Mentorship is a two-way process, where you shape your adviser as he shapes you. I am living proof of that. The last few weeks have been the turning point of my PhD. For those of you who do not know, I am at the fag end of my second year in the PhD program. This is when you are done with your coursework, and are beginning to think of some nice ideas, one of which could potentially turn into a dissertation. In my field of research, we usually do two kinds of studies- qualitative and quantitative. There is a third kind, the mixed-methods approach, where you mix both qualitative and quantitative data to validate each other. Quantitative studies heavily rely on data analyzed through statistics and number crunching, while qualitative studies rely on making meaning of the experiences of people through observations, interviews, focus group discussions, ethnography studies, et cetera. One approach is not necessarily better than the other, and you need to understand both methods in order to address a research question well.
My research group is heavy on quantitative analysis. There are a couple of reasons for that. Your sample size can be way larger in a quantitative data set (tens of thousands sometimes), the sophistication of the statistical software can make you run analyses in less time, and overall, your rate of publication is higher when you do quantitative work. Clearly, the numbers speak for themselves, and that is why my group has always relied on quantitative dissertations.
I was expected to do a quantitative dissertation from day one. My adviser is a hard taskmaster and makes you takes every possible course on methodology. It is hard, doing all that work, and I have seen myself screaming through semesters when I was taking four methods courses at a time. In graduate school, taking four courses per semester is a challenge; you can imagine what taking four methods courses would be like. I have taken the entire 3-series qualitative coursework, 5-series quantitative coursework, and various other courses related to item response theory, multilevel modeling, and so on. I have had to learn using Stata, SPSS, Genova, NVivo, and Atlas Ti from scratch. Anyway, I ended up taking a lot of these quant courses, and realized my heart was not really in there. I could run regression models and stuff, I could learn to live with that, but not love that. On the other hand, I took the qualitative courses and loved them.
The first time my adviser learned about my newfound love for qualitative analysis, he asked me to change advisers. Clearly this is what none of his students had done before, and he was skeptical. I would be crazy to change advisers at this stage, I love this research group, so I assured him that I would do a quantitative dissertation. We were collecting a lot of qualitative data for an NIH funded study, and with my background in the biosciences and public health, I found myself attracted to that data. I would randomly do some preliminary analysis, while still looking for a quantitative research idea. This went on for a few more months. My adviser was supposed to go to an annual conference in California, a big one for sure, and I asked him if I could come. He said no, and then gave it a thought and asked me what I would do there. I said I had done some preliminary analysis and could present it to him, so that he could decide. I told him that it was qualitative data analysis. I just wanted to attend the conference and visit California, hoping to make some contacts there. I did not hope for anymore.
The adviser gave me an evening, and asked me to present my data to him the next morning. I had an evening, which is nothing when you have to present your findings. People spend days preparing their presentations. He said that I could come with him if I could impress him. I spent that evening putting some more thought and rationale into my data analysis, and presented it to him next morning sharp at 10 am. He had some thoughts, he asked some questions, and told me to do some more. He was about to leave when I asked him if I could come to California. He told me I am on board.
I was thrilled. I spent more time into this analysis, aware that I will have to soon go back to my quantitative dissertation idea. I kept working hard at this and showing him my analysis, knowing that I had a very limited amount of time with this dataset. I still did not have a dissertation idea.
About 2 weeks ago, my adviser approved of me doing either a wholly qualitative dissertation, or a mixed-method dissertation. He told me that I have changed his opinion about what his graduate students’ dissertation profile should look like, replete with quantitative data analysis. He reminded me of the risks I am taking being the first one in his team to do qualitative work. This has been the single most pivotal moment in my PhD career. From the day when he asked me to change advisers because I liked qualitative work to this day when he said I will be the first one in his team to do something new, I have come a long way from where I was. I never really had any expectation of him changing his mind. However, I kept doing something I am good at, and things unfolded for me serendipitously.
I have secured a place in the California conference. I have finally decided on my dissertation topic, after 6 months of banging my head against the wall. Most importantly, I have realized that although there is a prescribed route to success that everyone before me has followed, there is also value in determining my own way based on my interests without taking the road stalwarts have taken before me. I will carve out my own niche, doing something my group has never done before. It may or may not be kick ass, like Eric Cartman would say. However, that for me is the true essence of education- authenticity, uniqueness, and doing something different with all my love.