Who Said PhD Theses Need to Gather Dust? – DrZhana

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Who Said PhD Theses Need to Gather Dust?

phd comics motivationVirtually every grad student in the US is familiar with this sad – but painfully-close-to-the-truth – graph. One of the most devastating portions of that graph for me was always the part about realizing how many (few) people will ever read your dissertation that you spent six (or more) years of your life on. I mean, you’ve identified a problem or gap in the knowledge that you feel very passionate about (in my case, does casual sex negatively affect mental health?); you spent several long years researching, writing, reading, collecting data, analyzing data; you write this masterpiece that addresses that problem and fills the gap in the knowledge; and then – nothing? No one gets to hear about that, no change happens because of that – in your academic field or the real world, it was all in vain?!

So when I realized my department at Cornell University offered a “3-paper option” (writing three published or publishable academic journal articles on the same topic) instead of one book-long thesis, I didn’t think twice. Academic articles are still not read by thousands of people, but at least it’s more than the three people on your committee, after which it is destined to collect dust in the library basement.

And that’s what I did – I wrote three papers on the longitudinal relationship between casual sex and wellbeing, and tied them together with a common Introduction and a common Discussion. The added work I did above and beyond the paper-writing itself (writing the Intro & Discussion) took less than a week. On the day I defended my dissertation, one of my three dissertation papers was already published in an academic journal, a second one had received a revise-and-resubmit from a journal, and a third one had just been submitted to a journal. Seven months later, all three have been published. Now at least my colleagues will have a chance to read my work, and incorporate the knowledge I’ve created in their future studies, and thus my work has a chance to live on and enact some sort of change in the field, however small. That’s more than most grad students can hope for.

But it doesn’t have to stop there.

Yesterday, my latest published study (dissertation paper #3) was written up by Ryan Jacobs, a journalist at the Pacific Standard. The piece, Casual Sex Is Actually Excellent for You, If You Love Casual Sex, summarized the (fairly complicated) science remarkably well and restored my faith in journalists’ ability to comprehend science. It also made it to the front page of Reddit for almost 24 hours, twice (once through a post initially submitted to the /r/science subreddit, and once through the /r/sex subreddit)! For those not familiar with Reddit, it’s, well, “the front page of the Internet,” a link aggregation site with a huge readership (over a billion page views every month) and thousands of topic areas (called subreddits). I don’t know how many people actually read the piece (I don’t have access to the Pacific Standard views), but I’m assuming it’s A LOT.

And then, on that same day, another one of my studies (dissertation paper #1) made it into this Cracked.com (a humor website, with over 300 million monthly page views) piece: 5 ‘Deviant’ Sex Acts That Science Says Are Good For You, with casual sex being considered one of those ‘deviant’ acts, of course. (This writer didn’t actually read the original study, but read the Psych Today post I had written about it a few months ago.) I don’t read Cracked.com, but apparently a lot of people do, because as of now, the piece has 23,000 Facebook likes, 300 Tweets, and 200 Google+ shares.

(Dissertation paper #2 was a more obscure methodological piece with no catchy take-home message, so I don’t expect anyone, myself included, writing about that one in the popular media.)

This really puts a big smile on my face. Tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people “read” my dissertation, or at least were exposed to the key new knowledge it created: that casual sex is a good thing for those who desire it, approve of it, and do it for the right reasons, and a bad thing for those who don’t want it, disapprove of it, and do it for the wrong reasons. How much people will learn from this and make positive changes in their lives is out of my control, but at least they have the information now to do with it whatever they please. My six (seven?) years of work were not in vain.

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