This column was originally posted on EdSurge. It is reposted here with permission. The following is the latest installment of the Toward Better Teaching advice column. You can pose a question for a future column here.
Dear Bonni, My question is how to prepare yourself for a doctorate in leadership in higher ed, even when you are over 50! I am a former high-tech executive with an MBA, turned severe special needs elementary educator, mother of 7 (4 in college, 3 in high school) who is looking at that next step in my career. I am entering a doctorate in Leadership in Higher Ed program in the fall and am working hard at preparing myself. I have created what I’m calling my “prep syllabus” and hope to set a solid foundation for myself. I’ve filled my podcast app with 5 plus podcasts to learn about various challenges, trends and best practices. I would love to get your feedback on what should be in my “prep syllabus” and how to make that transition. Thanks so much!
—Maureen McLaughlin, returning student
While this column typically is focused on teaching, it is great to get to have it shift to learning for this question. How wonderful that you are taking these steps to be ready for this big transition. Here is some guidance on how to approach this season of preparation.
Conduct a Tools Audit
When I teach a course to doctoral students, I begin by inviting them to perform an audit on their technical skills. This process helps them discern the most essential features within the various applications that will best help them through their coursework and completing a dissertation.
The document I created for the doctoral students specifically identifies those applications that they will use most in pursuing their doctorates with that institution. Download this sample tools audit and customize it to meet your needs. Below are some links to help strengthen your capabilities in some of the fundamental applications I mention in the tools audit:
- Master Microsoft Word using courses from Hoonuit or Lynda
- Format more effectively and efficiently using tips from LifeHacker
- Maximize the Capabilities of Zotero through these videos from Nicholas Cifuentes-Goodbody
If possible, correspond with someone at the institution where you will be attending to see if they have requirements about what word processor or references manager you need to use and be sure you maximize the time you spend learning those.
Develop Your Knowledge of Structures, Research and Writing Styles
In a doctoral program, the structures of your written work will be similar. You will develop many literature reviews and will regularly need to create similar structures for research papers. I have found the following people and organizations essential to growing my research writing skills over the years.
Purdue Online Writing Lab: this website is one I keep open on a regular basis when writing in a formal, academic style. It features guidance on various citation styles (APA, MLA, Chicago, and more) and on how to list references properly. There are also exercises to practice the art of the academic citation. This video (by Nicholas Cifuentes-Goodbody) on developing outlines for larger writing projects is another great way to prepare for the kind of writing you will be doing.
Raul Pacheco-Vega’s website: This assistant professor in the Public Administration Division of the Center for Economic Teaching and Research in Mexico has written extensively on his website about academic writing. I suggest exploring the entire resources section here, including the advice on writing literature reviews, guidance for graduate students, and approaches for writing a research paper, book chapter or dissertation.
Oregon State University Research in Action podcast: one to consider adding to your queue, if it is not already there. Katie Linder, the host, has gathered together scholars who share about all different types of research methods, as well as how to deal with common challenges that occur (such as writer’s block, choosing a dissertation topic, setting research goals, and keeping yourself organized).
Acquire a ‘Good Enough’ Mindset
I used to travel to instruct in the doctoral program I teach in a couple of times a year. Once, I did not set boundaries well enough and found myself in a conversation with a doctoral student about her final paper, at the same time as I was supposed to be returning to the airport to fly back home that evening. I had told the class that I would not be able to stay after class, but that I would be available to answer any questions they had, once I returned home. But I did not stick to my word, and 45 minutes later, was frustrated at what had happened.
The student was unhappy with her grade and kept flipping through all the pages she had printed out with her highlights marking the discrepancies between my perceptions and her own. Flying home, without having had enough time to grab lunch on my way to the airport, I was angry with myself for not having left after the class was over.
Once I was back in our house and able to access wifi, I took a look at her situation. It turned out that the small number of points she was missing from the assignment had absolutely zero impact on her overall grade. She was still at well over the range of what was required to earn an A in the course. This was already evident to her through the grade book. The entire time we had been talking, I was assuming her goal was to earn a higher grade in the class. Instead, it was regarding a single paper and her wanting to have earned 100 percent in the class. To be clear, this fact would never have shown up on her transcripts or anywhere outside the LMS.
That example is a bit more extreme than what I typically witness. However, we can all struggle with knowing what is “good enough” on something and knowing when we should move on to other priorities. As harsh as it may sound, there are times when we need to do that with our families and friends. Being fully present for our loved ones is essential, but during this season of your life, it may be more helpful to think in terms of quality over quantity.
I came into my doctoral program thinking I was going to read every word that was assigned (I didn’t). While I did maintain my desired GPA, I had to think more transactionally than I would have liked to about finishing papers and working collaboratively with other students.
One of my doctoral professors used to tell us that he wanted us to be “famous by Friday,” in reference to writing our dissertations. His use of the word ‘famous’ was delivered dripping with sarcasm. Most people’s dissertations won’t wind up being highly cited. Once we finish them, however, we are freed up to have the time to do the work that may be more meaningful to us and potentially be more visible. The goal is not to try to change the world with our research. The aim is to be done.
As you prepare to begin this journey, equip yourself with the tools you’ll need to support you in the process, re-orient yourself with the kinds of writing you will be doing and be ready for good enough to be good enough.