7 Secrets I Learned on My Way to Earning a Doctorate

September 26, 2011

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.


10 Tips for Mentoring & Supervising a “Know-It-All”

September 5, 2011

A “know-it-all” is someone who thinks they are above your leadership and presumes to know everything about the workings of your organization. These individuals may not necessarily be disrespectful or a problem team member, but can keep the team from reaching its full potential as they may feel they have nothing left to learn when, in fact, they have much more they could accomplish. Below are ten strategies for mentoring and supervising a “know-it-all.”

  1. Remain humble and patient – As the leader, you need to remain humble and patient despite the personalities of the people on your team. It goes without saying that you are in charge so you do not always have to reaffirm this. Doing so repeatedly will undoubtedly create discord and unneeded conflicts. Be a leader; do not simply say you are one. Have patience with those who may think they have learned everything there is to know about your organization so you can help them to accomplish more for the team.
  2. Assign extremely challenging tasks – The simplest way to get a complainer or know-it-all to put their money where their mouth is is by assigning challenging tasks. This is not meant to be done to put them in their place or to make a fool out of them, but to push them to further develop their knowledge and skills. If you take the stand that this individual cannot learn anymore, they will remain stagnant. It is your job as a leader to set high expectations and challenges for them.
  3. Involve them in new areas – Expand their skill set by getting them involved in other areas in which they normally do not participate. This will allow them to have new experiences within your organization and further develop their skills.
  4. Allow them to fail – Learning from failure and making mistakes is an excellent opportunity for new understanding. Obviously you do not want to allow failure for large monetary expenditures or decisions related to life & safety issues, but purposely building room in for failure can prove helpful for staff development and continuous improvement.
  5. Increased levels of responsibility – One reason why individuals may feel that they know  it all is because they have not been challenged enough with new and more challenging responsibilities. Create projects purposely for them to allow them to stretch their wings while also being challenged.
  6. Use them as your own resource to develop their confidence Rely upon them for their expertise in areas that they do in fact excel in order to boost their confidence. While this may seem counter-intuitive, particularly with those individuals who can be problematic, one reason they may be a “know-it-all” is because they actually suffer from low self-esteem. Developing their confidence may prove helpful in easing their persistence in claiming to know everything.
  7. Role model mentoring behaviors & expect them to do so as well – Team members will tend to emulate the behaviors of those that inspire them and obtain positive team-wide results. Being a role model for your team and actually illustrating behaviors of what you expect from everyone will go a long way for those who think they have accomplished everything.
  8. Don’t tell me, show me! Have them demonstrate their skills, especially if they contend that they know how to solve various problems. This is not meant to be a battle of wills, but to push them further to reach their potential. Give them the resources and tools needed to accomplish the job, and allow them to do so.
  9. Establish trust by including them in confidential and sensitive information – Along with involving individuals in new areas and increasing their levels of responsibilities, you can establish trust with them by including them in discussions they may not have been privy to previously. Obviously you want to set explicit expectations regarding confidentiality.
  10. Counsel them out of the position – Lastly, it may be appropriate to counsel an individual out of their position, particularly if there really are no new challenges or responsibilities for them to tackle. Are you able to promote them to a new position within the organization? Are there other positions outside of the organization that you could recommend for them? Part of the mentoring process is to help recommend new opportunities for your team members so that they can grow as leaders even if that means those opportunities are outside of your organization.

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