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What is about to follow is my personal and professional journey to completing my PhD and events that have occurred during and leading up to now. While others in a variety of fields have attained this terminal degree, I’d venture to say they have experienced similar situations, or experiences that are unique to them. Although many of my friend’s and colleagues have attained higher levels of education (i.e. other PhD’s in the hard and clinical sciences, business school, law school, med school, and even entrepreneurship), it goes without saying that my experiences to obtain a PhD are not a global representation of all fields or within the exercises sciences. Nonetheless, these are my experiences, the challenges and obstacles I had to face, and the sheer power to overcome them. It is within this series of articles that I hope everyone is able to relate in some form or fashion to their own life, work, school, family, training, and even business. This is my journey.

The Early “Dark Ages” (2009-2011)

In part one, I discussed the events that had transpired leading to the initiation of the PhD program in exercise science at UNM and all the require course work and teaching load over the four-year period. From 2009 until early 2013 is what I have deemed to call the “dark ages”. Most of us have gone through periods of time in life that challenge us emotionally, mentally, and even physically, creating endless amount of stress, family and relationship problems, and financially strain and anxiety. Nearly all of these factors impacted the PhD in some form or fashion over that period.

It began in 2009 while still teaching and taking classes. Although I got along well with everyone including the great office staff, professors, and other graduate students (even in other programs), the social scene and camaraderie was overall limited, at least from my experience. Although I did socialize quite a bit and train with my buddy Jeremy who was also in the doctorate program for exercise science (who also trained strongman with me), everyone else mainly did his or her own thing.

Some were married, in relationships, and others not. But up until mid 2011, large social scenes were few and far between. They were either at the beginning of the semester or the very end, and maybe a few times during the semester. Teaching classes, doing the work for those classes, and /or working in the lab overextended into many social aspects that we all could do together.Frankly, I felt the opportunity for creating a team environment for research, and collaborating with other grad students and learning from each other was almost non-existent, as some just wanted to do their own thing and only wanted to work with certain people, including some faculty.

Some may disagree, but again, this was my experience and something I felt was apparent at that time. I’ll be honest, there were at least a couple years where I truly felt I did not fit in with anybody, or fit into the program at all. Many days, nights, weekends, and months were like this, as I was always trying to find my place. On a side note, that is still (to this day) something I must have in life is being able to know that I truly fit in, that I am being understood and relatable to others and by others, including other friends, colleagues, a significant other, and family.

I was lonely, and many times felt alone. Except for lifting and doing strongman, less than a handful of people participated in any kind of heavy lifting and training outside of school, probably because Albuquerque was very endurance-prominent with running, biking, and hiking. I rarely went to another gym because I could train for free on campus. Aside from the local chain gyms, and some strongman equipment at people’s houses, there was no place that encompassed the “lifter environment.” If there was, I was not aware of it.

MORE The Long Road To Victory: My Journey to a PhD

For a period of two years from 2009 to early 2011, it was time where I just lost interest; lost interest in the classes, lost interest in teaching, lost interest in learning any material that had very little to do with strength training and conditioning. Although I still had to study, take tests, and do assignments, I just did what I could to get through it. As you’ll see in the coming sections, this really came back to bite me in the ass, but also turned on a huge light switch. Except for Dr. K (as we shared very similar interests with resistance training) our program did not have much interest to do resistance-training studies that were pure strength and power oriented with no endurance component. There were some that were completed in previous years but nothing that had large application and implication to real world coaches and trainers. After all, my overall desire was to do my dissertation work related to something that I love and would be passionate about.

Throughout the time I lost interest, I spent that time buying more books, DVD’s, reading online material, listening to podcasts, and watching endless YouTube videos all relating to strength training and conditioning from top coaches and trainers in the field. Considering I wanted to get stronger, I also remember reading everything I could get my hands on from elitefts, which is symbolic because I have been a team member and columnist for them for three years now. Everything from periodization to conjugate training and soviet texts and material, Westside and Louis Simmons, advanced nutrition and metabolism and supplementation, recovery, Joe Kenn’s Tier System training (which originally came out in 2005 followed by his Tier system training for football), NSCA material, Mike Boyle and Gray Cook, Olympic Lifting  (I got my USAW in 2009), Joe DeFranco, and much, much more.

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I would also search at least a dozen research journals a month (I still practice this today) looking to learn additional information about different studies that were being conducted that had direct application to my areas of interest, including review articles. Although I was not completing new to these training ideas and methods (as I had studied them on my own in my undergraduate and masters program a WKU), I just had an insatiable appetite for wanting to learn more, implement them into my own training, and wanting be the best. Anything online that sparked my interest I would print it out, highlight it and read it over and over; same thing for books too.

Further, I did this mainly because I felt I was not getting this type of information from the program, and except for Dr. K, and I, very few ever discussed these training methods, application and strength training studies. It was nothing against anybody it was just the way it was. However, I would always experiment with my own training and myself before I ever created a program for another client or athlete (I did programming for many individuals as well). This approach would continue for two years. It’s still apparent today just in a different capacity. As previously mentioned, this served me well because I was the only person who had adequate knowledge and experience training and coaching, which was why (according to my peers) I was so popular as a teacher and why many students asked me to help them with their lifting. Further, because of his personality, and endless energy, Dr. K took the time to recognize this, which is why I feel we worked together so well over the years and collaborated on so many projects. However, the time spent on all things strength training and nutrition related came at high price when it came time for studying and passing my doctorate comprehensive exams.

The Dark Ages Continue…The Comprehensive Exams (2011)

I can say without hesitation that the comprehensive exams represent one of the most stressful times (if not the most stressful) during the doctorate degree. Although it varies from program to program, at UNM we were fortunate to be provided a study guide. This does not guarantee many questions that might be asked. The “comps” (as we said it) process attempts to test the student’s accumulated knowledge of facts, truths, and principles, from research, classes and study, in a written and oral test format. This format is the same for all doctorate students as it represents a total of 16 hours of writing (typed) questions (two days, eight hours each) that are from specific areas of knowledge. These areas mainly stem from all the course work and knowledge obtained over the previous three-year period, as most people take comps after the third year. Following the written exams, two weeks after is the oral exam in which the faculty can seemingly ask any question that may or may not be directly related to your written questions. It is extremely nerve racking to say the least.

In January of 2011, after studying (so I thought) from the previous semester, I took my comps. Now, let me set the tone for you. Not knowing anything about it, (although we asked current grad students who had already taken and successfully passed comps to provide us some insight and feedback), you almost go into it blindly. However, from taking many class tests from the courses themselves, it would seem obvious the comps format would be similar, and straight, short answer responses and listing notes would suffice. Let me be clear, it is NOT!

All questions are timed and some questions can last an hour, two hours, or four hours. In short, I did not pass my first time. Further, and I’ll be honest, for some reason (which still eludes me today) I did not register for any class or dissertation hours like you were required to. Even if I had registered, I still would not have passed based on what the faculty had told me. This was a huge blow, and was very devastating.

After getting knocked out Mike Tyson style, and a few weeks later, it was time to get serious. With the help of Dr. K, for nearly 16 weeks, he and I met once to twice a week and I would present or “teach” him nearly anything and everything that could potentially become a comp question. Keep in mind, I was still teaching some lower level activity classes while I was studying, and trained four days/week. It was a brutal 16 weeks that encompassed studying all the details of the physiological systems, pathways, mechanisms, drawing on the chalk board and white board. Looking back, this process helped tremendously because it helped set the tone for the professor and writer in me.  I remember he and I got into a few arguments during this time, which however uncomfortable, actually helped.

In May of 2011, I retook the comps. Then another unexpected bombshell happened. After the oral exams, I was told I now had to retake half of it again. At this point, I really just wanted to quit and leave the program and say f**k this! I felt I had nothing left, and truly felt (to some degree) I was being unfairly singled out. Looking back, that wasn’t the case. They just wanted more from me, and more out of me at the doctorate level. After talking with Dr. K, and through his compassionate yet convincing nature, he believed in me, and that’s all I needed. I guess it goes back to that saying “how bad do you want it?”

I came home to Louisville that summer to get away and be in a different environment and study once again. After some much needed mental flossing, I started going to the public library nearly all day to study, read, and write. I would get there around 9-10, and leave at four to go train. I did this five days/week. Then, I went to my girlfriends business to work where they had a big whiteboard I could use, which was great, as it provided more practical experience. I’d used the white board to draw pictures, and images, and stand up and act like I was teaching. I would create questions, and pathway images as if I were in the classroom, and use hand gestures as well.


Sometimes during lunch, she would ask me questions and I would have to draw or provide answers on the board. At this point, the light switch finally turned on, and I was putting the puzzle pieces together. Most of us go through school and life being taught rote memorization, instead of synthesizing the material and understanding how other systems work synergistically and effectively with others. This was the fundamental nature of my problem. However, it was then by working in a different environment and thinking outside the box that created the beginning of “putting the puzzle together”. I utilized these methods for three months.

I went back during the second week of the semester and took the other half of my comps in mid September. I was still very hesitate about the stats question and creating a study for the comp question (one that everybody had to take). We had a visiting professor at the time that helped me try and figure out this process but it didn’t take as large as affect as I wanted it to before the oral comps. However, I did my own thinking and rationale and provided some ideas to him and took my orals in mid October. The entire faculty was there, sitting at the desks and asking me questions. From practicing the previous three months, and drawing and putting the puzzle together, providing rationale facilitated a massive difference.  I passed my comps that day. I remember everyone said what a tremendous difference the writing had become, my confidence and taking command. They all said I was a different person that day, compared to what they saw in previous months, and I was extremely happy with that. Since my scholarship was over, I did not have any monthly income, so I decided to move back home to Louisville three weeks later in hopes of getting a job to develop my study and go from there. Well, it didn’t actually happen that way.

Nearly Down and Out

I moved back to Louisville in late October 2011, and would be there for all of 2012. Since I was now off scholarship, I felt it best to return home and try to obtain a university position (part-time or full time), and eventually propose my dissertation topic, and do data collection elsewhere. In life, many of us experience the fact that we get frustrated when our expectations for things do not meet the reality of the situation. For the better part of 10 months, I applied to both university positions for assistant professor, part time positions, and even strength coach jobs in the area. During this time, I met and emailed everybody from faculty, business owners, gym owners, family and friends contact list (even those that had absolutely no knowledge of the industry and were not even in the same field).

After training at the local gyms for a while, I tried to develop and create seminars for people to want to come and learn lifting methods, and technique (similar to the elitefts LTT seminars). Well, when the gym managers had never heard of NSCA, and barely know how to train, I figured it was a dead-end after that. Early that year, I attended a few fitness business seminars, and went to a few business conferences with my girlfriend’s family just to learn more about a different industry, sales, and marketing. Although this helped me branch out and learn more about a different craft (even still today), deep down it really made me increasingly frustrated because I felt I was getting nowhere.

My home life started to take a dramatic turn because most people who are in business or work in large businesses don’t understand how universities and academia works. You don’t apply for a job (regardless of who you know) and a month later you hear something back. Universities (on the whole) are not very efficient and things don’t happen in a linear fashion (more on this in the next series). I remember numerous occasions that home life got so dark for me that I didn’t feel like coming home many times, but staying in a hotel just so I could be by myself. One time, I got into an argument with my girlfriend, and headed to the gym afterwards. Once I got there, I was so emotionally and mentally f**ked up that I just sat in the car and cried, and didn’t even go in.

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This, of course, was due to home life, no job, no leads, and little money. Many days, and nights, and weeks were like this — some extreme, and others not, but I just kept pushing through it. I didn’t want to stay at my parents all the time, even though they have always been supportive of my brother and me. I didn’t have much money and couldn’t afford my own place. I didn’t want my parents constantly worrying about me because, let’s face it, sometimes that make things worse. My parents did a lot to try and help me with employment since they have many contacts all over but I knew deep down I had to have another strategy, at least a short-term option.

So, I started substitute teaching local elementary, middle and high schools for about a year. Can you see this? I was The Substitute. It was really easy, and the money was decent for what it was. During the time I was in the local schools trying not to overhead press the kids, I also worked in semi-private training. I went to college with two close friends who owned their semi-private training facility (they recently expanded and have a thriving business). I worked there for about a year while substitute teaching. It was probably one of the greater experiences I had during 2012 because I would be able to coach classes, learn business, coach clients, and learn others systems of training including more programming (which I love). While working in semi-private training and substitute teaching, I was able to complete my chapter two review of literature for my dissertation. The chapter two is usually the first chapter you complete because it helps sets the stage for the subsequent chapters later to come, while establishing further gaps in the science to potentially yield a more narrow and specific dissertation study.

Scrolling through Facebook one day, I saw there was an elitefts Learn To Train Seminar in London, Ohio (30 minutes from Columbus) in May of 2012 (this was LTT4). I was in Louisville at the time, and had the extra money and I immediately signed up. Overall, it was an incredible experience and finally got to meet many top lifters. Luckily, Dave Tate sat at our table for lunch that day and towards the end of the seminar, I finally had the opportunity to chat with him.

I mentioned what I was currently doing (PhD, and strength coach background) and I remember he was really impressed. I said I was interested in writing some articles, and he suggested I talk with the then senior content manager (Steve). In short, Steve asked me to send him my resume and shortly after they were looking for somebody to write more science/research articles for their site. Soon after, I became a team member and columnist (The Research Meathead) for elitefts, and have written about 30 articles over the last three years, including this article series.

I really enjoy writing my column (and some non-column pieces) for elitefts, as this column provides readers with a better understanding of current trends and industry topics regarding training and nutrition, debunking myths and dispelling truths. I’ve received excellent feedback from readers and those through elitefts and proud to be involved with such a superior company to this day.

After nearly 10 months of substitute teaching, working semi-private training, and having received no phone or campus interviews for any job (some jobs didn’t even send me anything back), I was down and nearly out, and wondering if I would ever finish this degree. However, in October of 2012, I emailed Dr. K, and another one of my committee members and told them I had made the decision to return to UNM to finish.

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Return to UNM and the Saving Grace

In October of 2012 I made the decision to return to UNM in order to finish my dissertation. I was informed that our program now had a new full time professor in exercise science and for our graduate program, and that he and I had very similar interests. I flew back to ABQ in mid November to meet with Dr. K and a few other people and met with the new faculty member. I had not previously heard of this ‘new person’ before so I was eager to meet him.

I’ll be honest, I was not sure what to really expect considering past experiences, but was open-minded nonetheless. I walked in, introduced myself, and as it turns out, we talked for nearly two hours. We shared so much interest with respect to resistance training, sports nutrition, and knew many of the same people in the industry. After that meeting, and discussing more in depth dissertation ideas (I had already had my own ideas leading up to that meeting) I left and never felt more confident that finishing the dissertation would the best decision ever. As it turns out, this person would be nothing less than a saving grace, and he was. We’ll call him CK. My girlfriend and I packed the car, had already looked for places to live, signed a leased, and moved back out to Albuquerque in January of 2013.

In January of 2013, CK and I got right to work, with more in depth discussion and details of the methodology and planning with the dissertation. The planning of the dissertation is incredibly detailed. A fundamental nature of any PhD program is that you are rigorously tested daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly, not just on the subject matter but also  your ability to become an independent thinker and researcher. These qualities (and more) are to be expected from you and the faculty of the program. This is a stark contrast to a masters program which (in my professional experience) is hundreds of miles apart from a PhD.

There is a reason why the dissertation alone takes a full year (sometimes more) of your time, energy, effort and sacrifice. Everything from communicating with your committee members, (considering they must approve the dissertation) the writing of the chapters (which for us was the first three chapters), preparing for the proposal and presenting it in front of your committee, submitting IRB forms and making changes, hours upon hours of editing and refining, getting approval, subject recruitment, data collection, study protocol, data analysis and interpretation, completing the writing which includes the results section, stats, tables, figures, references, and more departmental and graduate paperwork that will make you sick just by looking at it.

Due to CK’s insight and leadership to both the research and the writing process, CK and I were always on the same page, and have been since day one. The first eight months of 2013 were spent working the details of the dissertation and fine tuning everything, mainly chapter one (which included nine sections, and chapter three (methodology) which is more detailed that you can possibly imagine.

The methodology is the heart and soul of the dissertation and what everyone truly cares about. There existed a grand total of 12 rounds of editing for my chapter one and 30 rounds of editing for my chapter three. This of course is quite common but keep in mind, CK and I had to spend the overwhelming majority of the time outlining the methodology with precision, because the last thing any doctorate student wants to have happen is to look bad and incompetent when they propose their topic to their committee and have little understanding about his or her project. Further, the more detailed you are, the less potential changes you are likely to make and therefore it creates a more efficient and well-presented project.

In summer of 2013, I was preparing my upcoming dissertation proposal and had the opportunity to present at two NSCA Conferences (first state clinic and Southwest Regional in California). This would mark the beginning of the numerous talks to come the next year, including another NSCA New Mexico State clinic in Albuquerque. Fortunately, CK was the first person to have back-to-back NSCA New Mexico State clinics here in Albuquerque for the first time in 20 years, and another recent successful clinic took place, which was hosted by one of the strength coaches.

For those unaware, every masters and doctorate student must propose their study to their specific committee, where the committee asks questions, provides feedback, and makes sure you know everything about your project before you proceed. My dissertation proposal was a big success, and the end of an eight-month period of hard work, filled with monastic obsession, and relief, things were looking great, and finally on track. Once your committee approves your study, you then have to submit mountains upon mountains of required paperwork to the university IRB for approval, which is required for all studies across the board. After you submit all necessary requirements online, and depending on the nature of your project, it typically takes one to two months before you receive approval.

For me, it didn't actually happen that way...

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