From student to scholar: 10 pieces of advice for surviving a doctoral program
By Dr. Jana Craft on May 05, 2014
When are they going to realize I've no idea what I'm doing?
This is how I've felt most of my teaching career. I started teaching in higher ed as a fluke. I answered an ad for a "business teacher" at a small, for-profit, family owned 2-year college as I was finishing my Master's degree. I was in consulting and bored to tears with reconciliation, work flow analysis, accounting system upgrades and drivingdrivingdriving.
When I called to follow up about a week later, I was put through to the Dean. A mousy gentleman with a whiny voice, his tone was laced with condescension. He wore round glasses, thread bare corduroys and sweater vests with leather elbow patches.
Him: "Are you applying for the full-time business teacher position?"
Me: "Ummm, sure."
And here we are, 12 years later.
Later, he told me he hired me because I knew the subject, not because of my ability to teach. A seasoned veteran of the school who was on the hiring team insisted they could teach anyone to teach, but they couldn't teach enthusiasm for the subject.
Needless to say, I was thrown into the deep end of the pool without even so much as a pair of plastic arm floaties. It was hard, but I liked it. I made some really great friends during my four years there who often saved me from myself and continue to be a sounding board for my rants about for-profit education on Facebook.
I taught for ten years before I transitioned from a student to a scholar during my last two years of doctoral work at the University of Minnesota. I write today for those of you struggling through classes, trying to wrap your head around a dissertation or wading through committee red tape. For those of you whom I've met at conferences, in classes and online I'm here to say you, too, will have this epiphany.
I have Dr. Ken Bartlett to thank for mine. It all came together in his class on ... well... I don't even remember which class. I'd been at it for about two years when I studied under this reformed Kiwi (New Zealander). At this level of education, you do not often encounter Professors who admit that, for them, writing is a painful struggle. Between stories of his recent climbing adventures, he admitted to changing his major right before his oral and written doctoral exams, from Recreation Tourism/Leisure Studies to Human Resource Development at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne. Folks, that's doctoral student suicide in a neat little pill.
He brought authenticity to a PhD classroom and I can attest to the rarity of this feat in academia. He also used self-deprecating humor and humbling accounts of self-doubt to help us understand that our struggles were not unique and our worries were not unfounded. This profession is not without struggle; publish or perish, tenure or tossed. So, here's how he taught us to cope.
1. Get a system.
Some of you use RefWorks or Endnote or some such fancy electronic citation software that will save you so much time and energy that papers will magically appear in a fully formed Word document. Your professors will be so amazed that they will bow in awe of your efficient use of time and lack of APA errors. Journal articles will gleefully leap into your database and smile their silly parenthetical grin right when you need them.
Or, you can do what Ken suggested: get a binder
This special binder weights approximately 976 lbs. Its entire contents are the front pages of every article I read in doctoral school, plus any extra articles I used for papers.
This is the index's index. Categorized by subject and cross-referenced so that the copied first page could apply in multiple categories. For example, a qualitative research study on ethical decision making would apply under both Ethics: Decision Making and Qualitative Research. When I needed to reference the method, I pulled from my Research section. When I needed to reference subject, I'd pull from that area.
As any budding scholar will ask, where are the actual articles? Well, my friends, that's what boxes such as these contained. Each article had a folder filed by author last name(s) and year. This is where the information lived and continues to reside. If my house (then) or office (now) burnt to the ground, I'd be absolutely screwed.
2. Don't save the world, just write the damn paper.
UMN recruited a pretty diverse group of doc students from all over the globe. Just in my classes alone there were students from Ghana, Pakistan, Thailand, South Korea (a lot!), China, Taiwan, Japan, Jamaica, Bahamas, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland and Russia. God bless them, one and all, for wanting to complete their PhD and SAVE THEIR COUNTRY. I'm not even kidding. That was their goal, to reform their country's educational system or change the culture of women's access to information or start a national human resource development movement in their nation's largest organizations. Me? I just wanted to finish to be able to keep my job and get tenure.
Bartlett's take? A completed dissertation is just the beginning of your career. Use it as a stepping stone for a lifetime of research and reform. If you try to use it to save the world, you'll never leave here with those three little initials behind your name.
I should also mention my dissertation chair, Dr. Alexandre Ardichvili (yes, I can type that correctly without looking at the spelling on the website now) taught me these three profound words: "No. Too big." Say it in a patient Russian accent and there you have it. His approval and edits were like manna from heaven when I was deep in self-doubt and drowning in data. Doc students often complain about the horrible advising they receive (read: none). I had the absolute opposite experience and I'm completely and forever grateful because I know I found a rare bird in Sasha (nickname).
I've heard horror stories about advisers pushing their own research agendas and insisting on co-authorship (or, sometimes, first-authorship) on any future publications. I'm here to say - this is not the way to get done, successfully. If you have a selfish, power-driven adviser, drop them like a hot rock and seek other mentorship immediately.
3. You don't need to reinvent the wheel.
Don't write papers on different topics from class to class. Use your growing collection of research (see #1) and build on papers you've already written. In your methodology class, write the method section. In your advanced classes, build your literature review.
4. Don't assume all articles are gospel.
Do some research on the authors before you read the article. Where do they teach? Is the institution reputable? Accredited? Are they new to the field or have they been publishing for a while? Is it a student author under the tutelage of a more experienced scholar?
How about the journal? Some are very low quality and will accept any submissions. He brought in badly written articles by reputable people and excellent articles by disgraced people. He discussed how to judge the quality of a journal (SSCI) and how to quickly judge the impact of a particular article (Google Scholar's cited by number). Finally, he brought in an article by a reputable, retired UMN department member in a well-respected journal that was terribly biased and basically an unfounded rant against the "man."
5. Engage a proofreader.
And, when your proofreader asks you "how deep do you want me to go" you should always say "whatever it takes" with humility and grace. Be prepared to edit, edit, edit. I use the following real example to show my students that absolutely everyone needs a proofreader. And I think I'm a pretty good writer...
Craft, J. (2013). Living in the Gray: Lessons on Ethics from Prison.
6. Always carry an article to read in your spare time.
Bartlett admitted he was not a strong writer. It was a long and arduous process from start to finish. Keeping up with scholarly journals from your field is a daunting task. He's never without an article to read in line at the coffee shop or waiting at the DMV. If he's idle, he's reading. He suggested we adopt a similar tactic.
I'd like to add a few more items to Bartlett's list:
7. Be prepared for a mess.
I was between jobs and without an office, living with four kids and a boxed up house in anticipation of our impending move and my job change. By the way, I don't recommend this. Consider this a what not to do.
8. Insert determined cliche here. You can choose from any of my favorites including:
- suck it up
- just write the paper, don't save the world (^see above)
- let's do this
- bring it
- go put on your big girl panties and stop complaining
- "Stand" by Rascal Flatts was my flagship song
May times I felt like I was holding on by my recently chewed off fingernails; but I was surviving and making progress. I got through my bachelor's degree on spite alone; this was growth for me, readers.Grit served me well.
In the end, it's all worth it.
9. Your kids will remember how hard you worked. The time spent away will fade and then you'll be left with this awesome memory of your second grader prancing around in your yet-to-be-worn, $850 doctoral regalia.
10. You have a go-to parental lesson at your disposal.
Instead of pulling out the tired parental justifications like I carried you for nine months in my womb or I walked up hill, both ways, in a blizzard to school while pregnant you can upend any teenage laziness with >> when I was in PhD school, I worked full time, commuted four hours to class each week,brought home the bacon, fried it up in a pan and never let your dad forget he's a man. At the very least, they will be so grossed out and mortified, they will beg to do whatever mundane/ridiculously easy/household chore with gleeful abandon in order to exit this conversation.
I can personally attest to the success rate of this strategy.
It was only until I stopped thinking of myself as a student and started thinking of myself as a scholar that I started to feel confident in the classroom. I taught for nearly 6 years before I began my doctoral program; I felt like a fraud in front of the classroom most days. After the student-to-scholar realization I know the difference between teaching versus presenting material.
This is my 12th year as a teacher in higher education. I've learned to give students a mechanism for asking questions that are not usually addressed in the business curriculum. I call this the burning questions exercise. Here's one that stopped me cold in February.
When did you know you were credible?
Without hesitation, but with a great deal of surprise after I heard it out loud, I said: twelve years. More specifically, this past August 20th. That's the day I officially crossed the threshold from student to scholar, on the day I successfully defended my dissertation and earned the respect of my colleagues. I worked my way into this profession and have fully realized my place in it. I'm treated differently by my colleagues and my students with these three little letters behind my name. I can feel a visceral difference and it surprises me daily.
So, to my friends who are still in the fight, I leave you with the two best pieces of advice I received during my journey.
Go! Go! Go!
It just takes grit and determination.
Dr. Jana Craft is a Christian, wife, mother, business professor, fake biker and terrible cook who writes about the struggle to balance these identities and the joy derived from them all. She writes daily on her blog Holding True @ janacraft.blogspot.com.
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