For the student affairs professional, specifically those who work in the housing and residence life profession, the decision to pursue a doctoral degree is complex and multi-faceted. For most of us, the decision to attend a college or university after high school was very simple. We wanted to go to college, we had several choices of where to attend, we had some idea of what we wanted to study, we gained financial support through grants, loans or generous parents and off we went with what seemed to be, all the time and choices in the world. For many of us, the decision to get a masters degree was even easier. It might have involved an enthusiastic commitment to get a graduate degree, a clear idea of what to study, some prime choices of where to study, the time and flexibility to earn the degree and the financial support through assistantships or full time employment. Oh, if only the decision to pursue a doctoral degree were that easy!
The decision to pursue a doctoral degree is complex in the fact that what may have been simple or even non-existent issues previously, are now integral and even life altering issues. Like all good things, desire, support, time, direction and money are critical. How we view our motivation, support systems, time, goals and finances, change when considering enrolling in a doctoral program. It is in these areas that critical decisions need to be made before the application is even submitted.
Desire and Motivation
We all have desire and motivation or we would not even have considered the idea of getting a graduate degree and working with and for students who pose complex and challenging situations and decisions for us on a daily basis. The desire and motivation for pursuing the doctorate is and needs to be different. For some, the desire comes from the potential for job advancement, an increase in salary, a career change, future job options, etc. For others, it is the desire to reach the pinnacle of the academic world. It is the intrinsic motivation to complete in a very formal way, what was begun starting with kindergarten. For others, it is the notion of having letters like “Ph.D.” or “Ed.D.” after our names or answering the telephone, “Good Morning. This is Dr. So-And-So.” Finally, for others, it is the challenge to stay professionally and personally intrigued, stimulated, curious and current. Pursuing the degree is personally fulfilling with professional bonuses. Knowing what your desire for getting a doctorate is can be key to making the decision to pursue the doctorate. Just because it seems like something you should do or it sounds academically hip to say you are a doctoral student is not motivation enough. It will not get you through those times when you cry out in anguish, “Why am I even doing this?!!” Know why you are doing it!
No one made it through his or her undergraduate years or his or her graduate program without support. It is no different with a doctoral program and probably even more critical. If you have a support system that include a spouse, partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, child, friends, colleagues, supervisor, even dog or cat, they will at some point feel as if they are going through the doctoral program with you. Not only do you need to know who your support systems are and will be, you need to decide if you want them to join you as a doctoral student. They also need to know that like it or not, your success may be dependent on their support. Those closest to you will need to understand that time spent together will be limited, different and sacrificed. The family and social routines can change when there is a doctoral student in the house. For some doctoral students, members of the family take on extra employment to help with finances (or to get out of the house!). Extra house responsibilities are not as equally shared. Family and social obligations are fulfilled but maybe done alone while the student is in class or studying. Support also means that family, friends and co-workers need to provide the emotional encouragement necessary during frustrating or frazzled times. For some families and friends, having a doctoral student in the house can mean that time spent together becomes quality time. It is cherished and relationships are strengthened. For others, living with or being around a doctoral student strains relationships or causes resentment of time. The role of a doctoral student can take on such importance that the other roles in our life such as spouse, partner, parent or colleague are not given the same energy or dedication. The decision to pursue a doctorate involves examining who your support persons are, knowing what you may need from them, communicating to them that they will become part of the doctoral student process and agreeing on how to manage relationships, home life and work responsibilities when time is short and energy is low.
Choices – Where and What To Study
It would be an understatement to say that the decisions of where and what to study are critical, however for many people these choices are limited when selecting a doctoral institution. Most of us know the value of attending an institution that has a solid reputation for a particular program of study. We all want to study where faculty is well known in their field, where we will be academically inspired and challenged and where the resources are abundant. However, the choice of what institution to study at can be narrowed down to just a few if the geographic location, family or work obligations or financial support is limited. For example, if you are employed at an institution that will subsidize your tuition, it is an economically smart decision to attend where your out of pocket costs will be minimal. If family or work obligations limit you to a particular geographic location the decision to attend a particular institution may be restricted to within a one or two hour driving range. A decision then needs to be made about your willingness to commute and for how long and how far. Other questions to ask your self are, does the commute also mean extra finances, restricted library and research access and additional time needed from work and family obligations. For many, what institution to study at can be determined by work and family obligations and not as much by choice.
If you have the luxury to decide where to study there are some factors to consider when reviewing institutions. One important factor is faculty reputation. Do the faculty stay current in their field of study through research and publishing? Do the faculty value applicable knowledge for practitioners or do they value the more traditional scholarly practices of research and teaching? Will faculty members invite you to partake in their research or invite you to co-publish with them? Will they view you as co-partners in the learning process, valuing your experiences? What do former students have to say about the program and the level of faculty support? Other factors to consider are the academic support systems such as the library and technical support. Other considerations may be the availability and quality of an assistantship as well as the opportunities for affordable housing.
I think it is important to respond to the saying, “It doesn’t matter where you get your doctorate, just get it!” It does matter where you get your doctorate. It matters to you, because it matters to your finances, your current employment situation, your family, your energy and your time. Given all these important factors, your choice of where to attend may be the most important decision of all.
What to Study
The decision of what to study should be selfish. If you are going to enter into a doctoral program, it better be a course of study that you want and not what you think you should pursue. Many who work in student affairs with doctoral degrees earned their degrees in higher education administration, educational leadership policy or adult education administration. Others earned their degrees that are a continuation or picked up from earlier interests or degrees. It depends on why you have decided to get a doctorate and what you plan to do with it once you have earned it. If you are hoping that a doctorate will help you advance in your career, a doctorate in higher education, educational leadership, educational psychology, adult education or even a particular business major such as marketing or business administration are certainly acceptable majors. Some student affairs practitioners earned their terminal degree by attending law school and focusing on higher education and the law. I believe most employers would agree that a doctorate in a field of study related to higher education is sufficient. If you have decided to get a doctorate for personal fulfillment, the sky is the limit!
As we all know, the cost of attending higher education is expensive. There are ways to trim your costs while pursuing a doctorate. One decision that you will need to make is whether or not to go to school full or part time. Most programs allow you to pursue a doctoral program part time, which would allow you to continue working, earn a salary, maintain benefits and continue contributing to a retirement account. This however, adds time on to your ability to complete the program and for many, is not desirable. If you are employed, content in your position, well supported by your employer, supported financially by the institution and in no hurry to move on to another job or institution, going to school part time is very practical.
Another way to subsidize your education if you are attending part time is to investigate whether your institution allows professional development funds to be used towards your tuition bill. It is most likely that if you are working full or part time and attending school part time you will have little time to attend some of the traditional professional development conferences. Using your allotted professional development funds towards your school bill is certainly supportive of your professional development efforts and it is also helping to cut personal expenses.
There are always the traditional modes of financial assistance. Loans are available for doctoral students, as are assistantships. Doctoral assistantships are very appealing because they can provide you with experiences different from what you may have previously done in your career. For example, if you have not had much time to conduct assessment projects for programs or you want to learn more about the dean of student’s office, assistantships can provide unique and practical experiences as well as the financial support to continue your education.
There is never enough time, no matter what you are doing; however the concept of time changes dramatically once you are a doctoral student. It is not unusual for a doctoral student to attend classes and work at an assistantship all day and then spend the evening at the library or at home reading or typing a paper. Weekends are spent reading, typing and catching up with the rest of life. If you plan to be a part time student, your time is spent working all day, attending classes a few nights during the week, studying the nights you are not in class and studying, typing or reading on the weekends. Time is not your own whether you attend part time or full time. There is no doubt that time with family and friends is sacrificed. However, when it is finals week and you have submitted your last paper and taken your last exam for the semester, there is no sweeter feeling. You will remember that same feeling you had as an undergraduate or graduate student. Your step is lighter and you are filled with a sense of accomplishment, relief and pride when you walk back to your car after your last final week duty!
So the decision to pursue a doctorate is yours! Consider your desire and motivation for pursuing a three, four or five year commitment. That commitment has a variety of personal and professional sacrifices, but evolves into a fantastic accomplishment and sure sense of pride. Consider your support systems. Is your decision supported personally and professionally and are the sacrifices known to all? Consider which institution to attend and what you will study. Will you attend part time or full time? Are you studying for professional development or personal challenge and pleasure? Consider your financial options. What are the real costs involved and how can you manage your finances without getting into debt or having your family sacrifice? Finally, consider the time involved. How fast do you want to get through your program or how willing are you to sacrifice evenings and weekends for the next couple of years?
Getting a doctoral degree is a sacrificing and fulfilling accomplishment. Don’t make the decision to pursue a doctoral program alone. Find someone who has been through a doctoral program and learn what factors were critical in his or her decisions. Talk with current doctoral students who are in the middle of their program and learn what has helped them be successful or what has been a challenge for them. Find a faculty or professional staff mentor, a colleague or a friend who will give you honest feedback as you make decisions. Making solid decisions about the choices you have, will determine to a large extent, your ability to manage anxiety and time during stressful moments, your sense of enjoyment in what you study and experience, your success in persisting to the dissertation defense, and your ability to be a successful and happy student, family person and professional.
Submitted by Cathy Bickel, Associate Director of Housing and Residence Life, Ball State University