Not Your Mother’s PhD


Over the last couple of months, the question of whether to get a PhD has reemerged for me. Do I need one, or want one? If so, what kind? And more importantly, why? Colleagues on a similar career path observe that a PhD seems to be a pre-requisite for taking on a leadership role of any kind in higher ed. And, as @mgoudz mused after attending Online Learning Consortium’s #ET4Online earlier this month, “All the cool kids have one.” At the same time, doctored friends have described the PhD process as a series of hoops to jump through to get at something else–more respect, higher pay, better positions. Still others have expressed dismay when these promised pay-outs didn’t materialize.

This all feels relevant recently in the context of thinking about the point of education in general. In the traditional model, the point is implied, if not overtly stated, to be the delivery of information which leads to knowledge and ability, which is rewarded by the world in the form of employment and societal success. This model positions students as receptacles of information and malleable, obedient pupils for teachers to form in their likeness. The transfer of information from teacher to student happens in a vacuum, where knowledge is king and tests prove worth, divorced from the complexity of students’ lives and the world that exists beyond the literal walls of the classroom. My own experiences, and those of most everyone, I suspect, reflect a much more complicated and much less linear reality.

A more progressive approach to education places teachers and students on equal footing as learners, extricates learning from the physical confines of any space, puts learners at the center of their own subjective experiences and posits that the purpose of schooling is not to replicate knowledge, but to produce curious, engaged and empowered citizens.

The practitioners I most respect are actively challenging the traditional model of education and working to create authentic experiences for all learners. And yet, so many of these practitioners have gotten where they are, professionally and personally, as a result of engaging directly with the traditional model by earning the requisite PhD. While it’s not the case that all doctoral programs ascribe to a traditional model–many challenge typical structures and expectations; many are designed to push the edges of the academe’s comfort zone; all, I would argue, expect candidates to explore beyond what is known in their given disciplines–the doctoral process remains, to me, very embedded in traditional structures. It remains the last hurdle in earning legitimacy, taking one’s place in the field and becoming “someone who matters.”

Laura Gogia wrote recently of the expectation she encountered in graduate school to learn “scholarly code,” and to love ideas tamely–in a way that didn’t disrupt the decorum and balance of the traditional academy. Another colleague related his colleague’s experience of “becoming disciplined”–in both the literal and metaphorical sense–as a doctoral student. Another friend, after completing his doctorate, urged me to be practical in thinking about mine: choose a subject, get it done, move on. It’s just something you have to do.

And so I find myself rejecting the idea of hoop jumping, of following the expected path, of doing what I “should” to move ahead. The rebellious attitude I discovered in myself as a Masters student at a non-traditional institution has all but blown up in the 14 months I’ve spent working in the Ivy League. I feel compelled now more than ever to buck the norm and deliver beyond everyone’s expectations anyway. I believe our institutions need this. They need for their traditional roots to be shaken regularly. They need disequilibrium. I aim to be a destabilizing force, and I can’t do this from a comfortable seat in the ivory tower for the seven years it would take to write my dissertation.

Maybe I’m a fool or naive. Maybe #PhDIY will become a thing. In the meantime, maybe I’ll stay right where I am and forge a different path, and redefine success in the process.