The Highly Anticipated Culminating Experience

As I found out, not only is graduate school a sequence of advanced courses in health topics, it also includes a final project, thesis or comprehensive exam meant to exemplify the skills and knowledge gained in the program. The culminating experience is a testament of student proficiency level, but it’s also much more. It’s an opportunity for MPH students like me to demonstrate research skills and develop innovative work in various areas of public health.

The culminating experience is not just something professors cooked up to make graduate school harder. The accrediting body for MPH programs, the Council on Education for Public Health, requires that programs include a culminating experience so students can apply everything they have learned outside the classroom.

I’d of course heard the word thesis before I started graduate school. Like a thesis statement, right? You pop one of those in your paper to fulfill the assignment outline. Not quite. A thesis, at the graduate-level, I learned, is essentially a published book that explores a specific area of interest. It involves countless hours of research, writing and data collection or analysis of a certain population, literature, practice, etc. Not only is the thesis the best way to display your research prowess, it’s also an impressive accomplishment that makes you a more competitive candidate when applying to doctoral programs. That was one of the main reasons I chose the thesis option as my culminating experience.

But where do I begin?

What should my research be?

I asked myself these questions aloud, suddenly realizing the social inappropriateness of self-directed questions at the Taco Bell drive-thru. I felt pressured to select a topic and didn’t know which direction to follow. The answers became clear in my research methods class. The professor told us to choose topics that we were passionate about; topics we could imagine reading and writing about for a year and a half without getting bored. “Go where the literature is,” he said. Writing about a subject that has already been studied is far easier and less labor intensive than exploring one with no previous research behind it.

So I began to compile a list. What was I even interested in? I found a paper in my notebook with the following topics scrawled across it:

  • Cyber exploitation of the elderly
  • Perception of organ donation for collegians
  • Student success and employment rates for education received at for-profit colleges compared to that of traditional colleges
  • Impact a family member’s Alzheimer’s has on the rest of the family
  • Phenomenon of online deception in dating
  • Financial responsibility of college freshman and the phenomenon of the sophomore debt crisis
  • Critical issues associated with sexting

Most of these ideas flowed after that inspirational cup of coffee. Or two. The next step was meeting with a professor and asking for his opinion of my ideas. He offered me guidance. To narrow down the list, he asked several important questions: “Is this public-health related? How are you going to measure that? How will you gain access to that population?” After figuring out my answers, I was able to select a topic I could see myself covering.

And that’s how I came to write about sexting amongst college students for my thesis. I researched this subject tirelessly and found that, although it is a new topic, the existing literature is solid. I’ll be the first person from my university to publish research on sexting. Though this is exactly what my professor cautioned against, I found it to be an intriguing and timely topic that really held my interest.

Right now I’m finalizing my first few chapters and working with a researcher at the University of Utah to develop a survey to gather data on behaviors related to sexting among college students. It’s exciting to think that one day, a student will type “(Abraham, 2015)” in their research paper. It’s not vain to want to see my name in a citation; it represents my accomplishment: laying the foundational work future scholars will build upon. Okay, and maybe just a tidbit of vanity thrown in there.

My advice to any MPH students considering a thesis: start early, talk to your professors, drink coffee for inspiration and write your heart out.