So today I had a meeting with the chairperson of my dissertation committee. This person has guided me for the past 2½ years, and boy, am I glad. When pursuing a doctorate, I’ve learned that your chairperson (aka your advisor) is key.
It’s really important to select someone with whom you get along, someone knowledgeable and experienced, someone with a little pull in the department, and someone who is willing to spend a lot of time with you. Finding such a person isn’t always easy, and it’s partly a matter of luck. Well, I got lucky.
My advisor is known to be tough and rather difficult; she delights in asking you hard questions. She is a challenging and rigorous thinker, and expects you to be the same. We’ve had one meeting (last summer) where I was brought to tears—tears of frustration and — okay, I’ll say it — humiliation. Our average meeting lasts between two and three hours, during which she doesn’t let up.
Sometimes my head swims and I think I just can’t concentrate anymore — but then I do. She has taught me so much, not only about health behavior, but about how to be a role model and mentor in this field. I’m not done with my PhD yet, but I am very grateful to her and to the process which I’ve been so lucky to experience.
I chose the field of health behavior for my PhD because I’m SO interested in what motivates people. Why, with all the unequivocal scientific evidence and public health messaging in our faces, do some people still smoke?
Why do so many people choose to remain sedentary and inactive? More importantly, HOW can people be motivated to adopt healthier behaviors? What is the magic formula for touching people deeply and helping them to increase their intention to change for the better?
After 30+ years in fitness, I’ve come to realize that most of the fitness industry is missing the boat. Anyone can see that is true just by looking at the statistics on obesity and sedentariness in the US and around the world.
A vastly increasing majority of people are not making healthy choices, and are choosing to sit at work and sit some more at home. These same people are not joining fitness facilities, nor are they paying attention to all the recommendations for physical activity. Why is that?
Well, I will stop before I really get on my soapbox, but at this point in my life I feel it’s much more important to learn about behavior change than to continue with exercise science. What good is it to constantly preach about what to do, if no one is actually going to do it? Instead of focusing on the what, I’m interested in the whys and the hows of behavior change.
So back to today’s meeting. We got into the nitty gritty of my follow-up survey, which, like the initial survey, will be delivered online to about 195 participants. As an example of our discussion, she and I immersed ourselves in debate about whether I’m measuring regular physical activity or total physical activity in my survey. It turns out that there is a difference between these two concepts! Duh.
I hadn’t clarified this distinction in my mind. Being clear about what I’m measuring is critical when writing the survey questions. I’ve also learned that it all goes back to the main research questions — what am I trying to find out? What is the overall purpose of the study? Why do people do what they do, and how can they increase their intention to make healthier choices?
Another personal issue related to making progress on my dissertation: I’ve been accused of being a knowledge junkie. Example: once, when I was serving on an international fitness certification committee that was writing and evaluating test questions, a fellow committee member joked that my last name (Yoke) stood for You Oughta Know Everything!
This joke was in response to my continued (and undoubtedly annoying) insistence that we had to keep a large number of test questions on the exam — fitness instructors needed to know the answers to all of them! I was not in favor of eliminating anything!
The idea of having to know everything is not necessarily a good quality when trying to focus on a specific research agenda. For me, a big lesson is to keep a narrow, precise and steady focus — particularly if I want to finish in a timely manner. Fortunately, my advisor keeps reminding me to rein myself in. If she didn’t, I’d keep coming up with more and more questions that need answers.
Suggestions. If any readers of this blog are students, and particularly graduate students, do take the time to ask about various faculty members in your department. When you’re trying to decide on your advisor/mentor/chairperson, it’s a good idea to schedule meetings with a few different individuals. That way you can get a sense of whether or not you click.
You also will want to have some idea about your course of study. What are you interested in? If you’re thinking of a doctorate, then what might your research agenda be? If you’re in the social sciences, are you interested in studying a specific group of people? Who, or what, is the target of your interest? You will want to find a faculty member with similar interests to your own, and who, ideally, has already done research in your chosen area.
OK, I know today’s post is all about being a doctoral candidate. If you’re not a student (and even if you are), stay tuned for a wide variety of juicy topics coming up! Meanwhile, let’s go forth and THRIVE! There’s so very much to learn! 🙂