Mourning a dissertation

No Escape, a work by Judith Carlin, showing how unescapable depression can seem.
No Escape, a work by Judith Carlin, showing how unescapable depression can seem. Licensed under Creative Commons

This is tough to admit. I’m depressed. To many who have experienced this before me, it’s known as the Post-PhD Blues or Post-Doc Slump. Call it what you like, but just like other forms with their own nicknames, this is depression. No one ever told me about that part of a PhD program.

For me, this depression started after I sent my first “final” draft of my complete dissertation. It was so anti-climactic, attaching the very thing that consumed my every free moment, kept me from lazy weekends with my family, and created my distracted existence…to an email. I honestly thought, “Wow. That’s it!?”  I told Chris that I sent my first final draft and he seemed nonplussed. Maybe I was depending on him too much to reassure me of the excitement of the situation; that excitement I lacked. He said he just didn’t want to get my hopes up.

I felt a panic to start the job search. After the spring semester, my job ended. I have no job. At least not one with a paycheck. Chris assured me to not panic and just to focus on my dissertation, because without that there was no PhD, and without that, no academic career.

A couple of days later Kari and I left for Florida. I had a great time and was able to relax. I do admit to checking my email each time we went back to the condo to see if I had yet received revisions. I felt empty when I found none. Eventually, they did come and I felt like I had a purpose again! I stayed up late after she went to bed working on my paper. It was like an addiction, one I didn’t want, but one that gave me meaning and purpose.

After my defense on July 21, I was happy but maybe not as happy as I should have been when my advisor and committee came back in and said, “Congratulations, Doctor.”

Chris had a meeting to go to that afternoon immediately after my defense, so while Chris was in his meeting, I made the changes to my dissertation at a Starbucks. I kept thinking to myself, “Doctor. I couldn’t be a doctor. Not me. What did I do to earn this? I didn’t earn this.”

I still don’t know what I did that was enough to earn my PhD. Am I really smart enough? What do I really know? The saying “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” is very true. I know nothing.

On August 13, all of my friends and family were really nice to get together with me to celebrate. It’s so kind of them – it made me tear up. I do appreciate them all taking the time to come to dinner to celebrate with me. On the way there, we are about 5 minutes from the restaurant and I tell Chris this is hard for me. I’m a fraud. I tell him I appreciate him organizing this dinner, but I feel like I don’t really deserve it. He gives me a look and I suck it up. I get over myself.

Imposter syndrome is hard to live with. You’re not sure why or how you’re successful and you’re sure you don’t deserve the success you have. This has been me my whole life. I know it seems like I’m ungrateful for the luck I have had in my life, but I’m really not. It’s really “confusing” to me about how I got here.

After earning my PhD, the uncertainty really began. What would I do? What could I do? What jobs can I get that really challenge me while offering the flexibility I need as a parent?

Chris and I are a team, and he told me not to take a job to just have a job. He said I worked too hard for too long just to get a job. I love that I get to be intentional in my job search. For now, while casually searching, I’m enjoying my sabbatical from school and work. I get to enjoy my kids. Go biking and running. I am volunteering for education organizations, which does take a lot of time, but it’s from home and I can do the work whenever in the day I want.

Some days are harder than others – the days when I’m not busy are the hardest. Sometimes I get a pinch in my chest making me feel like I should to be doing something else – editing, reading, writing – working. I feel sad that I’m not working in a traditional job utilizing my PhD, but maybe I can be more outside a traditional job.

I do like the idea of making my own way, researching what I find to be needed, collaborating with colleagues and friends I choose, presenting the research found, and setting my own hours. I feel like I can make a larger impact that way.

It’ll just take time to get comfortable with ambiguity. With not having a consistent paycheck. With being my own cheerleader. I’m getting better at relaxing. I’m getting better at it all…slowly. And some days will still be tough.

I submitted a PechaKucha talk to an upcoming convention. The topic: Post-PhD Blues. Today is a good day. I can objectively talk about it, but, just a couple of days ago. Tuesday was a really bad day. Sometimes depression can feel inescapable, and now I have a small taste of what that is.

Graduation Celebration

A picture of all the lovely cards my friends and family gave me.

When my defense date was scheduled, Chris suggested having a graduation celebration at a local restaurant. I am not one to celebrate my accomplishments, but I thought, “I do miss my friends.” Being in a Ph.D. program is isolating. Finally now after five years, I get to rejoin society. 🙂 <smile>

Chris found this little family-owned restaurant near South City. It was so nice. The service was great. The food was great. They were so accommodating! If you’re in St. Louis, go eat there. It looks so unassuming from the outside, but it’s a wonderful place to eat or have a large party.

Thank you to everyone who was able to make it out that evening. Sorry some of you could not make it. We need to meet for a coffee date. It was wonderful to get to see all the new little someones in our group and enjoy a meal without worrying about how much time I was spending away from my research and writing.

I always am the worst at receiving gifts, because I never expect anything and feel guilt when receiving gifts. Maybe this stems from my shyness. I’m outgoing unless the attention is on me, the person. In spite of my shy awkwardness around gift receiving, some of my friends and family were so gracious to give me cards, a coffee mug, flowers, money gifts, Star Wars nerdery, and wine.

Because of my guilt I feel when receiving gifts (I know, weird, right?), I always want to make sure I’m very responsible in buying items with gift cards and money. I thought very hard over the past week-and-a-half about what would be good to buy with the money gifts.

First I thought books, but then I figured the local library has a great selection of books and eBooks, and my bookshelf space is already “inappropriately overstuffed.” (I’ll own that one.) So, no on books.

Previously, I purchased my graduation regalia with a money gift from my parents and the bank of moi. (This is lovingly known around the house as my Pokemon outfit. Mom is evolving.)

This gift I would buy needed to be something practical and really applicable for where this degree took me.

For the past five years, I have been using a hand-me-down desk chair from my parents.

A picture of the old faithful chair and poor Jack Skellington

This desk chair was purchased when my family bought a new home computer when I was 13 – it was 1995. Because the foam in the seat is now worn out and the bolts are now just under the fabric, I sit on a Jack Skellington pillow. Sorry, Jack.

Considering now I will be doing a lot of academic coaching, independent research, and writing, thus working from home, Chris suggested it was time for a new desk chair. I searched, and read, and debated. The Steelcase Gesture did have the best reviews everywhere I searched. But did I really want to drop that much on a chair? The last desk chair I purchased was in 2000 for $99. Bless that thing for lasting 11 years. And, arguably, this current chair has lived a healthy 21 years and it was more than $99 when my parents bought it. If this new chair lasts that long, it would only be 13 cents a day. Please understand, I am not used to spending money on myself.

After hearing my debates for the past week, and giving an unknown number of exasperated responses, Chris told me to “get over it.” Heeding my famous advice, last night I closed my eyes, and pushed the “Submit Order Now” button. My new desk chair will arrive Thursday. Appropriately, I ordered the chair in same blue as the velvet on my graduation regalia, signifying Education. It’ll help me take on the complexities of the state of education.

I am so fortunate to have such caring family and friends to help over the past few years, patiently ignore my absence, and help celebrate my accomplishments. Thank you.

If you want to come attend my hooding ceremony and watch me evolve into a Ph.D. graduate while in my Pokemon outfit, it’ll be the 18th of May, 2017.

Cookies, Candy, and Qualitative Research

Thursday, July 21 at 1 pm CT have my public defense of my dissertation: An exploration of the lived experiences of college students with disabilities (my dissertation abstract).

All are welcome to attend, or email me if you’d like the link to the live cast. If you come in person, you’ll be able to enjoy homemade cookies. Otherwise, you’ll have to BYOC.

An exploration of the lived experiences of college students with disabilities

Below is my dissertation abstract in its current form. Enjoy and please do let me know if you’d like a copy of the final draft!

This dissertation presents a phenomenological study of the experiences of students with disabilities during higher education. This study began due to the lack of literature available regarding the experiences of students with disabilities regarding their pursuit of higher education. The research focus grew from the enrollment rate inconsistencies between students with and without disabilities in higher education. The rate of enrollment of students with disabilities in higher education is significantly lower than the enrollment of students without disabilities. The reasons behind this are complex. It is affected by individual student’s choice to not disclose his or her disability, the transition preparation of the students with disabilities, and the experiences of students with disabilities at higher education institutions. Much of the literature focuses on data about students with disabilities, but little engages students with disabilities in the research.

A qualitative research design provided rich data. Data collected from individual semi-structured interviews was analyzed for themes and sub-themes. The interviews were correlated with observations and observer notes. Nine students with disabilities attending a Midwestern private higher education institution provided nearly nine hours of dialogue, observations, and notes to analyze. From this data, the following themes were extracted and listed here in order of strength, from least to greatest: identity (self-advocacy, self-worth), accommodations (academic life, support from others), social interaction, assumptions and stigma, and barriers. Specific observations or quotes were used to illustrate the existence of themes and sub-themes.

The illustrations developed from the data the student participants provided aided in designing the concluding arguments. The conclusion of the study invites administrators at the Midwestern higher education institution to examine the data analysis. Some of the student participants provided suggestions for improvement in the accommodation and support of students with disabilities. Additional suggestions for improvement were developed from the data. While the information provided from the student participants aided in appreciating the experiences of students with disabilities, more research is needed regarding the experiences of students with disabilities in higher education.

ACPA Experience

Whew! I’m home now from the 2014 ACPA Convention in Indianapolis and I’m exhausted. The past 4 days were packed with learning, making new connections, and catching up with old friends. What a great time we all had collaborating and sharing our progress and research on topics. I was fortunate enough to share my dissertation research with the ACPA community. I was overwhelmed by the attendance in my session and very appreciative of those choosing to spend time in my session. Overall we had a positive conversation about making students with disabilities feel more welcome on our campuses.

Inside Higher Ed ran an article on the session, and while I don’t agree with the hook they used:


it is good to get the information out and more people in on the conversation.

In the session I asked fellow student affairs folks to consider some action items to tackle when they got to their home campus. I am invigorated by what the people plan to do!

Also, at the closing session today, I received some very poignant words from Brené Brown:

If you are not in the arena and also getting your ass kicked, I am not open to your feedback.

If someone else is in the game with you, listen and appreciate what they have to say, good and bad. If they’re not contributing to the knowledge at large, challenge them to step up to contribute, but ultimately appreciate the risk you took in sharing knowledge and dismiss their feedback.

I encourage you all to get out there, research, tackle those complex situations and always keep Brené’s wise words in minds.

View my presentation from the ACPA Convention below or download ACPA 2014 Presentation Jackie Koerner in pdf.

The Big Day

I’m terribly excited about my presentation in about an hour. I am not nervous at all – only very excited to share this information I have found with others in hopes they will be able to change the outcome for students with disabilities on their respective campuses. I cannot wait for the whole dissertation to be finished so I can share it with the whole world! Well, the part of the world willing to read it.

Hello ACPA

Hello all from ACPA! I have neglected my site for the most part due to dissertation (well, except when snapping pics of the cats while procrastinating on said dissertation). I’m just going to recap some of the energy from the first day:

Good discussion about being Flawsome.
Take it in stride and own up to your mistakes. It’s better in the end, and frankly people like you better if you’re ok with being human.

Met lots of fun people at CelebrACPA.
Music was a bit loud for networking, but we worked it out. 🙂 excited to be more involved with my interest areas and MoCPA.

Safe Spaces or Zones for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders
These spaces are devoid of harsh environmental stimuli (fluorescent lighting, loud noises, etc.) and complete with a staff member trained on how to assist students who might need them if they are over stimulated or just overwhelmed by something on campus. Great retreat spaces for students to process the experience they just had.

Masculinity and Disability
Great discussion not only about masculinity and disability but about many things: being human, accepting of others and their mistakes, appreciating people for moving in a different path than we would choose. Finally, discussing the common practice of “removing” people with disability from gender.

Now, I’m off to a coffee and to check out my room for my presentation tomorrow! If you’re here, come to Marriott Indiana G at 10:30 April 1. Students with Disabilities Persisting Through Higher Education: Their Perspective.


For the past 2 months, I have been struggling with my dissertation.  I write it, love it, hate it, redo it, assume I need to read some more. Rinse. Repeat.  Usually writing comes easily to me, but this is not just any paper, this is huge.

Some things that are helping me get over the perfectionism:

Reference first.  Before going off on a fact finding tangent, stop and take down the reference.  It’s easier to do it now than to get called out by the Ph.D. Candidacy Advisor later right at the finish line.  I personally use Scrivener to keep my references organized, but others I know use End Note and the like.

Write every day. Ninety minutes should be the goal per day of solid writing time.  During this, I just write.  I am a perfectionist and all of a sudden much more so with this dissertation.  Let the sentences and words fall, rearrange and replace later.  This process gave me an introduction I’m pretty happy with.

Be the scholar.  This I think is the biggest thing for me.  A faculty member told me nothing can be in my own words in a dissertation.  The writing bootcamp instructor told me this is not completely true, and I have to consider this dissertation as my piece.  I am driving.  I am the scholar! (maybe.)

Save drafts.  Maybe you get excited about something and decide to go a different direction.  The next day, you come to your senses and think, “Omigod – whatdidIdo?!”  Save everything.  I don’t keep a daily save, but if I decide a paragraph has got to go, or even a sentence I love that just may not fit anymore, I slip it into another document called “Dissertation Dump” so it’s not lost forever if I have an impulse edit.

For those of you writing, or just watching me go though this experience, I hope this helps.