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 ūüôā¬†

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 ūüôā ¬†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!







So you want to be a Nurse Practitioner?


First let me say that Nurse Practitioners (NPs) play a valuable role in our health care system.  As nurses with clinical expertise from years of experience working with patients and advanced educational training, NPs have a lot to offer patients, healthcare teams, and organizations.  NPs are awesome and job opportunities for nurses in this role are increasing, in part because they are a more cost-effective healthcare resource than general physicians.

However, in talking to nursing students, reviewing scholarship applications, and entering survey data from new graduate nurses, I have noticed that everyone and their dog seems to want to be an NP.¬† I have also fielded lots of questions from people about how to get into the NP program, mainly “what GPA do I need?” and “what’s the minimum amount of experience I need before I apply?”¬†¬† Another thing that I have noticed is that many people who did not choose nursing as their first career choice wanted to be doctors which makes me wonder if some people see nursing only as a means to become an NP, under the misconception that NPs and doctors are pretty much the same thing.¬† Let’s unpack this a little bit.

1. We need more NPs but we need way more nurses.¬† I hate to bust your bubble but from a resource planning perspective we need way more RNs in the workforce than NPs.¬† It’s actually more competitive to get into nursing and Canadian NP programs than medical schools. To boot, in Ontario you are only allowed to apply to one program per year so if you don’t get in (which is highly probable), better luck next year.

2. If you don’t want to be a nurse, do something else.¬† This may seem ironic coming from someone who’s career goal is to becoming a nursing professor but I wholeheartedly love being a geriatric rehab nurse and if I didn’t care so much about the bigger picture I would be happy to work full-time as a staff nurse.¬† I believe that most nurses who become NPs really want to make a difference in that role and I admire that.¬† However, I think that one of the things that makes the NP role so valuable is the wealth of nursing experience that people bring with them.¬† You can’t skip that part and if you don’t like getting your hands dirty working in the trenches, perhaps you should reconsider your career choice.¬†¬† After all, chances are pretty good that you will work as an RN rather than an NP for most of your career.¬† There are also tons of other people who would love to be a nurse and you are taking their spot.¬† I’d also like to point out that if you wanted to be a doctor and end up working as a staff nurse you might end up really hating your job and being resentful.¬† Maybe not the best life choice.

3. 2 years of experience is not enough for most people and who cares about your GPA, really.¬† Some of my research work is on new graduate nurses and we consider a new graduate nurse anyone with less than 2 years of nursing experience (and sometimes even 3 years or less).¬† Patricia Benner also outlines the stages of development from beginner to expert nurse, stating that it takes about 3 years to become competent and at least 5 to become an expert.¬† Given that we know that it takes several years to develop nursing expertise, it baffles me that nursing schools allow nurses with a minimum of 2 years of clinical practice to apply to their NP preparatory master’s programs.¬† Moreover, it concerns me that some people are in such a rush to become NPs without considering the amount of responsibility that comes with their new role and the benefits of having more experience (to their patients as well as themselves).¬† There are exceptions I’m sure but I really think we need to reconsider the minimum experience requirements, especially considering that there is high demand for NP education.

While I’m on the topic of NP education, I don’t think GPA is necessarily a good indicator of an excellent nurse or of someone who will make a fantastic NP.¬† That isn’t to say that you can’t have a high GPA and also be an awesome clinician.¬† My point is that there are amazing nurses who are highly knowledgeable and skilled, with high levels of emotional intelligence and leadership skills that may not have achieved a 4.0 in their undergraduate nursing program.¬† I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater here because the NP program is demanding and rigorous but it would be nice to see other elements included in the application process.¬† In real life it doesn’t matter what your GPA was if you have limited social skills or can’t apply the knowledge that you learned in a meaningful way.

Before you jump on the “I want to be a Nurse Practitioner” bandwagon, I hope that you will take some time to engage in self-reflection about where you are in your career and what skills, knowledge, and experience you have to offer, as well as areas that you want to develop further.¬† Just because you have a perfect GPA and can apply to an NP masters program after 2 years of working¬† doesn’t mean you should. Not everyone is cut out to be an NP and being an RN can be as rich and rewarding a career as you want it to be.

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 ‚Äúunproductive‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôt useless, even if they don‚Äôt have an immediate outcome or ‚Äúaccomplish‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôt 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.

How to Choose a Supervisor

Choosing your supervisor is one of the most important decisions that you will make as a graduate student.  Personally, I have been very fortunate with regards to supervisors.   I have worked with excellent scholars who have been supportive and kind, yet pushed and challenged me to learn and improve.

As a graduate student, the importance of having a good relationship with your supervisor cannot be under-emphasized.   I started looking for my doctoral supervisor two years before I applied for the PhD program and was fortunate to be able to work with my prospective supervisor as a research assistant during that time.  This gave me direct experience working with her and helped us develop a positive working relationship.  I knew going into my program that she was someone who I wanted to continue working with and vice-versa.  I primarily choose Western because she is an expert in her field and I enjoy working with her.  I lucked out because Western is also an amazing university with one of the best nursing programs in Canada.

I’m not sure that there are any truly bad supervisors out there but I have heard horror stories from friends in other disciplines. ¬†I think it’s also important to consider that two people may be fantastic but have difficulty working together if it’s not the right fit. ¬† If you are in the process of trying to choose a supervisor, here are some suggestions to help you get started.

1. First and foremost, do your research interests align?

You may really like someone but if they are an expert in something that doesn’t really interest you, it is probably best that you don’t work with them.  Investing your time and energy into something that you don’t enjoy is only going to make you miserable and potentially put strain on your relationship.

2. Clarify expectations on both sides. 

What do you expect from your supervisor and what do they expect of you? ¬†Sounds pretty basic but you’d be surprised how many people don’t know what they should expect or look for in a supervisor, or on the flip side are unclear about what they are expected to do as a graduate student.

Start by thinking about what you want to learn through your graduate studies.  What skills and expertise are you aiming to acquire?  Graduate school should be about more than just getting a piece of paper!  This is an exciting opportunity to learn so take advantage of it.  (If you don’t feel this way, perhaps you should reconsider your decision or engage in some personal reflection about your approach to learning).  What do you need from your supervisor to help you be successful in achieving your goals?   Regular meetings?  Constructive feedback?   Opportunities to work on research projects?  High fives?

Ask potential supervisors what they expect of their students.  What GPA do they expect you to maintain?  Which courses do they expect you to take?   How long does it generally take their students to complete their degrees?   What is the expected timeline?   Do they want you to attend certain conferences or work for them as a research assistant?

Being up front about expectations can help you both decide if this will be a mutually beneficial relationship and eliminate a lot of frustration and misunderstanding down the line.

3. Talk to a current or former student.  

Having a coffee with someone who has worked with your prospective supervisor is a great way to get a sense of what they are like to work with.  It can also give you some insight into other aspects of the program such as coursework, other faculty members, and most importantly, its culture.  Is it competitive or cooperative?  Are most students working full-time as nurses, managers, and educators or are they full-time students who spend time together regularly?   Try to get a feel for what the experience has to offer and how that aligns with what you are looking to learn and accomplish as a grad student.

Final Thoughts:

I’m sure there are other questions that you will come up with, but I hope this is helpful in getting the gears going! ¬†I am a strong advocate of nursing graduate education and I think that we need to do a better job of encouraging and supporting nurses who are interested in furthering their knowledge and expertise in this way. ¬† Positive relationships within the academic environment are just as important as those in the health care setting so I encourage you to seek out a supervisor who will offer you their best and who will bring out the best in you.

Have a great day!