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7 Secrets I Learned on My Way to Earning a Doctorate

After nearly 10 years, the birth of three children, changing jobs twice, and relocating twice, I finally earned my doctorate. (Whew!) It was a lengthy journey and definitely a labor of love. As I’ve learned during this process in interacting with various faculty members and administrators along the way, there isn’t one designated or sure-fire way to earn a doctorate. However, there are strategies that you can employ to make your own doctoral journey easier, more enjoyable, and better ensure successful completion. I would like to share some secrets that I learned along the way toward earning my doctorate:

1. If permitted, transfer in credits from your master’s program. Some doctoral programs will allow you to transfer in credits from your master’s degree in order to grant you “advanced standing.” By doing this, you can save yourself both a considerable amount of time and money. I was able to transfer in 30 credits because I had a 57-credit clinical degree in mental health counseling. By doing this, I essentially eliminated the need to take a minor or cognate area. If you are just researching programs now, ask about the possibility of gaining advanced standing.

2. Start your dissertation from day one! As a high school teacher I had said on the first day of class, “It’s never too early to start preparing for the final exam.” This holds true for the dissertation process as well. Everything that you read and write in some shape or form should help contribute to your dissertation proposal. DO NOT wait until after your comprehensive exam(s) to start thinking about a dissertation topic. Look at what other topics students in the department / program chose to research. There is no “perfect” topic so do not attempt to find it. Choose a topic related to an area or concern that is dear to your heart as this will make the work more enjoyable. Read as much as you can on the topic, and complete class projects related to your topic as much as is appropriate. This will help to create a body of knowledge you can use to craft your dissertation proposal.

3. Choose a dissertation topic that is “researchable” with ample existing literature – Remember the old adage: a good dissertation is a done dissertation! Also, you should not try to solve the world’s problems nor waste time trying to come up with ground-breaking and novel research; your goal is to earn a doctorate. Pick something and go with it. Seek advice from your cohort classmates and faculty if you are truly stuck. Read journal articles in your area of interest to see what current research is being conducted. This can help guide you in finding a topic. Also, DO NOT choose a topic in which there is little to no existing literature. This is going to make it extremely difficult for you to write your literature review chapter and will create problems when you seek a conceptual framework for your study. Lastly, craft research questions that you can research. Do not try to study something that is going to cost a lot of money and / or create logistical research design issues. This can cause undue frustration and easily inhibit you from finishing. Your faculty advisor should be able to offer critical advice on this.

4. Don’t be afraid to change dissertation advisors / chairs if needed – The advisor / advisee relationship, in my opinion, should be solely defined on helping the student reach their goal of successfully completing the dissertation. Unfortunately, this relationship can become a vacant formality and some students lose out on quality guidance, which can become detrimental to the successful completion of the dissertation. Please keep in mind that it is ultimately the student’s responsibility for their own success. With that being said, you shouldn’t hesitate to seek out another committee chair or dissertation advisor if they are not helpful or simply nonexistent. This isn’t personal, it is a means to an end; you need to finish your dissertation. As the case with any type of employee, faculty have different motivations, skills, and weaknesses. This is why you should thoroughly “shop around” for a dissertation advisor / committee chair. This should be a quasi-interview of sorts in which you both lay out expectations of one another. This way you know up front whether or not you and this faculty member are a good match. Just as a note, it is advisable to stay away from choosing someone who will be retiring shortly or going on an extended sabbatical as you want the advisor / chair to see you through the entire process.

5. If working full-time, ask for “staff development” time – I was lucky enough to be able to leave work early in order to attend my classes. (I had to commute 1.5 hours to Penn State so I needed ample time in order to make my 3:00 PM or 6:00 PM classes.) This was something that I had to earn and specifically ask for. If you feel you can do so, and it won’t cause you problems with your employer, see if you can be granted some leave time for working on your doctorate. This does not mean being away from work for semesters at a time (like a medical leave), but just the time you need for class during the day. Do you have room to negotiate somehow with your employer? Can you forgo attending an annual conference for staff development in exchange for a few hours on class days? (They would actually be saving money by not sending you to the conference). Also, can you utilize class projects and research to help the department you work for. I developed multiple staff training activities and curricula based upon required class assignments.

6. Eliminate distractions – Getting dedicated time to concentrate on reading, class papers, and especially the dissertation is paramount.

  • Work where individuals will leave you alone, including your family. If this means getting out of the house, do so. This may sound selfish, but if you want to complete the doctorate, you (and your family) will have to make sacrifices. I found that going to a public library was great because I was left alone. Additionally, I utilized the library of a local college that I had no affiliation with. By doing this, I knew I wouldn’t be distracted by staffers or students that I had relationships with because I simply didn’t know anyone at this institution.
  • Do without the internet, social media, and your cell phone if possible when working. When I was writing my dissertation and completing data analyses, I gathered everything I needed for the night from the internet ahead of time prior to working. Once I started to work, I cut myself off from all online distractions. It is real easy to go from multivariate analysis to checking your fantasy football lineup or how many new Twitter followers you gained in the last hour! Having Facebook, Twitter, or cell texts in the background can easily sabotage your best efforts to get work done.
  • Stay away from the TV and movie rentals when taking a short break – This should be a no-brainer, but these are major distractions that can be hard to walk away from. One episode of the Sopranos can easily turn into three or more, and you’ve just potentially lost multiple written pages for your paper. Your work breaks should be short in length (5 – 10 minutes) so save entertainment as a reward (see #7).

7. Reward yourself with scheduled leisure time – You can’t work all the time. If you do so, the work is going to be repulsive and this can be a recipe for disaster. Be purposeful in rewarding yourself with leisure time rather than just having leisure time haphazardly. This is important because working on a dissertation can oftentimes be tedious and laborious; you don’t want to side on more fun than work because you’ll never get it finished. Rather, create a reward system, and stick to it. For example, if you study or write for three hours each day on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, reward yourself with a movie rental, night out, or pleasure reading on Thursday or Friday. You can choose whatever system you want, but stick to it.

Good luck to you in your academic pursuit of a doctorate! Stick with it, and visualize yourself walking across the stage in your academic regalia. All of that hard work will surely pay off in the end.

What are some secrets you can share related to earning a doctorate? What worked for you and what didn’t? Please share your thoughts as a comment.

Advantages and Pitfalls of Online Doctoral Programs (Guest post by Barbara Jolie)

As someone who likely works within a university system, you are no doubt acquainted with the Chronicle of Higher Education, the country’s leading publication on higher education news and thought. Lately, the newspaper has covered online degree programs, and they mostly underscore how for-profit enterprises like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University are scams that lead the poorest of students to sign on for a lifetime of debt in exchange for a meaningless diploma. Of course, much of the scrutiny that online programs have fallen under is deserved, but if you do your research, pursuing an advanced degree online may benefit you.

Here are some the pros and cons of online doctoral programs:


1. You don’t have to leave your job or your family to pursue your degree.

This, perhaps, is one of the biggest advantages for the largest cross section of people. Considering that pursuing a Ph.D. at a traditional school often requires that you relocate, put your entire career and personal life on hold, an online degree provides an alternative in which you don’t have to sacrifice as much. Having the opportunity to complete work at home while still maintaining a part- or full-time job enables you to balance your work and social life.

2. You don’t experience the institutional pressure of teach classes while doing research.

Most online doctoral programs do not have similar workloads when it comes to teaching classes while juggling research. While some programs require that you teach other online/community college classes, there is not that atmosphere of extreme competition that burns out and causes depression and anxiety among so many doctoral programs at traditional schools.

3. You can finish your online degree more quickly and economically than if you were pursuing the same degree at a
traditional university.

If you decide to pursue an online doctoral degree, you can work at your own pace. Since most online programs don’t work like traditional Ph.D. programs, in which you exchange a very basic stipend for a teaching load, you can finish as quickly or slowly as you want. What’s more, since you can ostensibly still work, and you don’t have to pay for transportation or relocation costs, you can complete an online doctoral program much more economically than a traditional Ph.D. program.


1. There are more scams than legitimate programs, especially at the doctoral level.

Online degree programs are notoriously shrouded in secrecy. That is to say, it is very difficult to get clear information from any big online schools when you are looking for information on the Internet or elsewhere. Many schools offer “doctoral” programs that aren’t accredited. As such, if you plan on pursuing an online doctoral degree, it is best to do so through a program that has been established for several years, or one that is offered through a traditional school, and not a for-profit one.

2. Many potential employers do not take online degrees seriously.

Even if your program is accredited, not all employers take online degrees seriously, since the concept is still more or less in its infancy. Many hold fast to the belief that online degrees are “easier” than traditional degrees, although this isn’t necessarily true. Thus, if you are interested in pursuing an online doctoral degree, be sure to contact potential employers, like community colleges if you are interested in teaching, and other industries that you may be interested in, to find out if your career prospects will improve with an online degree.

3. You won’t have face-to-face support that is instrumental in building a student/professional mentor relationship.

One of the best parts about pursuing an advanced degree at a traditional university is that you will develop real relationships with serious academics. While online doctoral programs attempt to replicate this mentorship that is standard at “brick-and-mortar” schools, they never quite come close to professional development that is common practice at traditional schools.

When people ask themselves if online degrees are worth it, the answer is not quite as clear cut as a “yes” or “no”. The best answer is “it depends.” Depending on your circumstances and your career goals, then an online doctoral program might be just the thing for you. As long as you do your research thoroughly, you’ll be sure to find the academic track that is a best fit for you personally.

This guest post is contributed by Barbara Jolie, who writes for online classes.  She welcomes your comments at her email

Student Affairs & Graduate School: A Brief “How-To”

I remember the day I decided to pursue a career in student affairs as if it was yesterday. I was sitting in my apartment and texting back and forth with my supervisor. He said he was going to Penn State University in the coming days to register for dissertation classes and to speak with his advisor. He asked if I wanted to go and talk with the chair of the master’s program to see if this would be a career I would be interested in.

Prior to this conversation, I had my life planned out. I was going to teach, become a principal, earn a doctorate, and become a superintendent.

I thought about my experiences as a RA, student government member, and Student Trustee. I really enjoyed my experience at Bloomsburg University, but was this something I wanted to make into a career?

After speaking with the program chair and a bit more with my supervisor, I decided to apply to graduate school. After a two-month rat race of researching schools, registering for the GRE and speaking with advisors and professors, I submitted application materials to schools. After several interviews and campus visits, I accepted an offer from Bowling Green State University. There I would have a two-year assistantship as a Graduate Hall Director in the Office of Residence Life.

As I think back to my journey from undergrad to graduate school, I want to offer advice for those considering going to grad school for a master’s in student affairs.

  • Know thyself – I took a chance on a new career path and it has been rewarding. However, graduate school and student affairs are not for everyone. Graduate school should not be an avenue to delay “the real world” (for those going from undergrad straight to grad school). Likewise, viewing student affairs as an extension of undergrad or to “relive the best days” are two poisonous thoughts. Going into student affairs is a commitment to helping college students develop the necessary skills to be successful and mature adults.
  • Start early – My journey was unique. I did not make a decision until the end of September that graduate school was my next step. As a result, I rushed through certain steps and did not get the recommended preparation time for the GRE. Give yourself enough time to make correct decisions on how many and which schools to submit applications, who to ask for recommendations, drafting application essays, and proper preparation for the GRE.
  • Be prepared to get and give rejection – One of the key words you will hear on your search is “fit.” Just as schools are considering you, you have to consider the institution, program, and location. I interviewed with several schools (who accepted me into their program), but I felt it was not the best “fit” for me. Likewise, I was rejected from many programs where I thought I had a good “fit.” I learned to be honest with each school through the process. If you feel it is not a good fit, be open and honest with the department/program chair.
  • Patience – Everyone works with deadlines. Every school has a different deadline date, review date, and interview date(s). Being patient and trusting the process is all part of the application process.
  • M.A., M.S., or M.Ed.? The difference between the types of degrees depends on whom you ask. Traditionally, the M.A. is viewed as a generalist degree; having transferrable skills and prepares one for a variety of jobs. The M.S. is viewed as a degree with one specific focus such as microbiology or organic chemistry. The M.Ed. is rooted in educational disciplines such as guidance counseling, curriculum & instruction, or instructional technology. Whatever the type of degree it is, it will vary institution to institution, and in most instances, you will find answers in the program curriculum guide.
  • Type of Program – When researching student affairs graduate programs you will come across a variety of program names. Some of the more common program names include College Student Personnel (CSP), Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA), Educational Leadership with a focus in Higher Education, and Higher Education Administration (HEA). While these names sound similar, their functions can be different. Some programs are student development focused while others are geared towards the administration within student affairs and/or higher education in general.

Below are two excellent web resources you can use when considering graduate schools for student affairs:

American College Personnel Association’s Directory of Graduate Programs

National Association of Student Personnel Administrator’s Graduate Program Directory

Steve Knepp (@stevenknepp) is currently finishing his first year as a full-time professional in higher education. His areas of interest include residence life, student government, and student leadership development. Steve earned his B.S. in Elementary Education from Bloomsburg University and his M.A. in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University. His hobbies include camping, golf, and traveling. You can follow Steve on his blog at