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Is the Doctoral Degree for Me?

Women in Student Affairs
October 11, 2017 Kelly Golden, Ph.D. Regis College

Five years ago I was sitting at lunch with a colleague who shared how she was currently enrolled in a doctoral program. We discussed how much she had grown as a result of being in the program, and how it had come to support her work in student affairs. Then she asked the all-important question: had I ever considered pursuing my doctorate? I laughed it off saying “Maybe someday…”

However, that little question was enough to spark me to do some research. While I wish I could tell you that I scoured the internet for months, weighed all my options, and talked to mentors, I didn’t do any of those things. After a few hours on the website for the program that my colleague was enrolled in, I quickly realized, “this is for me.” The program’s mission was centered around social justice and empowering women and minorities to take on leadership roles in higher education. Since my colleague and others at my institution had been enrolled in this program, I was sure I could make it work with my schedule.

Looking back, that lunch, my application, and the acceptance process all seem like a whirlwind. At the time I was 27, living close to the campus, and single. These pieces were an important privilege that offered me flexibility and time to start the program with little-to-no constraints. My employer also offered some tuition remission, which would help cover a large portion of the costs. These factors were important considerations that affected my ultimate decision to pursue a doctorate.

Why a doctoral degree was right for me:

  1. Growth in the Classroom
    In the classroom, I felt myself grow not only academically but also personally. As I engaged with each new course and the material, I felt many of the beliefs I have long held confirmed by what I was reading; but I also had them challenged. Advanced courses on student development theory forced me to shed my lens of outdated models of student engagement and reshaped my worldview to meet a more diverse student body. Courses on policy and organizational behavior helped me draw connections between theory and issues of culture and climate on campus. By taking part in a cohort model, I was able to engage in these discussions and understand the complexity of our institutions by better understanding the institution outside of student affairs.

    The classroom also helped me find my voice around a number of issues including diversity, social justice, policy, and working with students. I used the classroom as a trial run to test ideas and theories, used my papers to find out more about topics I was interested in. I am not only more confident to speak up about important issues, but I am better able to support these issues with data and evidence. This has made me a better advocate for students and helped me as I have progressed in my career and have begun to work with more constituents outside of higher education.
  2. Growth as a Practitioner
    As I am now at the tail end of my program - hoping to defend my dissertation in the coming months - I can truly say I am a better practitioner, scholar, and person than I was four years ago. Having to learn to articulate and defend my viewpoint in the classroom allowed me to do that in the workplace and other professional settings. As my institution has continued to grow and evolve, I have been better prepared to adapt to and understand these changes, as well as how they will impact our future. This ability has assisted me to also progress in my career, as I’ve moved from an Assistant Director of Residence Life into an Assistant Dean of Student Affairs position only four years later.

    This vantage point has confirmed for me what we have long heard: we need more women in leadership positions who will help our institutions grow and move forward. As we continue to work through a number of difficult issues on our campuses ranging from financial aid policy to freedom of speech to updating our infrastructure, women’s voices will be critically important in developing practices that shape who we are. Our institutions need to be able to adjust to meet many competing interests. We need leaders who can critically examine current trends, and be nimble, but also knowledgeable, about the heritage of higher education.

What you should consider before applying:

Pursuing your doctorate is exciting and scary. For most, I would not suggest my method of simply applying to one program. Instead, it is important to do your research to understand both the mission of the program and the structure of the courses.

  1. Program Mission
    While some programs are very counseling and student-affairs based, others focus on organizational issue or issues of social justice or diversity. This distinction of core mission will be important when beginning the dissertation process. Knowing the topic of your dissertation is not critical from the start; however, it is important to realize the dissertation is something you will eat, breath, and live with for years. Having a program that supports your ideas and offers you resources and expertise in that area will be critical to your success.
  2. Program Structure
    Equally important as the content is the structure of the program. It is crucial is that the program fits your needs and lifestyle. For some people, being out of the office for one day per week is not an option. For me, pursuing my doctorate was about challenging myself to grow as a practitioner a scholar of higher education. Not only did I learn from my faculty but I was also surrounded by a diverse group of skilled and amazing practitioners with various professional backgrounds that allowed me to see past my own worldview.
  3. Program Delivery
    The rise in online and hybrid programs has allowed more working practitioners the opportunity to pursue their degree while still working. This also creates options for those in remote places that may not have a number of brick and mortar programs close by. While this flexibility is attractive, individuals should also consider that this does not mean online programs are less work. Instead, you are doing much of the work you would do in the classroom online, therefore requiring more of your time at odd hours. By taking part in an in-class program, you have dedicated time in the classroom to be away from your work and truly focus in on the content as well as the exchange of ideas with those around you. If at all possible, I highly encourage any sort of classroom component. The discussion, dialogue, and community are an essential piece to the doctoral journey. Further, as women, we need be ok stepping away from our workplace in order to engage in our professional development.
  4. Program Outcome – Ph.D. or Ed.D?
    Finally, important to consider is the decision between an Ed.D. and Ph.D. Both allow you to carry the title of “doctor”, however each has its own strengths. The Ph.D. symbolizes a doctor of philosophy and is for those intending to continue doing research or become a faculty of their field. Most fields such as English or History have a Ph.D. options. An Ed.D. is a more specialized degree within the area of education and is focused on applying theory to practice in our work. This distinction is important when considering options as it is important to think forward about how these options may either expand or limit your opportunities in the future.

    While some with an Ed.D. teach, and some with a Ph.D. who practice, different regions of the country or different institutions may view these differently. In my experience, I began my coursework as an Ed.D. student, but eventually changed to the Ph.D. track once it was available. This decision was based on the possibility of having more flexibility and options later in my career. Having the Ph.D. not only helps to secure my future in student affairs but also opens opportunities in teaching, enrollment, and consulting. At times, I have doubted this decision; not only because of the additional time and money it has cost me, but also because I see myself as a practitioner more than a scholar. Regardless, this decision, along with the type of program, is very personal and one that should be made for each unique person and circumstance.

​How to stay true to your calling:

In closing this article, I am reminded that our journeys and careers in student affairs are each our own. The path or decision that may have worked for your friend or colleague may not work for you. If pursuing your doctorate or seeking a higher level of leadership is not in your plan, don’t feel pressure to change because others say you should.

On the other hand, if you are interested in pursuing a doctorate or leadership roles, don’t be held back by naysayers. I won’t lie and pretend that getting your doctorate while working (or raising a family, seeing your friends, keeping up with other hobbies, etc.) is easy – because if it were then everyone would do it. However, I also recognize that most things that are worthwhile are hardly ever easy.

Pursuing my doctorate has been an amazing journey for me as an individual, a practitioner, and as a woman. I believe I am a more confident and skilled administrator because of it; as a result, I have been able to have a greater impact in my work. My best advice to anyone considering a major career or life decisions such as a doctorate is to do what is right for you while continuing to motivate yourself to be the best you can be.

Kelly Golden is the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at Regis College