All But Done: Doctoral journey enters new phase

I’m all but done. 

As promised, the end of May marked the completion of my doctoral coursework. This puts me within spitting distance of completing my Ph.D. in Leadership Communication at Kansas State University.

It’s been a journey, and now I’m embarking upon what is arguably the most interesting leg — the dissertation phase. 

To get to this point, though, I had to face numerous trials and tribulations.

Completing the coursework was an important step, and my final slate of courses was nothing to sneeze at. They were challenging, but they also taught me a lot.

In particular, two of the classes stood out. One was “Social Science Research Methods for Public Problem Solving,” and the other was “Media and Community Engagement.” 

Both of these courses expanded my knowledge of the subject matter and exposed me to new and exciting aspects of research. 

For example, in “Social Science Research Methods for Public Problem Solving,” I learned about Thematic Analysis (TA) as a research method. The professor teaching the class, Dr. Greg Paul, mentioned TA in passing during one class meeting. It was something I wasn’t familiar with, but it sounded interesting. That lead me on a scavenger hunt that eventually turned up several academic journal articles and a few books on the subject. 

I became quite intrigued and decided to use the method for my class research project. I thoroughly enjoyed using it, and I hope to be able to even get my article published if I can find a home for it. 

That’s the most exciting outcome of the course, actually. I found a new research method to add to my arsenal and might have a publishable piece. Anytime I leave a class with something I can use outside the confines of the coursework, I feel like the effort was worth it.

This is why the “Media and Community Engagement” course also stood out.

Besides getting to dive deeper into my passion area of community media, the class afforded me the opportunity to gain in-depth knowledge about civic or public journalism, which has also become an area of intense interest for me.

The idea of civic or public journalism was pioneered in the early 1990s by New York University’s Jay Rosen (who writes the PressThink blog) and former Wichita Eagle editor W. Davis “Buzz” Merritt, Jr

As the Pew Center for Civic Journalism argued, civic or public journalism “is a belief that journalism has an obligation to public life – an obligation that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading lots of facts. The way we do our journalism affects the way public life goes. Journalism can help empower a community or it can help disable it.”

Building upon that idea, the Public Journalism Network’s charter explained, “We believe journalism and democracy work best when news, information and ideas flow freely; when news fairly portrays the full range and variety of life and culture of all communities; when public deliberation is encouraged and amplified; and when news helps people function as political actors and not just as political consumers [. . .] We believe democracy benefits when journalists listen to the people [. . .] We believe the best journalism helps people see the world as a whole and helps them take responsibility for what they see.”

It’s a fascinating topic in media studies, and I think it still has value, especially in today’s polarized and divided world. Even though the emphasis on this form of journalism went out of fashion and evolved into other concepts like solutions journalism or engaged journalism, its core tenants still seem applicable.

Those concepts include, according to “The Roots of Civic Journalism: Darwin, Dewey, and Mead” by David K. Perry, the following: 

  • “Attempting to situate newspapers and journalists as active participants in community life, rather than as detached spectators.”
  • “Making a newspaper a forum for discussion of community issues.”
  • “Favoring the issues, events and problems important to ordinary people.”
  • “Considering public opinion through the process of discussion and debate among members of a community.”
  • “Attempting to use journalism to enhance social capital.”

With such ideas in mind, the final project for the “Media and Community Engagement” course, which was led by Dr. Sam C. Mwangi, required students to do something that would benefit community engagement via the media. Leaning on the ideas of civic or public journalism, I elected to develop a civic media tool and prototype. 

The result was a platform and method for cultivating engagement, specifically among student journalists at colleges and universities across the state of Kansas. 

Dr. Mwangi said I could probably get funding to take my project out of the theoretical realm and try implementing it. 

That’s exciting, and I hope to work with him to find a way to make that a reality because I think my idea could truly benefit student media. Kansas would be the experiment, but if it went well, the framework could be rolled out in other states as well.

I don’t want to share too many details now in case I can get it off the ground, but if and when I do, I will be shouting it from the rooftops.

Of course, creating articles or projects that I found intensely rewarding and that helped me complete the required coursework for my degree is only half of the equation to being all but done.

I also had to propose and pass my preliminary or qualifying exam.

The preliminary exam is an important milestone in the doctoral journey. Through the process, a student is given the opportunity to demonstrate what he or she knows within the discipline being studied, and passing the exam opens the door for the next steps to be taken.

According to the K-State Graduate School Handbook, such exams “are designed to test the student’s breadth and depth of knowledge in the proposed field of specialization, as well as the student’s ability to explore problems on the boundaries of knowledge. Satisfactory performance in the examination is an indication that the student is prepared to perform independent work toward the doctoral degree and results in the student being classified as a doctoral candidate upon affirmative recommendation by the supervisory committee.”

Traditionally, the preliminary exam consists of a series of questions a student must answer in essay form. Then the questions are graded or judged by the student’s committee. If all the members, or at least a majority, deep the responses to be satisfactory, then the student gets to orally defend his or her answers. This portion consists of answering questions posed by the committee, and it is followed by the committee deliberating and leveling a final judgment regarding whether or not the student is ready to go onto the next phase.

My committee consisted of my chair, Dr. Jacob Groshek, and two other members, which included Dr. Timothy Shaffer and Dr. Mwangi.

For my preliminary exam and with the blessing of my committee, I didn’t follow this traditional approach exactly. That’s because the Leadership Communication program offered different ways to complete the process. 

Specifically, the program offered three exam options:

  • Questions: Answer theory, method, and application questions in writing
  • Demonstration: Convene/facilitate a group process & complete a written justification
  • Product: Create a product (e.g. digital artifact, grant application, or journal article) & complete a written justification

The questions option is the traditional option. The demonstration option seems to be more aligned with the program’s goals of fostering community-engaged scholarship. The production option, which is the option I chose, seemed particularly unique and useful because it entailed creating something that could be useful moving forward.

As such, I elected to write a journal article. My committee approved my article focus, and I did the work. I even submitted it to a scholarly journal to get it published, but getting published was not required to pass the preliminary exam process. Simply doing the work was.

That’s good because my article was rejected. I was disappointed, but I received some good feedback from the reviewers. Also, it taught me a lot about the academic publishing process, which will be beneficial for my career as a researcher.

After the article, I answered questions from my committee members, and then they deliberated. When I was brought back into the room, they revealed that I had passed.

I was relieved.

Going into the preliminary exam process, I stressed myself out. I felt that if I screwed up this part, the two years I had spent doing the coursework would have been a waste of time. Thankfully, I came through with the green light to continue into the dissertation phase.

That means I am ABD. Jokingly, people say that means I am “all but done.” However, ABD actually means, “All But Dissertation.” This isn’t an official designation as it carries no real-world weight. It isn’t a degree, and a person isn’t a doctor if he or she is ABD. 

Instead, this simply indicates that I have completed all the required coursework except for writing and defending my dissertation. 

However, after passing my preliminary exam, I am officially designated as a doctoral candidate.

That feels pretty awesome, and it demonstrates how close I am to achieving my goal of earning my Ph.D.

To check off one more box, though, I needed to fill out my committee and bring on a fourth member. Thankfully, Dr. Raluca Cozma agreed to come on board for the final push toward earning my degree.

Of course, that leaves one primary task to accomplish.

As I’ve said repeatedly, now I need to do my dissertation, which is a book-length research paper written after conducting original research. 

I still haven’t nailed down my specific topic yet, but I have a handful of ideas that I’ve started to sketch out. I’m pretty excited about a few of the ideas, so I hope one of them works out. I will be working closely with Dr. Groshek to finalize the topic in the coming days so I can get started.

In short, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I just need to keep my foot on the gas and continue down the highway.

I’m not naive, though. The final leg of this journey will be challenging. 

No longer will I have the structure of weekly class meetings to keep me on track. I will have to keep myself organized and headed in the right direction. Of course, without the coursework, I won’t have to spend countless hours reading and completing assignments. If I can use that same amount of time normally spent on homework to work on my dissertation, I think I will be in good shape. 

Regardless, I am thankful for the courses I’ve taken and excited for this next phase of the journey, and I’m looking forward to experiencing it, even if it induces incredible amounts of stress and frustration.

After all, I’m all but done. I might as well keep going and see it through.

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About toddvogts 794 Articles
My name is Todd Vogts. I am an assistant professor of media. I like the color green, riding my motorcycle, and being with my family and friends. A good book is a perfect companion for me any time, and I'm a published author and journalist. Visit my website at www.toddvogts.com and follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/toddvogts.