Some of the hardest decisions you might make in your professional career are…”Do I make the next step??”…”Do I make the plunge into the depths of a doctoral program?”…“Can I continue to work while I pursue my degree?”…”Am I crazy?” Cathy Bickel of Ball State wrote an article previously for Reslife.net (still available on the website) about making some of those decisions. Maybe I should have read that before I started this craziness! This article is a follow-up to that and will address some survival tips for those of you who have decided you are ready or may be already in the midst of the craziness of working on a doctoral degree and trying to manage that with a full-time job.
Survival Tip #1:
Just grit your teeth and do it
Setting oneself up for a possible rejection or failure is never very fun….and that is exactly what you do when you send off that first application for a doctoral program….and the second….and the third. This is no place for an oversensitive ego. But if you can psych yourself up to realize that you really have nothing to lose if you are rejected (except a little pride), then sticking it out and continuing to try may pay off for you. My trick was to tell only my supervisors and co-workers whose support and permission (and recommendation letters, of course) I needed, put my everything into my application, and stuff it in the mail. Then I tried to forget about it. Using the paper shredder for any rejection letters is also a helpful hint. Then do it all over again.
Survival Tip #2:
Just walk through the door
Once you have convinced your doctoral program of choice (or any that would take you) that you are an intelligent and worthy candidate, then you need to work on convincing yourself. I will never forget the feeling of walking into the door of my first class trying to look as sophisticated and worldly as I was sure all of the rest of my classmates would look. After all, they were doctoral students, and I was sure that would be able to tell immediately that it was a big mistake that I was ever let into their academic cohort of intellectuals. My advisor in the program sent me an email with a great piece of advice. He said, “Don’t be intimidated by the fact that they all seem to be speaking in their own language. After a few classes, you’ll be doing it too.” Once I realized that I wasn’t the only “new” person in class and that we were all in the same boat, it was easy to relax and make new friends….and I started speaking their language of “academic discourse, peer-reviewed journals, program committees, and residency requirements” before I even realized I was doing it!
Survival Tip # 3:
Create a support group
Of course it is crucial that all the important people in your life are behind you and support your new mission. If you have a family, they will be making sacrifices, too. It is also important to build up a group of supporters and friends that are in your classes and program. No one else can possibly understand what you are doing and going through like they can. I was fortunate to start my program with two friends who are my “teammates” in this game we are playing. We have a three-hour drive to attend classes, and I couldn’t do it if they were not there with me to commiserate, strategize, set goals, and read assignments out loud with me. We constantly remind each other why we are doing what we are doing.
Once we get to class, it is comforting to know the people that are in that room with me. We share email and phone numbers and form study groups (even if they are long distance ones) and work together rather than against each other. You will not make friends with everyone in your program, but it is up to you to take the initiative to “put yourself out there.” Sometimes you will be the one doing a little extra in helping your classmates with understanding an assignment or concept, but isn’t it nice to know that they will be there when you need them too. (Speaking of a support group, if anyone else has any survival tips they are willing to share…my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Survival Tip #4:
Build up your academic confidence
The first big paper is a hump in the academic road. A residence life job is a lot of doing things–keeping track of many details at all the same time, small job after small job, a long “to do” list of different things, running from one meeting to the next, and talking to people all day. How in the world can anyone sit down and concentrate and write on the same topic for twenty pages?! You have got to be kidding! In residence life, we DO things, not write about things! Going to class has started to become an enjoyable experience, but what about that lonely time at home staring at the blank computer screen waiting for a divine inspiration? I just didn’t think I would be able to write that first paper. I can tell you that an inspiration never hit me, but I did fill up twenty pages. I wasn’t particularly proud of the content of the paper, but I was pretty darn proud that I had done it. I didn’t make an A on that paper, but I did jump that first hurdle. Every paper since then has been a little bit easier as my confidence in my ability to do something (even if it isn’t a great something!) has increased. I no longer try to compare my abilities to everyone else in the class. Some will be better than mine, but you never know….I may not be the worst. The point is that I am getting it done.
Survival Tip #5:
Figure out what you can give up, and then don’t regret it
Sometimes I think I might be the only person in the country that cannot have a well-informed conversation about Joe Millionaire! I have had to change my concept of free time. I know that every day when I go home from work, Oprah and Dr. Phil are no longer on my agenda. I have to keep a steady pace going, and I work for about four hours every week night (that I am not actually in class, that is) on my reading and papers and studying. I actually schedule in time on the weekends for socializing and relaxing. Then I make sure I make the most of every minute of that time–spending it with friends, pursuing hobbies, and enjoying myself (and most of all, not stressing about my school work!). When I set my mind to this new schedule, I do not feel deprived or regret anything that I have given up. I know that the next few years will pass with me being relatively happy. I can let them pass while I am watching TV and relaxing…or I can let them pass with me enjoying a feeling of accomplishment of earning my PhD.
I feel a twinge of guilt even as I write about the small sacrifices that I make in my life to earn my degree. My two “teammates” that I mentioned earlier have different sacrifices and time commitments to work around. One is newly married and the other is married with two small children. I was hoping they would contribute to my list of survival tips to offer those two different perspectives. Gee, I wonder why they didn’t take me up on the offer to spend more time writing?? Surely, they don’t have anything better to do!!!
Survival Tip #6:
Make the most of your time at work
It is hard enough that you have to juggle all of your personal time into your doctoral pursuit, but it is even harder to manage your career at the same time. I have found several strategies that have been helpful for me. One trick for me is that I make my research, papers, and projects as relevant to my job as possible. In an ideal world, I would venture away from topics that deal with residence life and try to get as broad of a knowledge base as possible. But then again, when is working full time and going to school full time ever going to be an ideal world?! I have used information and research gathered from student satisfaction surveys into studies for my Statistics class. I have written literature reviews and papers on topics that are on my mind at work every day. It is great when you can show this information to your administration and staff and they can see that it may be worth it for all the time you may be out of the office!
Speaking of out of the office…how do you make up for the time you are OUT OF THE OFFICE and in class. Luckily, I am not forced by my supervisor to actually clock in extra hours for the ones that I am out. I realize that everyone may not get this kind of undying support. During the times that I let my guilt get to me for my absence during office hours, I have worked later hours in the evenings and used that as a time to meet with more students and even attend evening programs and meetings. But at other times when this was not possible, I have just been more motivated to be as productive as possible during the time that I am in the office. This has meant prioritizing things that have to get done immediately and can be done only by me and then doing them as efficiently as possible. Another lesson I have learned is delegating to other staff members who “will benefit greatly from a new experience” (at least that is what I tell them). Surprisingly, new professionals or graduate students on your staff may jump at the opportunity to represent the department on some campus committees, teach the RA Leadership Class, and plan for big projects. (Never underestimate the phrase “This would look great on your resume!”) You can have a well-rounded staff thanking you for the opportunities that you have given them to grow in their professional careers. (What they actually say when you are gone, can’t hurt you if you don’t know about it, right?)
Survival Tip # 7:
Don’t get the “Monster-at-the-End-of-the-Book Syndrome”
One of my favorite books as a kid was a Sesame Street book called “There’s a Monster at the End of This Book!” Grover is the main character. For the entire book, he is begging you not to turn the page because he has heard the rumor that there will be a monster at the end of the book. When the reader turns the last page, he learns (at the same time that Grover does) that the monster at the end of the book is only lovable Grover himself. That is how many of us in our program realize we feel about our coursework. We can’t wait until we finish all of the course requirements, but we are a little afraid to finish that last class…because the dreaded comprehensive exams and dissertation are next! Even the mention of those words in a group of doctoral students creates a panic effect. However, the more information we gather piece by piece from professors and other students in the process, the more manageable these “monsters” seem to become. We learn that these big things can be broken down into smaller things that we can take one step at a time–just like we have learned to do with every other class, every paper, and every research project. We just have to turn one page at a time.
Submitted by Darcy Schraufnagel, Director of Residence Life, Georgia Southwestern State University