Feature

University of Kansas graduate student Prentiss Price is making more of a lasting commitment to her dissertation than most students do.

Instead of letting her dissertation gather dustmites on a shelf once it's through, her research project will live on in cyberspace at www.AllAboutDepression.com, where anyone can access it. Price's dissertation is an online resource offering a variety of information and resources on clinical depression to the general public.

Her approach is a new twist on the trend among students to collect dissertation data over the Internet. Unlike most students, who dissolve data-gathering Web sites after their research is done, Price will continue running her site after earning her degree. And she's not alone: recent graduate Nina Ghiselli, PsyD, created a Web site for students with disabilities as her dissertation project.

Their atypical approach will spark controversy among psychology educators, predict some faculty. Many programs would not consider these projects to meet the requirements for a dissertation and, therefore, may not support similar proposals from students, they say.

But for Ghiselli and Price, this approach brought success in more ways than one: The two may have carved out a new career niche for themselves. Ghiselli's site is a prototype she intends to market to colleges and universities, and Price plans to develop two additional sites, www.AllAboutAnxiety.com and www.AllAboutMentalHealth.com.

"I want to incorporate Web development in my future work as a psychologist," says Price, who has purchased a new fully loaded computer to help manage her Web sites. "Web design is fun and exciting and I think it's a wonderful opportunity to offer good mental health information to the public."

Budding psychologist and Webmaster

For Price, designing a Web site as her dissertation seemed the perfect way to blend her two passions--psychology and art. Throughout her psychology training, she has worked as an artist and designer in the Licensing Design Studio at Hallmark Cards, Inc., creating artwork with classic characters such as Snoopy and Mickey Mouse for cards and gift-wrap.

But in addition to fulfilling her creative desires, she wanted to help fill a gap in online mental health information. In her online searches, she had found a meager number of well-done psychology-related Web sites designed specifically for the general public. Having reviewed a number of Web sites, some which were poorly organized with gloomy designs, Price was determined to create an easy-to-navigate site with an appealing design and packed with high-quality information.

For her research, she conducted two surveys--one small pencil-and-paper survey and a larger online survey--to identify the type of information people want and how they'd like it organized.

"Rather than just guessing at what users want and designing it blindly," says Price, "I'm involving the users in every step of the development."

Price learned HTML coding so she could build the Web site herself, but hired a Web-design company at $85 an hour to help her program the online survey. For the design, she consulted with computer and design experts and tested how her site looks on different types of computers and browsers.

Her colorful, upbeat site offers information on further resources, causes and treatment of clinical depression, charts and statistics on the prevalence of depression and special pieces on topics such as depression in children.

"My hope is to draw people in and incite them to get more information," she says. "I want to help universalize the understanding of clinical depression."

Facilitating her development of the site is her dissertation advisor, Gary Price, PhD, (no relation) who was amenable to her nontraditional dissertation proposal.

"In many ways, her dissertation isn't really any different from a traditional dissertation," says Gary Price. "She's answering research questions, 'What do people want in a Web site, what are the most effective ways to present information, what categories do they want together and how much information do they want on a page?' She's also analyzed how individuals proceed through her site."

"But unlike a traditional dissertation," he says, "she will have more than just a thick document when it's done. She'll have a live site that people can use forever."

A disability services e-center

Price's fellow pioneer, Nina Ghiselli, created www.Eaccessibility.com for her dissertation. The Web site enables students with different learning and physical disabilities to request academic accommodations online. It also offers faculty and internship training directors guidance on teaching and working effectively with these students.

Like Price, Ghiselli created her site, which is still under construction, to bridge gaps in service delivery. Ghiselli has a learning disability and knew from personal experience that the disability services offices at some schools offer limited resources. Also, many students with disabilities spend huge amounts of time educating their training directors and professors about their specialized needs--and that adds up to time taken away from learning, says Ghiselli, who earned her doctorate at the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) at Alameda and is now in a postdoctoral position at the Center on Deafness at the University of California, San Francisco. She is also the chair on disabilities issues for the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students.

The site provides such education to faculty and training directors so that students don't have to. They can learn for themselves how to integrate disability issues into their classes, use disability-sensitive teaching techniques and make accommodations to internship sites for students.

Also available on the site are online forms, which students with physical or learning disabilities can fill out to request academic accommodations, such as in-class note-takers, sign language interpreters, handouts with large print and extended time for exams. Students can submit the forms to the appropriate office or person through the site.

The online request feature will help students with disabilities feel more comfortable about asking for academic accommodations, says Ghiselli's dissertation advisor, Rhoda Olkin, PhD, who is also the CSPP­Alameda faculty advisor for students with disabilities and a professor of psychology.

"Many graduate students with disabilities are particularly reluctant to self-identify as having a disability because they are working hard to become professionals, and the stigma and prejudice attached to disability are such that people with disabilities are viewed as clients, not professionals," says Olkin. "This Web site is a way to help students feel more free to identify as a person with a disability, and to request reasonable accommodations."

To develop her site's content, Ghiselli researched what types of disability services work best at colleges and universities, and the prevalence of disability services at schools across the country. And at the suggestion of her dissertation committee, she added sections especially for ethnic-minority and gay, lesbian and bisexual students with disabilities.

One thing she didn't want her site to do was increase isolation for students with disabilities.

"My big concern was that schools would use this site software so they didn't have to see disabled students one-on-one any longer," says Ghiselli.

For that reason, she plans to explore ways to maintain control over each school's Eaccessibility.com site by linking their Web pages to her central site. That way, she can monitor each site to ensure that students' requests are being filled and students are receiving one-on-one assistance.

Advice for future Webmasters

To students pondering the online dissertation path, Price and Ghiselli warn that the experience is not all fun and games. Price estimates that she invested more time on the project than many of her peers did on their traditional hard-copy dissertations, and spent more money than she expected on design consulting, computer training and software expenses. For example, Price recently plunked down $119 just to register her site's domain name for the next two years, $100 to obtain a secure server for her survey, and she'll spend $35 a month to maintain her project on the site.

As for Ghiselli, she admits that sometimes she felt technologically overwhelmed by the challenge of designing a Web site. And she recognizes that the costs to maintain the site will also add up quickly.

On the upside, though, both found they had no trouble staying motivated to finish their dissertations--a problem that plagues many students.

Says Price, "It's all I wanted to work on."