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Getting ‘PhinisheD’ or ‘FinishEdD’: Strategies for Future Doctors

To maximize career potential, earning a terminal degree is a multifaceted prerequisite. The pursuit of the doctor of philosophy or education often is an arduous journey with challenges that may include but are not limited to financial limitations, imposter syndrome, standardized test-taking bias or anxiety, academic hazing and various forms of discrimination.

Nevertheless, the tam and tassel are worth the hassle, and I have outlined tips and strategies to help students get “PhinisheD” or “finishEdD.”

First and foremost, it is critically important to answer the “why.” Why is it important to earn a doctorate degree, and what are the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits to such a time-consuming and expensive investment? The pursuit of new knowledge and discovery can be daunting, and it is imperative to have a clear rationale as to why this particular academic quest has personal or professional value. After identifying the “why,” the scholar must challenge all self-doubt and operate with a full sense of belonging. Scholars should celebrate all milestones and connect with external and internal accountability partners who can provide the necessary support and encouragement.

The next step in the process is to fully examine various aspects of several programs, including cost and funding resources, credit and programming requirements, degree-completion rates, community demographics, course content and sequencing, advising and mentoring structure, testing requirements, faculty expertise and school reputation and accreditation. This thorough investigation and review of several institutions will allow the scholar to assess and identify the doctoral program that is the right fit.

The exploration of earning a doctoral degree includes the ever-present Ph.D. versus Ed.D. debate. The diversity within the two primary doctoral degree types, including the academic content and graduation requirements, adds fuel to the discussion. Historically, the Ph.D. is often touted as the most prestigious option for faculty and researchers, and at times required for the aforementioned positions. The Ed.D., recognized by the National Science Foundation as the equivalent of a Ph.D., is often discipline-focused and presented as the primary option for higher education administrators and practitioners. Both terminal degrees traditionally require original data-driven discovery based on a theoretical framework and are held by presidents, deans, faculty and administrators worldwide. Additionally, faculty can become tenured having earned either degree, albeit not at every institution type.

The Ph.D.-Ed.D. debate in many ways mirrors the ongoing dispute of the value of academic affairs versus student affairs in the holistic development of the scholar. Ultimately, the emphasis in pursuing a particular terminal degree should be connected to the quality of the deliverables related to personal and professional growth.

The “dissertating” process is typically uncharted waters for scholars who are accustomed to the traditional coursework process. Writing the dissertation is a daily active process. A well-researched, published dissertation gets written one chapter, one page, one paragraph, one sentence, one word at a time. Often, scholars allow their personal connection to the topic to impact the research process and potential findings. Irrespective of the origins of the subject matter, the writing process begins with identifying a realistic research problem, developing strong research questions and, if possible, utilizing other course assignments to ensure the dissertation is not disconnected from the overall doctoral experience. Once the research problem and questions are vetted, the scholar should develop writing plans, explore several methodologies and data collection options, archive all readings and research and find strategic outlets to publish and present. It is equally important to connect to multiple inter-disciplinary professional associations to remain engaged with new knowledge and paradigm shifts.

A doctor with limited professional experience may find a very difficult road to career development. As such, career planning advancement and the doctoral journey must be a symbiotic endeavor. Career planning during the doctoral process includes researching various career options and multiple streams of income, post-docs and connecting the research to the desired career path. Recognizing personal worth in negotiating a hiring package is also equally important, as well as identifying unique attributes that will allow the scholar to stand out amongst career-exploring peers.

Next, negotiating the connection between the scholar and the dissertation committee should include identifying and clarifying the advisor-advisee responsibilities, researching the faculty culture and limitations, taking copious notes and analyzing all meetings. The quality of advisement and mentoring varies from institution to institution. The scholar, if applicable, must choose a committee wisely. Committee member types include advisers who are fully invested in the scholar’s future and members who waste time infighting and engaging in useless academic sparring, who are not timely in responding to the scholar and those who are ill-prepared or simply want to haze future doctors.

As a result, self-advisement is crucial and essentially mandatory for all scholars. Moreover, the scholar must also recognize that the principal investigator and committee members may have to balance multiple responsibilities. As a result, scholars must provide clear drafts, be active listeners and communicators and accept criticism, which may not always be constructive. Cultivating independent research skills is equally important, with recognition that the author is in control and most knowledgeable about the timeline and details of the study. Lastly, the scholar must be willing, if necessary, to adjust the research, knowing that the best dissertation is truly a completed one.

The final defense can be an academic hazing session, a conversation amongst colleagues or somewhere in between. Demystify the proposal-to-final-defense process by connecting and learning from current graduates of the program, attending a defense and clarifying all guidelines, conducting a mock defense with a self-appointed informal doctoral committee and anticipating the questions and conversation. The scholar must mentally prepare for the transition from scholar to expert by providing clear evidence of the research being a rich contribution to the literature and academia as a whole.

In conclusion, there are three pacts that should be formed to ensure the completion of the doctoral journey. The first pact is the “Me, Myself and I” pact – overcoming the internal struggle and identifying short- and long-term time-referenced goals and actions that lead to completion. The second pact is with family, friends and cohort partners to ensure all are on the same page as it relates to the time, energy and support needed from external parties during this academic process. The last and most crucial pact is with the committee, the gatekeepers who will ultimately determine if and when the scholar will be invited to a culminating hooding ceremony.

The journey to get ‘PhinisheD’ or ‘finishEdD’ often involves multiple setbacks. Successful candidates are the ones who are able to bounce back, recharge, accept criticism and navigate the intellectual and non-intellectual aspects – the politics, negotiation, communication – of the journey. The grass is greener on the other side, and academia is in need of fresh perspectives and new scholarly ideas.

The final note to future doctors is this: #WhoGotNext?

Dr. Daniel Jean is Executive Director of the Educational Opportunity Fund Program and Academic Development at Montclair State University in New Jersey. His research focuses on the academic and social integration of first-generation college scholars.

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