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What Do You Do When You Are Waiting?

Putting "IRB limbo" to good use.

June 11, 2015
 

Wendy Robinson is a PhD candidate in higher education at Iowa State University. You can find her on Twitter @wendyrmonkey.

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My daughter is three, and Daniel Tiger is her life coach.

For those of you who may not have the entire PBS Kids lineup memorized like I do, Daniel Tiger is the animated spin-off of the beloved Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and it uses a mixture of stories and songs to teach the toddler crowd a variety of lessons, including how to regulate their emotions and handle situations like having to go to the doctor or learn how to use the potty.

So, how exactly does this relate to grad school?

Well, one of her favorite episodes talks about how to survive the toddler torture of having to wait for something. Daniel and his friend have to wait at a restaurant and end up singing a little song about how when you wait you can “play, sing, or imagine anything!”

I found myself humming that little ditty several times in the nine weeks I spent waiting for institutional review board (IRB) clearance this spring.

In my program, you have to complete a capstone project, which requires IRB approval, prior to getting approved to begin your dissertation research. When I worked on my capstone, I submitted a non-exempt application, as I was dealing with a vulnerable population. The prep time for submitting the application was somewhat lengthy, but I happened to submit my application during their down period and got my approval back in about two weeks. This probably gave me a false sense of how fast the process could go, and I was unprepared for a lengthy wait for approval when I submitted my dissertation plans back in February, especially because my dissertation plans don’t include any controversial areas or vulnerable populations.

Because I wasn’t expecting the long wait, I didn’t have a plan for what I’d do while I was waiting for approval. While Daniel Tiger might approve, my advisor probably wouldn’t, as I ended up using my wait time to play. I read books for fun and worked on my non-academic writing for several freelance assignments. I planted my first garden and spent many lazy afternoons sleeping in my hammock with a fat magazine on my chest.

It was awesome, until it wasn’t.

The thing about being in the dissertation phase is that there is something to be said for momentum. In the time that I was waiting for IRB approval, I could have been working on my lit review or researching my theoretical framework or even working to convert my capstone project into a journal article. But I didn’t do any of those things, and now that I finally have my IRB approval, I’m finding it hard to get back into the research groove. After not looking at my research for over two months, it feels a little foreign to me now.

I’m now several months behind my self-imposed dissertation schedule and I’m having a hard time giving up the fun and extra time my waiting period allowed me to have. I’ve scheduled myself a writing day for later this week so I can spend a full day getting reacquainted with my dissertation, so I think I’ll be able to get back on track.  However, with the wisdom of hindsight, here is what I wish I would have done while I was waiting:

  • Devoted at least 5-8 hours a week to continuing work on my literature review.

  • Completed a draft of a journal article based on prior research. Not only would two months have been plenty of time to complete this, it would have helped keep my academic writing skills sharp.

  • Kept attending a writing group, both for the accountability and also to use the time to talk about and reflect on my dissertation topic.

Though it was fun to take the Daniel Tiger approach to waiting, there is a reason he doesn’t have a PhD: you can’t play and sing your way to a completed dissertation.

What do you do while you are in IRB limbo or forced to wait for other reasons?

[Image from Flickr user Teegardin, used under a Creative Commons license.]

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