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Questions I have been asked about doctoral programs

About six months ago I was visiting another institution when someone said to me, “Oh, I used to read your blog, BACK IN THE DAY.”

Ah yes, back in the day, that Pleistocene era when I wasn’t working on a PhD while holding down a big job and dealing with the rest of life’s shenanigans. So now the PhD is done–I watched my committee sign the signature page, two copies of it, even, before we broke out the champers and celebrated–and here I am again. Not blogging every day, as I did once upon a time, but still freer to put virtual pen to electronic paper as the spirit moves me.

I have a lot to catch up on–for example, I understand there was an election last fall, and I hear it may not have gone my way–but the first order of business is to address the questions I have had from library folk interested in doctoral programs. Note that my advice is not directed at librarians whose goal is to become faculty in LIS programs.

Dropping Back In

One popular question comes from people who had dropped out of doctoral programs. Could they ever be accepted into a program again? I’m proof there is a patron saint for second chances. I spent one semester in a doctoral program in 1995 and dropped out for a variety of reasons–wrong time, wrong place, too many life events happening. At the time, I felt that dropping out was the academic equivalent of You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, but part of higher education is a series of head games, and that was one of them.

The second time around, I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted from a program and what kind of program would work for me, and I had the confluence of good timing and good luck. The advice Tom Galvin gave me in 1999, when Sandy and I were living in Albany and when Tom–a longtime ALA activist and former ALA Exec Director–was teaching at SUNY Albany, still seems sound: you can drop out of one program and still find your path back to a doctorate, just don’t drop out of two programs.

I also have friends who suffered through a semester or two, then decided it wasn’t for them. When I started the program, I remember thinking “I need this Ph.D. because I could never get a job at, for example, X without it.” Then I watched as someone quite accomplished, with no interest in ever pursuing even a second masters, was hired at X. There is no shame in deciding the cost/benefit analysis isn’t there for you–though I learned, through this experience, that I was in the program for other, more sustainable reasons.

Selecting Your Program

I am also asked what program to attend. To that my answer is, unless you are very young and can afford to go into, and hopefully out of, significant amounts of debt, pick the program that is most affordable and allows you to continue working as a professional (though if you are at a point in life when you can afford to take a couple years off and get ‘er done, more power to you). That could be a degree offered by your institution or in cooperation with another institution, or otherwise at least partially subsidized. I remember pointing out to an astonished colleague that the Ed.D. he earned for free (plus many Saturdays of sweat equity) was easily worth $65,000, based on the tuition rate at his institution.

Speaking of which, I get asked about Ph.D. versus Ed.D. This can be a touchy question. My take: follow the most practical and affordable path available to you that gets you the degree you will be satisfied with and that will be the most useful to you in your career. But whether Ed.D. or Ph.D., it’s still more letters after your name than you had before you started.

Where Does It Hurt?

What’s the hardest part of a doctoral program? For me, that was a two-way tie between the semester coursework and the comprehensive exams. The semester work was challenging because it couldn’t be set aside or compartmentalized. The five-day intensives were really seven days for me as I had to fly from the Left Coast to Boston. The coursework had deadlines that couldn’t be put aside during inevitable crises. The second semester was the hardest, for so many reasons, not the least of which is that once I had burned off the initial adrenaline, the finish line seemed impossibly far away; meanwhile, the tedium of balancing school and work was settling in, and I was floundering in alien subjects I was struggling to learn long-distance.

Don’t get me wrong, the coursework was often excellent: managing in a political environment, strategic finance, human resources, and other very practical and interesting topics. But it was a bucket o’ work, and when I called a colleague with a question about chair manufacturers (as one does) and heard she was mired in her second semester, I immediately informed her This Too Shall Pass.

Ah, the comprehensive exams. I would say I shall remember them always, except they destroyed so much of my frontal lobe, that will not be possible. The comps required memorizing piles of citations–authors and years, with salient points–to regurgitate during two four-hour closed-book tests.  I told myself afterwards that the comps helped me synthesize major concepts in grand theory, which is a dubious claim but at least made me feel better about the ordeal.

A number of students in my program helped me with comps. My favorite memory is of colleague Gary Shaffer, who called me from what sounded like a windswept city corner to offer his advice. I kept hearing this crinkling sound. The crinkling became louder. “Always have your cards with you,” Gary said. He had brought a sound prop: the bag of index cards he used to constantly drill himself. I committed myself to continuous study until done, helped by partnering with my colleague Chuck in long-distance comps prep. We didn’t study together, but we compared timelines and kept one another apprised of our progress. You can survive a doctoral program without a study buddy, but whew, is it easier if you have one.

Comps were an area where I started with old tech–good old paper index cards–and then asked myself, is this how it’s done these days? After research, I moved on to electronic flashcards through Quizlet. When I wasn’t flipping through text cards on my phone, iPad, or computer, I was listening to the cards on my phone during my run or while driving around running errands.

Writing != Not Writing

So about that dissertation. It was a humongous amount of work, but the qualifying paper that preceded it and the coursework and instruction in producing dissertation-quality research gave me the research design skills I needed to pull it off. Once I had the data gathered, it was just a lot of writing. This, I can do. Not everyone can. Writing is two things (well, writing is many things, but we’ll stick with two for now): it is a skill, and it is a discipline. If you do not have those two things, writing will be a third thing: impossible.

Here is my method. It’s simple. You schedule yourself, you show up, and you write. You do not talk about how you are going to write, unless you are actually going to write. You do not tweet that you are writing (because then you are tweeting, not writing). You do not do other things and feel guilty because you are not writing. (If you do other things, embrace them fully.)

I would write write write write write, at the same chair at the same desk (really, a CostCo folding table) facing the same wall with the same prompts secured to the wall with painter’s tape that on warm days would loosen, requiring me to crawl under my “desk” to retrieve the scattered papers, which on many days was pretty much my only form of exercise. Then I would write write write write write some more, on weekends, holiday breaks, and the occasional “dissercation day,” as I referred to vacation days set aside for this purpose.

Dissercation Days had the added value that  I was very conscious I was using vacation time to write, so I didn’t procrastinate–though in general I find procrastinating at my desk a poor use of time; if I’m going to procrastinate, let me at least get some fresh air.

People will advise you when and how to write. A couple weekends ago I was rereading Stephen King’s On Writing–now that I can read real books again–in which King recommends writing every day. If that works for you, great. What worked for me was using weekends, holidays, or vacation days; writing early in the day, often starting as early as 4 am; taking a short exercise break or powering through until mid-afternoon; and then stopping no later than 4 pm, many times more like 2 pm if I hadn’t stopped by then.

When I tried to write on weekday mornings, work would distract me. Not actual tasks, but the thought of work. It would creep into my brain and then I would feel the urgent need to see if the building consultant had replied to my email or if I had the agenda ready for the program and marketing meeting. It also takes me about an hour to get into a writing groove, so by the time the words were flowing it was time to get ready for work. As for evenings, a friend of mine observed that I’m a lark, not an owl. The muse flees me by mid-afternoon. (This also meant I saved the more chore-like tasks of writing for the afternoon.) The key is to find your own groove and stick to it. If your groove isn’t working, maybe it’s not your groove after all.

Do not take off too much time between writing sessions. I had to do that a couple of times for six to eight weeks each time, during life events such as household moves and so on, and it took some revisiting to reacquaint myself with my writing (which was Stephen King’s main, and excellent, point in his recommendation to write daily). Even when I was writing on a regular basis I often spent at least an hour at the start of the weekend rereading my writing from page 1 to ensure that my most recent writing had a coherent flow of reasoning and narrative and that the writing for that day would be its logical descendant.

Another universal piece of advice is to turn off the technology. I see people tweeting “I’m writing my dissertation right now” and I think, no you aren’t. I used a Mac app called Howler timer to give me writing sieges of 45, 60, 75, or 90 minutes, depending on my degree of focus for that day, during which all interruptions–email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.–were turned off. Twitter and Facebook became snack breaks, though I timed those snacks as well. I had favorite Pandora stations to keep me company and drown out ambient noise, and many, many cups of herbal tea.

Technology Will Save Us All

A few technical notes about technology and doctoral programs. With the exception of the constant allure of social networks and work email, it’s a good thing. I used Kahn Academy and online flash cards to study for the math portion of the GRE.  As noted earlier, I used Quizlet for my comps, in part because this very inexpensive program not only allowed me to create digital flashcards but also read them aloud to me on my iPhone while I exercised or ran errands. I conducted interviews using FaceTime with an inexpensive plug-in, Call Recorder, that effortlessly produced digital recordings, from which the audio files could be easily split out. I then emailed the audio files to Valerie, my transcriptionist, who lives several thousand miles away but always felt as if she were in the next room, swiftly and flawlessly producing transcripts. I used Dedoose, a cloud-based analytical product, to mark up the narratives, and with the justifiable paranoia of any doctoral student, exported the output to multiple secure online locations.

I dimly recall life before such technology, but cannot fathom operating in such a world again, or how much longer some of the tasks would have taken.  I spent some solid coin on things like paying a transcriptionist, but when I watch friends struggling to transcribe their own recordings, I have no regrets.

There are parts of my dissertation I am exceptionally proud of, but I admit particular pride for my automatically-generated table of contents, just one of many skills I learned through YouTube (spoiler alert: the challenge is not marking up the text, it’s changing the styles to match your requirements. Word could really use a style set called Just Times Roman Please). And of course, there were various library catalogs and databases, and hundreds of e-journals to plumb, activity I accomplished as far away from your typical “library discovery layer” as possible. You can take Google Scholar away from me when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

I also plowed through a lot of print books, and many times had to do backflips to get the book in that format. Journal articles work great in e-format (though I do have a leaning paper pillar of printed journal articles left over from comps review and classes). Books, not so much. I needed to have five to fifteen books simultaneously open during a writing session, something ebooks are lame at.  I don’t get romantic about the smell of paper blah blah blah, but when I’m writing, I need my tools in the most immediately accessible format possible, and for me that is digital for articles and paper for books.

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Your cohort can be very important,  and indeed I remember all of them with fondness but one with particular gratitude. Nevertheless, you alone will cross the finish line. I was unnerved when one member of our cohort dropped out after the first semester, but I shouldn’t have been. Doctoral student attrition happens throughout the academy, no less so in LibraryLand. Like the military, or marriage, you really have no idea what it’s like until you’re in it, and it’s not for everyone.

It should be noted that the program I graduated from has graduated, or will graduate, nearly all of the students who made it past the first two semesters, which in turn is most of the people who entered the program in its short but glorious life–another question you should investigate while looking at programs. It turned out that for a variety of reasons that made sense, the cohort I was in was the last for this particular doctoral program. That added a certain pressure since each class was the last one to ever be offered, but it also encouraged me to keep my eyes on the prize. I also, very significantly, had a very supportive committee, and most critically, I fully believed they wanted me to succeed. I also had a very supportive spouse, with whom I racked up an infinity of backlogged honey-dos and I-owe-you-for-this promises.

Regarding success and failure, at the beginning of the program, I asked if anyone had ever failed out of the program. The answer was no, everyone who left self-selected. I later asked the same question regarding comps: had anyone failed comps? The answer was that a student or two had retaken a section of comps in order to pass, but no one had completely failed (and you got one do-over if that happened). These were crucial questions for me. It also helped me to reflect on students who had bigger jobs, or were also raising kids, or otherwise were generally worse off than me in the distraction department. If so-and-so, with the big Ivy League job, or so-and-so, with the tiny infant, could do it, couldn’t I? (There is a fallacy inherent here that more prestigious schools are harder to administer, but it is a fallacy that comforted me many a day.)


I am asked what I will “do” with my Ph.D. In higher education, a doctorate is the expected degree for administrators, and indeed, the news of my successful doctoral defense was met with comments such as “welcome to the club.” So, mission accomplished. Also, I have a job I love, but having better marketability is never a bad idea, particularly in a political moment that can best be described as volatile and unpredictable. I can consult. I can teach (yes, I already could teach, but now more fancy-pants). I could make a reservation at a swanky bistro under the name Dr. Oatmeal and only half of that would be a fabrication. The world is my oyster!

Frankly, I did not enter the program with the idea that I would gain skills and develop the ability to conduct doctoral-quality research (I was really shooting for the fancy six-sided tam), but that happened and I am pondering what to do with this expertise. I already have the joy of being pedantic, if only quietly to myself. Don’t tell me you are writing a “case study” unless it has the elements of a case study not to mention the components of any true research design. Otherwise it’s just anecdata. And of course, when it comes to owning the area of LGTBQ leadership in higher education, I am totally M.C. Hammer: u can’t touch this!

I would not mind being part of the solution for addressing the dubious quality of so much LIS “research.” LibraryLand needs more programs such as the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship to address the sorry fact that basic knowledge of the fundamentals of producing industry-appropriate research is in most cases not required for a masters degree in library science, which at least for academic librarianship, given the student learning objectives we claim to support, is absurd. I also want to write a book, probably continuing the work I have been doing with documenting the working experiences of LGBTQ librarians. But first I need to sort and purge my home office, revisit places such as Hogwarts and Narnia, and catch up on some of those honey-dos and I-owe-you-for-this promises. And buy a six-sided tam.

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