DETROIT—Tom Jankowski battled writer’s block for four years. While trying to complete his dissertation, he got distracted by a full-time job that lulled him further from his life’s goal. “I entertained thoughts of abandoning the doctorate completely,” he admits. “I became ambivalent, a stressful place to be. Straddling a fence is never comfortable. Four years of not making a decision can take its toll on you.”
Enter PhinisheD, an unassuming website created by web developer Amy Bellinger in 1997 as a favor to a friend struggling to write a dissertation. Tom discovered it in 1998 and, like a guiding hand in a snowstorm, it pulled him through his writer’s block and back on task. “I won a fellowship, took a year’s leave from work and finished my dissertation.” He also inherited the PhinisheD site in 1999 when Amy was no longer able to run it.
Since then, the simple forum (they prefer Phorum) for grad students to offer support and share ideas has morphed into an elaborate array of links, updates, encouraging messages, celebrations and announcements that gets over 8,000 page views and nearly 1,000 visits per day. Its thousands of users hail from all over the US and Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and dozens of other countries around the world. A 2009 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education commends the PhinisheD site as a safe place to find support and encouragement, a kind of online anti-depressant.
Tom, now Dr. Thomas B. Jankowski, associate director of research for Wayne State’s Institute of Gerontology, has been cited in the acknowledgements of dozens of dissertations with inscriptions like this one: “Thank you, Tom. I couldn’t have finished my Ph.D. without you.” This sentiment, and the 560 members who have completed dissertations or theses with the help of PhinisheD, makes his long labor of love worthwhile. He is the sole webmaster and devotes about 10 hours a week of his free time to its maintenance.
In 2006 the site, which had overgrown its humble architecture, suffered a catastrophic crash. The PhinisheD community protested loud and long that they couldn’t live without it, so Dr. Jankowski scrambled for funds and equipment for a major upgrade. PhinisheD users contributed over $2,000 for software and hardware, a Wayne State colleague gifted him a used server, and Wayne let him plug into their network. It’s been smooth sailing and high growth ever since.
PhinisheD is unique in the academic universe because it charges nothing, displays no advertising, and allows no nastiness. “We’re supportive,” Dr. Jankowski explains. “We’ve even been accused of being sickeningly sweet but that’s okay.” The academic life, while seemingly genteel, has a rough underbelly. Graduate students often complain of feeling isolated, manipulated by competing classmates, sliced by critical professors and generally underappreciated. Some PhinisheD users are first generation college grads whose families don’t understand the stresses of attaining a graduate degree and don’t know how to be supportive. Others feel marginalized due to their race, gender, sexual identity, or perhaps because they are working remotely without an academic community to embrace them.
“The vast majority of PhinisheD users are struggling against writer’s block, procrastination, difficult committee members, departmental politics, and the competitive and hierarchical nature of the university,” according to Dr. Jankowski. “All of these things can gnaw at the self-esteem and impede the progress of the sensitive soul.”
PhinisheD becomes the safe haven in a sometimes harsh academic world. Dr. Jankowski personally checks each new member to the community to protect against infiltration by spammers, trolls, and feral personalities. Members provide strong social policing, too. Phinishers’ culture epitomizes respect, manners, positive feedback and occasional cheerleading. “Many users describe it as a lifeline,” Dr. Jankowski said. “So it can’t have any barbs on it.”
The power of PhinisheD is in the shared experience of its people who speak honestly and openly about their situation. “Over and over we hear members say, ‘If I could do it, so can you,” Dr. Jankowski says. “You are not alone.”
Learn about PhinisheD firsthand by visiting www.phinished.org. You must register to access all sections of the site, but usage is free.
Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting, ranking in the top 50 in R & D expenditures of all public universities by the National Science Foundation. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world.
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