A Ph.D. Student Experience

Every year the ACPA Convention offers a number of programs presented by current doctoral students offering their insights on successfully completing a doctoral program. Over the years I have attended several of these sessions hoping to glean knowledge that would help me when I made the transition back to the classroom. The advice has been helpful, but as I wrap up my first year as a full time doctoral student I have taken some time to reflect on my decision to begin this journey. Although I am happy with this path some of the choices I have had to make along the way have been difficult, and I wish I had learned a few things beforehand that might have made the road a bit smoother.

One of the toughest decisions for me was whether I would resign from my full time student affairs position at a mid-size public institution or attend school as a part-time student while remaining employed. I had really found my ideal job with great colleagues, wonderful students, and a location that had already been home to my family for the previous three years. Having only been in the position for two and a half years I felt that I still had much more to contribute. However, I also knew that balancing a full time job, a family, and coursework would put too much of a strain on me and those I care about. Therefore, I made the very difficult decision to be a full time student and say goodbye to the students, colleagues, and job I really enjoyed. Fortunately, I am able to maintain the relationships with my former colleagues since I continue to live in the area.

Remaining in the same community means that I commute about 75 minutes each way to school. Fortunately I have family near my institution and spend two nights a week in the area. I never realized how much I would miss my partner and son the three days a week I am away from them. Nothing could have prepared me for this, however, I am able to give them much more of my attention the four days a week I am at home. When faced with the prospect of relocating our entire family, or spending three days a week from home the latter seemed to be the best alternative for all of us. So far, with the support of an understanding partner, family, and child care providers these arrangements have worked out much better than expected.

Most of my first year has been about adjusting to a new way of life. At this year’s ACPA Convention two colleagues and I discussed how much our lives have changed since the last time we were all together one year earlier. In less than a month one colleague went from being an entry-level housing professional at large public institution to being the chief housing officer at a smaller university. The other colleague recently became the chief housing officer at a mid size private school after working as an independent consultant. Of course, I went from having a full time position with an office, an administrative assistant, student workers, and responsibilities to just having lots of responsibility without no staff or an office of my own.

Many responsibilities that come with being a doctoral student are part and parcel of the experience. However, looking back I wish I had known to say no far more often as some responsibilities come by choice. Saying no to those opportunities that are unappealing may be fairly easy, but when all of the opportunities seem attractive it is easy to believe you must do everything. Some of my fellow doctoral students would suggest that balance is the key to managing multiple priorities. Instead, I recommend tipping the scales with far more free, flexible, and open.

At the same time, being a student is about stretching beyond one’s comfort zone. Taking risks, and trying something that is unfamiliar can be so worthwhile when it pushes you to develop new skills instead of simply relying on old ones. I suggest seeking mentorship from faculty and/or other students who can help you acquire new skill sets that will serve your future goals. Doing this has been instrumental to my own growth. There will always be opportunities to maintain those competencies you already have, and to collaborate with fellow students and faculty in ways that will build old and foster new competencies.

The most consistent pre-doctoral advice I received was to connect with my fellow students. This has been key to the support I have received and been able to give throughout my first year. My cohort has been instrumental in my success, and I am glad I received lots of good advice prior to beginning my program about how important this group of people would be to my experience.

Our common group experience allows us to encourage and empathize with one another. We also help each other figure out what classes we will take each semester, and stay on top of the administrative deadlines that come with the program. While we all may travel in various social circles, we definitely share a common bound that transcends everything else and makes our experience unique.

I have found that one aspect of being successful as a doctoral student involved giving consistent effort and letting go of perfectionism. This is a lesson that I am still trying to learn. Sometimes it is easy to focus on being perfect since usually in a full time position you have already mastered all or most of what your job requires. As a professional your ability to balance tasks and urgent matters may often be rewarded, but it is the quality and thoroughness of your work that is important as a doctoral student.

Through my course work and involvement with a research team my own research interests have become much more clear. I learned early the value of gaining clarity about my interests, but at the same time being open and flexible to other ideas and opportunities that may come along. While there is no need to begin your doctoral program with a dissertation topic and title in hand, it is important to spend time cultivating your interests. Share your curiosity with your advisor and seek faculty members, even those outside your program and department, whose interests may be similar.

Being open to new experiences also means taking classes outside your program and department. Some of my most insightful classes have been outside of my department. I did not know this going into the program, but have been pleasantly surprised. An added bonus has been the supportive relationships I have formed with students and faculty in other departments.

Beginning a doctoral program is a risk itself. I have learned to not be shy about meeting with someone who I do not know, but may want to work with in the future. The best advice I have received so far has come from a seasoned faculty member who in 20 minutes shared insights that I will carry forever. I was invited to a meeting with two other colleagues who were unable to attend. Since I was already there this faculty member and I just talked about current events, my research interests, and a wide range of other topics. Ordinarily our paths would seldom cross, but because of chance meeting we were able to make a connection that will continue. To date it has been the best hour of time spent this entire year.

Few doctoral students complain of boredom or an over abundance of free time when in a doctoral program. However, one of the most poignant lessons that I have learned over the past year is the importance of holding onto those simple pleasures I enjoy. Being a doctoral student does not mean giving up time with one’s family, friends, and outside interests. While it is true that being a doctoral student is a time intensive experience, it does not need to consume all of your time. This is a recent insight for me and I look forward to implementing it next fall.

Never being one to rush a degree I took five years to complete my bachelors and four years to finish my masters. Though I always had the intention of beginning a doctoral program I thought I needed to wait at least five years before applying. There have been times over the past year when I wished I had started my program a year or two earlier. Nonetheless, I am happy to with my decision to start now. Having a few more years of working and living have made my courses much more relevant than they may have been without six years of post masters professional experience. When to start your own program is personal decision, and does not necessarily need to be contingent on external factors.

As I go into my second year of doctoral study, equipped with all that I have learned about myself and what I want out of my program, I know I will continue making some of the same choices and some different ones as well. One of the benefits of working in higher education is the cycle of the academic calendar. A new year provides new opportunities where old lessons are incorporated into daily practice, and new lessons are discovered along the way. I look forward to the journey continuing.

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