Sunday, July 21, 2013
The Isolation of Doctoral Studies
Recently at Doctoral residency, we had a long discussion about what its like to be a Doctoral student. One topic really hit home. It had never occurred to me that other people were going through the same issues I was. University of Phoenix is mainly online in the Doctoral program. Once a year, you meet for residency with other students around the country.
A Doctorate is considerably more difficult than other degrees. Even a Master's degree does not have the level of analytical complexity. For a Bachelor's degree, most students attend classes, take tests, and are awarded a degree upon the successive completion of all courses. In a Master's program, a student will attend classes for two years, use a formal writing format, such as APA or MLA, and be required to complete a Master's thesis.
A Doctorate requires a long series of classes, the creation of a study, several approvals of the study, then a dissertation usually over a hundred pages, conducting the study, compiling the results, and completing the dissertation with a minimum standard of perfect. Once it is approved, the student must go through a process known as defense, in which they are questioned by several faculty members in an attempt to prove that the candidate is a subject matter expert. To say it is difficult is a gross understatement.
Any Doctoral student will face challenges that they cannot adequately prepare for. They will lose friends, boy/girlfriends, spouses, and life experiences. The longer it takes to complete the program, the more the student has felt that they have given up.
I have now been in the program for six years. I have had to request approval for my proposal four times, I requested 20k for student loans, and received 4k, and had to wait 6 months to receive the funds. APA changed so my dissertation needed major revisions, and UOP completely changed their grading criteria for dissertations, mid program. My dissertation has been rejected and sent back twice. I am now at the stage of waiting for school approval and then defense. As unpleasant as this all sounds, my experiences have been minor compared to other student tales I have heard.
I have heard of students that cannot find a mentor, that have had to search for a committee, or change topics halfway through the program. In comparison, my obstacles have been difficult, but manageable. The topic that hit home at this last residency was loneliness. Doctoral students have to embark on an educational journey that most people cannot understand. Its a lot more than writing a paper, more than researching a newspaper article. Try reading 200 articles, choosing 110, citing and referencing them, and applying them in your dissertation so that it makes sense and is formatted correctly. I had to correct revisions three times. This means taking a 70-95 page document and fixing markups that were on each page. That sound you hear? Three weekends gone.
While your friends are going on vacations, going out to dinner, seeing concerts, or getting family time, you are locked in front of your computer. You have to turn your phone off. You learn that working on your dissertation for 9 hours is not only normal, its expected. The hardest part is that you don't get to work in person with other candidates. Other students can be across the country. Residency is a vital part of this program. It hits home when you get to talk to other people going through the experience.
We discussed methods of dealing with this isolation. Depression and frustration is common amongst Doctoral students. A person receives no recognition until the very end. It feels like the dissertation will never get done, and random setbacks, paperwork issues, family fights, and a feeling of loneliness are normal.
We suggested creating a support group, explaining to family exactly what you will go through, using humor to cope, planning family celebrations to commemorate milestones, and creating a community of Doctoral learners. If you know a Doctoral candidate, support them. Text them that you are proud of them, take them coffee when you know they are studying, ask them how things are going. Chances are, they really need a boost. Sometimes a phone call or supportive text can be all they need to get past a challenging section they are trying to write.
As I near the end of my Doctoral journey, I look back and see how my life has changed since I began. I have fewer friends, I am a more successful writer, I am technically a subject matter expert on Project Based Learning, and soon I will complete one of the highest educational achievements available. It has been a tough journey, but my friends and family provided the map.
To future Doctoral students, I wish you luck and successful studies. I will always be available to help you.