As I head to the APHA meeting in Atlanta in November…

There have been times, especially lately, that I start to write one post and end up writing an entirely different post.

I originally conceived this post to be a simple repository for a set of documents related to my previous career. The impetus for this was two oral presentations I will be delivering in Atlanta on November 7 and 8, 2017.

As I began to explain why I was posting these documents, however, I found myself plummeting down a rabbit hole, describing a series of unpleasant interactions I had with my doctoral committee a few months after I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation in epidemiology.

It made sense to me at the time (doesn’t it always?), but it soon dawned on me that the tone of that section was…off, and that this is simply not the venue to rehash these private interactions, even as I am still processing them.

But once I stepped back (metaphorically, as I was sitting down at the time), I understood more clearly what I was trying to say.

Let me start at the beginning, if you will just bear with me…

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While writing my doctoral dissertation, the members of my doctoral committee and I agreed in principle that after my defense we would work together to publish as many as three peer-reviewed journal articles from it (publication was not a graduation requirement).

From my perspective—a 48-year-old married father of two who was 18 years into career as a health-related data analyst/project manager—publication was more “cherry on top” than  necessity, and perhaps also a courtesy to the members of my doctoral committee and other Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) personnel to whom I felt grateful.

I defended my dissertation on December 16, 2014. I was not actually in dark shadows, nor was there a bottle of champagne in front of me, but I love this noir-tinted photograph, and it gives you the flavor of that happy day.

IMG_1458

This was my moment of vindication, the culmination of a journey I had started 26 years earlier. In September 1989, I enrolled in a doctoral program in government at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). Six years later, I resigned from that program with no degree to show for my time there[1]. But just 15 months later I landed the data analyst gig with a Boston non-profit specializing in substance use and abuse that launched my career. Nine years after that, following a four-year sojourn in Philadelphia, I was back in Boston, enrolling in the BUSPH biostatistics master’s degree program. Four years later, I enrolled in their doctoral program in epidemiology.

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I have written elsewhere about the deliberations that led me to walk away from that analytic career towards a writing career (although this blog still allows me to analyze data and write about my findings). That transition “officially” occurred in late June 2017.

However, in February 2017, before I made the career-change leap, I was still actively pursuing positions related to my doctoral studies (assessing the health impact of the built environment, as I detail here).

A few months earlier, I had renewed my long-lapsed membership in the American Public Health Association (APHA); that is how I knew that they would be holding their Annual Meeting & Expo (Meeting) in Atlanta, Georgia November 4-8, 2017. I had delivered work-related talks at their 2001, 2002 and 2003 Meetings, and I had presented a poster at their 2004 Meeting, but I had not attended a Meeting since 2006.

Given that this year’s APHA Meeting theme is “Creating the Healthiest Nation: Climate Changes Health,” it appeared to be a perfect opportunity to advance the job search ball down the field. I thus submitted three abstracts, one for each of my three doctoral dissertation studies. To my surprise, two of them were accepted for oral presentation[2]. And as Meatloaf once sang, “two out of three ain’t bad.”

A few weeks ago, I began to pare the hour-plus-long PowerPoint presentation I had delivered at my doctoral defense down to two 12-minute-long talks. This meant  leaving out many interesting “sensitivity” analyses, including estimates of what my incident rate (IRR) and risk ratios (RR) would have been without exposure or outcome misclassification.

(For a rough translation of that last bit, please see here.)

Realizing how much important detail I was forced to remove from these PowerPoint presentations, I hit upon the idea of making all of the background materials (i.e., my actual dissertation and the PowerPoint defense presentation) publicly available.

And thus you find here:

  1. A PDF of the full text of my doctoral dissertation—Measures of Neighborhood Walkability and Their Association with Diabetes and Depressive Symptoms in Black Women—minus the Acknowledgments (to protect privacy) and CV[3].

Berger Doctoral Dissertation Dec 2014

  1. The PowerPoint presentation I delivered in defense of my dissertation (excluding the “thank you” slides). The last slide was originally this short clip showing the 10th Doctor towards the end of the 2005 episode “The Christmas Invasion.”

Berger Doctoral Defense 2014

  1. The PowerPoint presentations I will be delivering at the APHA Meeting (although not until after I have presented them on November 7 and November 8).

Matthew Berger Measurement Talk 11-7-2017

Matthew Berger Depression Talk 11-8-2017

But this begs a question.

Why haven’t I already published these studies in peer-reviewed epidemiology journals? Isn’t that the usual procedure?

And here we find the rabbit hole I found myself hurtling down as I wrote an earlier draft of this post.

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A few months after my successful defense (and once the final logistical requirements had been completed), I received an e-mail from a committee member asking, in effect, where the drafts of my articles were.

Technically, my doctoral dissertation was on track to be published in the ProQuest Dissertation and Theses Global database, where it currently resides.

That is not the same, however, as advancing science through a peer-reviewed publication process; I understood (and had a very high regard for) that then, and I still do now.

But in the spring of 2015, I was still wicked burned out from completing the doctorate itself (with all that had preceded it) while working full time and helping to raise a young family.

I also had higher priorities in my life at that time. My grant-funded Data Manager position was ending in June 2015, and I needed to a) complete the data analysis and final report for that project and b) search for a new gig (or so I thought at the time). My eldest daughter had her tonsils removed and needed a lot of parental TLC. And so forth.

In short, while I was perfectly happy to draft peer-reviewed journal articles from my three dissertation studies, I was not able to do so at that time.

Cutting right to the chase, the member of my doctoral committee and I engaged in an increasingly unpleasant e-mail exchange which ultimately ended in December 2015, when they decided no longer to pursue publication. The details of that exchange are irrelevant.

It is only now, however, that I understand what was really happening then.

For example, as I concluded my Data Analyst requirements, I was actively discussing a related, higher-level position with a different organization. Something kept holding me back, however, and I kept offering (sensible to me at the time) objections. I clearly never accepted that position.

Over the next two-plus years, as I applied to the few relevant positions I could find (58, although some of them were re-postings), my heart was simply never in the search. When I earned in-person interviews, I attended them with what you might call “subdued enthusiasm.” There was always some reason why this position was not quite right…even the last one, in March 2017, that seemed perfect when I first applied.

Even when I was twice offered exciting adjunct teaching positions (I would love to teach again), I ultimately talked myself out of both of them.

Do you see a pattern here?

What I have come to understand as I prepare for APHA, leading me to “publish” my doctoral dissertation here, is that my decision to change careers did not happen a few months ago. It happened, ironically, almost as soon as I walked out of that small meeting room on Albany Street in Boston on December 16, 2014.

In the perceived necessity to find a new position in my then-current career, supplemented with my newly-minted PhD, I could not comprehend, or accept, or grasp, that decision for another two-and-a-half years.

And so this post is not about reliving my unsettling communications with the members of my doctoral committee. It is about squaring a circle, or closing a loop, or whatever “completion” metaphor you prefer.

When I submitted those three abstracts to APHA in February, I was filled with optimism that the November Meeting in Atlanta would be just the place to rekindle my health-related data analysis spark, and where I would joyously engage in the networking necessary to land my next (first?) epidemiology-related position.

It turns out that it will actually be the last hurrah, the period at the end of a nearly 21-year-long sentence.

If you attend the APHA conference next week, I would be thrilled to have you listen to either or both of my presentations.

Otherwise….until next time…

[1] Upon completing my epidemiology doctorate, I finally (and successfully) applied to Harvard GSAS for the Master’s Degree I had earned before resigning.

[2] The incident diabetes study was not accepted.

[3] And, as far as I am concerned, this is tantamount to publication. Consider this passage from the BUSPH Epidemiology Doctoral Program Guidelines (2007, pg. 8): The research…must meet the current standards of publication quality in refereed journals such as American Journal of Epidemiology, American Journal of Public Health, Annals of Epidemiology, Epidemiology, International Journal of Epidemiology, Journal of the American Medical Association, and New England Journal of Medicine. It is understood that the thesis papers may be longer and have more tables and figures than permitted in published papers. Basically, once the members of my doctoral committee signed off on my doctoral dissertation, they were admitting that it already met those standards. Ergo

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