Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A timely check-in

It's timely that I'm supposed to post my first dissertation check-in today, because just this afternoon I received an email update from my data contact at the Pentagon.  But before I feel like I can explain what the message said, I think I should walk through the story of how I got to this point.  So here's my dissertation story, from where it started through where it is now.

My Ph.D. program is in Family Science, which you can think about as the psychology of families.  Our department is housed within a school of public health, which means the coursework and the research is community-focused and has a real sense of contributing to the greater good of our communities in the service of family health and well-being.  It's a great program, with great faculty and great opportunities.  The program is set up with the first two years as coursework (for me this was fall 2010 through spring 2012).  Then, after all course requirements are met, you are eligible to sit for the Qualifying Exam, which is a two week period of intense thinking and writing on three prompts.  At the end of the writing period, you have to sit in front of a committee of three faculty (you're not told who they'll be ahead of time) and defend your answers. For me, this happened in the late spring/early summer of 2012.  Once you pass (which I did! what an amazing feeling that was), you advance to Candidacy.  This designation means you can begin to work on your dissertation. 

Being the high-achieving student that I am, I started working on my dissertation even before I passed Quals.  I'd started to think about what I wanted to research when I entered the program and the answer was obvious to me: military couples.  I also had thought about what I wanted this dissertation to do for me-- did I want it to get me an academic position or did I want it to get me a degree?  This answer was also obvious: I wanted to write a great paper, to produce good and meaningful research, but I did not want it to lead me to an academic job.  I wanted it to lead me to graduation.  Knowing this meant that I'd be doing a secondary data analysis.  In other words, that I'd be using data that someone else already collected so that I didn't have to collect it myself.  Through a few coursework papers, I'd identified a data set at the Pentagon that met all the requirements: it was large (over 100,000 participants), it was designed to examine the health and well-being of military spouses and their marriages (perfect match for my interests), and it had more than one year of data (which means I could look at how the spouses' health changes over time as they experience deployments).  I identified my dissertation chair from within our faculty, Leigh (she was also my thesis chair during my master's degree and we work great together), and she was on board with the idea of a research project that used the Pentagon's longitudinal data on the spouses and their military husbands.  The plan was to write my project proposal over the summer and fall of 2012, defend the proposal in the late fall/early winter of 2012, and then graduate by May of 2013.

Everything was going smoothly until it wasn't.  The first hitch was that I was denied access to the data on the military husbands.  Because they're active duty military and I am not a government employee, I didn't meet the clearance qualifications to get access to the data as soon as I'd need it.  The second hitch was that I didn't get the first year of data on just the spouses (the data from the 2010 survey) until early December.  When you're using secondary data, it's really essential to have the data in front of you, to know how each question was asked on the survey and then to know how those answers were coded in the data set.  Having this information ensures that your research questions and literature reviews are relevant and appropriate to the study you'll actually carry out.  I tried to get started on the literature review through out the fall, and actually wrote almost 80 pages of it, but in the end when I sifted through the data in December, I knew I'd have to end up rewriting or restructuring most of it.  And even though I'd received the 2010 data, I still didn't have the 2011 data (the next survey year and what would make the project longitudinal).  The third hitch just came this afternoon, when I checked my email and found out that I wouldn't be receiving any of the 2011 data after all.  Due to a confidentiality audit and data cleaning procedures, the 2011 data wouldn't be ready for release until almost the end of 2013.  Since I'm not planning to be in school that long, I won't be waiting for it. 

So, that's where my story ends for today.  Even though this news is disappointing, it means I can get on with things now.  Knowing is better than not knowing!  I know I can still write a great paper and produce good research.  I'm ready to just be done with school, to graduate this year and do a great job, and then get on with my life.  As soon as Leigh gets back from her break, we'll dive in again to tweak my question and analysis plan to adjust for the single year of data and I'll keep moving forward.  She'll be back in the office early next week, so hopefully we'll get a chance to meet before my next check-in.

So that's where my story ends for today.  Whew!  If you're still reading, thanks a million :)

1 comment:

  1. Welcome to ROW80! It sounds like you've made a good start by identifying the data you can get and what you won't be able to obtain. Keep up the good work!