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Deciding If and How to Pursue Doctoral Work

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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The goal of this chapter is to help readers weigh the factors related to deciding whether to pursue a terminal degree, as well as to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the decision-making process as it related to pursuing doctoral education.


The posting below gives some good advice for those students interested in pursuing a Ph.D. It is from Chapter 2: Deciding If and How to Pursue Doctoral Work by Tim Wilson, Nelson Soto and Jami Joyner in Journey to the Ph.D.: How to Navigate the Process as African Americans. Edited by Anna L. Green & LeKita V. Scott. Published in 2003 by Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166. Copyright © 2003 by Stylus Publishing, LLC Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Building a Better Conversation About Learning

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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We have heard many people talk about their experiences as doctoral students. These individuals have spoken about the coursework, research and other assistantship experiences, publishing, and the inevitable job search. What we have not heard a lot of is the conversation about how to get into a doctoral program. What should prospective students be thinking about? How should one finance graduate school? How do you write these ... personal statements?

Because every journey starts with a single step, we have decided to focus on the first one-deciding if and how to pursue doctoral work. The goal of this chapter is to help readers weigh the factors related to deciding whether to pursue a terminal degree, as well as to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the decision-making process as it related to pursuing doctoral education.

Why Pursue a Doctoral Degree?

As current students, we can attest to the fact that pursing a doctoral degree is hard work. Grasping the information you are exposed to is not that hard part (although statistics courses can be a challenge). The challenge lies in balancing coursework, assistantship, and other personal responsibilities. With that being said, why would anyone want to pursue a doctoral degree?

There are a few reasons as to why a doctoral degree is beneficial. First, many agencies are increasing in size and complexity. Institutions of higher education are an example of this. These institutions require increased expertise in administrations and governance. The need for greater expertise requires advanced training, which can be obtained by earning a doctoral degree in higher education or college student personnel.

The desire for career advancement is another reason why people pursue doctoral degrees. Using higher education again as an example, Townsend and Weise's 1991 study on national survey of 1,100 randomly selected, senior-level administrators reveals that 47 percent of the respondents hiring a chief student affairs officer preferred candidates with a doctorate in higher education, as opposed to a terminal degree in another academic field. A final reason for pursuing a terminal degree is the desire to conduct research and/or teach. The doctoral degree trains you to be a scholar and researcher in your chosen field. (Jerrard & Jerrard, 1998).

Questions to Consider

Before you fill out your first application form, you will need to consider some fundamental questions about pursuing a doctoral degree. These questions are not mean to scare you off-they are designed to get you to consider how your pursuit of a terminal degree will impact other areas of your life.

Why Do I Need a Doctoral Degree?

This is a simple, yet fundamental question. We have already listed three reasons as to why a doctoral degree is beneficial, but you must decide why you want a doctoral degree. Is your career advancement dependent on more education? If so, is the doctorate the right degree for you to pursue, or would a master's or specialist's degree accomplish the same objective?

Are you considering a return to school because it is the only thing you want to do, or are you going to school because it is the only thing you know how to do. People who have gone to school nonstop know what we mean; or is someone living vicariously though you? If you are considering a terminal degree because being a student is the only think you know how to do or because someone else is living vicariously though you, then we strongly urge you to reevaluate you decision to return to school. In many ways, pursuing a terminal degree is a solitary endeavor, requiring a certain degree of selfishness. If your heart is not in it, then do not pursue the terminal degree.

Full-Time versus Part-Time

The authors are all full-time students and therefore, we can take advantage of internship and assistantship opportunities. We can take a full load of classes every semester allowing us to complete degree programs within four years. Our life circumstances have allowed us to be full-time students, so we have decided to take advantage of this.

Not everyone can afford to take a break from work in order to pursue a degree. Some people have student loan debt from their undergraduate and/or master's program to pay off, while others need to pay off the mortgage and/or credit cards. People already working at colleges or universities may want to take advantage of their institution's tuition reimbursement program, where the university pays a certain portion of a full-time employee's tuition. There are also some people who simply do not want to rush through their doctoral programs and prefer the idea of being a part-time student.

While part-time students take longer to finish their degree programs, they do not necessarily have to endure a pay cut, nor do they have to incur as much debt as full-time students. Taking less than a full load of courses may also be less taxing on part-time students (assuming your full-time job is not very hectic).

Whether you decide to pursue doctoral work full-time or part-time, it is important to weight the pros and cons. The decision you make regarding this basis, yet important, issue will set the tone for many other factors to consider, such as the impact on family members and relocation.

Family Obligations

When Tim was eight years old, his father retired from the Army after nearly thirty years of service and decided to go back to school. When this decision was made, Tim and his older brother were both enrolled in Catholic elementary and high schools, while their oldest brother was attending a state university. Fortunately, Tim's mother was working full-time as a registered nurse and his father had his retirement income, so money was not as big an issue as it could have been.

While the money situation was taken care of, there were other considerations. How would Mr. Wilson's full-time student status impact his children who were still living at home? How would Mr. Wilson's student status impact Mrs. Wilson? Would Mr. Wilson be able to balance being a full-time student with being a husband and a father? These are the types of questions Mr. and Mrs. Wilson had to address. Your questions may not involve a significant other or children. You may have to consider the impact your schooling may have on extended family or parents that you may be responsible for. As was the case with deciding whether to be a full- or part-time student, it is important for you to weigh the pros and cons and conduct yourself accordingly.


As a perspective student, you may not be willing or able to commute to the school of your choice. You must then decide whether you are willing to relocate. This decision might be a little easier if your intentions are to be a full-time student. But if you already have a good job, you may be more hesitant.

If you are willing to relocate, it is a good idea to develop a set of criteria that your new community must have in order for you to move there. We strongly caution you not to attend a school without considering the community in which is it located. You will have enough stress related to school and you will need to find positive outlets in order to maintain your sanity. If school is stressing you out and you do not like the community, you will have a very difficult time finishing your degree.

When Tim was going through the application process, he made it a point to fly out to each campus and explore its surrounding community. While this can be very expensive and time consuming, Tim found it be worthwhile-mainly because he had lived in areas that were not always user-friendly for people of color. You must develop your own set of characteristics that a new community must have in order for you to live there-for example, churches, community centers, and barbershops and hair salons. Developing such a list is a worthwhile exercise because it will not only help you evaluate a surrounding community, but it can also help you evaluate the awareness level of various campus personnel.

Our Unsolicited Advice to You

It has been said that hindsight is 20/20. In the spirit of looking in the proverbial rearview mirror, we offer the following (unsolicited) advice.

* Decide early on, what it will take for an institution to earn the honor of having you enroll as a student. This is an important step because the criteria you develop will set the tone for your entire search process. Once you come up with a set of criteria, stick to it.

* Determine how you want to pay for your education. This idea is connected to the first idea in that one of your criteria for selecting a school may very well be the financial package they offer you. If you know you want to minimize loans as much as possible, then you will probably want to gravitate toward the school offering more grants, fellowships, and tuition waivers.

* Decide on your dissertation topic early. This may not always be possible, but it can be an advantage if you know the topic of dissertation research from the start. Knowing you area of research will enable you to better evaluate prospective faculty and also allow you to direct some of your course assignments (e.g., term papers) toward your dissertation. This will make life a lot easier when it is time to write your dissertation.

* Have an idea of the types of experiences you would like to have as a doctoral student. This is important because the experiences you have as a doctoral student can prepare you for success once you graduate. Thus, in order to develop ideas about the experiences you want to have, think about what you would ultimately like to do once you have earned your degree, and then think about the experiences you will need to have as a student in order to reach your ultimate objective.

* Have a clear understanding of why you are pursuing a doctoral degree. This is important because pursuing a doctoral degree is a serious endeavor. There will be times when the only thing that gets you through the process is knowing why you are in school in the first place and what the ultimate payoff for you will be. If you are not sure about why you want to pursue a doctoral degree, you might be better off waiting until you have a better understanding of why you want to go back to school.

* Carefully weight the pros and cons of all factors of your decision-making process. We know this seems like common sense, but it is worth repeating, especially if your decisions will affect people other than yourself (e.g., significant others, extended family members, children).

* Stick to your guns, but be willing to be flexible too. When it comes time for you to make a final decision as to where you will pursue your terminal degree, you may have to make some compromises, such as taking on more debt than you want to or having to lose status because you will be a student as opposed to a full-time employee. As long as you know what you are and are not willing to do, this should not pose much of a problem for you.

* Talk to currently enrolled students. As a rule of thumb, currently enrolled students can provide of wealth of information for prospective students. Make sure you speak with currently enrolled students, as they will answer the questions that faculty may not be able (or willing) to answer. However, remember that neither students not faculty have all of the answers-you will have to base your decision on input from both constituencies.

* Start the process early. We cannot stress this enough-if you are working full-time, this becomes even more important as writing drafts of your personal statements, filling out applications, and visiting campuses is a time-consuming venture. The sooner you start, the less stress you will feel as you move through the process.


Doctoral study can be a wonderful experience in regard to personal and professional development. In order to get to this point, you will need to do the preliminary work necessary to lay a foundation for the good experiences that are available to you. Part of the preliminary work lies in investigating prospective graduate programs and evaluating them based upon your needs. We hope this chapter helps you begin the process.


Jerrard, R., & Jerrard, M. (1998). The grad school handbook: An

insider's guide to getting in and succeeding. New York: Perigee


Townshend, B., & Weise, M.D. (1991). The higher education doctorate

as a passport to higher education administration. New Directions for

Higher Education, 76, 5-13. San Francisco: Josey Bass.

Tim Wilson

Hometown: Fairfield, California

Current Institution: University of Missouri at Columbia

Department: Education Leadership and Policy Analysis

Personal Philosophy: Seek the truth in that which you oppose and the

error in that which you espouse-the truth is somewhere in the middle.

-Robert J. Nash

Nelson Soto

Hometown: Lorain, Ohio

Current Institution: Indiana University

Department: Education Leadership and Policy Studies

Personal Philosophy: Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the

path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and

many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path. -Carl Sagan

Jami Joyner

Hometown: Edmond, Oklahoma

Current Institution: University of Missouri at Columbia

Department: Education Leadership and Policy Analysis

Personal Philosophy: Faith without works is dead. -James 2:26