As part of the Provost’s Global Research Initiatives program, doctoral students in any discipline and in the advanced stages of dissertation writing are eligible to apply to summer intensive dissertation-writing workshops held at the Berlin, London, Paris and Washington, D.C. institutes. Each site hosts an average of six doctoral students for a period of six weeks. Students from all fields and disciplines are welcome to apply to these workshops. Today we are in conversation with Marybec Griffin-Tomas, who participated in the program last summer in Paris. In addition to her academic focus described below, Marybec has also worked at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in the areas of HIV/AIDS policy and program design as well as helping to evaluate the quality of sexual health services and contraceptive coverage in NYC.
Can you tell me about your school affiliation, field, and focus of your dissertation?
I am a double graduate of NYU’s College of Global Public Health. I will complete my PhD this May in the field of socio-behaviourial health and completed a MPH previously. My research focuses on healthcare access among LGBTQ young adults and my dissertation focuses on health care access among adult gay men aged 18 – 29 in New York City.
How did you get interested in this topic?
I have had a long-standing interest in sexual health issues. I am a child of the 80s and I watched the HIV epidemic unfold on television at an impressionable age, my interests are now focused on healthcare access among LGBTQ young people. With the HIV epidemic in the 1980s, we witnessed people being denied access to basic health services because of stigma and discrimination based on identity. Seeing people being categorically denied care because of who they were or who they had sex with expanded my research interests out to the broader questions of access for the LGBTQ community and contraceptive access.
How did you hear about the GRI Dissertation Writer’s Program and why did you decide to apply?
I first heard about the Dissertation Writer’s Program through promotional emails a few years before I was eligible to apply. So I always had the idea in the back of my mind that I would do it the summer between my third and fourth years.
I found the program appealing because of the opportunity it provided to simply be away and have protected time just to write. In the hustle of my daily life – with work, research hours, teaching, etc. – finding time to work on my dissertation was challenging. The idea of being away from it all – from my personal life, work, school commitments – was attractive. I was also drawn to the community aspect of the program. I welcomed the opportunity to meet new people going through the same process I was and at the same stage, trying to finish their dissertations, but in different disciplines. I also liked the idea of being able to get regular feedback on my writing and being held accountable for making progress.
What was your experience with the GRI Dissertation Writer’s Program?
My experience was really positive and productive. It was a comprehensively structured program and a very supportive environment. I made deep and quick friendships, even with students from very different disciplines. For example, my office mate is pursuing a PhD in musicology and focusing on feminist representation in popular music. Although we share some common interests, our academic pursuits are not at all related. We would nonetheless often bounce ideas around together or, if one of us was stuck, take moments together to relax or recharge.
The leader of the Paris GRI program, Phillip Usher, is simply an amazing person and was a wonderful resource for us all. His research is in French culture, so his support was not discipline-focused. He really helped us to settle into the disciplined practice of writing – setting a schedule, developing a routine, and just getting the writing done.
Phillip also held special one-hour work groups in addition to the scheduled ones. These were focused on topics of interest to the students, such as getting an academic job. He provided advice on my cv, my cover letter, and the application process. Without his support and insights, I would not have started looking when I did and not be where I am now. He was really responsive to student needs and I appreciated that.
I had written two chapters of my dissertation before going to Paris and wrote the last three chapters while there. With this protected time to write and the resources of through the program, I not only became a better writer and finished my dissertation, but also received amazing career support that I could not have gotten elsewhere.
I understand that you were in Paris. Why did you choose to be there?
The first reason is technical. I speak enough French that I knew I knew I could get by, but I also did not know anyone in Paris. So it would be isolating but familiar. If I had gone to DC, I would not have been able to isolate myself because I have friends there and it is too close to NY. I worried that could be distracted as an English speaker in London. And that without German, I would get lost in Berlin.
The second reason is more romantic. I feel that Paris is where my soul lives. I am my happiest and at my best there.
Was there anything particularly beneficial about being abroad?
I was able to be productive. I was away from everybody, my family, friends, and regular life, so I could really focus. The six-hour time difference with New York was unexpectedly helpful. By the time NY was waking up and I started receiving text messages from my mother, it was my afternoon and I had already put in a solid morning of work. I’d usually take an afternoon break to catch up with my life at home as people started to come online and then get back to work. In addition to being physically away, the time difference created sense of isolation that was useful.
This time really allowed me to say “no” to my life for six weeks. As a PhD student, this is also probably the last time I’ll have the opportunity to do something like this as I am coming to the end of my studies. So that was also quite special.
Did your time in Paris influence your work in any unexpected ways?
Well, I am now also looking into jobs in Paris. I also started reading some of the French literature in my field, specifically related to sexual health preventative care. I now have new research ideas to look at these issues with a cross-cultural or comparative perspective. For example, I am curious to explore how the different health insurance systems in the United States and France influence sexual health preventative care. In the US, the system of self-secured or employer-based health insurance and the possibility of being denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions creates disincentives for preventative sexual health care, like STD testing. In France, with universal health care, there are not the same pressures.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?
The NYU Paris staff really cares about the students. They are incredible. I cannot speak highly enough of them. The support for students was amazing.
I would also add that I grew tremendously as a person through this experience. My father passed away in March 2017 just a few months before I did the GRI Dissertation Writer’s Program. In a way, it was good for me to be there alone and to process the complicated emotions of grief. The other GRI participants and the NYU Paris community were also tremendously supportive. Between that and the protected time to write, I grew. I became more confident in my writing and in my skills as an academic. I returned to NY with more confidence and pride in my work and able to engage with my mentors more as an equal. The program changed me a lot.