Deconstructing the PhD Program of Study (POS) in Learning, Design & Technology

Craig and advanced PhD candidate Khosi Lunga (mlunga@utk.edu) collaboratively wrote this blog post.

A PhD program of study (POS) seems cryptic and confusing until you take it apart. Each section has a purpose. Khosi Lunga and I have annotated this one to explain the parts. The image is linked and clickable. 

Like many things in PhD study, the Program of Study (POS) document is not as simple as it seems. It is not simply a list of courses a student must take to complete the degree. Rather, it’s a negotiated document that tracks a strategy to prepare a student for launching a career in scholarship and research. Of course, one can approach it as a list of courses to take. If one does so, it will result in a complete list of courses but not necessarily a healthy start to a career. Such a strategy may not result in a student being prepared to write a dissertation, and such a strategy offers even less of a chance that a research trajectory will be apparent at the completion of the program. To accomplish the larger goal of launching a career in scholarship and research, we suggest following the intention of the sections rather than checking of items on a course list. Each section has meaning; we tried to explain with different colors in the graphic. The Basic Core is an introduction to the way this faculty defines the field, while the Advanced Core offers the expertise this particular faculty group has on hand to accomplish research. The remaining sections beg the student to develop their interests. The Research Apprenticeship, Methods, Electives, Cognate, and Dissertation sections all provide you the opportunity to bring your own interests into your POS. Pay special attention to the Essential parts of the program that do not appear on the POS because they are notoriously hard to recognize if you’re not aware of them.

The Basic Core: These courses orient you to the program, the degree field, and the department’s resources for you. These are non-negotiable, there are no options and you simply cannot get started anywhere else. Professional seminar is a kind of orientation to doctoral study. Seminar is an initial research experience, while Design Thinking and Theory and Trends and Issues in Instructional Tech are both courses which introduce core concepts in the way this program has endeavored to understand the field. Take these courses whenever they are offered, because you will be limited by the frequency that the courses are offered.

The Advanced Core: These are all nitty-gritty methods courses where you learn the actual practice of conducting research in the field. These are doing research courses, NOT courses about research. These are not survey courses. You do not read much about the research methods as much as you read about how to do quality research within these practices. Take them whenever you can because they cycle in so rarely, once every 2 years. If you miss taking a course you may need, you could end up using a method for your dissertation where you did not take the course. This means extra learning for you, and a more difficult path through your dissertation, and stepping into your career without having formally taken the course on the method you propose to use. Take these courses whenever they are offered, because you will be limited by the frequency that the courses are offered. As faculty cycle into the program, each will offer a course in this area of the POS. It allows a faculty member to bring their specific area of research expertise into your battery of skills.

Research apprenticeship: These are continuations of what started in the first research group experience up in the basic core. For a more thorough explanation of what happens in research groups, see my blog post here. All PhD programs must have hands-on experiences in order to help the program support authentic learning; in the social sciences, this usually takes place in research groups. In the hard sciences, this takes place in a lab. These courses should be offered every Fall. Three consecutive years of research group should be enough opportunity to develop your research agenda. Take these once a year, every year, if you can.

We must also note that research experiences often happen in a research group, not necessarily in typical coursework. Internships and advanced instructional design practicums allow you to experience day-to-day choices and theoretical applications made by practitioners, so they may be supportive for your motivation and helping you situate your scholarship. However, value sets and expectations elsewhere likely do not align with the value set of the faculty in the program where you are enrolled (LDT) because every program faculty is different and requirements and expectations are negotiated among program faculty. Such experiences offer opportunities to discuss what you’re learning in the program with outside peers and faculty at other institutions, but in the end, departmental policies and core conceptions of what is and is not scholarship in instructional design are highly unlikely to change due to perspectives of people not officially connected to the program. Concepts such as “peer review,” and “dissertation” may be defined differently at other institutions, and faculty at other institutions can only give you their perspective of what they experienced elsewhere. Scholarship expectations and assessment of worthwhile publication venues may not align to other programs. It is up to you to relate what you learn elsewhere to your experience at your home program. These experiences can be slotted into the POS. Students have valued these experiences. However, to best take advantage of these opportunities, it is wisest to make sure your research trajectory and progress are healthy, lest you bring back false assumptions and miss out on the training you need to progress in the program. The last concern with outside engagements is time management. Managing course work and internship responsibilities may require planning, coordination, and some fancy balancing. So, set realistic time frames that do not impede on your main objective.

Research methods: These are courses about research methods, or groups of methods, and may give you some exposure to some hands-on practices, but targeting a successful submission for publication in such a course is less likely than in the advanced core courses. These more general research methods courses help you talk to scholars in fields other than your own and are extremely important in that respect. You will need to explain your work in terms any other scholar can understand and these courses bring you into the community. You may collect some simple data; you may write up a practice analysis. However, the work is not expected to go to publication. (The work in research group is expected to go to publication.) Research methods courses are an opportunity to explore a method or practice without any consequence in your long-term success. The stakes are higher in research group, ironically, even though research group might be more informal since you will likely become very relaxed with your research group peers. Research methods courses are a superior locale for networking outside your immediate cohort, so don’t be shy. You will get more exposure to doc students in other programs in these courses, and we know that an expanded network in the tertiary program just might be what you need down the road. Take a research method course in your first semester and get these out of the way early. They eat a lot of time and typically do not result in publications, though they are essential to PhD preparation.

Electives: Electives, cognate and dissertation credits are all connected because they are essentially tied singularly to you, and not necessarily to your adviser. This is the area of your POS where you find the topic, method, or focus of research that provides enough motivation to support you through tough times when motivation may taper off. This is where you may find your calling, your mission so to say. Here is where you may find that unique area of interest that distinguishes your work from the others and motivates you. I have seen many students who come in without a masters in Instructional Technology use these slots for their prerequisites. The realities of life tell us that time is money in this capitalistic world. However, if you can, use these courses to find that motivating topic.

Cognate: A cognate is a focus outside of your main area of research that you import into your program. This is the most misunderstood area of the POS. Your interests must connect to something outside your main area, and a cognate is where you can explore that connection. It is also a place for you to solicit pivotal guidance from an outside faculty member who might eventually serve on your dissertation committee. Cognate courses also help you to find your required out-of-department faculty member for your dissertation committee. Your out-of-department faculty member is an incredible asset for situating your study among other studies in the larger world of research. Your immediate program’s faculty members cannot see your study from other people’s fields, but this person can tell you about the relevance your study has in theirs. Alternatively, the outside member can tell you how well you explain your research to those not in your field. PhD’s that don’t have a cognate miss something terribly important because your faculty inside your field may be so deep in your field that they do not recognize how the research appears from outside. If you cannot say it in plain English, you will suffer your whole career. Your outside dissertation committee member from your cognate provides you with that perspective.

Dissertation: Dissertation credits appear as if they are all about the same thing, but they are not. Assuming you will go off on your own for a year and do a dissertation is a recipe for never finishing a dissertation. Instead, break these into what they really are: 9-12 credits for writing a proposal, and 9-12 credits for writing up the remaining three chapters of the dissertation, and a few credits for defending the dissertation. Plan at least one meeting with your main adviser for each stage, and hope that you need no more than three meetings in any one stage. (However, sometimes this happens, so don’t be discouraged. When it does, there’s usually a good reason why, such as complications in the methods that required methodological development to circumvent the issue. In such a case, the tackling of the issue may in fact be a highlight of the dissertation. Such was the case with Katie Bevin’s dissertation.) Keep in mind that the POS is a document to help both you and your advisor, and with PhDs so highly individualized, the basic structure of it has to be rather flexible. Research is messy. Unexpected things happen. Dissertations also vary. Some students may need three months for a lit review, some may need only two weeks. To avoid complications, universities simply call the whole thing “dissertation” although the terms are not universally defined the same way. The strategy does, however, avoid nit-picking, and wasteful arguments about procedures. Also realize, there are a number of aspects of the doctoral POS that do not appear on this negotiated document but are nevertheless significant in doctoral learning. Ignore them to your own peril.

Essential parts of the program that do not appear on the POS: There are opportunities that come around on the listserv, that are mentioned in a research group, that are mentioned in passing in course work that seems inconsequential, but are in fact rather important. We cover them in bullets:

  • Campus-based presenting and networking. Events such as the CEHHS Colloquium create opportunities for poster presentations, or other types of exposure to the campus intellectual community. Along these same lines, the Teaching and Learning Institute offers an opportunity to present at an annual conference.
  • Involvement in professional organizations. In IDT, that will be the Association of Educational Communications and Technology (AECT). One can present, volunteer or participate in the design competition. The LDT program also offers scholarships annually to defray a significant portion of the cost; watch the listserv for the call for proposals, or look at an old one here.
  • Volunteering for program, department, journal, or college-level service roles. Serving on a search committee, award committee, student representative, or volunteering to coordinate reviews on publication are important parts of your program, yet will never appear on your POS. Many of the most rewarding experiences a doctoral student can have come from these types of engagement. Not only do they make the experience of being a doctoral student more inclusive and enjoyable, but they open up insight into how a program, department, or publication functions. All impart invaluable knowledge to doctoral students and make their work real and connected to the larger life of the college, institution, and field.

A wise doctoral student will do one in each of these categories prior to proposing a dissertation and continue serving in the role through their dissertation work. These unwritten parts of the doctoral experience can make the total experience come together and become very rewarding.

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