Reflections on Going Straight Through from a Master’s to a Doctoral Program
By: Antonio Duran, Ohio State University
This past November, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 2017 Annual ASHE Conference thanks to the ASHE Graduate Student Travel Scholarship. Similar to past ASHE conferences, this was an opportunity for me to learn from innovative and critical scholarship in higher education, as well as to reconnect and make some new friends. As the conference went on, I met a number of master’s students who were presenting research studies and exploring some powerful ideas that would contribute greatly to the field. These interactions reminded me of the first time that I had attended an ASHE conference back in 2015 as a second-year master’s student thanks to the guidance and mentorship of a dear friend, Dr. Z Nicolazzo. Though I perceive the ASHE community to be comprised mostly of faculty members and doctoral students, this past conference showed me that more and more master’s students might be engaging with research, in addition to possibly having aspirations for a doctoral degree.
As an individual who went straight through from their undergraduate to their master’s and now to a doctoral degree, I have been able to reflect on the pieces of advice that I received while applying for the Ph.D. Though I did encounter people who encouraged me to work for a few years before I pursued doctoral education, I felt in my heart of hearts that going into a Ph.D. program right after my master’s experience made the most sense for me. Therefore, I wanted to write a blog post that documented the process that I went through in order to make this decision. Namely, I will offer some questions that were crucial to my decision to apply to a doctoral degree.
What career aspirations do you have?
To begin, one of the most common questions that I heard when I started to let it slip out that I was considering applying to Ph.D. programs was: what career aspirations do you have? Implicit in this question is the belief that going straight through to a doctoral program is better suited for certain careers over others. Though important to reflect on your future aspirations, this question does not account for the ways a doctoral program itself can shift your dreams and goals. Nevertheless, I was often told that should I want to become a practitioner in the field of higher education, it was highly advised that I work for a few years before entering a program. The thought process behind this was that it would be difficult to acquire a job after I obtain a terminal degree due to being overqualified when it comes to my educational level, but underqualified as it pertains to work experience.
For those who want to pursue a career in faculty life, I was advised that going straight through can look very different. Yet, in talking with those who followed a similar path, this road can also be laden with comments from graduate students such as, “Well, you have never experienced life as a practitioner.” The dichotomy of faculty versus practitioner was a frequent narrative I encountered while contemplating my Ph.D. I considered this question heavily but knew that the answer to this inquiry was part of a larger puzzle of my decision-making process.
How do you plan to remain connected to the “practical” side of your work?
Connected to the previous question, I frequently had others ask me about maintaining a practical connection to my work. I am reminded constantly about the importance that scholarship has in creating positive change for the lives of students, particularly those from underserved populations. Therefore, I grappled with this particular question a great deal. If I were to go straight through into a doctoral program, would I be stuck in a land of theoretical thinking and not be able to ground my research and teaching in practical application?
I would encourage those who are considering this path to similarly reflect on this question in an in-depth manner. For me, I answered this with the following in mind: 1) I would continue to surround myself with people and participate in spaces that center practice and not only theory. For example, I made it a point that I should never solely present research at conferences such as ASHE or AERA, but that I should collaborate with brilliant practitioners that were attending conferences such as NASPA, ACPA, or functional area specific spaces. 2) The very nature of my passion, one that focuses on underserved populations in higher education, challenges me to always prioritize a belief in social action. How can I continue to engage in movements on campus that disrupts hegemonic and neoliberal ideologies, and how can my research motivate others to do the same?
How have your past experiences shaped your research interests?
Similar to the advice my mentors taught me, I caution against entering a doctoral program with a narrow, finalized dissertation topic in mind. The beauty of coursework is that it will typically push you to think about your research interests in a different light. However, when applying to a doctoral program, it is necessary to reflect on how your past experiences have shaped your broad research interests. This sentiment was explained to me by a faculty member who said that those who have gone straight through may not be able to pull on past professional or academic experiences as readily as those who took some time to work. Therefore, I ask others to reflect on how their past experiences, whether they are professional or personal, have formed sparks of research interests and hopefully led to some comfort with engaging in the research process.
Why do you want to go straight through?
In preparing for interviews for doctoral programs, I knew that I would most likely be asked this question each time. If so, I knew that I had an answer for it. To be honest, it just felt right. Even though I constructed a much more elaborate and detailed response to discuss in interviews, the very core of my answer remained the same. I felt ready. I felt excited. I felt like I needed to be in the academy to fight for students who looked like me and encountered similar challenges. When I chat with others who are also making the decision whether to apply to a program, I always ask them if they have a strong reason why they are doing it. For me, this why has been enough to get me through even in times when I encounter the impostor syndrome and feel the beginnings of burnout from multiple years of coursework.
Ultimately, I hope that these questions provide you all with a good starting point if you are considering a path similar to mine. Everyone’s experience will not be the same and for many, taking the time to work in the field of higher education and student affairs will make a lot of sense. For those of you who are passionate about doctoral education and who might even consider going straight through, I look forward to seeing how your ideas will contribute and challenge the current state of higher education in the United States, as well as globally.
Antonio Duran is a second-year doctoral student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) program at The Ohio State University, serving as the GAA for HESA Student Leadership Curricular Initiatives. Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, Antonio acquired his undergraduate degree at New York University and completed his master’s work at Miami University in Ohio. Antonio’s research interests include asset-based ways of knowing queer collegians of color, together with understanding the experiences of educators who engage in critical pedagogical strategies.