Is it time to pursue a terminal degree?

After all the effort of earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, you might find yourself wondering why anyone would submit themselves to the rigors of earning a terminal degree or doctorate. Yet during the 2008-2009 academic year, U.S. academic institutions awarded 49,562 doctorate degrees; a 1.6 percent increase from the previous year.

Why Pursue a Doctorate?

According to Chauncey Hollingsworth in his article titled, “Scholarly Pursuits,” “Pursuing a doctorate is widely seen as a prerequisite for a full-time teaching gig. The process can take four or more years, which means it can be difficult for part-timers to balance work and school.” However, an oversupply of doctoral holders, most of whom are in North America and Europe, has made it harder to find an academic job.

Doctoral Programs

According to the Council of Graduate Studies, only about 57 percent of Ph.D. candidates complete their programs within a decade. What does a doctorate program include? You’ll have to take as many as 60 units of coursework and complete a doctoral dissertation. The dissertation is a written record of your research into a subject of your choosing. You’ll have the guidance of a committee comprised of professors who will oversee your progress.

The Dissertation

It’s the dissertation that marks your transition from student to scholar. Writing a dissertation is much like writing a book. It’s an independent project that you create and direct. There are no assignments or deadlines. You run the show. As such, the process of creating your dissertation will be radically different from your previous course work.

The task is so daunting that many students develop writer’s block, lose their momentum and stall. Reasons why students have difficulty in completing their doctoral program include:

  • The desire to be perfect
  • Lack of time
  • Family issues
  • Job and financial issues
  • Fear of disappointing others

Stress often begins when a student sees the dissertation as the thing that will forever define them. Placing so much weight on the dissertation can drive a student in the fruitless pursuit of perfection.

Working With Your Committee

One of those who balanced work and family with his doctoral studies was Dr. Brad Semp who now operates as “The World’s Only Busyness Doctor.” When asked to describe what it was like working with an advisory committee Semp said, “My committee gave me an ‘open book’ to select any topic that I wanted. At the time, I believed this to be a major benefit. In hindsight, it made the process much more challenging because as a Ph.D. student you really do not have an understanding of what is ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ to form a dissertation research topic. In hindsight, I’ve learned that ANYTHING can be turned into dissertation research.”

A Little Humor Helps

Adam Ruben, Ph.D. has the perfect antidote for the stressed doctoral candidate—humor . Ruben, the author of, “Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School“, travels to various graduate schools and conferences talking to grad students about their experiences. Of his book Ruben said, “My book is purely a humor book offering tongue-in-cheek advice for surviving grad school (i.e., how to steal un-guarded free food), but I’ve heard a lot of valid concerns from grad students as well.”

When I asked Adam for advice in choosing a subject for a dissertation he said, “I’d advise a candidate just beginning the dissertation process to make sure his or her topic is realistic. Often advisors will give you a choice between a ‘safe bet’ and something very interesting that probably won’t work. Choose the former.”

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