Getting the Doctorate is all about timing

I graduated with my EdD in Higher Education Administration from Texas A&M – Commerce in 2011. It was the right, albeit, expensive choice for me. Since receiving my doctorate degree I have gone on to serve as the director of the office of Student Involvement at the University of Central Florida, teaching the higher education department at the same school and now serve as the Executive Director of the Florida Consortium. I have had more chances to present, write, and speak in environments where I know my EdD was a critical designation for my selection. So being Dr. Preston has been a good thing overall.

But is getting the doc the best thing for everyone? My gut reaction is yes but with a caveat; its all about time and opportunity. Let me explain. I started pursuing my doctorate in 2006. I did so about a year after my father passed away as a way to honor his memory. He had dreamed of having a son who got his doctorate and encouraged me to seek it out. Unfortunately he died before I could even start a program. So after I put myself back together I met with the director of the Higher Education EdD program at Texas A&M – Commerce and I was surprised at the nature of the conversation. Instead of asking about my qualifications for the program, GRE scores and the like, he focused the conversation on – why?

We talked about what my ambitions were as a student affairs professional, what I wanted to use the degree for, what my research interests were, and if I was ready. He also discussed the pitfalls of getting the degree, perceived over qualifications for many jobs I could access right now, the potential impact on my current job because the program was going to demand a lot of my time and energy, and finally, the impact on my family and friends. He qualified by saying he was not trying to scare me off, rather he was trying to make sure I was not going to waste my time and money going after something I really did not need or want. I think we all know the rest of that story. I loved my doc program, made lots of new friends and have benefitted from it quite a bit.

Now that I am on the other side I am starting to have some of the same questions for my doc students that this professor had for me. In my seven years of teaching grad courses at UCF I have taught over 100 doc students and been on the dissertation committees of at least 20 students. My students have performed well. They are smart, poised, and I am proud of the work they have accomplished. However, I am afraid a number of them have struggled after graduation to receive the opportunities I have enjoyed from the degree. They continue to mire in their current roles, unable to find work that matches their skill and advance their career. A few students have even confided to me that they wish they had waited a few years before pursuing their doc. None of them have said they wish they had never got the degree and almost every student is still hopeful, just many felt they had more info and made more strategic choices.

Getting a PhD or EdD is a grind. The classes, the research, the expense, you want it to mean something. When that does not pay off then it can be disheartening. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We need to be more honest about the value of a doctorate and have these conversations before they enroll to allow our students the time and space to come to us when they are ready. I also would like to see higher education programs deploy a formal interview process for prospective students. I feel like it would help us help students make the best decisions pertaining to their futures. Absent that I have a six question exercise that each future doc student should consider when deciding to pursue the doc. My guess is these are not earth shattering or even original but here goes:

1. What do you want to be when you grow up? – What direction do you want your career to take and is a doc part of that direction? The best way you can do this is to look at job descriptions of jobs you want and the education needed to land it. I always look at preferred and not required. Preferred usually means that is the level of education they are really expecting to see.

2. Do you have enough experience to pursue the doc? The one area I think many young doc students underestimate is how much experience upper management jobs require and they have not amassed enough years of service to qualify even with the doc. While there is no true measure of this I generally suggest between seven to ten years of progressive experience and should be at an Associate Director level and above. Once again, look at the job descriptions and see if you qualify. it is okay to consider you will likely be gaining experience while in school, after all I started my program with nine years of work and left with 13 years of work.

3. Do you like reading, writing, and research, A LOT! It’s all you do in these programs so you better like it. If not then why do that to yourself?

4. What other things are going on right now? While you cannot always predict the future you do need to consider your current family and personal situation. Getting a doc is a labor of love and is also really, really time consuming. Big changes like having kids, getting married, moving and changing jobs can really complicate things.

5. Are you ready for a new identity? Your life will change, people will look at you differently and have more expectations for you. Some like and welcome that, some don’t, there is no shame either way. But you need to understand how that will change. Talk to other peers with their doctoral degrees, what is it like? As my buddy Adam often says to students, the PhD is like putting a Halloween mask you cannot take off. You may be the same person behind the mask but that is not how others see you.

6. Can your budget take the impact? There are no Pell grants and unless you get a tuition waiver of some kind this is an expensive degree. I have tens of thousands in student loans as a result and I made some poor financial choices relative to this degree. Talk to a financial advisor first to make sure it makes financial sense.

If you answer all of those questions to your satisfaction and you are ready then welcome aboard! We cannot wait to meet you and help you though the process. Getting your EdD or PhD is life changing, challenging and a lot of fun. Just make sure you are in it for the relight reasons and at the right time.

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