I had grandiose, almost artistic, ideas of life as a PhD student. I pictured myself with messy hair and my glasses sliding down my nose–holed up in coffee shops for hours at a time, reading, writing, and people watching. I saw myself sorting through piles of articles and being intrigued but critical of every one. Never procrastinating or wasting time. Well-read. Always prepared for class. Scholarly.
After chatting with people about pursuing a PhD in higher education and student affairs, most of them recommended taking a step back from a full time job and starting school full time, which totally made sense. I frequently got advice like:
“If you can swing it financially, work less and do school ‘right.’”
“I worked full time and did my PhD—and it took forever! I should have taken an assistantship and ‘powered through’.”
“I didn’t get as much out of school as I could have because I was more focused on my job.”
As it went, I left a mid-level position in housing to take a grad assistantship so I could focus on school and have it paid for in full. I looked forward to lower stress and fewer responsibilities. Limiting my work role to taking meeting minutes and researching independent projects seemed refreshing compared to the high stress “housing hustle” of my previous work. I assumed this career change would make me a better, faster, stronger, and more successful PhD student. But I wasn’t.
I was usually unmotivated. I slept in late. I watched a lot of Netflix. I spent time in coffee shops, but only if I could convince myself to get out of pajamas to go. I got things done working from home, but I wasn’t happy. At work, my abilities and experiences were perceived differently because I was a “grad,” even though that did not resonate with me.
Mostly I missed the structure, problem solving, and social interactions that were part of working full time in student affairs that left me feeling accomplished and energized. Developing my scholar identity was much easier than the feeling of losing my practitioner identity.
I’m fortunate I had the opportunity to transition to a full time position a year in to my program. While working full time, I have maintained a full course load thanks to weekend classes, supportive colleagues, and a partner that can take on the “adulting” when I can’t manage. Also, my institution offers tuition benefits to employees—so while I pay some out-of-pocket costs for school, it has been manageable.
I am an extreme extrovert who found “scholarly” life as I imagined to be isolating, but I had convinced myself that it was the best way to do a PhD. Now, I know there is no such thing.
Based on my own path and struggles along the way, here are my five suggestions for those pursuing their PhD:
1. Think about your natural tendencies and don’t fight them too hard. You will be the most successful in your school life, work life, and home life if there is a natural flow throughout. If you were a perfectionist during your masters, that won’t magically disappear in your PhD. If you’re an extrovert, you’ll probably want interactions with people to energize you throughout the day.
2. Consider the benefits of structure, not just the rigidity. When I’m busy, I have a tendency to stay the most productive. Having structure and commitments can provide boundaries and motivation.
3. Research can be an isolating activity—even as faculty. I’ve heard from full time student affairs practitioners turned faculty that this is an adjustment they had to make, as well. Working on autonomous projects can be exceptionally rewarding and lonely. Make work groups to bounce ideas off of and have a social outlet.
4. When applying for programs, look for institutions that provide tuition benefits for employees. You may not receive full tuition coverage, however, some financial assistance may be available.
5. Let go of expectations of what being a doc student should be like. There is not a “right” way to do school. You know yourself better than anyone else, and your experiences in a program will be fun, challenging, and infuriating. Let go of things that don’t matter, and go along for the ride.
This post is part of our #SAdoc series, which aims to show that the journey for a doctorate in Student Affairs is about more than just a piece of paper. A variety of SA pros working towards, or who have obtained, their #SAdoc will share their stories of the hustle and struggle of the process; the ups and downs. For more information, please see Kevin Wright’s intro post. Be sure to check out other posts in this series!
> BONUS <
Podcast With Conor McLaughlin on SA Work-Life Balance