In 2006, I chose to pursue a doctorate. My father was the spark that lit the match. One afternoon we were sitting in my parents’ living room, and he casually asked me why I stopped going to school. I replied that a doctoral degree was a goal for later in life. He, in turn, responded by asking me why I was waiting. It was already later.
I was waiting because of a conversation that I had with a professor five years earlier. Essentially, the professor told me that I did not have enough life experience to pursue a Ph.D. Looking back on it, I understand that the professor judged the book by the cover. The professor could not have known that I was more disciplined and prepared than I looked. I joined the military to ensure that I could pay for my education. I worked each day and took a class during my lunchtime after requesting permission from my sergeant. I changed my lunch schedule to coincide with class times on base. Then, after work, I went to school during the evening too.
I had more life and work experiences than most people my age. There is something about responsibilities that shifts one from whimsical youthful behavior. Responsibilities mold us and make us mature. (I will save that story for another post.)
I remember that I immediately looked online for the application requirements and began to write my statement. After submitting my materials, I was accepted into a Ph.D. program with a “full-ride.” The odds for success were not in my favor, and at times I felt alone.
People watched out for me, even when I was not aware of it. Folks were kind to me, and I try to do the same for others today. I am currently an associate director of a Ph.D. program. I spend countless hours providing application and career advice. I humbly do it because no one finishes a Ph.D. on their own. I had many people who helped along the way (including my mother and my husband). I will be eternally grateful for Drs. Nancy Everhart and Eliza Dresang believed in me and provided me with funding from their grants.
So, today, I am sharing some tips with you, just in case your New Year’s resolution is to get a Ph.D. These tips will help you with your application process. They seem like common sense. However, the rules for the “doctorate game” are not always evident.
- The application essay: Focus on career goals when you write your application statement. Earning a doctorate is a dream come true for most people that have one. Instead of telling the admissions committee about your dreams, write in a formal tone and focus on the application questions. Admission committees want to know that there is a plan for your career.
- The purpose of the degree: Know the differences between the types of doctoral degrees. Think about your goals for your life before you decide to apply. For example, my university offered a Doctor of Education (EdD) and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in educational leadership in the past. The EdD was designed for practitioners in administrative positions, and the Ph.D. prepared students for careers in academia and research. The degrees were designed for different audiences. Still, keep in mind that a person with an EdD may publish research. The person completing the Ph.D. will probably complete more research coursework. Both are exceptional options. See this post from Northeastern University that explains the differences in their doctoral programs: https://www.northeastern.edu/graduate/blog/edd-vs-phd-in-education/.
- Interview preparations: Some programs require an interview. Take the time to think about your career plan, the program requirements, research interests, and how they coincide with the program. Also, be sure to read the program handbook before scheduling the interview.
- Application prerequisites: Examine the program prerequisites before applying to the program. Applications are expensive, and people who have not met program prerequisites are likely to be rejected.
- Course requirements: Review the courses required for the degree. Are you interested in the course content? Degrees may require as little as 42 hours beyond a master’s degree, while others will require 60 hours or more. If another program requires fewer credit hours, it may be advantageous to choose that program to spend less money or graduate sooner.
- Life changes: Completing a Ph.D. can change your daily routines. Understand the residency requirements and time commitment for the degree. Will you need to attend school full time? Will you need to take a certain number of courses during a specific time? Are classes offered online or face to face? Is there an expectation that you will not work? How long will you have to complete the degree?
- Funding opportunities: Think about program funding. Will you have enough money to pay for your program by yourself? You will need a plan to pay for your degree if your university does not have funding. If you need financing, you should make sure to ask if you must apply for program funding while completing the application.
- Letters of recommendation: Ask your old professors for letters of recommendation. Letters from academics are better than letters from family friends. Provide a resume and draft of the letter to remind them about who you are.
- Consider quality: Ph.D. programs have their own brands. Some programs are better than others. Quality is usually evident when you begin to compare them. You can investigate factors such as the publications of faculty, grants, student funding, departmental support structures, course offerings, and alumni employment. Understanding a program’s quality will make it easier to determine if the program is appropriate for you.
- Application materials: Finally, try not to underestimate the time commitment for completing the application components. Respect the application deadline and begin collecting documentation well in advance. At my university, there is a departmental and overall university application. The department cannot review applications until the university has approved a student for admission. Often, it takes at least a month for us to receive an application because the university is still waiting for transcripts and test scores. Plan so that your entire application is complete by the deadline. Late records will delay the evaluation of your documentation.
In all, completing a doctorate is a rigorous task that demands commitment and planning. The challenge begins with applying. Departments begin considering a person’s ability to finish a doctorate during the application stage. If you are serious about earning a doctorate, I hope that my list will help you complete the application. Please share if you have a doctorate and would like to comment on your experience with the application process.
Author: Daniella Smith
Daniella Smith, PhD. is a former school and public librarian. She is currently an associate professor at the University of North Texas.