Sunday, June 29, 2014

It Takes a Village: Why Asking for Help is Essential to the Dissertation Process

The 700th person just joined my Facebook group: Latinas Completing Doctoral Degrees, and I am both amazed and humbled at the same time.  Almost a year ago I started blogging about my dissertation journey in hopes that I would find support for my extrinsically motivated self.  The Facebook group then seemed like another way to find additional help and maybe even comfort from a community that I could trust.  Like many other doctoral students, there are myriad feelings that come up for me when I realize that I can’t complete the dissertation on my own.  And when I do admit that I need help, I am careful about to whom I reach out.  This got me thinking: what holds us back from asking for help?

After completing the coursework and comprehensive exams in our doctoral programs, we are told that we should now be prepared to complete a dissertation.  But I don’t think I was unique when I got that terrifying feeling that the task that I was about to embark on was going to be daunting, to say the least.  Luckily, there are now numerous books available (see reference links below) that try to simplify the dissertation process by providing tips, tricks and insight into what goes on in the mind of a dissertating student.  This is one kind of help that works if you are a person that is self-motivated and can follow structured directions like a robot.  However, I am one of those “people persons” with a need for human interaction and ongoing feedback and I already admitted that I am also an extrinsically motivated person.

Unfortunately, the usual dissertation committee setup does not always provide that constant support.  I do feel fortunate that I have an amazingly supportive dissertation mentor and a wonderfully reassuring committee, but they all have many other responsibilities and it is not appropriate for me to expect constant check-ins and reminders.

There are many other instances in our lives that we don’t think twice about asking for help.  For example, I had a recent knee injury that needed a team of people to come together to help me get back to “normal.”  My primary care physician, surgeon, physical therapist, co-workers and most importantly, my family formed the dream team to get me back on my feet literally and figuratively. Everyone did their part to assist me when I needed it and even when I refused to admit I needed it.  There is nothing more humbling than hobbling around on crutches and becoming so much more conscious of the privilege that I have as an able-bodied person (but that’s a blog post for another day). I learned to ask for help and not feel guilty or undeserving of it.  That was more challenging for me than I thought.

So back to the question about what holds us back from asking for help in the dissertation process.  These are some thoughts I came up with:

External Issues: Our intuition tells us that we will be judged and those stereotypes about who does and does not belong in academia begin to show up in the ways that we are or are not actively supported.  The problem is that when we ask for help we are doing a few things:

  • admitting we can’t do it alone
  • making ourselves vulnerable
  • relying on others who may or may not actually be able to help

Internal Issues: Our feelings of inadequacy might creep up and we begin to believe that if we are asking for help we:

  • are not capable of doing it ourselves
  • don’t know what we're doing
  • should have known better than to think we could dare to aspire to accomplish such a significant achievement

I think on both sides of these equations there are some truths, but the bottom line is that NO ONE has ever done anything significant ALONE. Every great invention or accomplishment starts with an idea, but the final version of any great thing came to be because of a team of people who believed in the idea and then used their variety of talents to make it happen. 

This summer I decided to post a question in the Facebook group about creating summer writing accountability groups and I honestly thought that maybe 5 or 6 others might reply with interest.  We now have almost 60 Latina doctoral students from all over the United States, organized in 10 groups.  These writing groups are designed to support each other and provide a variety of online (and some in-person) check-in mechanisms to ensure a productive summer.  I am one of those people who is already benefiting from this initiative. My group has motivated me to spend time in the library and keep going at night when I thought I was too tired to code and write. (Thank you Darleny, Shirley and Daphnie!)

By reaching out for help and seeing my dissertation as a collaborative process I opened up a world of support, hope and love (yes love) that I could never have imagined.  I am grateful and look forward to celebrating more milestones with my newly found support group, um, I mean, summer writing accountability group. ;)

As referenced above, here are some useful dissertation writing resource links:

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

One Major Key to Success for Doctoral Students: Building a Supportive Network

I am excited to share that I recently finished collecting data for my dissertation and the finish line is now in sight. I must say I owe it to my amazing committee, my understanding family, my helpful colleagues and a very supportive online network. About a year ago, I was still in the dissertation proposal stage feeling very isolated and alone in the process. As I described in my first blog entry, I was searching for a way to connect with others having similar struggles and could not find it.  My frustration prompted me to start blogging: The Doctoralatina blog then lead to the creation of the Facebook group Latinas Completing Doctoral Degrees and I am proud to say that it has grown to over 600 members. I am humbled by the idea that new members are joining every day looking for what I couldn't find last year - a support network that understands the unique challenges of Latina doctoral students. With so much interest growing daily, could it be possible that a major factor to doctoral degree completion is forming a strong support network?  I say yes - absolutely!

The beauty of my doctoral program is that it was perfect for someone who needed the flexibility of completing a degree while holding a full time job. The downside was not having a set cohort to bond with, commiserate with and motivate each other to a common goal: completing the doctoral degree. What this means is that it then becomes essential to build your own supportive network.The tricky part is that the people in this network need to understand your unique circumstances. I would venture to say they also need to be one with whom you can be vulnerable and ask questions without the fear of being perceived as incompetent. 

This reminds me of a recent impromptu dinner gathering that happened when I attended a national student affairs conference.  A group of us who did not really know each other before decided to go to dinner together.  It was a very comfortable conversation. We shared work and life challenges and gave each other advice.  It was like we were old friends and could share our stories without fear of being judged. What did we all have in common? We were all Latinas with a shared understanding of the unique issues that we all face in higher education.

I feel the Facebook group has taken a life of its own and has become a place where Latina scholars ask questions, celebrate milestones and share challenges in a supportive and affirming environment. There is something special about having a space to share these experiences, hopefully minimizing the feelings of isolation and the lonely writing process. You can't find this kind of network everywhere and if you don't find what you seek - create it!

So my advice to new (or not so new) doctoral students is to get to know their fellow students and build a social support network as early as possible. Find people with whom you have things in common. For example, if you are a parent, find other parents; if you are juggling classes while working full time, find others doing the same. There are so many commonalities that can connect people enough to form that supportive self-created cohort that can lead to successful completion of the doctoral degree. 

I wish I had found this network earlier in my doctoral program, but no need to lament at this point.  I have not only created the network I needed, but have fully thrived through it and have finished collecting data and am on my way to writing my final dissertation chapters.  I have my faculty, supportive family, helpful colleagues and the amazing online network, Latinas Completing Doctoral Degrees to thank.  Finally, the most important group to thank are the amazing Latinas who agreed to be interviewed for my dissertation study. I can’t wait to tell their stories, so on to coding and analyzing! (More about that in my next blog post - stay tuned.)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Celebrating Milestones and Handling Setbacks

Top - Dissertation Proposal Defense,  Bottom Left - Ready for a great ski day with the family,  Bottom Right - Waiting for rescue after knee injury

I recently had to put some things in perspective and I thank God for moments of clarity to help me take a moment to celebrate milestones and handle setbacks. The dissertation process is something like this.  

I celebrated 2 milestones in my doctoral journey. I successfully defended my dissertation proposal and submitted the IRB application.  I am happy to report that I received a letter from the IRB and with some minor edits, I am confident that I will get the green light to conduct the interviews for my study in the timeline I planned so that I can then go on to the next milestone – collecting data!

I also experienced a major setback. I thought I would be celebrating another major milestone in my physical fitness life, but it looks like plans will need to be changed. On the day before I was supposed to take the test for my Red/Black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a major step before the Black Belt, I suffered a ski injury.  I tore the ACL in my right knee (the one I need to drive!) and now I will require surgery with a long recovery.  I envisioned that this year I was going to celebrate two major accomplishments - completing my doctoral degree and achieving Black Belt status in Tae Kwon Do.  I now have to modify that plan both mentally and physically. 

I was lucky to get some perspective the day of my injury. As I was feeling sorry for myself at the bottom of the ski mountain, I looked up and saw an 80 plus year old man coming down the slope with just one leg and when I looked closer at his jacket, it turns out he is one of the ski instructors! This was truly a spiritual and inspirational moment that I feel blessed to have experienced.  I took this vision as a sign from God that each of us has to carry on no matter what obstacles might seem insurmountable.  My knee can and will heal and I can choose to stay positive and move forward.

Interestingly, since this injury happened, I have had many people share stories with me about similar ones they’ve had.  I guess my crutches and knee brace make my injury visible to all and people can’t help but to ask me what happened and the exchange begins. Now I'm learning so much about my friends and colleagues - things I never knew about their struggles because they are no longer visible.  The part of these stories that I enjoy hearing most is about their healing process and how much better they feel now.  It makes me wonder what other invisible struggles people are suffering through that I never get to hear about, but would help me get a better understanding of the source of each person’s resilience and strength.

I feel like this is exactly what happened when I started blogging about my dissertation process and sharing in the Latinas Completing Doctoral Degrees Facebook group.  There is something special about people being willing to tell others about their struggles that creates a shared solidarity that helps them realize they are not alone and that there is hope for overcoming setbacks, big and small.

Although I have had to modify my expectations with the milestones I expected for this year, I am still very happy with my dissertation progress and look forward to my physical healing process. My new favorite word stated often by my excellent dissertation mentor as I have been moving through the process is: Onward!  Yes. Yes indeed.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Year End Gratitude and Goal Setting for 2014!

Celebrating 2013 and looking forward to 2014!
The end of the year seems to be a perfect time to reflect on accomplishments of the past and set goals for the future. It is also a great time for expressing gratitude to people in our lives who serve as reminders of how connected we all really are. Interestingly, social media played a big part of feeling more human connection despite critics who believe otherwise.  One great example of this was a recent visit to the home of Doctora Nelly Cardinale, who is currently featured in our Galeria de Doctoras Latinas and shared her dissertation defense story (click here to read Nelly's post).  She is someone I met on Facebook who has been so encouraging to me.  It was surreal to have connected online for many months and then finally have the opportunity for our families to meet in person.
The Cardinale Family hosts the Pertuz Family December 2013
I am grateful for being open to trying new things and allowing the unexpected to happen in support of my goals. I have been trying to finish my dissertation to earn my doctorate for quite some time, and I almost gave up. I was surprised at my own negative thoughts – so unlike me.  I consider myself a problem solver, not a quitter. I would recognize a problem and take actions toward a solution, even if that means reaching out for help. How I reached out for help was unusual for me and what happened next was so much better than I expected. 

I never thought I would become a blogger, but it seemed necessary when in a moment of desperation, trying to find some online support in my dissertation process, I started Googling “Latinas” and “doctorates” and what came up were mostly pornography sites. I was surprised by the idea that the top online associations with the word “Latina” would not yield the scholarly and professional aspects of who we are. That was when I decided to start this blog and share my Latina doctoral journey. I guess I should have been using Google Scholar because there I did later find scholarly articles (very few) about Latina doctoral experiences. Knowing that others were reading it, responding and sending me encouragement was so motivating that I got moving and I am on my way to defending my dissertation proposal soon and will collect data shortly after that.  I can see my doctorate in my near future and I am not giving up.  I am so grateful to my faculty at Seton Hall University for their ongoing support.

I got such positive responses from this blog that it also led me to consider the bigger picture of Latinas Completing Doctoral Degrees.  So I started a Facebook group by suggestion from one of my sister scholars, Sherlene Ayala who is on her own doctoral journey and who shared her own perspective as a guest blogger (click here read Sherlene's blog entry). I also had my beautiful sister Cindy Bautista-Thomas share the beginning of her doctoral journey (click here to read Cindy's blog entry).

I discovered firsthand that there is something really powerful about sharing your struggles and even more powerful when others begin to share similar ones – and together, we begin to form a circle of solidarity and support.

If I learned nothing else this year, the most powerful message I received was that NOTHING IS MORE POWERFUL THAN COMMUNITY and we cannot accomplish great things without a strong network backing us up. 

I thank Doctora Angelica Perez, founder of the Ella Leadership Institute for planting the blogger seed in me by allowing me to share my thoughts on her blog back in September 2012 (click here for article), for agreeing to serve on my dissertation committee and for reminding Latinas to Think Big!

In my blogging journey I also found the Latina Researchers Network founded by Doctora Silvia Mazzula and I am happy to say that I will be joining them in their efforts to encourage Latinas and other underrepresented scholars to thrive by mentoring each other and inspiring a new generation of scholars.

Finally, I am always grateful for my family who unconditionally offer me their unwavering love and support in all that I do. Not for one second do I take this for granted.  I am here because of them and for them always.  I thank my husband, artist Antonio Pertuz and my children Ariana and Joaquin for being so patient with their Mami while she fulfills her goals.  What they don’t realize now is how much better their lives will be once I’m finally PhinisheD (#seewhatIdidthere). 

Gracias to all of the amazing people in my life who inspire me and support me – too many to name, but they know who they are.  Please continue to join me on what has now become a movement on Facebook at  and to increase Latina doctoral recipients and scholarship.

So excited for what 2014 will bring!  Happy New Year!!!