To the Finish Line: PhDs Find Relief and Rewards When They Complete Dissertation

Posted: May 22, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Linda Henry
“There were many times when I could’ve walked away very easily,” says Linda Henry, a PhD graduate in nursing.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

By Tara Laskowski

Every May at Mason, a select group of students gets to walk across the stage at Commencement and receive a green hood with a blue stripe on it. This can be after two or three years of study, or more than 10 years, but whatever the amount of time, PhD graduates can all agree on one thing: they are relieved beyond belief to be finished.

The relief is usually due to the fact that the student’s dissertation, which can range anywhere from 80 to 1,200 pages, has been completed.

Writing a dissertation is hard enough by itself, but adding real life to the equation can make the process even harder. Most PhDs are also juggling a full-time job, families and other commitments along with their studies.

“In some ways, the dissertation becomes ‘the other woman’ because it takes up so much of your life,” says Rodney Huey, who just graduated with a PhD in Cultural Studies.

For Angela Boone, who earned a PhD in Psychology, the process took five years, during which she had two children and worked as a clinical psychologist. “It was a long process,” she says. “I had to learn to switch gears really fast.”

“There were many times when I could’ve walked away very easily,” says Linda Henry, a PhD graduate in nursing. “But the constant communication with my committee was wonderful and kept me on track.”

Picking a Topic and Facing Results

Students come to their topics, which they may spend more than a year researching and writing about, in different ways. For Huey, the subject came naturally. He worked as a public relations representative for Barnum and Bailey’s Clown College for nearly 20 years.

Rodney Huey
Although his topic was clowns, Rodney Huey was serious about his dissertation.
Photo courtesy Rodney Huey

Throughout the years, he sat through many classes on pie throwing and acrobatics and got to know many clowns. He also went to many circus performances, and it was at these that he began to develop the idea for his dissertation in cultural studies.

“I would see the audience laughing and going crazy when the clowns came on, and it made me start to wonder, ‘What’s so funny about what clowns do? And why do we like this?’”

Huey’s dissertation on the social construction of clowning focuses on how clowns are made and their role in society. “The clown questions authority and the status quo. Clowns are absolutely mandatory in every society because they are the figures that can make fun of the power structure.”

Alisa Sneiderman, a PhD graduate in psychology, was working with psychology professor June Tangney on a multiyear research project with Fairfax County inmates when she came up with her dissertation topic.

“Word Usage Patterns in Psychopathic Jail Inmates,” Sneiderman’s dissertation, investigated a new technique for the assessment of psychopathy. However, Sneiderman didn’t find a strong enough relation between word use and the inmates’ psychological correlates to use the analysis of speech patterns as a predictive tool.

On the other hand, Henry, the nursing grad, did find in her research the parallels she was looking for. Henry studied data from elementary schools in one county and looked at the amount of health education, physical activity and nutritious meals being given to the children in relation to childhood obesity.

She discovered that children were not getting a sufficient education on eating healthy and being fit, and they were not getting sufficient physical activity.

“Nurses have a huge opportunity to help schools review this and develop programs to meet kids’ needs,” she says. “The best part of finishing my dissertation was how rewarding it felt. I could look at my results and say, ‘Oh, there is something to say here.’”

The Means to the End

When students finish their course work, they are left – sometimes for years – to write on their own. This lack of structure is the death of many PhDs. For those who do finish their dissertations, it’s the little tricks they use that get them through.

For Sneiderman, it was writing every day for six months. Her goal was to finish before her lab work was up and she went off to an internship in Long Island. Her self-imposed deadline paid off – though she cut it pretty close at the end. “I printed out my dissertation, unplugged my printer and packed it,” she says.

Other tricks writers use include writing at the same time every day or in the same space. Huey, for example, had “his” table in the Johnson Center where he did much of his work. “It would get to the point where if someone was sitting there when I came, I would glare at them,” he says.

Angela Boone used a supportive group of fellow graduate students to get her through the rough spots. “Some of them haven’t graduated yet, and we are still supporting them,” she says.

Whatever the tricks used, the writing and researching still needs to get done. “The hardest part was the writing, definitely,” says Boone.

Unforeseen problems can arise doing the research as well. Roger Hill, who received a Doctor of Arts in Community College Education, wrote his dissertation on the way communities memorialize grief, studying in particular the building of a World War II memorial in Bedford, Va.

Hill had to interview many people, some of whom were war veterans themselves. While he was doing the research, one of his sources died, and some others were caught up in a criminal trial.

“Dealing with modern history was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” says Hill.

Defending and Finishing

Once the writing and the researching is finished, PhD candidates have to defend their papers. Though the defense sounds intimidating, many Mason students said it was not that bad – some even had fun.

“I worked closely with my director and committee throughout,” says Hill. His defense, he says, was “almost a love fest.”

Henry says her dissertation defense was valuable because the questions the committee and the audience asked helped her think of things she hadn’t considered.

In his six years as dissertation and thesis coordinator, Robert Vay has seen 1,800 dissertations come across his desk.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

After receiving a pat on the back from the committee, the PhD candidate is still not quite finished. The final step involves paying a visit to Fenwick Library.

Once the dissertation formatting is done and the signatures are gathered, students bring their finished document to the second-floor nook of Robert Vay, dissertation and thesis coordinator. The dissertations are added to the library’s collection.

In his six years as coordinator, Vay has seen all kinds of celebrations at that moment. Just this year, a student came in with friends to turn in the paper and had Vay pose with him for a picture as he handed it off. Folks have also brought grandmothers, mothers, brothers and sisters with them for the big moment. Some even brings gifts and candy for Vay.

“These are mommies and daddies and working people,” says Vay. “Every story is different, and we work with each person individually.”

However long it takes, finishing a PhD is a life-changing experience. “I poured so much of my blood, sweat and tears into that paper,” says Boone. “It was so rewarding to be able to say, ‘Wow, I did this.’”

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