#1: Determine if the degree is necessary for what you want to do
I thought I wanted to be a faculty member in a teacher preparation program, and every posting for these positions required an "earned doctorate." What I didn't realize is that being a college faculty member is not necessarily the same as being a teacher of teachers. Academia lives largely in the world of theory, and my interests were specific: this teacher with this student at this time. What I really wanted to be was an instructional coach. I might have been able to pursue that career path without the degree.
#2: Know the difference between a PhD and an EdD
Speaking very generally, an EdD is a practitioner degree. It deals largely with issues of local, state, or national educational practice, administration, or policy. Those who pursue such degrees are often teachers or administrators who are seeking promotion to a principalship or a superintendency. EdD programs tend to be more user-friendly in terms of scheduling--a lot of night and weekend classes--because they realize their constituents have challenging, full-time jobs. A PhD is a research degree. By the completion of a PhD, the recipient is expected to be an expert in some small facet of education. The PhD is generally a more theoretical researcher. The "best" research is that which can generate a theory which applies to multiple cases in multple contexts. In academic circles, some PhDs turn their noses up at those who hold EdDs, although this attitude may be tempered by the prestige of institution that issued it. The general public doesn't know the difference, and either degree entitles you to be addressed as Dr., which, let's face it, is all many of us really care about.
#3: Realize that, whichever degree you choose, you will have to read A LOT
I have included this in deference to my friend Elizabeth Nogan Ranieri. The majority of your expertise will not be gained through coursework but through the dissertation process, and the first part of writing a dissertation is the dreaded literature review. A thorough literature review requires that you read every piece of research that has been conducted in your area of interest, minimally, over the last ten years. Depending on the topic, you may also have to got back a hundred year to read "foundational" literature. This can be a long and tedious process, but it is essential. What you're trying to do is 1) become an expert and 2) uncover the gap(s) in the research that your dissertation will, in some small way, fill. This process may take years. I'm not speaking hyperbolically; that is how much reading you have to do. And almost none of it is particularly interesting.
This is a picture of my dog, Daisy, who had the same response to Alan Glatthorn's book that I did. Coffee will not help. You will have to begin jabbing yourself in the thigh with the business end of a pen to stay awake during much of this reading.
#4: Choose your school wisely.
If you only want the degree to be in compliance for a job for which you are already qualified, you can select the least expensive, least intrusive option. There are lots of online EdD programs. If, however, you are looking to take away from this experience more than a diploma, you need to do a little advance work. Picking the right program is less about choosing a school than choosing a mentor. Find out who the experts are in your field of interest. You do this by reading many books and articles. Eventually, a few authors will emerge who appear to share your world view. Now find out where those people are employed. Hopefully, they're faculty members at accredited universities. Now write to those people and ask them how interested they might be in mentoring you. It's quite possible the answer is "not at all." That was Howard Gardner's response to me in a nutshell. Better to find that out before you matriculate. It's also possible that they're such rock stars that they're never actually at the university. Again, better to find out before you go. Spend six months to a year doing this research. You'll thank me later.
#5: Talk to other graduate students
Let's say you've narrowed your choices down to Universities A, B, and C. Visit each. Ask if you can meet with your would-be mentor's team of graduate assistants. If your mentor cannot make this happen, that's a red flag. If your mentor is only willing to let this happen in his or her presence, that is also a red flag. If you can get a students-only meeting, ask some hard questions about how your future colleagues are treated by their mentor.
- Does s/he encourage youto publish without him or her?
- Does s/he insist on having first authorship on every publication?
- Does s/he invite you to co-present at conferences?
- Does s/he introduce you to people who might be able to offer you a job in the future?
- Does s/he make unreasonable demands on your time, like calling meetings on Sunday mornings that last for six hours?
#6: Be prepared to leave
Unlike undergrad, success in a doctoral program requires more than maintaining your grades. You also have to fit in with the priorities and expectations of the people to whom you report. You can have a 3.98 GPA and still be asked to leave the program. Alternatively, you may decide to flee the program. If you've done your research, this is less likely to happen, but, as Robbie Burns noted, even the best laid plans "gang aft agley." Rent, don't buy.
As I mentioned at the outset, this is based solely on my experiences. I welcome additional and alternative views. And, for what it's worth, although getting it was a fairly miserable experience, I am very happy to have the degree.
Deb, The Know-it-All