ACA Blog

Natosha Monroe
Aug 02, 2011

The Graduate Student’s Dreaded Mountain: The Dissertation

While my blogs typically focus on military-related topics, ACA has invited me to write on another area of relevance to many ACA members: research and dissertation development. So while I will continue to write on military-related topics, my blogs will also include a peek into the life of a doctoral student’s final year and a half. In particular, I will share different aspects of my dissertation journey: Initial development, literature review, methodology, specific development of the qualitative study of 15 individuals (design, data collection, data analysis, etc.), and the actual writing of the dissertation. I hope the contents of my blogs will be helpful to members of ACA who may be pursuing graduate studies or who are beginning to develop ideas for research that will further enrich the body of literature in our field and ultimately benefit humanity through better understandings of one another.

I’m currently enduring the initial procedural phases of my first Doctoral dissertation. I’m sure some of you understand why I just used the term “enduring.” This is not simply a required project—this is a huge mountain that I must conquer to earn that PhD. In recent years, I looked forward to the idea of in-depth research as a part of the degree—I have been interested in resilience for years and here is my chance to focus on examining the topic more completely. However, I drastically underestimated the amount of work a dissertation entails. I really and truly had no idea. I simply looked at “dissertation” as being a really long research paper. And it is exactly that, in a way. However, in the field of psychology and specifically in my program of International Psychology-Trauma Services, my dissertation also consists of an independent study of actual human beings! This is a bit more complex than an empirical study of an aspect of American history or something, right?

When I applied to The Chicago School of Psychology’s amazing International Psychology program, one of the requirements was to write a dissertation proposal. It wasn’t the formal proposal, but more of an essay of our intent. I pondered over different ideas, but ultimately I decided I definitely wanted to spend my hours upon hours of dissertation work on studying resilience. In my initial years of work in the counseling field, I couldn’t help but notice that many people in need of mental health care services had something in common: lack of positive interpersonal support. I began to notice that when people had a perception of positive and dependable support from family and/or friends—or in some cases co-workers—they seemed to be able to “bounce back” from difficult life situations more effectively than did those without. This observation led to my interest in studying resilience in my free time.

In our field, our work will hopefully benefit others. I believe this adds another level of importance to our research—we must be pure of intent and ethical in our endeavors and in how we develop and conduct our studies. This has led me to the firm belief that we must have a realistic basic understanding of just what it is that should be researched. Not based upon mere curiosity, but sometimes we must shelve our curiosity or put it on a backburner to what may actually be needed by individuals or groups of people. In my initial review of literature on resilience, I saw a lot of research with participants who were NOT resilient. Ok, I see the value in that. However, I also see the value in conducting research with participants who ARE resilient as well so we can learn more from them and learn more about what resilience IS—and not just what resilience is NOT.

I also noticed in my initial literature review that while there is an increasing amount of research on resilience, there is not an overwhelming amount of research on the specific part of resilience I was interested in—the relationship with perceived interpersonal support. Did this mean interpersonal support isn’t an important part of resilience? Not necessarily—there is often mention of interpersonal dynamics, but just not very many studies of this alone. To me, that indicates a potential area of resilience that perhaps should be studied more in order to give a more complete attempt to better understand such a complex topic. However, I must also remain open to the idea that this relationship is not as important in contributing to resilience as other topics. And if my study indicates this, I will share that finding.

While conducting thorough literature review, the first major step in the dissertation is formulating the specific research question and problem statement. This is simple, right? I know what I’m interested in and I know what has and has not been studied already, so it should be simple to develop my research question and problem statement. Not so fast. This wasn’t as easy as I thought it was. I actually changed the wording of both numerous times in the first few months of my dissertation development. Next week I will blog just on this specific topic and share the transformation of my original ideas to their current state.

In the field of psychology, I believe we should feel a tremendous sense of responsibility in our research endeavors. We must apply guiding principles from our ACA Code of Ethics and oftentimes others as we proceed in our work with and for others. A dissertation and/or study is not merely an extended research paper—it is an experience for not only ourselves but also our participants. It hopefully will be a body of work that may spark interest for further study or provide ideas to benefit others.

Natosha Monroe is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.

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