Reflections on a PhD

Dave Sherman recently posted an interesting reflection on higher education called PhDo or PhDon’t? He considers pursuing a PhD but questions his motivations.

Convincing ourselves it is a good idea! Cartoon by Matthew Henry Hall. Click to view source.

Convincing ourselves it is a good idea! Cartoon by Matthew Henry Hall. Click to view source.

It stirred up some of my own stuff that has been lying under the surface lately around my own education. I went back to school 11 months ago, and I am questioning that decision. For real. Here is the comment I wrote in response.

Very timely post for me. I am in the first year of a PhD program and am re-evaluating if it is really what I want to do. Am I doing it because I like the idea of it? or because it is right for me? Not sure.

I do know that I work full time, with challenging students (which ones aren’t, really?) at a high school from 7 to 5 most days, and study part-time. Between those 2 things I do not have much time for anything else. Luckily I do love teaching and learning! But there is little balance with other activities (exercise, painting, personal reading, family…).

Also, I am finding the whole methodological approach of the PhD program I am in to be …. ugh. I am not interested in stats. Really. I am not interested in isolating variables, in considering things in isolation from anything else. I am interested in uncovering stories and relationships and I do not think that can be done in isolation. So maybe what I need to do is look for another program, one where I will feel more at home.

So…those are my 2 cents. Consider work/life balance, and consider the program that is the right fit. That’s where I am now. Luckily I go to school in Canada, where the fees are not outrageous, so I can afford to spend some time figuring out where I fit.

Whatever choice you make, make it right for you.

So. How do I take my own advice? Where do I go from here? These are questions that I am left with. Jon Becker wrote about the difference between the Ed.D and the PhD in his comment to Dave. Perhaps an Ed.D is where I need to look. Or perhaps I need to look outside of Education.

Things I know.

  • I love to research, to learn.
  • I hate to do it around things that do not interest me. In high school and CEGEP I receive As or Fs, not much in between, and directly related to interest. By the PhD level, I was expecting to not have to do that anymore (spend time learning things that don’t interest me).
  • I love to teach, to work with kids.
  • I get energy from BOTH being with kids and research – my own learning.

Oddly, though I am working in a new program and in the first year of a PhD, I feel stagnant. What the heck is up with that?


  • Tracy,
    About a little more than half way through my masters in education administration at OISE (Toronto) , I recognized that I didn’t want to leave the classroom and kids so I didn’t continue. Now a few years later, I’m looking for a masters program that suits me, that is a good fit. If all goes well, I should be applying some where by April.

    Elona Hartjess last blog post at [site]..Books my reluctant readers love to read and add to their library.

  • Ken Allan says:

    Kia ora Tracy

    It is a tough time. I recall my first year plodding at my PhD. It was awful. I’d no focus, no incentive. I was quite ignorant (much better now?) and didn’t know what to do.

    You will have certain advantages on how I was then, for you’ve got maturity and a bit more experience of how things work for you. I didn’t know all that, but had to find out fast. And I did.

    I took a learner’s approach to it all. I decided to follow a schedule – every day – till I could see where I was going. It worked (sort of) but the thing I found out the most was that interest grows.

    Doing a PhD is a bit like writing a novel. Just keep at it. If you need a schedule to do that, then use it. Many writers (authors) do this. Don’t challenge that if you want it to work for you. Challenging the schedule means it’s a non-schedule.

    Think of the little pot plant. What do you have to do to make it thrive? You give it water – not too much – regularly – not too often. You give it light – not too much – regularly – not too fierce. You keep it cool – not too cool. You tend to its needs – a bit of TLC – and watch it grow.

    Good luck Tracy. You have the time, the maturity, the experience and most of all, the brains!

    Catchya later

    Ken Allans last blog post at [site]..Learning Resources

  • Phil says:


    This is from the opposite end of a career. Get the Ph.D! I too found the program less than scintillating and my faculty only wanted to engage in fierce conversations about who was on the tenure track and who was not. I grew discouraged, fell in love, got married and left the program. I truly believed I was going to find a better thing over the next horizon. So I headed off into the sun and watched it go down. I have missed a lot of career opportunities along the way because I did not add those significant little letters behind my name. I find myself very envious of Jon, Scot and others who slugged it out and made it through. The real question is not whether or not to get the degree but is about where you want to be at the end of the road or more aptly who you want to be. Good program or bad the discipline tends to define you and surround you with like minded individuals. I vote you go for it. You have such a rich gift to share but the initials make a difference. Good Luck

  • Jessie says:

    Hi Tracy, Sounds like a tough spot to be in. I went to grad school full-time and loved it (although not every course, especially loathed the quantitative stuff) but I felt a real sense of ‘vocation’ about it. My partner is currently working full-time while going to grad school part-time, and enjoys it but struggles with those same work/life balance issues. I agree with Scott about finding courses/faculty with a more qualitative approach and that may help. And, as Jon suggests, having those “fierce” conversations may help as well, but it may just be that you’re in the wrong sort of program for what your interests and needs. I’ve never regretted getting the PhD and always been so glad I pursued the degree. I hope you find the right fit.

  • Jon Becker says:

    Hi Tracy,
    Have you shared these concerns with any of the faculty in the program? Those are the sort of “fierce” conversations the faculty are supposed to have with you. I know not all professors are this way, but I’d want to try to work with you to figure out how the make the program work for you. A long time ago, Alfred O. Hirschmann wrote a book called Exit, Voice & Loyalty. As a consumer in a market-based situation, those are basically your three options when you are dissatisfied. I’ve enjoyed working with doc. students who are willing to use their “voice” option.

    Also, I would add that if you are interested in learning and in doing research, you don’t want to pursue an Ed.D. program. Those are going to be much more oriented to problems of practice.

    Wishing you the best.

    Jon Beckers last blog post at [site]..Conferences, Presentations, Etc.

    • Tracy says:

      Hi Jon, and thanks. I do need to start using my voice. Interestingly, that is a goal that I set for myself when working on my MA. I’m grateful for the reminder. I have spoken informally – in courses and conversations with other students – but I need to speak with someone from my advising team.

      I am very interested in the intersection of research and practice. For example, I am learning toward issues of professional development in schools in the face of change (aka all the time ;) ) as my research focus. I could not study this without looking at practice, and I would like to connect that work with research on how people work and think together. Is this something best suited for a PhD or more so far an EdD? Concordia does not offer an EdD, so I did not figure that option into my decision when I decided to go back to school.

  • Scott McLeod says:

    Tracy, you said:

    “I am interested in uncovering stories and relationships and I do not think that can be done in isolation.”

    Sounds like you need exposure to some qualitative, not quantitative, research techniques. I think you’ll find that they resonate much better with you. Your advisor and/or other faculty members in your program should be helping you work through this…

    Scott McLeods last blog post at [site]..Laptops in higher ed classrooms

    • Hi Tracy,

      You’re still in the coursework stage of the PhD, right? It’s the time when you have to take up tasks and courses that don’t necessarily ‘fit’ with your interests 100% (0r even 50% in some cases). Once that, and your comprehensives, are done you’ll be able to devote a massive chunk of your time into researching your own interests.

      The trick is to make sure that you’re always doing your work, even in courses that you aren’t necessarily interested in. In my case, I’ve managed to draw on digital copyright, social networking, surveillance issues, and so forth in courses that are intended to be methodology courses, theory courses, etc. If you can, talk with the faculty members leading classes – most (in my experiences) will likely be supportive of working with you to create projects that will be helpful for your dissertation research.

      I’d encourage you to hang on; once the course work is over things should move towards the research you want to perform!

      Christopher Parsonss last blog post at [site]..Update: Geolocation and Mobiles

    • Tracy says:

      @ Scott, yes. Qualitative research techniques do resonate with me. My MA is in Human Systems Intervention, in the department of Applied Human Sciences, so my research experience so far has been very influenced by qualitative methods. I have been involved in a few conversations with other PhD students and professors in my present program – educational technology – and qualitative methodologies seem to… go against the grain. That’s why I was questioning whether I should change programs. Or perhaps I need to find people in my program who think along those lines as well, I haven’t found them yet.

      @ Chris, yes, I am still in the coursework stage. Though at present I am only taking my doctoral research seminar. Your suggestion about focusing on topics that interest me is a good one, and one I used last year in Instructional Theories and tried this year in Human Performance Technology, which I have since discontinued. It really irks me that I have to take courses on methodologies and program design that don’t interest me. I work full time. I can devote only so much time to my own schooling and I hate that the time is spent studying how to do a needs assessment or statistics. There is a disconnect for me and when I feel that it is very difficult for me to stay focused. There must be a way for me to be actively involved in interesting and authentic work. No?

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