The Defense

On Monday morning I had my PhD Defense and it was completely wonderful!

For weeks beforehand I prepared diligently, trying to anticipate difficult questions my examiners might ask. I made an exam binder with my whole dissertation in it, Mplus output, copies of my survey booklet, key references, detailed notes that I made as I re-read my work, etc. What can I say, I like to be prepared.

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My super organized exam binder 🙂 

I finally chopped my presentation down to 30 minutes on Friday. I rehearsed it twice on Saturday, one last time on Sunday night (after an epic game of water gun capture the flag with my son). I went to bed on time and slept like a rock.

On Monday morning I was just the right amount of nervous and excited. My game plan was to enjoy the day; the day of my once-in-a-lifetime PhD defense. The hard work had already been done – the hours of endless reading and thinking, writing and rewriting…rewriting again…the data collection and many hours of data analysis….it was all done!  I was as ready as I could be.

The public presentation went well. I felt comfortable and confident and enjoyed sharing my work with everyone who came. About five minutes in, the computer shut down for updates but it broke the ice a bit and helped me relax. It also helped that the audience was full of friendly faces 🙂  After the presentation was over there were a few questions and some discussion.

Then I went to the exam room with the examiners for the “grilling session”. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when the first examiner opened with praise and compliments about my study, writing, and attention to conceptualizing social capital at different levels of analysis, etc. The whole exam is rather a blur but at that point, I knew I was going to be fine. Of course they asked me some challenging questions but overall it was an enjoyable discussion. I am also very hard on myself so it was really nice to hear such positive feedback about my work.

The defense made me realize that everything my committee had done to guide me and challenge me over the past few years had resulted in a solid dissertation study. More importantly, I have developed the knowledge and skills required to be an independent researcher and hold my own as I move on to my new role as an Assistant Professor.

I passed and had minor revisions to complete but the most difficult part was finalizing my acknowledgements section. How do you adequately say thank you to every single amazing person who’s been part of your journey?  The whole reason I became interested in workplace social capital (the topic of my dissertation) in the first place was because I found myself surrounded by caring, supportive colleagues, friends, and family as a single parent working on my PhD. Initially I wanted to look at something completely different – the link between leadership and the work environment and nurses’ physiological health outcomes (something I may do in the future).

My biggest lesson over the last few years, both first-hand, and through my research, is that social capital is tremendously valuable.  Not confined to the workplace, I know I could not have accomplished all that I have without the awesome people in my life. More importantly, social relationships make life meaningful and way more fun!  I am ever thankful for the special people who have been part of my life adventure thus far. Now that my PhD is complete, it feels like 10 million billion elephants are off my back and I am super excited for the new adventures ahead!

 

 

 

 

 

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I want an academic career. When’s the BEST time to have a baby?

The short answer is that there is no best time and that really, anytime is the best time. Nothing can ever prepare you for the challenges and joys of parenting – regardless of whether or not you are a grad student, a practising nurse, or a stay-at-home mom.

That being said, it helps if you have a committed partner and some sort of plan.  Personally, I did not have that experience. Let’s just say that the pill is not 100% effective.  I stuck with my life plan (sort of) and worked at the hospital as an RN until September and started my PhD 9 months pregnant (against all good sense I think) and took one week off from classes (because my supervisor made me). The “birth plan” involved my wonderful friend driving me and my roommate to the hospital where we streamed episodes of New Girl while I waited for my son to decide to make his grand entrance. My sister and her boyfriend flew in and met us there (he stayed outside).

Lucky for me, in Canada we get a year of paid maternity leave and you can be in school during that time – I didn’t plan this out at all but it definitely made life a lot less stressful. For the first semester we didn’t have a car so we got up early to catch the bus so I could take him to the wonderful home daycare we found, then back on the bus to school. After school I would go back on the bus to get him, and again on the bus to go home or sometimes to the Y and then home.  It was exhausting!  On the plus side, it really made me appreciate the amount of time and energy it takes to coordinate life when you don’t have a car.  Before my son was born I rode my bike a lot and it was hard to not be able to do that anymore.

One of the best things about being a single parent and a nurse was how much support I received from others. The nurses at work threw me a baby shower, offered support and advice, and even offered me lifts to and from work when they could.  My former roommate lived with us for a year until she finished her nursing degree (God bless her) and friends have helped take care of my son so that I could go to work, school, and conferences (one even road-tripped with us to Indianapolis!).  Their love and support made me realize how important relationships are in life and sparked my interest in workplace social capital (my dissertation topic).  In many ways, our lives have been richer because it was obvious to others that we needed them.  I’m not sure that it is always the same when people are married and it is assumed that they have all the support and help they need (I’m sure that it is different for everyone).

I think you can balance a demanding PhD program with being a parent but it requires focus, discipline, and support. The balance is always changing too! The time you get to do homework when you have a baby who sleeps a lot is different from the time you get when you have a busy 3 year old who wants to play all the time.  You have to learn to be more flexible and adapt to what your child (or children) need as they grow up.  My son has helped me slow down and reminds me daily to play and enjoy life.  Not that I didn’t before but children have such an awesome way of looking at the world.

At times I have had to make tough choices about work because of being the only parent – for example, this past fall I chose a day job as a research coordinator (which I find rather stressful) because it had regular hours – but because of that I had to give up my part-time staff nurse position at the hospital (which I love) and go casual. It’s straight-up difficult to find daycare for shift work – especially when you are part-time and don’t have a consistent schedule.  I miss seeing my co-workers and my patients. Research is rewarding and I have learned a lot this year but it’s different.

Ultimately, I think being a parent has made me a better person and has made me more efficient with my time. When I am home, I don’t want to be thinking about work so I work hard at work to be organized and focus on things that are important. I have one dedicated day a week to work on my thesis and try to keep it contained in that time frame. I think one of the big problems with academic culture is this idea that working longer hours makes you a better, more productive member of the academy.  Numerous studies show that overworking people actually makes people less effective, less happy, and has very damaging effects on their health.  That, however, is a topic for another post I think…

Grant Writing Success

In late November I was offered my dream job as an Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick in the Faculty of Nursing (I enthusiastically accepted!).  I am getting ready to board the train on the tenure track and plunged right into writing my first CIHR grant as a PI. Not for the reasons you might think either. While I do understand that obtaining funding is valued as a performance outcome for faculty members, having money to do your research allows you to – wait for it – do your research 🙂  That being said, being awarded the money which allows you to accomplish valuable work is not the only reason to write a grant proposal and it is not the only measure of success (although, again, it is super helpful and makes it easier to do what you are trying to do).

So what else defines a successful grant application?  For me, success includes learning more about the research problems that I am interested in examining, learning more about what other researchers have done, and thinking about what we need to know and/or do to solve these problems (ultimately contributing to a healthier health care system and society I hope!). Building connections with other researchers, health care providers, and policy makers can also be a lot of fun!  Over the last few months I have been able to connect with others who share common interests and also have unique expertise and experience to bring to the project that I initiated. Regardless of whether or not we get funded for the project, we now have developed a plan, a budget, and have a good handle on what we want to accomplish through our research.

As a new kid on the block in New Brunswick it has also been really helpful for me to start meeting people and getting a better understanding of my new province. I grew up in Nova Scotia but each province has a different approach to health care delivery and my training and experience in nursing has been in Ontario in an urban centre which is quite different than Fredericton.  Making connections now will make it easier to fit in when I get there and I feel like it is a very welcoming place.

I do think our project is important and worth funding but I also recognize that there are limited funds and lots of great ideas worth funding.  It also depends on who ends up reviewing our application and the other projects that are being submitted.  At this point I’m not sure if you get “tenure points” for submitting applications that don’t get funded but it’s not like a straight-forward sport like track and field where there is a clear winner. Train hard, eat right, be the best, win, right?  Research grant competitions are more like artistic sports like figure skating and gymnastics where judges (reviewers) assess the relative value of competitors/applications and assess whether or not you will be able to successfully do the proposed research. Comparing research projects and teams that are qualitatively diverse makes it harder to decide which projects should be funded.approved

For these reasons, I think it is important to define success not just in terms of getting funded or not. As a novice PI, I am uncertain whether that will go in my favour or not.  After 4 degrees, 3 theses, and being able to balance all the demands of school, work, residence life, teaching, research, and being a single parent while also staying fit, I am 110% confident that I will be a good team leader and that we will be able to carry out the project as a team.  Of course, when you submit a research grant application you can’t put “single mom/time management ninja” or “worked 10 part-time jobs including running a residence hall while completing my undergrad” as part of your accomplishments/skills (and if you did, it would probably count against you).  Again, another reason why I think it is important to always do your best and see the process and the development of the proposal as an accomplishment and an opportunity to learn and grow as a writer and researcher.

Of course, if we do get the grant, it will be icing on the cake and I will be literally jumping for joy because we can start putting our research plan into action.  There is absolutely no denying that actually getting the grant is a successful outcome too!  And a very sweet one at that! However, if it is the only outcome that you focus on, I think that you miss out on a lot of other great things about writing research grants.

 

 

 

 

Being a Mom Changes the Game

It’s taken me quite a while to understand how having children really changes your life and forces you to make choices about your priorities. Since today is Mother’s Day, I thought it would be a good time to share some of the ways I have found some sort of work-life balance.

1. I have mastered the art of the 10 minute cleanup. At the end of the day I set the stove timer for 10 minutes and clean as much as I can. Sometimes this motivates me to keep going and other times I get half the toys in a basket and the dishes washed.

2. I continue to negotiate balance. Some weeks I have a lot of work commitments and some weeks it’s a little slower. Learning to anticipate the ebb and flow and accept it has been really key for me. For example, last week I had a presentation to prepare for, a teaching job application to submit, a training session at the hospital, and work to do for my supervisor. It was a busy week and I ended up taking a few days off from the gym. Big deal. Got back to it the next day and life goes on. This doesn’t mean I’m always happy. Sometimes it is very frustrating when you can’t do everything that you wanted to do. For me, acceptance is a helpful way forward.

3. Unless I am going to be teaching, presenting, or meeting someone important, I don’t wear fancy clothes or do my hair. Maybe this sounds silly but getting ready in the morning takes time and effort and I would rather have my hair in a bun and spend some quality time with my son in the morning than fuss with a hair straightener and panty hose. If you spend thirty minutes a day getting ready that adds up to 2 ½ hours per week! This doesn’t mean I’m a total slob. I draw the line at tank tops and yoga pants (unless I am writing at home, in which case it’s pretty much guaranteed that I am wearing workout clothes). I also don’t own a lot of clothes which means fewer choices but that’s sometimes a good thing.

4. I prioritize fitness and health. Recreation and leisure time is really important to me so our entertainment is playing at the park, going swimming, etc. I also plan healthy meals and cook at home. We have a lot of fun together, spend time outside, and I find myself refreshed for the week ahead.

5. I have amazing support. It’s not easy to be a single parent while working on a doctorate and building an academic career. If I want to go to a conference or attend a workshop I need to find someone to look after my son while I go. I can’t just go to Toronto for the day or stay late on campus. Thankfully, I have found an amazing daycare and many friends and family members have helped me out when I need some help. I have also learned that I need to be more selective about my commitments. While I would love to go to everything and be part of many more committees and professional groups, I can’t do it all.

6. I remember why I am doing this. The reason I am pursing an academic career in nursing is to help create positive changes in health care and ultimately in people’s lives. I envision a health care system where quality of life and preventative health care is valued. I could go on about this but my point is that I am very fortunate to be doing my PhD with world-renown scholars in my discipline. Sure, I want to keep publishing and yes, I will literally jump for joy if I ever do receive an elusive CIHR grant, but at the end of the day, the impact that I have through the students that I teach and the research work that I do is the end goal. Publications, presentations, and grants are all helpful, but the way I see it, if you focus on doing work that matters and doing it well, those other things will come.

 

There is time to write and play trains, but the time to play trains is rather short, whereas there will always be another paper to write.  Happy Mother’s Day everyone!

Why Tenure isn’t Everything

Many doctoral students think that getting published in a top journal and getting tenure are the only things that matter in their career.  While I think those things are valuable achievements, I believe that this task-focused approach to doctoral education is dead wrong.  Here’s why.

1. Relationship-building is more important than you think.  Are outcome-focused type A overachievers who leave little time for “unproductive” things like spending time with other people or having fun really more likely to be successful in life?   Admittedly, the academic pursuit of tenure and endless productivity can make you feel guilty for spending time doing something unrelated to your work.  Relationships are inherently inefficient but they certainly aren’t useless, even if they don’t have an immediate outcome or “accomplish” anything.   Co-students and supervisors, other faculty members, and colleagues you meet at conferences make your career more rewarding and more fun.  They also provide you with support, constructive feedback, a sounding board for new ideas (which often sound better in your head than they do out loud), and occasionally, a shoulder to cry on.   On the flip side, you will also be able to contribute to others’ projects and provide feedback to help others.  My experience as a nurse has made it pretty obvious that relationships are one of the most valuable aspects of our lives and that we need to value them more.  Building positive relationships takes time and energy but at the end of your life, are you really going to regret the time you spent with other people?  Not likely.

2.  Burnout prevention

Sometimes we are overambitious and take on too much.  I have done this more times than I would like to admit.  During my first undergraduate degree I refused to take a student loan so I worked 10 part-time jobs while taking a full course load and having an active social life.  My schedule was crazy! After final exam period I slept for almost a week straight to recover from the burnout.  Don’t do this to yourself!  I have learned that a much more sustainable method is to limit the number of projects and commitments you take on and do them well.  If you take on too many things at once you are probably going to do a mediocre job and end up exhausted.  I also don’t advise doing things just because they look good on your CV.  If you invest your time and energy into things that help you learn and grow and that you are interested in, you are going to excel at them and have a lot more fun.  I truly believe that if you are engaged in the learning process and doing work that gets you excited the publications and tenure-track position will follow.  Enjoy the process and pace yourself – this is a marathon, not a sprint.

3.  Today is the only day.

As much as we plan and dream, the only day we ever have is this one.  Take advantage of it.  Sure, there may be times when you have to stay inside on a sunny day to meet an urgent deadline and you will spend many many many hours sitting in front of a computer screen working with data, writing, and picking at powerpoint slides.  Take breaks. Spend time outside.  Take care of yourself physically and mentally.  Most importantly, make time for the people you care about.  You really never know when your time will be up.

Tenure is a good goal for many of us and it is something that I am working towards but right now being a doctoral student is pretty darn amazing.  Every day is a learning adventure and I am building my research toolkit.  I get to work with smart people who have a lot of knowledge and ideas to share and who are passionate about nursing and health care.   I get to ask questions and think about ideas.  I am also working with the best supervisor, committee, and research team I could ask for.  Tenure will be nice but it can wait.