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San Diego Union Tribune Column

O doctorate! Many strive, few attain it

MARY CURRAN-DOWNEY
10-Dec-1998 Thursday

Boy, this sure is a busy time of year, huh? What with the shopping and pageants and shopping and decorating and partying and shopping and oh, yeah -- while you're at it, why not just polish off the last 132 pages of your doctoral dissertation before the new year?

Are you crazy?

No, you're probably just an ABD -- All But Dissertation -- doctoral candidate.  And chances are you may also be a part- or full-time employee, a parent and a baby boomer. Welcome to the late '90s.

"More and more, people are getting their doctorates later in life rather than right out of college," says Sally Jensen, a personal coach from Encinitas and the self-described "Dissertation Doctor ®."

"Now, many are middle-aged, in the midst of a career change, and many are women who are juggling many roles." If this is juggling, remind me never to join the circus.

The National Center for Education Statistics bears out Jensen's perception. "Between 1989 and 1999, the number of men enrolled rose 5 percent, while the number of women increased by 13 percent."

But being in graduate school and making it all the way through the classes, the exams and the defense of the dissertation is a -- take your pick -- marathon, wasteland, jungle, rat race. More than half the people who start the process never finish, says Jensen, who has developed a program she calls Safe Passage to help people make it through the obstacle course.

Jensen speaks from personal and professional experience. She holds a doctorate in educational psychology from UC Santa Barbara and worked with doctoral candidates going through the process at San Diego's United States International University.

She found she liked working with people who were trying to reach what, for some, had become an almost impossible goal.

"When I started the work with doctoral candidates, I saw so many stress-related ailments, and I found personally that the stress and the pain isn't necessary. People don't complete the process because of a lack of being integrated into any sort of structure. Traditionally, universities haven't cared about these people, and the candidates disappear in the cracks."

Ann Wachtler of Solana Beach says she's lucky, she has a good advisor that mentored her along the way. But Jensen has provided another kind of service that has been just as important to the soon-to-be psychologist.

"Basically, I needed someone to mother me through my dissertation," she says. "It requires you to face up to your demons, you need somebody who's been through the process. . . and sometimes you need somebody to let your hair down with that you don't have to worry about politically how this will effect your dissertation. My adviser is a wonderful person, but with Sally I can rant and rave -- and get good advice."

Ann will be finished in May, and considers herself at the "bitter end."  It's been a long process (she started in 1996 for the second time) but one she believes Jensen has made a lot more livable.

Coaching can be costly -- from $400 a month for weekly consultations and other services, like a support group via telephone.

But then again, says Jensen, spending years getting a doctorate, or working for years and not getting it, can be pretty pricey, too.


MARY CURRAN-DOWNEY can be reached at (760) 752-6739 or by e-mail: mary.curran-downey@uniontrib.com


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