From traditional healers to state-of-the-science practitioners of Western medicine, Cullen Clark has studied the gamut of doctors who treat the sick. At UAB for four years, he is currently researching complementary and alternative medicine, the sociology of medical knowledge, and the ways culture influences medical care. He will complete a Ph.D. in Medical Sociology in 2008 with dissertation research that focuses on the cultural worldview of conventional and alternative medical physicians.
“This is an exploratory project comparing the worldview of naturopathic physicians (a type of alternative doctor licensed to practice primary care in about a dozen states) and conventional primary care physicians (allopaths),” he explains. “Working with Dr. Jeffrey Michael Clair and other members of my dissertation committee, I developed a survey to measure attitudes about topics ranging from health and illness to spirituality and ecology. I then mailed the survey to a randomly selected group of naturopaths and allopaths in the states where naturopaths are licensed to practice medicine.”
To date, 961 physicians – including 399 naturopaths – have completed the survey, says Cullen, adding that the results reveal a fascinating pattern of differences across several dimensions of worldview. “There is also a wealth of information in this data for future studies. It is really exciting to work on something that will be useful both for researchers interested in this field and health administrators seeking to build systems that truly integrate conventional and alternative medicine.”
Originally from Liberty, Mississippi, Cullen has lived in Birmingham for the last 20 years. This will be his second degree from UAB. Fifteen years ago, while working full time, he completed a Master of Science in Health Administration. He speaks highly of UAB, crediting the doctoral program in Medical Sociology with having an excellent international reputation.
“The program is also very supportive of nontraditional candidates like me. Before I became acquainted with the program, I was a mid-career healthcare marketing professional with a strong interest in complementary and alternative medicine, unsure about leaving a job to return to school. I was encouraged to take a course as a non-degree seeking student. I studied Medical Sociology with Dr. William Cockerham, and I was hooked. The course was great; both faculty and fellow students were very welcoming. By the end of the course, I knew I wanted to apply for the program.”
Coming back to school, after working as a professional for some time, was “simultaneously exciting and challenging,” he adds.
“I knew I would be called upon to master a large body of knowledge very quickly. That said, nothing could have prepared me for the transformative experience pursuing this doctorate has been. Developing a repertoire of analytical techniques and social theory is just the beginning of the process. It seems to me that the real metamorphosis is one of vision; students in this program learn to see things once familiar in an entirely new light.”
As a result, based on his own positive experience, he would advise people who are considering returning to school in mid-life to pursue some course of study that excites them. “Actually, [this advice] comes from the person whose counsel I value most. When I fretted that if I went back to school, I would be in my early 50s when I finished my Ph.D., my wife pointed out that if I did not go back, I would still reach my 50s. I just would not have my degree. Ultimately, I came to see that life is too short not to pursue your dreams.”
He quickly learned that the sociology department sets high standards for its graduate student, but Cullen prefers it that way.
“The work load can be intense, but the faculty is always very supportive. Indeed, one of the traditions of the department is the remarkably collegial atmosphere between faculty and graduate students. It is a tradition that seems to have been carefully crafted over time, and one that Department Chair Mark E. LaGory and Graduate Director Patricia Drentea successfully build upon. The net effect for graduate students is a community of learning where faculty mentors share their knowledge and help students navigate their transition into academia and research.”
Many people at UAB have influenced his development, he adds. “My dissertation chair, Jeffrey Clair, has been a great mentor. My other committee members Ann Clark, Mike Flannery, Ferris Ritchey, Chris Taylor, and Ken Wilson have all gone out of their way to support me. So has everyone in my department – faculty and fellow students alike.”
As for staying motivated as he finishes his Ph.D., that’s not a problem. “I am incredibly lucky. Every day I get to do something I love. What could be more motivating than that?”
Cullen wants to continue researching and working on complementary and alternative medicine, the sociology of medical knowledge and the ways in which culture influences people. “And I want to share that work with the broadest audience possible, through both traditional and nontraditional venues. Sociology offers tremendous insight into the forces that shape our world; as sociologists, we have an obligation to share that insight with people in a way that helps them improve their everyday life.”