First in our series of interviews with recent PhDs. Julia Mossbridge is a neuroscientist and author of Unfolding: The Perpetual Science of Your Soul's Work.
Liena Vayzman: You just finished your PhD in Neuroscience at Northwestern. What kinds of things helped you get through the process when it was most challenging?
Julia Mossbridge: Number one: Friends. And family and anyone that's close enough to talk to about this stuff. My advisor and the rest of the lab were very helpful, too. Plus, I was seeing a therapist and that was really helpful. I'd been seeing him for other things but having that weekly appointment was helpful.
LV: I see the dissertation experience as a spiritual challenge, a vision quest, a journey. Do you share this view, and if so, what did you learn on this quest in terms of personal transformation?
JM: Absolutely! I learned way more than just writing my dissertation. The biggest lesson that tranformed me that I learned was: Always listen to your inner voice because it never steers you wrong. This applies to pretty much everything. When there was ambiguity -- for example, "Should I talk to my advisor about this issue now or later?" -- I'd tune into my inner voice.
LV: How did you tune in to your inner voice during times of stress?
JM: Sometimes I couldn't hear it. I developed a routine of working out 6 days a week and after I worked out I calmed down a bit and that allowed me to hear it. Also, writing. I journaled all the time. Writing articles calmed me down. I'd say having any mode of creative expression; for me it was writing. I knew the PhD would take a long time, and I know my personality. I have to change activities all the time. I can't do the same thing for 8 years! I need intense hobbies, so one of my hobbies was writing a book, Unfolding. I was really trying to integrate my interest in spiritual / personal growth stuff with science. I feel like there's a lack of integration between the two things.
LV: How long did your PhD process take?
JM: Eight years, but I took one year off to care for my son full time, and a couple of the years were part time, so probably it condensed down to five years. I'd been in grad school before. I'd droppped out after my qualifying exams. When I left I said I'd never do science again, but then I missed it. I realized I needed to integrate my interest in spirituality and personal growth with science.
LV: Your dissertation was about listening. It's interesting to me that your advice to listen to your inner voice seems to relate to your topic of auditory perception.
JM: I can see how you're making that link. But my dissertation was about people listening to buzzers and clicks. The title is "Perceptual Learning of Auditory Relative-Timing Tasks."
LV: I'm fascinated by how people's dissertation topics relate to other parts of their lives, and how the process is one of learning about one's self on deeper levels. I love that that the "work" of your dissertation was about listening, literally and metaphorically.
JM: There's a whole other piece on how to manage motherhood with dissertation that I can tell you about next time. I had a kid in my second year in grad school. Single Mom Gets Her PhD -- that's my little story.
Julia Mossbridge is the author of Unfolding: The Perpetual Science of Your Soul's Work (New World Library, 2002), which she wrote as a "serious hobby" while completing her PhD in Neuroscience at Northwestern University (2006). Mossbridge's dissertation examined the relationships between the neural circuitry underlying four auditory relative-timing tasks. A relative-timing task is one in which the position in time of one perceptual event (sound A) is judged relative to another perceptual event (sound B). For example, sounds A and B can be simultaneous or non-simultaneous. If they are not simultaneous, then the order of the sounds can be determined. The results showed that the neural circuitry affected by training on auditory relative-timing tasks is, for the most part, highly specialized, even to the extent that learning to judge the order of sounds does not help you learn to determine whether or not the same sounds were simultaneous. One implication of these results is that there does not appear to be a single psychological "clock" that counts perceptual events and tracks them over time.