Life is Digital Podcast Guest Jessica Parker

Using Digital Tools Differently to Empower Human Connection and Culture

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Elysia: Hey everyone, welcome to Life is Digital™. I’m your host, Elysia Cadorniga. This week, we’re going to get ready to learn a little bit more about digital marketing and digital in the tech world as we share our knowledge and perspectives on different trends, best practices, and any actionable tips to help you grow in your business in the digital age. I’m here with Dr. Jessica Parker, she’s the founder of Dissertation by Design. We’re really excited to have you on board today, Jessica. I just want to thank you in advance just for joining because I think we have some really cool talks that we’re going to go over today-Yeah, excited. Well, maybe for the audience, because we definitely know all about you since we’ve been working with you for a little while and we’ve done really cool projects, but maybe before we get started, it would make sense for you to just kind of tell a little bit about yourself your background and the business.


Jessica: Absolutely. Well, first, thanks for having me, I’m really excited. This is my first time being interviewed for a podcast, my business is Dissertation by Design. I started it about four years ago. I was previously in academia, I was a lecturer, I was a research director in the healthcare field, and living in Boston, and I had a major life change, and I ended up moving back home to Raleigh to be closer to family, and I kind of took a leap of faith and started this business because I was just incredibly passionate about helping graduate students. When I was getting my doctorate, I just noticed how much everyone was struggling with some of the isolation that takes place with being an online hybrid Doctor Program in my space, and I wanted to help them get through that process because I really struggled and I felt like I learned quite a bit, and so my background is in healthcare research, I got my EdD in Organizational Leadership at Northeastern University, and I always thought I was going to be in academia, I had this dream of getting tenured and doing research and just things changed. I’m incredibly happy to have my business and my growing team, and we work with doc students all over the world now.


Elysia: I’m assuming while you’re in school, you had no idea that you were going to be owning your own business.


Jessica: No, I did not. I think of academia. It’s very safe, there’s always work, great benefits. I really had no idea that I was going to leave it altogether, so it’s been a really nice surprise, and it’s just been really amazing to see it grow from this idea into 14 consultants now. It’s kind of crazy.


Elysia: Yeah, you’ve shared a little bit about it before the episode, but it’s really cool what you’re doing because you’ve shared so far just with the constant growth of online universities and students having to evolve, I guess, with the way that they manage their schoolwork and their workload, and the habits to be able to accommodate this more virtual learning environment, it’s something that I know that type of mindset, you really need to make sure that you’re structuring yourself in a way that still maintains productivity, and I’m sure you hear all sorts of results or things that have happened or even key threats to their success because of this evolving change and how we’re having to learn now, so it’s interesting, I don’t know, in the past, what year and a half, it’s been really eye-opening to have to see how people are having to change their behaviors, and I’m sure you are very keen on this and know a little bit more about it.

What do you think are the items or things that have changed the most in this learning environment today?

Jessica: Just thinking back to when I was in college, where the large auditoriums and your faculty there at a podium, and then you stay after, and you go to office hours, and you can talk to your peers and hear about what they’re struggling with. All of that has changed. There are still very many traditional brick-and-mortar schools. There’s been this huge growth in online learning all the way from community college to a doctorate, and just over the past couple of decades, Higher Education has become big business there’s for-profit universities. And what we’ve learned, even before the pandemic, is the access you can get, whereas before, students would enroll in brick and mortar institutions, sometimes based on proximity, now we don’t have these geographic boundaries and students can go to college anywhere, and that means that we’re doing it online and even though technology is great, it introduces so many different challenges that we have to educate students on, we can’t make assumptions that people have the technology they need, they know how to use it, they know how to reach out when they’re struggling. So, I think as educators, not making assumptions and recognizing that our students are learning in this very different type of environment than they were in high school and becoming familiar with those challenges and trying to meet them where they are is an important part of being an educator now. So, to fully answer your question, we think about what’s changed the most is I think about access, just more people being able to access an education than before because the geographic boundaries are no longer there, or interactions with between students and teachers are much, much different. It’s almost all electronic. And then people just having access to information like never before, and having to learn this new skill of discernment, knowing what information is trustworthy and what isn’t, and sometimes we make assumptions that our students can do that, but with online learning, it’s like we almost need to have these orientation courses where it’s like Trump made that saying, fake news is really famous, but it’s true, people need to be able to discern between what’s trustworthy information, what is that, and that’s majorly a play with the learning environment today.

Elysia: Yeah, I can’t even imagine that. And especially for those that have like I know for me, I’m very high functioning. I have taken information like a computer at times, I feel like I have 100 tabs going on at the same time, but I struggle with that just didn’t work. Right, you’re obviously on the academia side, but for me, I can relate to that, which poses a lot of challenges to the students, and I know just one that I can probably think of off the top of my head is just the lack of human connection. So, it’s like you have this positive of things becoming more productive because they’re digital, or things becoming more resourceful or useful because of digital, but then at the same time, you have this lack of human connection, and for me, that speaks mountains to me.

What are some other challenges that you see those students facing?

Jessica: Yeah, the isolation is huge. What has been interesting when I started my business was, I initially was thinking people need some social, emotional support. I was mostly thinking about technical support, how to conduct research, how to conceptualize research, how to analyze data. What I quickly learned is for many of my clients who are in these online programs because there’s no human connection, they feel so alone, they feel like they’re the only person who’s not getting feedback from their advisor, they feel like they’re the only person who’s not making progress and just giving them a sense of a safe space to talk to other doctoral students, we have an online writing community where that happens, and just talking to us, a coach where we’ve talked to tons of clients, and we’ve heard the struggles and we can share successes and best practices with them that alone helps them quite a bit with the isolation. I think another major challenge is distractions. There’s a couple of things I’m thinking about when I say that. One is not having a dedicated space, such as a classroom where you go in, you’re not distracted by anything or with the teacher in that moment, that’s not an option. So that we’re doing our course work at home now, before the pandemic we’re doing in coffee shops, there’s a lot of distractions in those areas, I think, personally, I think we’ve all experienced is to working from home over the past year and a half, when I’m at home I have the urge to quickly do a load of laundry or run across the street to the grocery store, walk the dog, and those distractions are always there, and so some people manage those better than others, and so distractions is a huge one, and the technology itself as a distraction. So how many of you think of this, how many times when you’re working and then you get an Instagram notification or a New York Times News notification or a CNN news alert, and then you’re pulled into that and just like our monkey brains are just all over the place with all of this technology, and it can be really distracting.

Elysia: Yeah, it’s funny that you said that because literally about a week ago, I did this really cool… I don’t know if you’ve ever done a float tank before, it was like the deprivation tanks where you pretty much tune out at all these little distractions and all your sensory, and you float and you’re in this pod filled with water and salt, and you just pretty much take everything out that could be a distraction to just focus your mind and tune in with your mind, and it’s funny that you say that because I for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing that and I just decided… I made the decision a week ago, I’m going to turn off my notifications for all my platforms, like all social platforms, right? Because it just got to a point where it distracts you and as a student trying to research and for them at that moment, that’s the most important thing in their life right now to line up their career and their goals, and all those distractions, the isolation, the human connection that, that affects your confidence level at a very core level, because you’re just being isolated and then learning at the same time, you’re not really given this accountability and the structure. I know you’re on track, and I think that’s what’s so unique about what you and your team does because you guys are able to provide that to them, so… Yeah, it’s really fascinating.


Jessica: Yeah, and I remember reading some research about one of the major things that happened during the pandemic with, women in academia, there was a study where someone analyzed the publishing output by women in academia, and I don’t remember the exact percentage, but it was insane how much it went down, the decline of women who published during the pandemic now, and because it’s women… I’ll speak for myself, I won’t speak for all women, but I speak for myself in the sense when I go home, a lot of women, we have the second jobs and I don’t even have children, or we manage the home, and it’s like suddenly during the pandemic, or just anyone who’s getting a degree that’s online, it’s like we’re doing that work in our home where we have all these other responsibilities, these distractions, and it can feel impossible at times to manage those and when you have other people relying on you such as children in the house. It’s really hard to manage that, and sometimes you need to meet with other people who are going through it so you can learn from them and learn from what’s worked for them, and just had these brainstorming and thought partnering sessions where you can figure out, oh, that worked for you, I’m going to try that too. And that just really was not happening during the pandemic, and it doesn’t happen in most dock programs because it’s so course work focused.

Elysia: Right, well, and then if you don’t get a grip on that, it’s almost like your life feels like it’s in chaos or your mind thinks you’re in chaos and there’s no order and clear path to what you’re doing, because of all that happening. I can relate because I have a three-year-old and there are days where I have to work from home and he’s with me, and I’ll tell you my eight-hour workday turns into a three, or by the time I’m actually able to devote the time to sit and focus. So, I totally, totally get that. So we’re all trying to find solutions to how to adapt to this learning environment that’s such a positive because it breaks the barrier of proximity and location, but…

Tell me a little bit more about your team and how you guys are combating that or fostering an environment to actually help the students?

Jessica: Yeah, so a big part of our focus is community, we talk to all of our clients about the importance of having a writing group or a support group that they can meet with on a regular basis, and it doesn’t have to be through our company, we do offer a writing community that they meet once a week, but many of our clients will go off and form their own writing groups throughout the week with clients, they’ve met in our Saturday writing group, and they show up for each other. They give each other encouragement. They start to recognize that they’re not the only ones experiencing these challenges, and that alone makes them feel better, and so I think that’s an important practice that can be implemented by any organization that is struggling with this new virtual environment, and any student who’s in an online program, I highly encourage them to get a support group and met regularly. Have a standing meeting and treat it just like any other appointment, it’s not optional, it’s something that you consistently engage in, and that makes a huge difference. So that’s one practice. Another is goal setting and accountability, and my approach, I think because I was a research director when I started my business, I take a project management approach to a lot of things, so occurring a detailed timeline, setting long-term goals and short-term goals. Then sharing those with someone to hold you accountable, when we work with our clients, we typically have weekly, weekly meetings, weekly check-ins, we always revisit their goals, we always revisit their timeline, we try to understand why they’re not making progress, so we can adjust those goals and timelines is needed, that’s incredibly helpful. So, just goal setting and almost just taking a project management approach can help people feel more productive. Another aspect of that is not waiting until the end, I tell my clients all the time, don’t wait and celebrate a milestone, don’t wait until we graduated, celebrate small wins all along. I think that’s incredibly important, because it just psychologically not feeling like you to wait a year or two, or many PhD programs, it can take people six years to finish, and so don’t think of this one goal of the very, very end… That’s the only time when you can really celebrate, I think celebrating small lens is an important part of our approach with clients, and with my team, we have company goals and we reach a halfway milestone, we celebrate, so I think that sort of approach to goal setting is important to wait until the final long-term goal is accomplished.

Elysia: That is really good. That’s really good feedback. I’m thinking about the parallels in the office environment, I know you do a lot with students, but do you have any feedback around just how companies have to incorporate this and if they don’t, like what are some of the effects that they can see within their company, whether it’s their culture or their productivity. I’m sure you’ve probably thought on that side.

Jessica: Yeah, I think… I’m glad you said culture, because I think that is really, really important because my company has always been virtual, I had to make a very… An effort in the very beginning and be intentional about the type of culture I wanted to create, and part of that culture is being approachable, transparent, and honest, and not being afraid to go to someone on the team if we disagree with something or if there’s a difficult conversation to be had. And with so many companies going online now during the pandemic, and some will stay online, they’ve realized they don’t have to pay for that expensive office space if people are being productive at home, and I think when that is happening, because you’re not having these conversations at the breakfast or coffee bar, water cooler, none of that is happening anymore, and so there’s not as many opportunities to engage with a colleague in the office and have an offhand conversation about something. You must be very intentional with scheduling time with someone, and so as a leader, I think we have to make ourselves available and be really intentional about checking in with members of our team without an agenda. When I check in with my team, we have these weekly check ends and it’s for two hours, and in that first hour, we don’t always have an agenda. Sometimes I just want to hear about, how is your family doing? How is your week then? What are you struggling with? And just be supportive, so people feel that they have a safe space to go to when they need to have some of these conversations that aren’t always related to their productivity and their output.

Elysia: It’s kind of interesting because you mentioned not setting that agenda just to hear what your team has to say, but that’s at the core, that’s where you solve some of the problems or the challenges that they’re actually facing is when you just allow them to provide that just very human feedback. We’ve been talking about it a lot in our own company, in our own culture, but getting past that surface level to really solve these challenges, not just asking how productive you are today, but asking how’s life. Is there anything that you need to support you in what you’re doing, or are you holding on to something that you don’t know how to take it to the next step, because you haven’t been able to communicate that correctly, or being able to just have those open conversation, because the last thing someone wants to do is feel like they’re working from home or virtual, and it’s all a system. You miss all the conversations because I know the difference talking to a client in person versus on a phone call or virtual, I miss those social cues. I might miss an opportunity to dive deeper into a conversation because I’m not there in person to get a full experience of what’s going on around me, and I think that means you have to talk about that a lot more on a digital tool that you’re using or through that digital process.

Jessica: Yeah, think about an office setting, when I used to work and go into an office every day when I was in academia and I go into the School of Nursing or the dental school, you read people’s body language. I could look at my colleague and notice when she’s in a bad mood without her saying something or just notice that something without saying anything, and now you can go a whole day where you’re only communicating with a colleague via email or a phone call or a text, and you don’t get a sense of that. So, you have to make a point to ask about how people are doing and really mean it and listen, otherwise, you miss things and some people are more open than others, and I’ve had to learn that I really have to check in with my team and make a point to see how they’re doing otherwise, you just sometimes start to make assumptions, like so and so hasn’t responded to my email in several days, and instead of assuming that they’re not doing their work, it’s actually being curious and trying to understand what else is going on in their life.

Elysia: Yeah, that’s that being intentional and sincere about getting that information and not just assuming because I can’t even express how important that is, honestly, just It’s across the board. It’s how we communicate with our families. It’s how we do it, how we conduct work, it’s how we learn it, that’s across the board, the assumption, and the assumptions there, because the details are lacking it, you’re missing those nuances, those little bits of information that you would have if you were all working in an in-person environment. I know for our end companies have to be aware of that and they actually have to almost like focus on that so much more or just make that top of mind as you continue throughout your day to combat the digital world really. It’s the same thing with you guys at Dissertation by Design. You tune in virtually with your clients and use digital tools to connect with them and to them structured and to help them through what they’re working with, so you’re actually pretty much demonstrating the prime example of how to actually use digital for your advantage too.

Jessica: Everything we do is online, and when I first started running my business, I didn’t like using Zoom that much, quite frankly, the first probably six months, I was like part of why I like working from home is I don’t have to get ready and do my hair and make it as a set my pajamas and have these phone calls, but I quickly learned that I needed to be able to see people to develop that rapport. So, we really require our consultants to use Zoom or some other Google Meet technology where they can see their clients and see their face when they’re working with them, that’s incredibly important for relationship building, and we use G-Suite and we collaborate with our clients all in Google Drive, instead of sending emails, will tag them in comments within the documents, and that makes things move a lot faster, and when I’m working on a presentation or a workshop with my team, all of that is on line in a collaborative space like G-Suite, so we’re making changes to documents and they are live, changes, and we have a CRM that we use, and so there might be a whole week that goes by where I’m not communicating it by the entire team, but I can see that we’re all making progress online through the systems that we’ve created for getting work done virtually.

Elysia: That’s awesome! It probably feels good. It’s very rewarding to see all that play out. I’m sure as a business owner, you get a lot of joy seeing a team, being able to collaborate and use the very thing that people are… Where challenges are being presented but being able to actually overcome that adversity and work through it and still remain productive and tuned in and dialed in with each other, so that’s awesome.

Jessica: Yeah, and I think it takes some recognition at least on my part, I try to be very flexible. I think a lot of companies that have had to shift this way during the pandemic, where it’s not nine to five works, this is the project, this is the timeline, do it when you can as long as it gets done. That’s fine, and there’s just no way we would be able to have that if we were having to work in office together and wait for someone to give me a hard copy, a brainstorm over a white board together. I know a lot of companies have had to adjust, but thankfully, the tools are out there, you just have to figure out what’s going to work best for your team.

Elysia: Yeah, and how do you use them? So that’s why we have a Director of Operations, he’s like our architect, he rolls it all out so that we don’t have to and keep the integrity of the purpose of those tools. So it definitely makes it easier. I mean, this has been a really cool topic and I don’t think it gets enough visibility to be honest. I think people move too quickly in life and don’t really stop to really think about how they can make adjustments, whether it be as a student or in your work environment. So, it’s just really cool to learn your take on this.

Your goal for your company and just kind of painting a picture of the future, where do you see your company and what you guys are doing whether it be in the next five years or ten years?

Jessica: I guess in order to answer that, I have to think about our really long-term goal and a statistic that I learned when I started this business that was really shocking to me is that around 50% of doctoral students, they never finish their degree, and then those that do often never even publish their research, so there’s a lot of variables that go into why that is, but what I’ve learned through working with our clients is the ones that don’t finish, it’s not because they’re not intelligent and they can’t do the work. Most of it is they’re not getting the social-emotional support that they need, especially in these online programs, they have a higher attrition rate, and so my hope is that we can change that number is that more doctoral students will finish their degrees. We highly encourage our students, our clients, whenever they finish, to publish their research, because myself and everyone on my team, we really believe. I truly believe that research is how we can make a difference in the world, and a lot of research comes through the clients that we work with, and they’re working on really important topics that can change a lot within their fields. These social justice issues that have come through in the past year as a result of the BLM movement, because we’re pretty incredible. They need support for that research to get out there and make an impact, and so I want to see more doctoral students graduating so we can reduce that 50%, rate and make sure that more actually publishing their research, so it can make the biggest impact possible by reaching the audience. So, that’s really a long-term goal, and we have a lot of work to do it, even though it’s very niche, there’s probably around 160000 doc students that graduate just in the US each year, and we are only serving a tiny portion of those, so we want to partner with the universities and help train faculty how to provide some of the support that we do, cause we know there’s just no way my company is ever going to be big enough to meet name.

Elysia: Right, that’s awesome. We like what you’re doing, obviously, we’re motivated by it, and it’s been exciting just working with you, and even with how you’re positioning yourself and setting your goals, you know, definitely think that we have a lot of parallels, and we experience a lot of those challenges ourselves, so it’s really good takeaways. For all the businesses out there listening, that’s huge, it can make or break the success of your organization or the difference you’re trying to make, right. I just appreciate you joining Jessica, I think this has been really cool to talk about this.

Jessica: Yeah, thank you Elysia. I really enjoyed it, and I’m thankful for you guys, you all were incredibly helpful when I was developing my on-demand courses, and I’m really interested to keep working with you guys.

Elysia: You enjoy being in front of the camera.

Jessica: I’m getting used to it. I don’t really enjoy, it is what it is.

Elysia: That’s funny. Well, no, I appreciate it. It’s been awesome having you on. For the audience out there, we appreciate you joining us for this episode of Life is Digital™. Again, here with Dr. Jessica Parker with Dissertation by Design. I’m your host, Elysia Cadorniga. Just remember to rate, review, and subscribe to the show, until next time, don’t stop marketing.

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