Friday, December 28, 2018

What it is like to pursue a doctorate degree

Following are excerpts from a larger paper I wrote during the summer of 2017 as part of my studies in pursuit of a Ph.D. in leadership from Cardinal Stritch University. Each summer, students in Stritch's doctoral program attend what's called the Summer Institute. The SI features a variety of speakers, workshops, and individual and group assignments and activities.

Every so often, I'm asked by students - high school, undergraduate, and master's - what it's like to pursue a degree at this level. That said, I thought this was worth sharing. I hope you enjoy it and find it to be of some value to you.

The Practicality of Our Doctorate Program

The 2017 institute was a little more special than perhaps most others prior, in that it marked the twentieth anniversary of the university’s doctoral program. To celebrate the feat, all of the speakers brought in this year were alumni of the program. Tying into my assertion that all leadership is local, this particular institute, with all of the speakers being alumni, served to further reinforce for me the practicality of our program. I found it immensely inspiring and rewarding to learn what alumni are doing in their own communities – and, by extension, the broader region, country, and ultimately, world – to drive transformation, a word that we will return to shortly.

For me, practicality of the credential is very important. By practicality, I mean that the degree holder is working in the trenches, so to speak – in business; in K-12 education; in the non-profit sector; etc. – and not merely in the proverbial ivory tower often associated with academia. The alumnus of our program is a practitioner, connecting theory and practice; working to bridge the disconnect, however real or perceived it may be, between what is taught in the classroom, and what is needed in everyday social and economic life.

For my dissertation, I am researching organizational culture. I enjoy sharing ideas, resources, and meaningful conversations concerning what I am learning in both my dissertation research specifically, and the broader program curriculum more generally. I regularly work and interact with a plethora of community, education, and business leaders in my day-to-day dealings, and it brings me immense joy and satisfaction to be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with these leaders in ways that lead to two-way or small group learning, growing, and the bridging of theory and practice. Most recently, I had struck up a networking relationship with a business coach, and I have taken genuine interest in the exchange of ideas and resources with this coach, which have mostly been concentrated in the realm of culture and employee engagement, topics that we are both particularly passionate about. It is my sincere hope that these exchanges can, in some way, benefit this coach, and that, in turn, they can benefit his clients, most of whom are small business owners.

Transformation, Leadership, and the Doctorate

The overall theme of the institute was transformation. During the institute, I had the opportunity to enjoy a rich conversation with a classmate during a brief break in activity on the subject of transformation as it pertained to obtaining our doctorates. I explained to her that, for me, it feels like obtaining a doctorate in leadership presents a seemingly-odd paradox – on the one hand, each of us are building expertise in a particular area, to the point where we may be considered a top-of-the-line, go-to authority on that area. On the other, however, I realize, at this level, just how little I know about the world.

In this context, I look at it in this way: With an undergraduate degree, one begins the journey in acquiring a particular skillset or a particular body of knowledge. A master’s degree, then, is designed to further hone in, and continue to build on, the skillset or body of knowledge initially explored with the undergraduate degree. With a master’s degree, combined with significant practical work experience gained with the passage of time, the degree holder may be looked up to by colleagues as an authoritative source and an expert in a particular area, and rightly so, to a large extent. For many work environments, from a purely functional standpoint, this is indeed the case, as a master’s degree is usually the end of the road, so to speak, aside from any ongoing professional development, continuing (functional) education, licensing, and so on. The degree holder has essentially maxed out the need in his or her work environment to continue past this level of formal academic degree, and is on the top of his or her world, to continue to make use of vernacular here. Two master’s-level degrees that instantly come to mind here in this case are the Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Master of Fine Arts (MFA).

The doctorate degree, meanwhile, does two things, in my mind. First, it continues to build on that particular skillset or body of knowledge initially explored with the undergraduate degree and then further refined with the master’s degree. The holder has acquired expertise in the truest sense of the word, earning the right to make use of the honorary title of doctor and joining an elite 1-2% of the population that have also earned a degree at this level. Second, it tears down all of the knowledge and wisdom previously gained, rebuilding it all in a reimagined, reordered way. Where once the colleague in the office with a master’s degree and years of practical work experience was a master of his or her own small universe in the office, she or he now knows nothing by taking up the doctorate degree – while simultaneously, in a strangely paradoxical way, achieving what only an elite few in the world do. Such is my transformational journey in working toward a doctorate. I now realize how little I truly know, as studying at this level has opened my mind and eyes in ways that the two previous academic degrees can never do. It is difficult to go on explaining this feeling, for words cannot really articulate it.

And while it is true that I am building significant expertise in a particular field through obtaining an honorific that few in the world do, I realize that I am no more intelligent than anyone else. One’s lack of a doctorate is not proof of a lack in intelligence or capability at this level, nor is it proof of a lack of a highly-valued skill and/or expertise. A doctorate is merely one path out of many to build such skill or expertise. I am no better than a financial advisor with a bachelor’s degree in finance or economics, 15-20 or more years of work experience, and a slew of industry-recognized licenses and certifications. Nor am I any better than the farmer or the machinist, both of whom may have no more than high school educations and have been working in their respective fields their entire lives.

Finally, I find myself in genuine awe to be studying at this level, for I never imagined making it to this degree. Shortly before graduating with my undergraduate degree, I had joked with friends, family, and classmates at the time that I was done with school for good upon graduating, for it took me six years to graduate. I never changed anything – I merely kept adding to my studies, ultimately earning two minors and a 12-credit certificate in leadership in the end, as well. There were also semesters where I intentionally opted for a lighter course credit load, as well, because I was active in many student organizations and activities. Studying at this level is a great privilege and responsibility, one that I do not take lightly. It is my hope that what I am learning can be used to benefit others in their own work and service, and, by extension, the broader society.

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