School Is in Session
It’s that time of year again, when everyone heads back to school. For doctoral students, however, studying and working on a dissertation is continuous and may take years to complete. Though it’s a significant accomplishment to pursue a doctoral degree, it’s also inarguably a very challenging endeavor.
Earlier this year, the Roadtrip Nation RV stopped in Baltimore on its 3-week journey across the U.S. to discover the importance of earning a doctoral degree through interviews with professionals and doctoral graduates who pursued their educational dreams, overcame challenges, and went on to have successful and diverse careers. Walden held a panel discussion and networking event featuring Dr. Barbara Heller, professor emeritus and former dean at the University of Maryland School of Nursing; Dr. Jonas Nguh, Walden graduate and Walden faculty member; Dr. Walter McCollum, Walden’s dean of Student Affairs; and the three Roadtrip Nation participants, including Walden doctoral students Crystal Francis (PhD in Public Policy and Administration) and Kylie Yearwood (PhD in Nursing). During the panel discussion, the faculty members and students shared what they have learned during their journey.
Here are six tips gleaned from the panelists for all those considering or pursuing earning their doctorates:
- Surround yourself with a good support system. For doctoral students, a support system is very important. Family support is critical, as is help from anyone who will be able to assist in other areas of your life during this journey. Dr. Heller and Dr. McCollum agree that student groups are essential to success at the doctoral level. “Peer mentoring is really the highlight of higher education, so create a student network if you’re not already part of one,” says Dr. McCollum. “Not only would students seek support in the areas where they were weakest, but it was nice to also have someone to collaborate with who would also be able to empathize with us.”
- Be prepared for life changes along the way. As many doctoral students will admit, life happens during a doctoral journey, forcing you to face new realities and difficult challenges. “We have to be reflective and be practical as to what our lives are, and sometimes in order to move forward you have to take a step back,” says Dr. Nguh. “I knew that there was no way I could devote myself equally to school and work and still be successful. So, I had to take a step back from my position and job that required me to be on-call 24/7. I took a role so that I could work more 9–5 hours and have the weekends to focus on my work while still being able to be with my family.”
- Determine your time-management strategy. Dr. McCollum recommends developing a time-management system that’s unique to your personal life. “Only you know what’s happening in your life, so consider all the factors when reflecting on your various responsibilities,” he says. In addition, Francis says just 15 minutes can make all the difference. “Some people get frustrated because they’re not managing time and can become mentally strained and stressed. If you spend at least 15 minutes a day, you’ll be OK. Even if you can’t write, proofread or pull literature review from the library.”
- Focus on your dissertation topic. Dr. Heller and Francis say don’t leave the dissertation until the end, after you’ve completed your coursework. “Every chance you get when you have the option to write your own paper on any topic, focus on your dissertation topic,” says Francis, who insisted this helped her narrow down and identify the problem she wanted to address. “You should be thinking about different areas or ideas that you would like to pursue and use that experience throughout your coursework,” agrees Dr. Heller.
- Don’t feel obligated to write in chronological order. For Francis, this was a game-changer. “My committee chair said to start with chapter 2, then write chapters 1 and 3, because literature review is the most important chapter. You can understand the topic but still need to access research.” She cautions, “Sometimes you get writers block because chapter 2 needs to be exhaustive,” but recommends, “Don’t just sit there—start writing another chapter.”
- Be grateful for the process. They say just enjoy the journey, but it can be difficult when there is so much work. “Looking back, I enjoyed the challenges I encountered,” says Dr. Nguh. “I am thankful because that is what has made me into the researcher and practitioner that I am today. The way I analyze, the way I critique, and all of the papers that I had to write, and today I'm able to use the knowledge and skills to write grants, to write research articles, to critique, and to give suggestions or recommendations. I'm using that practically in the work that I do, even without realizing it.”