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What to tell students wondering about PhD’s, and other terminal degrees


An Illustrated Guide to the PhD by Matthew Might (U . of Utah)

Matthew Might’s Big Picture Illustration seems apropos to me right now. Yes, a PhD is a pimple of knowledge on the enormous buttocks of human understanding. That pat answer won’t make the inquisitive MA student very happy though. They want clear cut, one-size fits all advice. It’s a shame such advice does not exist.

One-size fits all advice does not exists because no one can know all too much about doctorates other than their own. I find that fielding questions about what degree is appropriate for X learner is uncomfortable. About my own PhD, I think I know a fair amount– about 6 years of full time study. Unfortunately, I don’t know much else, besides second-hand knowledge I gather from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and blogs I read to learn about how I will move forward in my own career.  I would not be surprised to hear pretty much every other scholar say they know little about a PhD or EdD in Instructional Technology. Actually, I would expect them to say that. I don’t presume to know much about their doctorate, and I would expect the same courtesy- they don’t know much about mine. This puts an MA/MS student looking for guidance on doctoral study at a real loss. No one is going to step out of their shell and say they know much about the landscape of EdD’s, PhD’s, or SciD’s. So all i can really talk about R1 PhD’s. I know, this is just a fraction of the landscape of higher ed past the masters level. Please take what I have to say with that perspective in mind.

Some PhD granting institutions value their balanced approach— that’s not a descriptor I would use for R1 PhD programs.  R1 PhD’s are focused on research. But of course, the MA candidate in education doesn’t actually know what real research is. R1 institutions offer other wonderful things as well: poverty after many years of study, opportunity costs when you could be in a lucrative job, access to world-class scholars who have done the same sacrifice, circles of other students who have had varied amounts of life experience and are also intellectually curious—not to mention the smugness factor:  the self-important feeling of knowing that when you finish that defense, you know that you are the world’s leading authority on your thing, and you know that 4 or more of the world’s leading authorities have confirmed this (Ennis, 2011, here). Of course, there are those who get through R1 PhD’s without become such leaders, but I would say that generally, there are more scholars than non-scholars that come through the ranks of the R1’s. In the end, the R1 PhD is designed to produce a rigorous scholar, and that’s about it. Not a teacher, and not a person who is beneficial to the university through their service or administrative skill; that’s stuff you’re expected to learn on your own. Some R1 grads have these skills, but they sure did not acquire them in the R1 program—or at least not as a consequence of it. Some R1 candidates luck out and get a very holistic adviser. I was lucky in that way. But that’s not something one can expect from an R1.

I think I have to tell students that  no one will really know except you, which program is the best for what you want to do. I left an Ivy League R1 (well, decided not to re-enroll for the PhD) for a Big 10 R1 because, for what I do and what I wanted to do, the Big 10 school was a better fit. Sometimes I regret that decision, but not often. No one on the outside would ever know, really, the ins and outs of that decision, nor question it, I expect. However, by making that decision I ended up in a job that I did not initially plan on being in at the start of the PhD. I thought I would be in a language education program of some kind as the tech person. Instead, I am teaching in an Instructional Design & Technology program as a language person. While the difference is not enormous, it is clearly different.  The important thing is that after two years of PhD study, I realized this was going to happen, and I made a conscious decision to go forward. I am happy where I am now. Had I not made that decision when I realized my study was not going in the direction I had planned, I think I would be very unhappy now in this new job. Charlie Reigeluth was the person who forced me to face this situation directly; guidance that has proven enormously valuable in my life and career.

PhD study is not a continuation of MA/MS or even M. Ed study. It is an entirely different thing altogether, and what you learn in master’s coursework will probably not help you much in a PhD. (Of course there are things that on can learn in MA study that *do* help tremendously, but they are not coursework.) Transferring in credits is one of the greatly misunderstood obstacles for those making the transition from MA/MS to PhD. I feel strongly that transferring previous grad credits is unwise in an R1 context if you are coming from another institution, even if your credits are coming from another R1. (If they are coming from a non-R1, forget it. Transferring credits into a program of study robs a student of the chances to make the relationships they need to finish the degree.) The goal of the R1 study years is to become an intellectual sounding board for faculty members; transferring credits handicaps the learner from making those relationships. Why would one sabotage one’s own degree? Intellectual relationships require time, and usually course credits, to build. What credits one collects from grad funding that are not used in building the primary relationship should be used in building the secondary relationships – those who will sit on your dissertation committee and mentor you with the inevitable bumps in the relationship with the primary adviser.  “Credit” in the traditional sense, 3 credits per course, is actually irrelevant. (In fact, I have heard persuasive arguments for taking coursework without credit to build relationships.) In the end, credit or non-credit coursework is only valuable when it results in:

  1. An intellectual relationship with a faculty member
  2. A publication
  3. Ideally, both

On a PhD, your grades absolutely do not matter—you don’t go there to transfer to somewhere else, so whatever passing grade you get is fine. Instead, publications and relationships matter. Those are what you need, not A’s.  Completion is based on whether or not your work is true and publishable, that’s it, nothing else. Some of the best guidance I got was to figure out how many publications, or other experiences (teaching etc..), I need to get the job I want prior to enrolling in a course of study, and then focus my time towards that end. Curt Bonk at Indiana University says three publications is enough for a first tenure track job. I would say one needs a little more, but not a lot more. The 3 pubs rule is a little outdated because every year the competition gets harder.

Planning of this type of extended trajectory is not what MA’s are really used to doing. I sure wasn’t. When I graduated with my MA, I could plan about 5 years into my career. A PhD is planning for a much longer term and a significant chunk of one’s life. Many would say planning a lifetime in advance, though there *are* other opportunities besides going on to teach. Then there is the money.

PhD debt is real and serious. So are the debts that come along with other graduate degrees, but PhD’s are extraordinarily long in some cases. While I tell PhD student to think long and hard about financials, I don’t know if they really do. I did, but I entered doctoral study at age 36, fully funded, and out of debt with no children. This an important consideration. Read more about the financial debacle that is now doctoral study here, here, and here.

Still, contributing to the world’s knowledge is a beautiful thing. Matthew Might (PhD from Georgia Tech, now at Utah) says it particularly well in his classic blog post “An Illustrated Guide to The PhD”. He puts it into graphic terms. I wish I could ask every MA/MS student who is silently considering doctoral study to read it. It’s also nice to think about just how many little bumps of knowledge have been created by those who have welcomed me into this new group of scholars.

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