Charlene Conlin and Carleen Phelps Complete a Collaborative Doctoral Dissertation on Males and Females Successfully Managing Type 2 Diabetes through Lifestyle Change

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Carrie Phelps and Char Conlin at Saybrook University Graduation


Charlene Conlin and Carleen Phelps have just completed a collaborative dissertation as part of their doctoral studies in the Saybrook University School of Mind-Body Medicine.  This was the first collaborative dissertation in the School of Mind-Body Medicine.

Collaborative work is abundant in the publication of academic research papers, especially in the healthcare sector, where meaningful research studies frequently require coordination among several disciplines and settings. Nevertheless, collaboration is rare in the doctoral dissertation process. One Saybrook collaborative dissertation was completed by two psychology students, Leila Kozak and Dorothy Mandel, within Integrative Health Studies in 2006, but until now none had taken place within the School of Mind-Body Medicine

Charlene Conlin and Carleen Phelps originally formed a friendship and academic bond when they met at the first Residential Conference in their PhD program. With Char’s extensive business background and Carrie’s expertise in health promotion—along with their combined interest and education in Mind-Body Medicine and healthcare systems—the pair began to envision and discuss an integrative and multi-disciplinary approach to healthcare that was centered on real-world application with sustainable results. They took on the synergistic mantra of “one plus one equals three” (the whole is greater than the sum of the parts) as they effectively shared insights, brainstormed ideas, debated, jointly sharpened perspectives, and co-authored papers, which ultimately led to their collaboration on the dissertation. 

Char and Carrie concluded that individual research methods would not be as effective in conducting the study they envisioned: a qualitative study of the “lived experience” of men and women diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, who had successfully sustained lifestyle change and positive health outcomes. They hoped to identify themes and patterns in the experience of these individuals, which might be valuable for health professionals and other patients living with diabetes.

Char and Carrie designed and conducted a comprehensive, in-depth phenomenological dissertation, including shared review of the extensive research literature on Type 2 diabetes and lifestyle change, and shared formulation of a research design. They divided the participants by gender.  Char conducted the qualitative interviews and the phenomenological data analysis on the males and Carrie on the females.

Throughout the collaborative dissertation process Carrie and Char made explicit their process of joint discovery, idea generation, methodology conceptualization, and the authorship of the collaborative aspects of their dissertations. Their two dissertations included identical research questions, a co-authored literature review, and a shared research methodology. The dissertation also included individual presentation and analysis of the data (separated by gender) and significant individual discussion of the themes identified in the interview data, resulting in two separate dissertation documents. After each student identified themes in the participants by gender, and formulated a presentation and discussion of these themes, they then jointly conducted a cross-gender analysis. They highlighted both common themes and differences in male and female participants, integrating their separate findings.

Char and Carrie have reflected on this partnership in their scholarly collaborative dissertations, and identified several benefits: They believe that partnering made possible (a) “a research multiplier effect,” (b) higher quality research, (c) greater theoretical generalizability, and (d) the potential for setting standards and best practices for future research. In sum, the pair produced two original dissertations as well as a body of combined work, which stands as its own unique scholarly contribution to new research.

As a final tribute to the collaborative dissertation process, the two student-researchers have communicated their own thoughts on what they call collaborative well-being. The phrase collaborative well-being is meant to represent the importance of the partnership dynamics that exist between two individuals when engaged in collaborative research. The collaborative dissertation journey is indeed an intellectual endeavor; however, it is just as much an emotional and spiritual partnership between the two individuals.

Rather than attempting to prescribe a specific method for the potential partners on the collaborative dissertation journey, the student-researchers felt it more important to communicate some of the many traits and attributes necessary for a successful collaborative well-being journey. The traits and attributes of a successful collaborative well-being journey include:

Mutual agreement on what the researchers intend for their dissertation, both in process and in outcome.
Trust that each partner can tolerate ambiguity, opposite opinions, third parties, and chaos.
Open communication; even if the subject is not easy to discuss.
Grace for each partner; knowing each person will make mistakes.
Determination and drive as well at the ability to lean on each other when times get tough (and times will get tough).
Ego minimization when necessary to achieve the greater good.
Understanding and patience with personality differences and with each partner’s academic strengths and weaknesses.
Organization in the form of intentions, goals, and timelines.
Resiliency in the form of drive to keep going until both get to the finish line.
Acknowledgment of the positive qualities and contributions of the other.
And finally, appreciation of, and reliance for the power of partnership.

There are many advantages to conducting a collaborative dissertation. The collaborative dissertation process is a journey of intellect, but it also requires emotional and spiritual perseverance. It is important for the collaborative dissertation partners to nurture the human dynamics of the process as well as the intellectual journey. Charlene Conlin and Carrie Phelps were able to create a “one plus one equals three” process in their research. They have now formed a collaborative business partnership as well, jointly operating a consulting firm named Intrinsic Connection: Real Change from the Inside Out. They expressed well-wishes to any students who undertake similar collaborative dissertation research.

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