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My Journey as a Doctoral Student

New Professionals and Graduate Students Graduate
September 1, 2020 Annie Cole

Should I get my doctorate? What will the coursework be like? Will I enjoy writing a dissertation? These were all questions that filled my mind during the summer of 2017. I was approaching my final year in the MA Higher Education program and beginning to fill out my application for an Ed.D. program in Education: Learning and Leading. I felt like a total imposter – I didn’t think I was the doctoral student “type”. As a first-generation college student who grew up in a small coastal town in Oregon, I wasn’t sure that this next level of schooling was for me. With encouragement from friends and colleagues, I took the plunge and applied – and got accepted! As I start my final year of the program this fall, I can reflect on all of the highs and lows of the program, realizing just how far I have come and how much I have changed. Here are my top tips for those who may be considered applying for an Ed.D. or Ph.D. program.

Know what topic you want to research before applying. I remember being asked to write a statement about my dissertation topic as part of my admission essays. As a third-year student now, I can see why this was critically important. To be successful in a doctorate program, you must have a very clear idea of what you want to study for your dissertation. This topic may change dramatically (mine went from the neuroscience of student development to studying instructional practices in the research methods classroom), but you need to at least have an idea of what you want to study. Your passion for your topic is what will carry you through the long days (and nights) of reading and writing.

What is the application process like? It usually includes a variety of things, including writing multiple essays, submitting transcripts, interviewing with one or multiple faculty members in the department, submitting a writing sample (or completing a writing activity during the interview), and then a long waiting period before you find out if you’re accepted. I submitted my application around October 2017, was invited to interview in January 2018, then notified of my acceptance in April of 2018.

How do you pick a program? There are so many programs to choose from, and all of them have their pros and cons. I chose my program for three reason: the short timeframe (3 years to graduation), tuition remission (I worked at the University where I am completing my Ed.D.), and program curriculum. You may want to consider the delivery format (online/in-person/hybrid), financial aid, faculty specialties (is anyone studying the topic you want to study?), and mentorship/research opportunities. I also enjoyed that my program offered night classes only once per week; consider how each program would impact your weekly schedule and work-life balance.

What do you want to get out of a doctorate? My goal is to become a professor in an Education department, but that wasn’t always my goal. At first, I wanted to become a student affairs administrator, advancing in my field. Does your dream job require a doctorate? Are you pursuing a doctorate because you are a lifelong learner who loves school? Are you willing to go into debt to complete the degree, and if so, what salary do you anticipate making post-graduation? Making the decision to take on a doctoral degree is very personal and depends on what you personally want to get out of it.

Completing a doctorate is way different than completing a master’s degree. I thought the two experiences would be similar, but boy was I wrong. A doctorate degree prepares candidates to be excellent, skilled researchers – you will dive into the most advanced method of research design, data analysis, and qualitative and quantitative methods. Sure, you might take a series of core or specialty courses along the way, but the goal of an Ed.D. or Ph.D. is to complete a dissertation study, which requires skill in research methods. This was surprising to me at first, but quickly became one of my favorite parts of the program. Also, the amount of reading and writing is much higher. My personal homework load went up about 50% from my MA to Ed.D. program, and by 150% once I reached the dissertation stage.

You can have a life during your doctorate. It just takes some creative planning and preparation. Granted, I don’t have children, but I do work full-time while completing my studies. Small adjustments have made a huge difference for me – I sometimes will work on homework during a lunch break (every minute counts!), will meet with friends virtually to cut down on drive time (even easier nowadays), workout at home, meal prep on the weekends, and set aside time daily to take a 20 minute walk with my spouse. With a little forethought, you can be a healthy individual while also being a thriving scholarly student.

Author: Annie is in her final year of the Ed.D. program at University of Portland, completing her dissertation on how graduate students develop competency in assessment, evaluation, and research (AER) through their program coursework. She loves all things research related – she is a Graduate Student Representative for the NASPA AER KC, and currently coordinates a federally-funded study exploring neuropsychological predictors of positive adaptation in trauma-impacted youth. Connect with Annie via email at cole24@up.edu or at http://www.annie-cole.weebly.com.