The Lives Of Three Phd Students – Is A PhD Right For Me?

iStudent Blog

Published: July 2, 2018 by Priscilla Ameneyro

As my final semester at SJSU rapidly approaches, I’m starting to look for jobs and also research PhD programs. There are two main reasons I’m considering a PhD: the increasingly competitive job market and as a lifelong learner, more school sounds fun! I had the opportunity to speak with three of San José Gateway PhD Program’s current students. The San José Gateway PhD program is an international doctoral program currently offered in partnership with the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). If you’re interested in more information on the program itself, I recommend visiting the FAQs page or filling out an information request form. For this article, I wanted to focus on the personal journeys of the three PhD students I interviewed:

  • Walter Butler just started the PhD program last summer and is currently working as a librarian at Pasadena City College;
  • Lettie Conrad is right in the middle of her program with two and half years done and about two more years ahead of her and;
  • Karen Kaufmann is a full time academic librarian and part time PhD student. She just completed her final seminar, so she is at the end of the program.

Preparing for a PhD
I’m not planning to start a PhD program immediately after my master’s degree but I want to stay open to the idea. Everyone’s journey is different and it’s reassuring to hear stories that prove there isn’t a strict archetype when it comes to higher education. Walter said he was considering a PhD right after completing his master’s degree but he didn’t feel ready at the time. He said that although he had a lot of ideas, he didn’t have anything concrete yet. Once he spent some time working in the field, he could see issues as they were emerging and he learned how things work in application. This inspired him to look at different issues he never thought of while in school, which later shaped his PhD proposal. Walter also wanted to truly dedicate himself to the program, so when he applied it was about being in a place in his life where he had enough time (and money) to do it right.

Lettie came into the PhD program with a hunger for research and a desire to increase her own methodological soundness. Her work experience grants a unique perspective in the field. She has done research in a practitioner space doing contextual analysis. She says the research was usually very fast moving because “businesses want answers.” Because of this, Lettie came into the PhD program wanting to slow down and “up her game” in terms of research.

Application Process
I knew the PhD proposal is nothing like other college applications but after speaking with Karen, I feel more confident regarding the process. She told me that applicants submit a sketch of a proposal, with the understanding that it will most likely change. There is an interview with a faculty member and they provide recommendations. Then applicants begin the process of trying to find a good match, that is, a supervisor that is willing to work with you. This is a very important component because there is a lot of communication with the supervisor over several years. Curious to put myself in a PhD applicant’s shoes, I found the faculty specializations page, where applicants are given a message which echoes Karen’s advice, “as you consider your initial research question, we encourage you to read the biographies and research profiles of the faculty members who specialize in your area of interest.”

Lettie recommends taking advantage of the many opportunities available to potential applicants. There are open houses held every fall where students talk about what it’s actually like to be in the program. She gave three great pieces of advice for all potential PhD applicants:

  1. Be clear – know what you want to do and be able to speak to that
  2. Be curious – be willing to ask questions and to be wrong
  3. Be open – be ready to stand by your work, to present, to be professional and to embrace the feedback loop

The Thesis
The thought of creating a dense body of work upwards of 500 pages is daunting. Walter’s advice was simple, “don’t dwell on it.” He explained that you move along with the research and the thesis grows outward. He advised others not to think about the completed project and to just work on one section at a time. With this method, he says, you just put all the sections together and you have this heavy document at the end.

Karen shared a similar perspective on the thesis. She said you start with a complex, big idea but good research distills it into simple explanations and terms that are succinct. The findings start to shrink, which she says is indicative of the research process. She doesn’t describe the thesis as frightening at all, but rather as this process where, through lots of research, you naturally chip away to find the essence of your work. If you are reading this and still feeling uneasy, I recommend looking at previous students’ published dissertations.

End Goal
Walter’s research question came out of work that he was already involved with. Professional growth was an important consideration, or as he described it, “having as many doors open as possible.” Lettie said this program sets you up to be an expert in a particular area; it gives you a platform to brand yourself as an academic and a practitioner. We all have our own reasons for pursuing higher education and the higher you go, the fewer peers you have. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, less than two percent of Americans have a doctorate. There are many reasons to pursue a PhD, from career advancement to personal interest, or simply to become an instructor at a university.  No matter your motivation, it is indisputably a prestigious accolade.

Images: Three Students courtesy of the author and PhD Survivor by souvenirsofcanada/CC 2.0

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