses along the way, because getting a PhD really should — and can — be a fun and interesting experience. Good luck!

 

Jennifer Coombs
Jennifer Coombs, PhD, MPAS, PA-C

Jennifer is an associate professor at the University of Utah PA program. A frequent contributor to the Journal of Physician Assistant Education, she also sits on the editorial board of JAAPA and received PAEA’s “Research Achievement” award in 2014.