Congratulations to those who are earning master’s and doctoral degrees this spring! I applaud you. (Go to the ceremony. Hoods are cool.)
If you’re just getting started in a program or you’re already well under way, know that both are huge accomplishments in themselves. Your hood is patiently waiting.
As I progressed through my master’s and doctoral work, I was kept afloat by 1) Anne Lamott and 2) advice from wise colleagues and mentors.
Lamott is the author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994). The title story is a guide for school and life. It goes like this:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
Class by class, page by page, and sometimes even word by word. That’s how I got through my academic programs. To be sure, it wasn’t always a burden. In fact, there were periods when I was so jazzed by my research that my productivity soared. Other times the impossibility of it all seemed almost paralyzing. Bird by bird.
Like Lamott, students ahead of me in my programs and faculty mentors also were invaluable. Their advice?
1) Choose a research topic that you really love because the honeymoon doesn’t last long, and you’ll need something to sustain you through the difficult times. I studied Native American involvement in the women’s club movement. This topic still makes me giddy. (What does it have to do with higher education? Everything. But that’s a story for another day.)
2) Use every paper and project in your classes to explore a facet of your research topic. A paper on today’s tribal colleges provided me with unexpected resources for my dissertation. Start generating your literature review from Day One.
3) Take advantage of the times when you are really in the groove, when eating seems like an unnecessary distraction from your work. These times are critical, and they are fleeting.
What advice can others give? What kept you (keeps you) going? How did it feel to finish? For the Ed.D.s and Ph.D.s out there, in what ways does your doctorate matter?
I thought about giving up many times. Life’s unexpected challenges don’t stop to accommodate classes and papers. But, if you’ll excuse an overused metaphor, academic work is a marathon, not a sprint. We take it step by step. And when we cross the finish line at commencement, the feeling is indescribable.
You’ll want to experience it for yourself. We’ll all celebrate.