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Career Advice

5 tips to help you on your doctoral journey

Advice to help make sure you keep a good work-life balance.


This is a reprint from The Doctoral Journey: Perseverance, edited by Thomas G. Ryan.

Despite my graduation excitement, I felt a bit sad and lost for about a year after completing my doctorate, perhaps because it was the first time in my teaching career that I was not a student on the side. Even though Nipissing [University] rewarded me with a five-year tenure-track contact that gave me time and job stability to get my “research legs” I focused only on my teaching. It was not until late 2011 that I felt energized enough to dive back into the research world.

For the most part, my doctoral experience was positive. I experienced only a few academic and financial “bumps” along the way and was blessed with an extremely supportive husband, family, employer, and supervisor. Despite this, earning my doctorate was the hardest thing I have ever done and I now understand why many who begin doctoral studies do not finish. If you are considering such a journey, I would recommend the following:

1. Get some life experience. A doctoral journey is a huge investment in time, energy, and money so having a strong sense of yourself gained from your own lived experience may help you get more out of it personally and professionally. You could, for example, “hang” the theories you will learn on that experience, potentially deriving deeper meaning from them.

2. If you have a doctoral program/institution in mind, talk with others who did, or are doing, a degree there to determine if it is the right “fit” for you. Not every doctoral program is for everyone and I chose not to apply to particular programs based on what I had heard from colleagues. Keep in mind that the search for a doctoral program may take time: I looked for two years before I found the one that fit my needs and interests.

3. Consider doing an online program for its “real life” flexibility. If you have the time and funding, then a full-time, on-site program may be right for you. But if you need to work and/or have family commitments and/or live where no doctoral program exists, then an online doctorate may better suit your needs.

4. Treat your doctoral studies like a part-time job. I set aside time each week to work on it; for example, one evening during the week and one day on the weekend. This worked well during the coursework but later, when I was finishing the doctorate, I had to increase this time to accommodate reading the dissertation, in its entirety, many times to ensure consistency and coherence.

5. Put yourself first, then your family, then your job, then your studies. Doctoral work, especially at the dissertation stage, is solitary, time-consuming, and can take a toll on health and/or relationships. If you are not happy and healthy, you are no good to anyone, so try to balance reading and writing marathons with physical activity and maintaining connections with others. I was fortunate throughout my doctoral journey to have an athletic husband, an energetic dog, and supportive friends who made me step away from my laptop to get fresh air and exercise when I needed it.

When I first began my doctorate, I was under much pressure to complete it within a prescribed time frame set by my employer and saw earning it as a way to keep my university teaching job. That view, however, has now expanded into something far more meaningful. First, it has given me confidence to add my voice to the research world. In the past year alone, I have had opportunities to present papers and/or conduct research in New York City, France, and India. Second, it has made me a better teacher. The information I learned while doing the course work and writing the dissertation updated my knowledge of education, especially in a global sense. Twenty-six years of teaching at the elementary, secondary, and university levels has now been enhanced by a strong and varied research base.

Finishing my doctoral studies also provided the time (and money) for me to create more art than I have in years. In fact, my doctoral journey became the basis for my first work of arts-based research, cathARTic, a mixed-media assemblage of dissertation pages, research notes, travel journey entries, photographs, and ephemera from five years of study in Canada and Scotland. Creating the work helped me not only to reflect on and celebrate the academic and personal parts of that journey but also to consider future works of arts-based research that may help inform my practice as an art teacher-educator.

Elizabeth Ashworth is an assistant professor of art education in the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University.

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  1. Camilo / April 10, 2014 at 15:44

    I agree with most points, but I disagree strongly with point 4: “Treat your doctoral studies like a part-time job”. I recognize that Doctoral students are all different, and with the following discussion I do not mean to impose life/career expectations onto others, but I find this recommendation does not fit as a general recommendation but as a case-by-case recommendation. I guess the point will only have meaning in the context of the student. I think putting yourself and your family first is a generic requirement that does not apply only to doctoral life but also to job life. But professional, seeing a doctoral degree as a part-time thing may hinder your commitment to academia. I think it is important to make the point that a doctoral thesis is a full time job, with funding and other needs fulfilled of course. And I say this because the majority people I know in my life who take PhD-ing as a part-time thing (about half of all PhDs I know) end up not finishing their studies (about 50% of that 50%), or finishing 7-10 years later. A prolonged PhD ends up weakening you at some many levels. A prolonged PhD may be scooped. A prolonged PhD may get to the nerves of supervising committee, strain your finances, warp your professional prospects. That’s why it’s important to finish early. So taking it as a full-time job is an important consideration is you want to avoid this. Again, funding and other practical things in place.

  2. Thomas G. Ryan / August 7, 2014 at 14:21

    This text was developed to provide a look behind the doctoral curtain via personal narratives that are both accessible and helpful. It has now reached many parts of the globe and we thank our publisher and the many supportive people who have found our efforts useful and practical. I thank University Affairs for including us in the discussion of higher education and university affairs.

  3. Lorraine Carter / August 7, 2014 at 19:40

    As a response to Liz’s and Camilo’s remarks, I would like to share a few of my own. In fact, I agree with everything Liz has suggested: it is a long and solitary road about which one needs to be strategic, particularly if one is working. While I agree that doing anything in a part-time way can lead to partial success–your insights on completion rates are right on, Camilo–if one is strategic, completion can happen in a timely fashion. I completed mine while working full-time (and traveling for that work) in just over four years. What I had going for me was a wonderful supervisor (I cannot overemphasize the criticality of a strong supervisor who is demanding but likewise supportive); a husband and children who knew that they had to let me do my thing in order to get me back; some flexibility in my work schedule; a clear sense of what I wanted to explore (I recognized that there would be opportunities post-PhD to pursue some of the many ideas that piqued my interest during my studies); and will. About the matter of will, at the time of my doctoral work, I had three children in high school and was determined to be finished before the eldest began his university studies. I further learned about accepting help when it was offered and about asking for it when I needed it.

    In all, it is not a journey one should embark with a generous dose of sober second thought. I tell my colleagues who are considering a PhD to come for a chat–perhaps a good shopping spree or a spectacular vacation is what’s needed. Still, when the reasons are right and the strategies and supports in place (I do get that a wide variety of things can and will throw monkey wrenches into the experience), it can be the journey of a lifetime that can lead to appreciation of life’s other and less heady adventures.