The Positives of Pursuing a Doctoral Degree

By: Tyler Hallmark, The Ohio State University

I’d be lying if I said that pursuing a Doctoral degree was easy – because it’s not. After all, only 2% of Americans even hold a Doctoral degree. Many articles have been written about the challenges of pursuing a Doctoral degree, discussing topics such as the emotional toll it has on students, the stress load (metaphorically) placed on students’ shoulders, the imposter syndrome that never goes away, and more. Other articles have highlighted how these challenges can be particularly burdensome for women, students of color, first-generation students, and other individuals holding less-privileged identities. However, while it is important to openly talk about the struggles that so many students experience, especially so that students know they are not alone in what they are experiencing, I fear that, too often, we focus only on the negatives of pursuing a Doctoral degree – and often, this may be to the detriment of others.

As my friend Andrew Martinez writes, if we are hoping to diversify the professoriate, we shouldn’t scare prospective faculty members away. Similarly, if we’re hoping to diversify those who hold Doctoral degrees in this country, we shouldn’t be overwhelming prospective students with only negative stories. This isn’t to say that we can’t talk about the struggles, barriers, and challenges that come with the Doctoral experience – but we should also remind students of why they can do it and what they may gain from it.

In turn, I’ve chosen to write a blog that highlights the positives of pursuing a Doctoral degree because, frankly, prospective students, especially those students who are already nervous, scared, hesitant, or concerned about the process, need to hear stories that are affirming and encouraging. Importantly, I recognize my own privilege in writing such a blog – given the mix of both privileged and less-privileged identities which I hold. Thus, in order to better grasp the positives of the Doctoral experience, I surveyed a diverse set of scholars from across the country – all of whom are pursuing a Doctoral degree in a Higher Education and/or Student Affairs-related field. My sample (of 12 Doctoral scholars) overwhelmingly consisted of students of color and women, and several scholars who held other less-privileged identities, including identifying as LGBTQ+, first-generation, low-socioeconomic status, rural, and international, as I sought to center voices that may be typically left out of conversations surrounding the Doctoral experience. Below, I summarize some takeaways from what these scholars shared with me.

You won’t be going through the struggle alone.

Many scholars emphasized the importance of their community in their Doctoral process – that they had fellow peers with which they could connect and persist. As one scholar from the University of Pennsylvania shared, “I connected with peers in a similar situation as me and developed a plan to stick by which has been really helpful.” While some scholars had strong cohort models on which they could rely, others found community in a variety of ways, including through both institutional affinity groups and research centers as well as national conferences and the broader Twitter-verse. In many cases, students remarked on becoming friends with individuals they otherwise hadn’t anticipated – individuals from very different backgrounds, individuals with very different personal interests, etc. – as they were going through the same Doctoral process and/or shared similar research interests. Faculty and staff also played prominent roles at some institutions, hosting potlucks and being intentional in their connections with newer scholars.

You will become an expert in your field.

In the conducted survey, many scholars took the time to reflect on what they have learned throughout the process. In one reflection, Dr. Rachel Renbarger, who recently defended her dissertation at the University of Baylor, shared, “I remember sitting at my desk and being amazed at what I had on my screen. I had R running and Latex compiling and I felt like a mad scientist … [and] I didn’t get any error messages!” Whether its learning methods and related software, becoming a walking encyclopedia on your particular area of research, or presenting your work at conferences around the world, the Doctoral experience is what enables the transition from student to scholar.

You will hold more power for your voice to be heard.

Similarly, as you’re becoming an expert, you will begin to be recognized by others as an expert, as a colleague, and as someone to call on when important discussions are happening. Multiple scholars shared that some of their greatest highlights of the Doctoral experience had been being invited to serve on university-wide committees, as faculty members had recommended them for their expertise. Other scholars shared instances of being invited to participate in book projects, serve on conference panels, or interview with media – validating their efforts and offering new platforms for their voices to be heard.

You will do impactful work.

More than becoming an expert or being seen as an expert by others: You will have the opportunity to make an impact with your work. For those scholars that center their work on less-privileged populations, it can be particularly empowering to pursue a Doctoral degree, as you encounter moments where your research has an impact. Indeed, many scholars shared moments wherein they felt validated in their pursuits and knew they could make a positive contribution to their populations of interest. Dianey Leal, a Doctoral candidate at Michigan State University, reaffirmed that “this work has consequences and real power to make change.”

Of course, these are just a few examples of some positive takeaways from the Doctoral experience. Indeed, much more may be written on the resilience that individuals’ may develop as they persist through the process, the powerful mentorship individuals’ may receive (especially when mentored by people who share similar identities), or the ways in which individuals’ may get experience and develop their career interests while pursuing a Doctoral degree. Additionally, it is important to note that life doesn’t stop while you’re enrolled in a Doctoral program: indeed, many scholars spoke to their ongoing family lives, ways in which they unwind outside of the program, and ways in which their Doctoral programs positively shaped their lives beyond the program, such as reaffirming their values and giving them confidence.

However, we also must recognize that not everyone will experience their Doctoral program the same way: some students may be working while enrolled in coursework, some may not have as involved faculty, some may experience racism, some may have to put in extra effort to find a community on campus, etc. Thus, I don’t want this blog to be misleading, but instead, I hope this blog serves as inspiration for the positive experiences you could have. And if you’re considering pursuing a Doctoral degree, I hope you know: you can do it, and you belong.

*Special thank you to all those scholars who so willingly shared their experiences with me for this blog. Due to space limitations, I could not include quotes from everyone, but I hope that I represented your stories well.

Tyler Hallmark (he/him/his) is a Ph.D. candidate in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at The Ohio State University. Originally from Oklahoma, he received his B.A. in Communication from the University of Colorado Boulder and his M.S.Ed. in International Educational Development from the University of Pennsylvania. Tyler is a proud member of the Cherokee Nation, a first-generation scholar, and a recipient of the Gates Millennium Scholarship. His research seeks to hold institutions accountable for the success of less-privileged populations and to expand understandings of place and space in higher education attainment.

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