Whether you just finished grad school or have been working as a student affairs professional for years, the idea of starting a Ph.D. or Ed.D. program can be daunting, especially if you are working full-time and managing other major responsibilities.
You might be asking how you can possibly go back to school at this point in your life with a partner, a family, and lots of other plates spinning in the air. Believe me, with a bit of planning, it is totally doable!
Below are 10 tips I’ve pulled together from my own experience and from observing my peers in my doctoral cohort.
1. Get over your insecurities
Insecurities aren’t a good reason to avoid advanced education. Simply put, most doctoral candidates have imposter syndrome regarding their degree pursuits.
This is normal. It’s so normal, in fact, that my first reading assignment for my program was about doctoral student imposter syndrome. Faculty are quite used to students feeling this way.
Being open about your feelings of insecurity with your faculty and classmates may help ease those feelings. If you can name the feeling, you’ll quickly learn that others are experiencing it also. Honesty and vulnerability can also facilitate bonding between you and your classmates, which can help you follow some of the tips below.
2. Determine which program type works for you
The type of program type you choose will be vital to your success.
Some of my friends chose programs that meet for long weekends once a month. Jill is one such friend; her classes met one or two weekends a month and for a week in August. Jill found it helpful to be able to sequester for this time period and focus entirely on academic work, plus she valued the accountability shared with cohort members in this intensely focused environment. Other friends have gone entirely online, finding value in working independently and at their own paces.
My program meets once a week for three hours, with summer courses being almost exclusively online. Although this is certainly a big time commitment, I’ve still found it manageable as a full-time employee. I value the mix of cohort accountability and self-paced structure.
Assessing how much time you can devote to your education (and when) will help you determine which program type will work best for you.
3. Figure out how you’ll pay for it
For many of us, myself included, cost is the single greatest decision point for furthering our education. I was interested in starting my doctoral studies earlier, but I waited until I was working at an institution that had a program I was interested in, with faculty that I wanted to work with, and with some tuition remission.
Although my institution does not cover the full cost, I determined that the value for what I’d pay out of pocket to be worth it. I also waited until I was able to pay tuition as I went rather than taking out additional loans.
This isn’t ideal for everyone, but for me, it felt amazing to pay my last tuition bill, while paying off my student loans (from my previous degrees) in the same year, and end my doctoral program not owing anyone anything.
4. Tell your supervisor
Your supervisor can either be a helpful supporter or a frustrating hindrance throughout your studies. Depending on your course schedule and assignment due dates, you may need a supervisor who is open to working flexible hours.
Letting your supervisor know in advance that you will be pursuing further education and showing that you’re willing to make up any missed hours, can go a long way in easing your burden for meeting academic deadlines and prompt class attendance.
5. Have an idea of what you want to study and relate it to your work
Having some sense of the dissertation topic area you are interested in before you begin a program can save you a lot of time as course assignments tend to build off one another. Changing topics often means circling back to redo the work you’ve done in earlier assignments. This doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind, but in many programs, you will have to decide on a topic, quickly — at least for your first few assignments.
My topic was due about a month after starting my first class. I didn’t have to have it word-perfect or dissertation-ready, but it’s still helpful to go in having some sense of what area you are interested in so that you don’t need to do those early assignments multiple times after the fact.
Your dissertation topic is something that you better like, because you’re going to be eating, sleeping, and breathing it for the next several years. You’ll read endless articles and books about it, present on every aspect of it, and talk about it all the time with everyone.
Don’t pick something you only have a passing interest in; pick something you’re truly passionate about. If you’re not sure what that might be, consider the aspects of your work that you naturally gravitate towards. Have you ever tried to convince a colleague to partner with you on something but couldn’t find research to back up that initiative? That might be the perfect topic!
One tip that I’ve gleaned from my cohort is that when you relate your dissertation topic to your daily professional work, the line between study time and work time blurs. As a result, you may find it easier to do academic work during your workday; it’s now part of your professional development!
6. Stick with your optimal writing and studying time
Finding a reliable time that works for you and creating a routine can be a smart way to discipline yourself for completing larger assignments. For parents of small children, late evenings, after the kids have gone to sleep, may be the best time to focus. Parents of older children may prefer waking up an hour or two early each day and working on academics before the rest of the house is up.
As a single person who works in res life, I’m often busy with student programs in the evenings, so Saturday and Sunday mornings are my designated reading, writing, and studying time. This works especially well for me because I’m the sharpest in the morning.
7. Buy yourself a good highlighter… and then buy 50 more
As a Type-A individual, I love highlighters and post-it notes. I had no idea how many I would fully exhaust on my quest toward obtaining a doctoral degree. I didn’t even know it was possible to dry out a highlighter for any reason other than extended ownership.
Because your highlighter is going to become an extension of your hand, I suggest finding one you love and buying multiples of that exact brand. It may sound silly, but having small things that are to your preference, that bring bright colors into your otherwise monotonous black and white text, can be a valuable mood elevator during long reading sessions. Also, as Elle Wood might say, highlighting in your favorite color just gives it something extra, don’t you think?
8. Find a study buddy or cohort
Before I started my doctoral quest, I always wondered why people would drop out of their programs. Why would they invest so much time, energy, and money into something only to walk away? This would never happen to me, I thought.
Then I started my stats class, and it was terrible. Although I’d been doing well in my program up until that point, I watched my classmates — yes, all of them — outpace me in stats. I had been overwhelmed in classes plenty of times before, but I never thought about quitting. This was something else entirely.
I can confidently say that if it were not for my study buddy Jenn, I might not have made it through. Not only did she spend time helping me understand the content, but she also dragged my sad carcass across the finish line of group projects that I only hazily understood — until the point that I eventually found that hard-earned glimmer of understanding.
Jenn and I have consistently been each other’s cheerleaders, sounding boards, and brainstorming partners. Our cohort has a group chat, which has been very helpful in keeping everyone on the right path with assignments, finding articles we were given two years ago (a role I’m good at filling), and sharing memes to keep us laughing and tooling on.
Having support from Jenn and my other cohort members keeps me moving forward as I know we’re doing this together. Sometimes having a study buddy (or cohort-spouse) comes naturally: Jenn and I are the only two people from my division in our cohort.
But other times, you may need to work to make this happen. I suggest thinking about either who has similar work and/or study habits as you or who has skill sets that you aren’t as strong in (and thus, could benefit learning). Sometimes, someone in similar life circumstances may be a great study buddy, such as another new mother. Whomever you pick, remember that partnership is a two-way street, and you need to bring just as much to the relationship as you take from it.
9. Ask for help when you need it
As someone in their mid-to-late 20s, 30s, 40s, or beyond, you may think it’s a bit past time to ask for help. But you would be wrong. There are a wealth of helpers available around you, including faculty, your advisor, your cohort peers, and the cohorts above you, along with academic support personnel on campus.
Sure, it may be a bit strange asking for academic help from a colleague who is providing it as part of their 9-to-5, but you would be doing yourself a disservice to underestimate the access you have to such individuals simply by already knowing them.
One additional support I sought out during my odyssey through stats was the faculty-in-residence whom I work with on campus. She already traversed this ground as a student herself and regularly participates in study design, so her experience was helpful in teaching me to understand stats.
When it came time to learn data analysis software, I swallowed my pride and asked a classmate from the cohort ahead of me who works in instructional technology to give me a primer on SPSS, the software we’d need to use for our assignments that year. I could have kept to my struggles to myself, but I doubt I would have been as successful.
10. Keep on keepin’ on
The road to a doctoral degree is long. The amount of work can be overwhelming. There is no magic potion to get you through it. The only thing that works is perseverance. You have to keep on moving forward, breaking off your tasks into little chunks, and completing them.
If all you have the capacity for one day is to search for articles, search for them. If you can’t muster the will to write, but you’re able to proofread your earlier work,do it. I find that even if I think I can’t write on a particular day, I force myself to do at least one small thing, and often I find myself having been drawn into writing a few pages regardless.
I’ve been overwhelmed more times than I can count, but as I near the end of my time as a doctoral student, I can’t believe it’s almost over so soon.