Krista J. Bailey
Texas A&M University
Texas A&M University
Should I Pursue the Doctorate?
When considering the field of student affairs, there are many reasons why individuals choose to pursue a doctorate in higher education or a related discipline. Some are hoping to hold faculty positions, others enjoy the learning process, and others want to pursue senior-level positions requiring a terminal degree. Regardless of the motivation to begin a doctoral program, it is a significant commitment and is a complicated, individualized process. The purpose of this paper is to provide readers with a series of reflection questions to assist in their decision making as they choose a doctoral program. We wish there was more research evidence to provide, but there is little research on doctoral student success (CGS, 2010; Gittings et al., 2018; Gardner et al., 2011).
Is Now the Right Time to Pursue a Doctorate?
A doctoral degree is often a multi-year commitment to finish all requirements for a full-time student and five or more years for part-time students. Students in some programs may finish in as little as three years, but the national average across disciplines is 7.5 years (which in some disciplines includes earning a master’s degree as part of the doctorate) (Geven et al., 2018). You need to ask yourself is now the right time in your personal and professional life to pursue this goal. Is your physical and mental health ready to take on this challenge? This can depend on a life partner, children, aging parents, and other family relationships. You will also want to look at work obligations and whether your supervisor and institution are supportive. Even positive life events, like a job promotion, can delay progress. For example, one of our students got several promotions while writing her dissertation, and each time it stalled her writing for about six months. A doctoral degree will require sacrifices to dedicate the time needed for your studies. Only you know whether your work and relationships can handle the stress of the time commitment. McCray and Joseph-Richard (2020) concluded supportive family members are positively associated with doctoral success, you may want to involve others in your decision-making process.
Consider whether you will attend a local program or move to a new area. Unless you are studying online, you should consider committing to living in the geographic area of your graduate program until you finish. Transfer between doctoral programs often means starting over. Further, our experience at multiple institutions has been that those who move away before defending their dissertation find it much more difficult when not seeing their advisors and classmates regularly. Gittings et al. (2018) concluded that a new position during the dissertation stage was negatively associated with completion. Therefore, you will want to ask yourself if you want to stay with your current employer for the duration of the degree or if you have the self-discipline to finish during a job transition.
Will You Finish Your Doctorate?
Institutional factors make a difference in whether students finish. The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) (2010) found flexible coursework allowed the students to pursue their interests while clear expectations and strong advising assured students were progressing. Strong advising with timelines for the dissertation process, rather than no expectations and isolation, led to shorter time-to-degrees (CGS, 2010). Additional factors to consider when exploring graduate programs include (CGS, 2010; Gardner, et al., 2011; McCray & Joseph-Richard, 2020; Owens, et al., 2020):
- Role and support provided by the dissertation chair
- Financial support available
- Opportunities for publishing
- Culture of collaboration
- Program sponsored social and academic activities
Interviewing current students, graduates, and faculty to find out whether these factors are present should be a part of your search. Further, programs should be able to tell you what percent of their students finish and their average time to completion. Ultimately, finishing the doctoral degree will be something you determine. Searching for a school with the support systems described above may help clear your path to completion.
Geven et al. (2018) reported that nationally, about 50 – 60% of people who start a doctoral degree, ultimately earn a doctoral degree. There are clearly differences between programs’ support, but part of the probability of finishing is individual motivation and self-discipline. Some of the brightest students do not finish because their interests change, they were pursuing the degree for the wrong reason, or they find it difficult to organize the unstructured dissertation writing process. If you are only pursuing the degree for the next professional promotion, ask yourself, “If I get the job, I’m earning the degree for, will I still finish?” As we shared earlier one study found that a change in employment status after taking comprehensive exams, but before finishing the dissertation, was negatively associated with completion (Gittings, et al., 2018).
Should You Pursue a PhD or an EdD Degree?
In the ideal, a PhD is a research degree to prepare future research scholars and faculty while an EdD is a doctorate to prepare scholarly practitioners. One scholar distinguishes between the two by highlighting that the PhD student begins research from a gap in the literature and conducts research based on a theory or hypothesis, while an EdD student begins with a problem of practice and conducts applied research to solve the problem (McNabb, as cited in O’Connor, 2019). If this were the case at all institutions, the choice would be based on future career plans. Yet, one study concluded that PhD and EdD programs generally looked very similar, and both focused on research (Levin, 2007). An older study, Nelson and Coorough (1994) found that PhD dissertations in education used more rigorous statistical procedures resulting in greater generalizability, while EdD dissertations were more likely to have survey research, but they found no difference in basic versus applied research. Many institutions only offer one of the two degrees. There are 245 Higher Education graduate programs in the Association for the Study of Higher Education (2021) database and only 39 indicate they offer both an EdD. and a PhD. At some universities, the degrees distinguish between part- and full-time students with the EdD having greater flexibility for those students attending part-time. You will need to ask the institutions you are considering what the differences between a PhD and EdD are at that institution.
Should You Go Full-Time or Part-Time?
The choice between part- and full-time study is a personal one, which must consider the time-to-degree and the reduced income if attending full-time. In a study of doctoral completion, Gittings et al. (2018) concluded fulltime employment was positively associated with graduating but job changes during the dissertation writing stage was associated with not finishing. Students who attend full-time often have a more immersive experience as they spend more time with faculty during their graduate assistantships and are more easily able to attend academic and social functions and conferences. Multiple studies found a positive relationship between institutional funding (fellowships and assistantships) and completion suggesting that the funding in part provides more opportunity to engage in the academic experience (CGS, 2010; Geven et al., 2018; Wollast et al., 2018). A part-time doctorate can be equally rigorous, and programs that cater to part-time students can plan the academic and social enrichment at times that are convenient for students. One study found part-time students persist at a higher rate than full-time students (Gittings et al., 2018).
Students interested in pursuing a faculty rather than administrative career are encouraged to consider full-time study as the need to produce research and publish beyond the dissertation to be competitive in the job market (Helmreich, 2013). When reviewing current job postings for tenure/tenure track faculty positions job requirements include statements like “A record of published research, grants, and conference presentations in higher education” (ASHE, 2021). Occasionally, full-time professionals are supported by their current institution to pursue graduate work. For example, full-time professionals at Florida International University can get a semester or one-year leave for graduate study or professional development and Texas A&M University provides educational release time to take courses. If you fit in this situation, consider taking the leave for writing the dissertation rather than for completion of coursework. The coursework phase has built-in structure and deadlines, making it easier to prioritize, while dissertations have few concrete deadlines.
Once you have determined a degree program and whether you will be enrolling part- or full-time, you will need to identify possible institutions. Part of that decision is whether you want to move to enroll in a program.
Is it Worth Moving?
Pursuing a doctoral degree is a personal decision, based on multiple individualized criteria which should be evaluated as your pursue institutions. For some, studying with the perfect faculty member who does research in your area, and/or if the institution has committed to financially support you for the duration of the degree, moving can be the best thing for your career. Yet so much of the decision can depend on your personal life. For others, you may be considering the impact on your family, or the need for an established community. Before moving, make sure the financial commitment is in writing, including the dollar amount and number of years of funding. We also recommend you have interviewed the faculty in the program, particularly the faculty member(s) with whom you aspire to study with and be mentored by. We will provide details on how to do this below when we discuss campus visits.
For those individuals who are place-bound, the decision may be very different. Yet, you should still interview the faculty and look for characteristics of programs where students are more likely to finish. Research about the institution, program requirements, faculty and academic support, and cost of living will help determine if the program is the right fit.
How Do I Know If a Program Is the Right Fit for Me?
The best way to know if you want to spend the next four-plus years at an institution is to visit and interview the faculty and students and explore the campus and surrounding community. Before visiting, make a list of all your non-negotiables for your doctoral program. It is easier to objectively determine what you need from a program before you start meeting exceptional faculty and students.
A virtual or on-campus visit can include one-to-one interviews with one or more faculty, attending a class, learning about financial support, visiting with current students, and exploring the community. The graduate admissions office can arrange campus tours, but to talk with program faculty and current students, you will need to contact the academic advisor for the program or program director. Some programs host campus visit days while others arrange visits on an as needed basis. Programs with large numbers of applicants may be less willing to accommodate a personalized visit. You may need to take the initiative to schedule your own appointments with faculty and current students. Faculty do realize this is a major decision for prospective students, so even if they will not host a visit day, they usually will meet with prospective students. Once you have narrowed your list of possible programs, read a published article by the faculty members you are interested in meeting. While you may think of admissions as the institution deciding if they want you, it is also important for you to interview them to decide if you want to spend the next few years with the student peers and faculty you meet.
Financial and time restrictions may make it impossible to visit multiple institutions you are interested in pursuing. Utilize technology to connect with current faculty and students. The pandemic has made us all savvier with zoom and other technology. Take a virtual campus tour, research the community, review your list of non-negotiables, and be sure you collect as much information as you can about the institution. When researching, you also want to be sure that you understand all the financial costs of the program.
What Questions Should You Ask When on a Campus Visit?
First, do your homework and learn all you can from an institution’s website, so you are asking deeper questions. When looking at the website, look at the diversity of the faculty and students, and determine if the faculty have any specialized areas of research that aligns with your interest. When you go on a virtual or in-person campus visit, or connect with faculty members, they will be looking for you to take the lead on gathering the information you need to make a good decision. Schedule meetings with faculty and current students. Develop a set of comprehensive questions for both faculty and current students to guide your conversations. This will also allow you to compare information across the different institutions that you are considering.
Possible questions include:
- How frequently do you meet with your advisees?
- What is your current research agenda?
- What is your approach to mentoring? How frequently do you meet with your mentees?
- Am I assigned a dissertation chair, or do I select mine?
- Are their funding opportunities to work with you on research? What other funding/assistantships/fellowships are available?
- What is the typical time-to-degree, and what portion of students graduate? How are those numbers disaggregated by race and gender?
- Is there any flexibility with the program requirements?
- Is there a residency requirement?
- What portion of students attend full-time?
- Where are most of your graduates employed? What types of positions do they hold?
Ask current students:
- Can you tell me about your relationships with your faculty and their mentoring styles?
- Are students treated as junior colleagues?
- What is a strength of this program? Weakness?
- If you could go back, would you pick the same program and advisor?
- What is a typical day like for you?
- What is the community of students like? Is everyone welcome?
- What is the city/town/community like? Are there other graduate students? How have you built a community?
Should Money Matter?
Funding for students varies across programs. Depending on your need, it may be appropriate to choose your second-choice doctoral program with full funding over your first choice without funding. Several research studies concluded that institutional funding was positively associated with completion and shorter time to degrees (CGS, 2010; Geven et al., 2018; Wollast et al., 2018). If you are forgoing a full-time salary for four years, that is already a substantial sacrifice. Funding for your program can come in different forms. Fellowships and scholarships usually have the least conditions attached and are often for the duration of your study. Graduate assistantships usually require the student work with a faculty member on their research or possibly teach an undergraduate class. Assistantships usually compensate with an hourly salary or stipend and tuition assistance. Not all assistantships pay full tuition, but, at minimum, they usually mean the student will be charged in-state rather than out-of-state tuition rates and cover some the tuition.
What About Online Programs?
First, we must share our potential bias: we teach in a program that was exclusively face-to-face before the pandemic. Yet, we know that sometimes with full-time employment, or for other reasons, a face-to-face program would be a hardship. We have also seen programs that do an exemplary job of online doctoral education. Look for a program with experience in online education. The one study we found, showed higher dropout rates among online graduate students, but the study was not with education students (Su & Waugh, 2018). We found minimal research on online graduate education programs.
A key component of the doctoral experience is professional socialization and mentoring (CGS, 2010; Gardner et al., 2011, Gittings et al., 2018; McCray & Joseph-Richard, 2020; Owens et al., 2020). Therefore, pick a graduate program, whether online or face-to-face, where you will develop a relationship with your faculty members beyond the classroom. Explicitly ask about this in your virtual on in-person visit. Good online programs include opportunities for students to build community and networks with faculty and students (Berry, 2017; Kumar & Coe, 2017).
What Is the Value of a Cohort-Based Program?
Some programs intentionally admit students in a group or cohort, and progress them through coursework and the dissertation stage together. In other programs, students from any admissions year can be in classes and on the journey together. There is substantial informal knowledge for socialization into the program that you want and need, such as how preliminary exams work, how to select a dissertation chair, and learning the new vocabulary associated with your degree program. In a cohort model, this is more formalized, and it is easier to form relationships which in some studies has been shown to increase completion rates (Dorn et al., 1995). Yet, in the non-cohort approach, those opportunities are usually still available. For example, in our program, all incoming students take at least one class together and some have been very intentional about taking courses together for multiple semesters.
As you are considering if you would thrive better in a cohort or non-cohort program, consider your own learning style. You likely experienced one or the other for your master’s program. How did it assist or deter from your learning?
Should Institutional Rankings or Reputation Matter in Your Decision?
Again, putting our biases up front, we believe program reputation should matter but not the university ranking. An exceptional program may exist in a university with an overall average ranking and vice versa. Further, a program could be highly ranked, but they may not have a faculty member whose interests align with yours. You can still do your research at that university, but you may not have the same mentoring. As described above, for some people their decision to select a graduate program is driven by current full-time position or life circumstances. When this occurs ranking and reputation may not be a viable factor to consider. Part of the quality of a doctoral experience is your investment in your own learning and that can be done at any university. Through your research you will be able to determine if a program will meet the needs you have for a doctoral program.
Ultimately, the decision to pursue a doctoral degree is very personal. Many different factors could be considered while making the decision. Ask your mentors and faculty from your master’s program, and we are certain they will provide you with additional items to consider and may recommended institutions to consider. A doctoral program requires a deep commitment of time, money, and intellectual energy. The decision should be made thoughtfully after exploration of self, future aspirations, and institutional options.
- Why do you want to pursue a doctorate?
- Do you want to pursue a PhD or an EdD? Why?
- Knowing that we can only plan for what we know at the time of planning and life has a way of changing plans. When would be an ideal time for you to pursue a doctorate?
- Based on your learning style and personal circumstances, would full-time or part-time be best for you?
- What are the factors or non-negotiables that must be present for you to feel supported in a doctoral program?
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Krista Bailey is a Clinical Associate Professor at Texas A&M University, and her research interests include the graduate student and new professional experience, assessment of student leadership, and women in student affairs. She earned her doctoral degree at Texas A&M University and worked as a Student Affairs educator for 15 years before joining the faculty full-time.
Glenda Musoba is an Associate Professor at Texas A&M University, and her research interests include who gets into and who stays in college particularly as it relates to family income, ethnicity, and institutional practices. She earned her doctoral degree at Indiana University and her first faculty position was at Florida International University.