Post-Dissertation Blargh

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by Ilse Schweitzer VanDonkelaar, Ph.D. (finally), English

It’s been about four months since I defended my dissertation and three months since I graduated with a Ph.D. from WMU. I fully expected to be living in a state of elation after the defense and walking across the stage, and thought that euphoria would last at least until summer. After all, I had been working toward graduation for 8 years, and had the Ph.D. in my sights since sometime during undergrad. I had reached the final fruition of my academic goals, and had been unburdened of writing, revising, editing, and researching the diss… I should be walking on air!

But now I find myself experiencing a funk for which I was completely unprepared. Instead of feeling finally relaxed, I’m increasingly anxious about jobs (exacerbated by a horrible job market for both academic and non-ac positions), money (hello, student loan payments), publications, and how to improve my chances on the market for next year. After years of managing my time and living with the pressure to read, write, and get the darn dissertation finished, my mind is going in a hundred directions, unsure of what to do now. Without classes or writing groups to attend, I feel disconnected from my fellow scholars. After only a few weeks, the excitement of being unburdened has worn off and now I’m faced with a bit of an identity crisis: I’m no longer a student, yet not a member of a new faculty. I’m stuck in “Ph.D. limbo-land,” a place between identities.

Fortunately, just a few minutes on the Google-machine assures me that I’m not the only one who feels like this (see blog entries on Portrait of a Supposed Scholar, Academic Cog, and Mathemagenic, and this PSA on YouTube). I’m afraid that we don’t really prepare ourselves (or our students) for the shift back into real life after years of working toward a degree. The common assumption for departments like mine is that we prepare for teaching or research jobs in academia, and begin in those positions several months after graduation OR we continue working as adjuncts at WMU or at other institutions. In each of these situations, there’s some continuity in our identities as scholars and as teachers. But what about our graduates who don’t secure these kinds of positions? What about the students who want to pursue alt-ac tracks, or who are unsuccessful in the academic job hunt? What becomes of us?

This is all related to larger issues of employment within and without the university, but my immediate concern is the experience of uncertainty, transition, and anxiety that comes with ending one’s tenure as a student. The experience of completing the largest research project you’ve ever undertaken, and moving slowly and unsurely (if you have no immediate career on the other side) into your new identity after graduation. For my entire life to this point, I’ve been a student… every degree and certification has led into and been preparation for the next, so I’ve never had any fear or uncertainty about the next phase of my life. It’s always been “back to the classroom,” or “back to the library.” And now, I might not see the classroom again… so what do I do? Where do I go? And who am I now that I’m not a student?

Alongside this quandary comes the (strong) possibility that I should have stopped thinking of myself as a student LONG ago. The moment I entered grad school, I should have started thinking of myself as a professional, and maybe this distinction has hindered my ability to be able to launch myself into a post-doctoral career. Well, live and learn…

I have no immediate answer or solution to these issues, no bullet-points of advice at the end of this blog post. What I want is for people to know that this feeling, this experience EXISTS. I’ve been lucky to be able to speak to Dr. Marianne Di Pierro, our Director of the Center for Graduate Research and Retention at WMU, who assured me that I’m not alone in feeling this way. (I’m also lucky that I’ve been able to find part-time work this semester, and that I have a wonderful spouse who DID manage to put his Ph.D. to good use and landed a teaching job. So there’s hope out there!) Still, I wonder how many students have dealt with this kind of post-dissertation funk / limbo / let-down, but lacking a continued connection to their university, they don’t know to whom to speak. It seems that students like me need to be better informed of prepared for the challenges and anxieties of this post-academic transition, and we need to know that counseling, support, and sympathetic mentors are there to help us through.

Graduate Student Research in Suicide Prevention Programming

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Hartini Abdul Rahman and Molly Ray Participate in Suicide Prevention Programming at WMU and Present Research in Portugal

Hartini, Dr. Walcott, and Molly at the 2013 World Association of Social Psychiatry Conference
Hartini Abdul Rahman, Dr. Delores Walcott, and Molly Ray at the 2013 World Association of Social Psychiatry Conference

For Molly Ray and Hartini Abdul Rahman, both doctoral students in WMU’s Counselor Education and  Counseling Psychology (CECP) program, their academic work at WMU has contributed to a potentially life-saving service for the WMU community and given them an opportunity to talk about their research overseas to a global community of psychiatrists and counselors. Last year, Molly and Hartini worked with their faculty advisor, Delores D. Walcott (Psy.D.) on the WMU Suicide Prevention Program, a program with the objectives of raising awareness of suicide and enhancing understanding of suicide prevention resources available to students, faculty, staff, and the greater WMU community.[1] As part of their work on this program, Hartini and Molly helped to create a Resilience Building Workshop which was offered as part of the 2012 MLK Celebration Series and was aimed to promote resilience and increase knowledge about resiliency and its function as a protective factor against life challenges, especially in navigating the college environment. This spring, they will help to plan and participate in an all-day event (February 13, 2014) related to suicide prevention. Several weeks ago, I had a chance to speak to Molly and Hartini about their experiences and their plans going forward.

Recently, you planned a suicide prevention program for the WMU community. Can you tell me a bit about this programming?

Hartini: The Resilience Building Workshop was a part of the annual workshop series that the Suicide Prevention team has developed since 2012 for our participation in the MLK celebration series. The workshop was a two-hour long program that incorporated multiple educational approaches aimed to increase participants’ understanding of resilience and identification of possible strategies that they could use to increase self-resilience. This particular event was offered in 2012 (developed and facilitated by Megan Donnelly who was the doctoral student working with me at that time, and myself), and for 2013, Molly and I developed and facilitated a connectedness building workshop. For next year’s (2014) MLK celebration, we are bringing Mr. Jack Klott as our guest speaker for our day-long event.

Can you speak a bit more about this upcoming 2014 suicide prevention event?

Molly: Along with our supervisor and colleagues, we are currently in the process of planning an all-day event related to suicide prevention that will take place on February 13, 2014. The featured guest speaker will be Jack Klott, a local social worker who is the director of Suicide Prevention Consultants located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Although several of the presentations/activities during the day will be targeted toward specific audiences (e.g. WMU staff, faculty, student groups, health care providers), there will be one presentation in the evening that will be open to all individuals at WMU, as well as individuals in the surrounding Kalamazoo area. This particular presentation will begin at 5:30pm, and will focus on the cultural aspects of suicide. Within this presentation, Mr. Klott will discuss suicide prevention with underrepresented (I prefer the term oppressed) populations. Members of the Suicide Prevention Program, including myself, will serve as hosts for the event. Our primary tasks are to ensure that everything is running smoothly, and to introduce to the audience the various presentations.

How does this programming fit into your own research and academic work?

Hartini: The program is fitting into my personal research interest and professional goals of helping to de-stigmatize counseling and mental health in college campus environment, especially on difficult issues such as suicide prevention and depression. I believe in a strengths-based approach to begin my conversations on these difficult topics, especially with students. For example, by understanding how they cope with their problems, we could help them identify areas of growth and increase their problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Molly: The February 2014 event will provide the suicide prevention program another opportunity to assess how well we are reaching out to the campus community, and what people are taking away from our programs/trainings. In addition, through use of surveys, we can obtain a sense of what our program could be doing better, and what individuals’ expectations are of suicide prevention presentations. Overall, it is through research that our program can make continual improvement.

In the process of administering and planning this workshop, Molly and Hartini ultimately created a poster presentation on the success and future directions for their program. A graduate student travel grant from the Graduate College provided part of the funding for both students to attend the 21st World Congress for Social Psychiatry in Lisbon, Portugal, where the women presented their poster and interacted with a global audience of students, faculty, researchers, and practitioners. Both women recall the experience as eye-opening and fantastic, and a chance to present their work in a surprisingly comfortable atmosphere. For Molly, one of the best aspects of the conference was the chance to “get out of the bubble of your own dissertation research, and to see branches of psychological study in other countries.” They both recall learning about the difficulties faced by social psychologists and counselors in other countries, specifically, the struggles to reach out and provide counseling support and information to populations who may speak a variety of different languages.

You received a travel grant to attend a conference in Portugal to present your research. Can you talk a little about your experiences at the conference (academic or personal)?

Hartini: Lisbon was definitely fun! The whole 7-day experience was down-to earth eye- and heart-opening, educational, full of adventure and also a time for self-care. We had the opportunity to meet and network with professionals of social psychiatry around the world and understand social issues of other countries and cultures. It made me pause and think about what I am doing for myself, my family, my culture and my environment. I felt a sense of connection with scholars, presenters, and friends that I met briefly during the conference, and they are from Canada, Morocco, Singapore, Lebanon and many more. Perhaps it’s because we shared the same goal or trying to understand human behavior and their connections, and help people make better choices in their lives. Lisbon itself is a place full of history and culture. I am more appreciative of cultural differences, openness, patience, creativity and the power of non-verbal communication, especially when you are travelling in non-English speaking countries.

Molly: In a broad sense, our trip to Portugal was nothing less than amazing. I was very proud to be representing WMU at the 21st World Congress for Social Psychiatry. It was particularly important to me that I was representing counseling psychology in general, and my particular doctoral program (i.e. Counseling Psychology). What amazed me most about the conference was the diversity of topics individuals were researching. I became further aware of the particular mental health issues in various countries, and the struggles the countries were having with increasing mental health awareness. Although mental health education and practice may vary across countries, one commonality all countries shared is the stigmatization of mental illness. At the conference, researchers and scholars collectively agreed that across the globe, psychological disorders are highly stigmatized. Two major goals for all mental health professionals, regardless of their country of origin, are to increase local and national awareness of mental health issues, and work to de-stigmatize such issues.

Overall, it was the diversity of the conference topics and attendees that energized me the most. I felt as though I could never learn enough. I returned to the United States with a broader understanding of psychology. Before the conference, I held the assumption that psychological research, practice, and education was generally similar across countries. As I interacted with conference attendees and attended presentations, I began to realize that psychology is defined and described differently depending on where you are in the world. Like almost every aspect of individuals’ lives, psychology too is influenced by culture and context. Although professors and instructors have told me this throughout my college education, I was finally able to see the cultural/contextual influence at the conference.

In addition to the conference promoting my professional growth, I also felt that personal growth occurred as a result of my trip to Portugal. There were moments during the conference and while exploring Lisbon that it suddenly hit me how important the trip was for my professional development. Ten years ago, I never would have imagined I would be presenting at an international conference. In general, the trip prompted me to reflect on the struggles (academic and personal) I have overcome, and the moments of success I have had. My trip to Portugal was one of those times I felt it was warranted to give myself a pat on the back. I returned to the U.S. with increased professional (and personal) confidence, and an even stronger desire to continue on with my own research.

As Molly and Hartini move forward in their programs and research, we know we’ll continue to hear fantastic things about their work and how they are representing the CECP program and the WMU Graduate College. Well done, ladies, and best of luck!

[1] The WMU Campus-wide Suicide Prevention Program (established in 2006) was originally funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) under the Garret Lee Smith Memorial Act (2004).

Surviving the Dissertation Defense

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by Ilse Schweitzer VanDonkelaar (,
Ph.D. candidate in English; Graduate College Social Media Coordinator

Five years and 300 pages after I started work on my dissertation prospectus, this fall, I finally found myself scheduling my dissertation defense. I chose November 1 — All Saints’ Day — mostly because it was the only day that worked for my committee members but also because I thought that I could use some divine guidance to get through the experience. Chalk it up to Imposter Syndrome, a lifelong surplus of anxiety and perfectionism, and the pressure of a long degree program coming to an end… but I really didn’t think I’d get through it. I had attended several of my friends’ defenses in my years at WMU, and I remember being blown away by how articulate, poised, and confident they seemed (and were). Not surprised, really, as I knew my friends were all wicked smart, but in awe that they could manage themselves so well during probably the most stressful two hours of one’s doctoral program. And I thought I’d never be able to live up to their examples.

After I’d scheduled the darn thing (and posted a self-deprecating notice of the event to Facebook, as we do), supportive comments came rolling in… from friends, family members, faculty, even academics whom I had only seen once or twice at a conference, or whom I had never met face to face. Patterns emerged in the comments; we seem to have a canon of encouraging thoughts to say to doctoral defenders:

“It’ll be great… don’t worry. You’re the expert on your research!”

“Your advisor wouldn’t let you defend if you weren’t ready.”

“It should be fun — just like a discussion of your research.”

“You’ll be fine and then we’ll go out for a drink!”

Despite the wave of support I received via social media and in actual life, I felt certain that these people had it all wrong. I thought, “they have no idea. I’m an imposter. I don’t know how to talk about my research. This is going to be a disaster.” And a number of my friends had expressed interest in actually attending my defense. With these ridiculously unhelpful thoughts crawling around in my brain, I really wasn’t sure I wanted people to be in the room with me when I defended… I’m more comfortable expressing myself in ink than I am in person, and I knew I would get tongue-tied, start babbling, say something ridiculous and off-topic, experience a brain-shutdown and just look at my advisor in a state of panic for an awkwardly long period of time. I knew that, if my friends and colleagues attended, it would be in support of me, but I couldn’t help but think, “I don’t want an audience to be there when I forget how to construct basic sentences.”

After a discussion with my advisor, who assured me that everything would be fine, I got down to prepping for the defense. From talks with several committee members, I had a feeling that I would get hit with some questions on theoretical backgrounds. I spent a few days reviewing (or reading for the first time, and cramming) bits of Heideggerian phenomenology, Kristeva’s concept of the abject, materialism and thing theory… I don’t even know what else. (Shortly after I defended, I spoke to a faculty member who said that she had memorized all of the medieval archbishops of Canterbury in preparation for her own defense. Of course, no one in her committee asked her to recite them, but it gave her something to do instead of panic or worry. Needless to say, almost none of these things I tried to cram at the last minute came up in my defense, either.)

For the next few weeks, I pretended to respond to questions in the shower. I tried to explain what I was doing in chapter five while making my tea. I wandered around the house, explaining where my project fit in within the larger scope of ecocritical / environmental and medieval studies. At first, my cats thought I was talking to them, jumping into my lap and meowing in response to my academic babble. Eventually, I think they decided I had lost it and went to sit impatiently by their food bowls, waiting for my husband to come home.

The night before the big day was Halloween, and by that point, it was probably a good thing that I didn’t have time to try and cram anything new. I just skimmed the entire dissertation, interrupted every 10 minutes by someone on the front porch demanding candy. My husband came home, saw how upset I was — five years worth of research and anxiety etched into my face — and just said, “why are you afraid of everything? Just choose not to be scared.” I don’t know why that worked, but it did.

The next morning, the usual catastrophes occurred: technology delayed us from getting started for about 10 minutes. I babbled. I forgot words. I randomly brought up the zombie apocalypse (it seemed relevant at the time. Looking back, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t… but it led into a line of questioning about ghosts and purgatory that WAS kind of interesting). I blew a couple questions and (I think) nailed a couple of others. All told, the defense was fine. As it turns out, everyone else in the universe was right. Apparently spending years researching a project DOES make you an expert (of sorts) at least on that particular issue. Also, there are a billion different ways of answering questions, and you don’t have to stress about giving the perfect, coherent, and nuanced answer that you believe your committee wants. Just give the one that you think best answers the question.

Afterwards, everyone and their brother was asking me if I had plans to go out and celebrate. To be honest, after five years and watching many of my closest friends in my cohort leave to pursue other jobs, other futures, I figured that going home with my husband, opening a bottle of wine, and having my brain finally quiet and back to myself was all I wanted to do. (Of course, other people celebrated for me… my Facebook feed exploded, and the Dean of the Grad College sprayed me with silly string and bubbles when I was nerdy enough to go back to work after the defense). In academia, we live in our own little research bubbles, but there are a few events — conference presentations, thesis and prospectus defenses, graduation — that we go through together, and these are times when disciplinary divisions fall away and we all celebrate as lifelong teachers and students.

Now, several weeks later and at the end of the final revision process, I’ve discovered something else: the dissertation that I decided I hated and never wanted to see again just a few weeks ago is suddenly interesting again. New ideas and approaches suggested by my committee are now becoming more insistent in my mind, and I actually want to open up the document and change, add, fix, and expand things. I want to go back and re-imagine certain sections, analyze poems I had decided to leave out, engage with arguments and theories that I had previously only wedged into the footnotes. Weeks after I survived what I thought would be the worst two hours of my graduate experience, I find that those two hours reinvigorated my passion for my project and my confidence about my own academic voice.

Here’s what I’ve learned from this process, for what it’s worth:

1. You CAN choose to be brave, apparently (though I don’t know how I managed to do it).

2. People who have been through the process know what they’re talking about. If they tell you it will be fine, it probably will.

3. Something will go wrong. Maybe several somethings. It likely won’t be enough to derail the whole show.

4. It’s okay to just enjoy the quiet after finishing your dissertation defense. It’s also okay to go out with friends and obliterate all memory of the event. Whatever works for you.

5. Even if you are at a point where you hate the dissertation and never want to see it again, this whole process may renew your enthusiasm for the project. Consider yourself warned :)

GradHacker’s Andrea Zellner has some additional advice for defenders. Have a look!

Graduate Student Campus Involvement

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Getting the Most Out of Graduate School

By Jamie Gomez (M.A. candidate, Anthropology, and Graduate College Ambassador)

ImageWhy Getting Involved Is Important

If there is one thing that I have learned during my time in college (graduate and undergraduate), it is that a versatility in different kinds of involvement (volunteer and paid) is important. Versatility of involvement increases your interaction with various types of individuals, improves networking skills, and helps you learn your strengths, weaknesses, and goals. I would have never caught the research bug and decided to get my Master’s degree if one of my undergraduate professor had not suggested I join his research team. As an undergraduate, I was extremely involved in campus life (school, research, sports, sorority, tutoring, working, volunteering, etc.). However, during my first several days on campus as a graduate student at WMU, I felt lost. While I was involved in my department (I held a teaching assistantship and was a member of our graduate RSO), I felt disconnected from the rest of campus. Therefore, I decided to try to extend my departmental activities to campus-wide activities, and get as involved as possible.

Getting Involved At WMU

One of the first things that I got involved in outside of my department was the WMU Teaching Assistants Union. Every several years, the teaching assistants have to negotiate their contracts with the University and I had the opportunity to be a part of the bargaining process. It was very interesting to sit in on the bargaining meetings to support the Union and witness the debate. While times were tense, the Union negotiated some of their main bargaining points. They are always fighting for equity on campus, and often hold rallies to gain awareness for their cause(s). I would have never appreciated all of the Union’s hard work, unless I had seen this process first hand.

Another experience I had outside of my department was attending meetings of the Graduate Student Advisory Committee (GSAC). Part of our graduate tuition (Student Assessment Fee) goes to this committee, and they work hard to make sure the graduate students have a voice on campus and their concerns are being met. This was a great way to socialize with graduate students from various departments and backgrounds (TA and non-TA, Master and Ph.D.). I was also able to interact with staff from the Graduate College, including Dean Stapleton! I could have never imagined making so many friends, and learning from them and their research. After all, everyone has the same goal (graduation!) and working together makes dealing with the stresses of graduate school easier and more fun.

As stated before, I was also involved heavily in my department’s graduate RSO (Anthropology Graduate Collective). My first year I served as representative to faculty meetings, where I attended departmental meetings and was a voice for our graduate students. This was a great way for me to get to know the faculty within my department and, more importantly, for them to get to know me. My second year, I served as president of our RSO. This was a great experience, planning and taking charge of our organization to improve its goals and programming to benefit students in future years. This year, I serve as treasurer, and it has been quite an experience, as we are trying to plan a conference and obtain funding from GFAC. Being involved in my department’s graduate RSO has made me extremely close with the other graduate students, faculty, and staff in my department. These are lifelong friendships and networks that I am so glad to have created.

One of the best things that I did was “liked” all of these groups on Facebook (WMU Graduate College, WMU GSAC, WMU TAU). This is how I hear about upcoming events and heard about two job opportunities that I took advantage of on campus. For two years, I have been working with the Graduate College as a Graduate College Ambassador to increase connection between the Graduate College and individual departments, to be a student resource for graduate students, and to increase awareness of our graduate programs on and off campus. Through this position, I have met more people that I could have ever possibly imagined and learned about how amazing of a place WMU is to do research and learn. I also found out about my current job, a graduate assistantship with the Office of Faculty Development, through Facebook (WMU OFD). I now work on event planning, marketing, and communication to support all teachers at WMU. (Thank you, Facebook!)

I would have never been able to have all of these great experiences at WMU if I had not tried to get involved outside of my department. While it is not required, variety in experience can help you toward both professional and personal life goals, making you a better job candidate and a more well-rounded and knowledgeable person. As a graduate student, I know there is always something to do and never enough hours in the day. I also know it seems crazy to suggest getting more involved, but you will never succeed if you do not try. Our years in graduate school can be some of the best times of our lives… do not let them pass you by!!!

Got my data… now what???

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Collecting Data and Starting Writing

By Jamie Gomez (M.A. candidate, Anthropology, and Graduate College Ambassador)
Jamie and collections manager Lyman Jellema
Jamie and collections manager Lyman Jellema

Since my last blog post, I have finished my data collection at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History! I had such a great time and was so amazed by all of the wonderful people and, of course, the Hamann-Todd Osteological Collection. It was so nicely organized that I was able to get my entire sample size completed and have time to research an additional 40 individuals. I had the support of the collections manager, Lyman Jellema (see pic below), who really helped me understand the time period and the people. This will be an invaluable help as I plan to build a bio-cultural understanding of the dental health of Cleveland’s underprivileged class in the early 1900s. As I mentioned in my last post, I met a security guard, Kerianne, who has decided to work with me on a project that we hope to present at the 2014 Paleopathology Association Annual Meeting in Calgary, Canada in April! Overall, I had an amazing time at the CMNH and can’t wait to go back.

So… what’s next?

I have defend my thesis proposal and collected my data… what do I do now? I recently signed up for a program called The Productive Writer through Cornell University, and the first tip they sent me was WRITE EVERY DAY. They say that if you commit to writing at least 90 minutes a day with no breaks (no cell phone or Facebook!), and do this for two weeks, it will become a habit and you will FINISH your thesis or dissertation. To be honest, sometimes I will do anything to delay writing because I am afraid to start. But getting started is the hardest part, and things get easier from there. Another tip they gave was having a symbol to help you remember and motivate you to write. I have a little chimpanzee stuffed animal that sits on my desk. He starts every day facing away from me. If I finish my writing, I get to turn him around to face me; if not, he has his back to me, like he is angry with me.

Jamie's writing buddy
Jamie’s writing buddy

Getting to FINISHED.

Right now, I have a lot running around in my brain and some free time, so I have modified The Productive Writer’s tip to fit my personal needs. My goal: I am going to work on my thesis for three hours every week-day and two hours every day during the weekend. During these time blocks, I am either going to be doing data analysis or writing. I have set up biweekly meetings with the three members of my thesis committee so that I will be giving them chapter updates and data analysis results. I am hoping to have about ten chapters, writing one chapter per two weeks (plus additional time for edits). If anyone has any advice on chapter writing that would be great. Should I go in chapter order? Is my time frame realistic?

I’ll write again soon with updates!

From Kalamazoo to Kroo Bay: My Experience with Urban Youth for Africa

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By Justin A. Moore (Ph.D. candidate, Clinical Psychology)

This past summer, I had the experience of a lifetime. As part of a Kalamazoo-based group called Urban Youth for Africa (UYFA), I had the chance to take a journey to Africa to help a community outside of Sierra Leone, to see sites and meet people whom I know I will never forget. Our group was made up of 13 Michigan residents: eight high school students who have had some hardships in their lives and five adult mentors. I was one of the five adults who mentored the younger students over the year, helping to build leadership characteristics and instilling a globalized perspective within them. In the course of a year which culminated in our trip to Africa, we helped the students to envision the world and their own lives beyond their current circumstances, with the ultimate goal of working to change not only their own communities but, someday, the world.

Justin stands in front of the school in Kroos Bay (the cement building in the back) and, in the distance, the tin houses where residents lived
Justin stands in front of the school in Kroos Bay (the cement building in the back) and, in the distance, the tin houses where residents lived

Our journey started on 8th of July, as we flew from Detroit to Sierra Leone, Africa. After traveling for a day, we reached Sierra Leone. We were there to work with the children in the slums of Kroo Bay, a sub-community within Freetown Sierra Leone. It was during the rainy season, and I can still vividly remember the humidity in the air when we first set foot on the soil. There were people waiting from a local agency called Word Made Flesh (WMF) with whom we were partnered (WMF is an outreach agency based in Africa that runs tutoring programs, day programs, and food initiative programs). For the journey to Kroo Bay, twenty of us squeezed into a Poda Poda (minivan) with wooden seats and drove six hours through the night over rugged terrain. On our journey we sometimes found cemented streets and at other times drove over unlit and uneven dirt paths. When we finally arrived at Kroo Bay, I was shocked. I had never seen anything like it before. The streets were made of mud and were flooded. There was a stream were people were relieving themselves and bathing. There were countless  pigs, dogs, and chickens wildly roaming around (and defecating everywhere) in the same streets and stream used by the people. Many of the people did not have food to eat and lived in tin shacks with no doors.

Walking through Kroo Bay, I found myself changed in so many ways. I was immensely inspired by the resiliency of the people of the Bay. In the face of adversity, the people remained joyful and pleasant. The children’s smiles were magnetic; they pulled you in and you couldn’t help but to give them a hug. Our student mentees from UYFA seemed to deeply and genuinely connect with the children in the village. Our journey halfway around the world was worth it, if for nothing else than to watch the students and the children cheerfully interacting. We spent two weeks helping with the tutoring program, feeding children, mending wounds, and spreading joy! We also dedicated time to help clean up the WMF facilities; we donated money, purchased paint, and repainted the building, among other projects. We conducted team-building activities where the children from UYFA and WMF could share stories with each other.

During our time there, we found our efforts rewarded simply through getting to know and sharing stories and faith with our new friends in the Bay.

While we were in Africa, we also visited Bunce Island, a place where captured slaves were held until they could be shipped off along the Middle Passage to the Americas.[1] From Sierra Leone, we boarded a Pom Pom (boat) and traveled the same route that the slaves generations ago would have taken from the mainland of Sierra Leone to Bunce, to await the next leg of their captive journey. It was an eerie feeling to set foot on land where such atrocities had taken place. We each had a boiled egg for lunch and emotions ran so high when we arrived to the slave quarters that one of the UYFA children tensed up, squeezed his fist, and squashed his egg. Returning from the island, it seemed a long trip back to the mainland, as we sat on the Pom Pom and processed our tour of Bunce. While certainly not a positive memory of Africa, that experience was still a valuable and life-changing one for me, and will be with me

forever. When we arrived back to the mainland we went to reconnect with the children of the Bay. Every day we grew closer and, on the last day before departure, we all shed many tears because our new friends would be greatly missed. Leaving Africa, we spent two days in Paris en route back to the States. Despite being in such a vibrant city, walking under the Eiffel Tower, I still found my thoughts drifting back to Africa, as we all processed the things we had seen and experienced in Sierra Leone. As memories of those children, the village, the boat ride, the island, and our shared joy floated through my mind, I found myself truly grateful for the opportunities that I have had here in America. And I could not help but think to myself what a fascinating and diverse world we live in, and how valuable is the chance not only to see it, but to do something to change it for the better.

Check out the Sierra Leone 2013 Team website on the UYFA homepage.

[1] Many Africans taken to America from Bunce Island landed in Georgia and South Carolina, later contributing their unique skills and knowledge of rice cultivation to farms and plantations in those states.

Collecting My Thesis Data at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

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Getting by as a grad student in a new city, making connections, and finding a treasure-trove of new data

By Jamie M. Gomez

993402_2683568726014_864522951_nFor the past week, I have been in Cleveland, Ohio collecting my thesis data at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. I am using the Hamann-Todd human skeletal collection to investigate dental health of Cleveland’s lower class in the early 1900s. When I submitted my research request to the CMNH, to do research for two weeks, I did not realize how long two weeks in a different city really was. I am a relatively poor college student and wanted to save as much money during my visit as possible, but also enjoy my time in Cleveland. Renting a hotel room for two weeks would have cost me hundreds of dollars, so I checked with family and friends to see if there was someone I could stay with in town. Luckily, my mom had work friends who lived here and they graciously allowed me to stay with them during my visit. While they do not live extremely close to the CMNH, the amount that I have spent in gas is significantly less than what I would have spent on a hotel room. In order to limit the money that I have to spend on food, I stocked up on snacks and have packed my breakfast and lunch everyday. Honestly, I was very lucky to stay with family friends (whose children have left for college) because they love having me around and cooking for me (how did I get so lucky?!?). The money that I have saved has allowed me to do some pretty cool things while I have been here. I got to go to a Cleveland Indians home game (and yes I did wear a Detroit Tigers shirt), and I hope to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next week. I have also enjoyed the freedom the museum has given me to roam around. They just reopened their human/primate evolution exhibit and I came face to face with a reconstructed Lucy. I love having lunch in (what I call) the animal room, but also in the break room where I can learn about what work is being done at the CMNH. I even met one security guard who also looked at dental health and is willing to collaborate with me!

Jamie at the Cleveland Indians game
Jamie at the Cleveland Indians game

I spend my days looking at teeth (with bad dental health), in the same room as the collections manager, Lyman. I have had a blast getting to know him and picking his brain about the collection (since he has been managing it for over 30 years). One day I asked him if he knew of any good sources that would discuss more about the composition of the collection, so I could get a better understanding of who these people were during their life. He went to a cabinet by his desk and pulled out a huge, dusty binder. He went on to tell me that this was the one and only copy of the dissertation of Dr. William M. Cobb from 1932, which investigated the history of all of these individual (including place of birth, how long they lived in Cleveland, occupation, and even how many radios they owned!). I spent the next several days pouring over the information about these individuals that I could have never expected to find, and would have never found if I would not have asked. If there is one thing that I have learned while here, it is that academics want to help further knowledge and will help to do that to the best of their ability. I could never have expected to have so much support by individuals who I met face to face less than a week ago. I am very excited to finish gathering data and return to WMU to analyze it all. Oh, and of course write my thesis! I know that at some point, I will return to Cleveland to do more research on the collection and see all of the amazing friends that I have made while here. I do not think that I could have had a better first week in Cleveland, and can’t wait for my next one!

“Writing Ethically and Well”: An Online Resource for Grads (and others!)

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Edward Eckel III, WMU Associate Professor and Engineering and Applied Sciences Librarian , has compiled an on-line tutorial for graduate students to  assist them in the practice  of ethical writing, his research specialty. This idea originally took form several years ago as a presentation for graduate students.  The presentation was enthusiastically received, and students asked for it to be repeated each semester, claiming it as an “excellent workshop” that contributed significantly to their understanding of plagiarism and scholarly writing.

Writing Ethically and Well: Plagiarism, Patchwriting and the Thesis/Dissertation is certain to become a valuable tool for both graduate students and graduate advising faculty.  The set of videos (with the accompanying documentation) is presented on Professor Eckel’s libguide page.

Professor Eckel’s intention is that graduate students will explore this site as a standalone resource, or incorporate it with face-to-face workshops on plagiarism that may be offered periodically.  In addition, he thinks that departments or programs can also utilize these video tutorials to “jumpstart a discussion on plagiarism and patchwriting within their own areas.” Thus, departments can use the video tutorial as a platform upon which they scaffold their own specific disciplinary practices, thereby customizing their pedagogical approaches to helping students avoid the perils of plagiarism.

Watch Dr. Eckel’s intro to his video series on “Writing Ethically”:

- Dr. Marianne Di Pierro, Director, WMU Graduate Center for Research and Retention (

The Dissertation Writing Retreat and the Two-Minute Talk

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For the fourth year in a row, Ph.D. students from a variety of programs at WMU joined fellow doctoral candidates from the University of Michigan and Wayne State for a “Dissertation Writing Retreat,” sponsored by the WMU-GEP program, and directed by Dr. Wendy Carter-Veale. The retreat is a fantastic opportunity for students at all levels of the dissertation process to spend scheduled time planning, organizing, writing, and work-shopping their research, within the beautiful setting of the MSU Kellogg Biological Station and Conference Center. In addition to providing this invaluable structured time to focus on writing and revising, the retreat also features mentorship and consultations with Dr. Carter-Veale, now in her fourth year of offering the retreat for WMU students. Dr. Carter-Veale’s research and personal experience in balancing work, academic life, and a family led her to create this kind of structured, hands-on, personal experience for graduate students in order to combat the high levels of attrition that occur over the course of their graduate programs.

Attendee LaSonda Wells describes her experience at the Dissertation Writing Retreat

One very popular and useful workshop offered at the retreat allows each student to begin crafting a  two-minute dissertation talk, also known as the “elevator speech.” This short speech is intended to provide anyone a student might meet — a professor, mentor, funding representative, possible colleague — with just enough information to know what the student is contributing to his or her field. In addition to providing a means for students to summarize and “sell” their own work, the two-minute talk also gets students thinking about how to represent their work to non-academic audiences, and to distill their work down to its most basic and profound ideas.

Attendee LaSonda Wells introduces the idea of the two-minute dissertation talk and practices her own

Among the many beneficial outcomes of the retreat is that students are able to build support networks with their fellow dissertators, even across disciplinary lines. After the retreat ends, students continue to meet, talk, and text, sharing their writing, their concerns, and working through challenges together. Establishing these kinds of writing support groups is crucial during the high-pressure “ABD” period for graduate students. For students unable to attend the retreat, or for those who attended but who would like more sustained and ongoing professional support beyond the Retreat experience, the Graduate College at WMU and the Graduate Center for Research and Retention provide additional venues  wherein students can create and grow these relationships. The Dissertation Cafe, a bi-monthly meeting of Ph.D. students working on their dissertations, is offered by Dr. Marianne Di Pierro and the Graduate Center for Research and Retention; at “cafe meetings,” students can meet with each other and with Dr. Di Pierro to discuss strategies for completion. Space is limited, so look for more information and register on the Grad College EVENTS page.

Attend a summer Dissertation Cafe meeting to discuss your work with Dr. Di Pierro and meet fellow dissertators!

Fighting Dissertation Isolation

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It’s been 4 years since I took a class at WMU. I actually had to look up my transcript to figure out when that seminar in “Monstrosity in Anglo-Saxon Literature” took place (Spring 2009). It’s been a while.

Since then, I’ve been struggling to finish my dissertation (I struggled to start it, as well. It’s mainly just been constant struggling, interrupted by periods of elation when I could compose more than a page at one sitting). I remember thinking, as I attempted to balance teaching and a three-course academic load during my Ph.D. program, that I just couldn’t WAIT to get my classes and comps out of the way, I couldn’t WAIT to have nothing else to do, just to sit in a room all by myself and just WRITE. My creative-critical self would emerge, long gestating and developing through years of coursework, and I would produce new insights on Anglo-Saxon poetry, all expressed in sophisticated and beautiful prose. After all, the dissertation had been brewing for years, just waiting for me to extract it. All I needed was quiet and time.


What I found is that while it’s liberating to be out from under regular reading assignments and research papers each semester, being out of the classroom and off on my own had an unexpected effect on my thinking and writing. Lacking a regular atmosphere of intellectual debate and exchange, a constant stream of sometimes relevant, sometimes irrelevant, always new and challenging theories and ideas, my academic speech and expression just sort of… atrophied. I fell into patterns of thinking and writing that didn’t feel graceful or intelligent, and I really started to hate writing my boring, inelegant, and (worst of all) unoriginal dissertation.

After several semesters of feeling that, somehow, the Ph.D. program had made me less intelligent and a WORSE writer than when I began, I attended my good friend’s dissertation defense (she wrote an interdisciplinary exploration of “The Pearl,” a gorgeous Middle English dream vision) Even though her research had nothing to do with my own, as she spoke I felt like I was “waking up,” scribbling marginalia to myself about possible additions and changes to my own current chapter. Finally, a breakthrough! After this, I found that when I DID attend academic events– dissertation defenses, conference presentations, research talks — my brain started to work in that old, familiar way. Sometimes my ideas were connected to what the speaker was actually speaking about, but more often not… just being in an environment of intellectual discussion seemed to activate a part of my brain that had gone to sleep after I stopped taking classes.

And therein lies the irony of the dissertation process, at least as I’ve experienced it: just when we want most to hide away in our carrels / offices / coffee shops / caves, waiting for inspiration to strike, we find that we need our colleagues and classmates the most. Maybe this is a problem with the Ph.D. program in general… it just doesn’t make sense to remove ourselves from academic discussion during the dissertation process, because that’s when those conversations are crucial.

It’s so easy to fall off the edge of the earth when you finish your program coursework and this isolation is magnified when the students who made up your cohort begin to graduate and leave town. So what is the dissertator to do? First, be aware and try to recognize when (and if) working in a vacuum is no longer working! If you find yourself in this situation– and if you are still within a reasonable distance of a university– try to re-immerse yourself in the academic atmosphere:

  • Take part in the Dissertation Cafe series offered by the Graduate Center for Research and Retention. Seating is limited, but the Cafe provides an opportunity for students to meet, share their work, and discuss the challenges of the dissertation process. Check out our EVENTS page for more info and to register
  • Look at upcoming schedules of classes for your department, and email around to see whether professors might allow you to audit or sit in on their seminars. In my case, my advisor was more than happy to have me join her class, and only asked that I be a regular visitor and not just drop in whenever. 
  • Join a discussion group hosted by your department, or by a university center. For example, the WMU Center for the Humanities hosts a number of interdisciplinary working groups for faculty and students during the year.
  • Join or start a “chapter-exchange” group with students from your program (or students far afield)… if you’re no longer living on or near campus, you can still read and exchange ideas over email, or share your work via GoogleDocs / GoogleDrive. There are also online discussion and study groups on networking sites like AcademicRoom that allow you to join a discussion with students and faculty in your field.
  • If your department offers a speakers series or colloquium in which visiting scholars, students, or faculty present their work to colleagues, attend and take part in the conversation. The same goes for your classmates and colleagues’ thesis and dissertation defenses… even if you are unfamiliar with their specific topic, seeing a friend defend his or her work will not only get you thinking in academic terms again, it will give you an idea of what you have to look forward to.

Leave a comment with your own strategies for fighting dissertation isolation!