Since earning my doctorate 15 years ago, many people have asked my advice for how to navigate the waters. While people often have horror stories to tell, I must admit, I have none. In fact, the doctorate was the smoothest of my collegiate programs. The time from the first day of class to the day of the dissertation defense was two years and two months. Thinking about going for that terminal degree? Here is my best advice…

Start the Inquiry Early
Start contacting the university you want to work with at least a year in advance. When I went through the program, the university took a new group only one time a year, and that time happened to be in the spring quarter. You don’t want to get fired up about starting and then find out you missed the deadline to apply by a few days, and now you will have to wait a full year to do anything.

My suggestion is to start by contacting whoever is the head of your major area and ask for an appointment. Yes, you are asking to talk to an important person, but at the same time, you are probably held in high esteem in your area of expertise or you wold not be at this point. With your years of experience, your success in the classroom and possibly in the administrative arena, your other advanced degrees, and your obvious drive, who wouldn’t give up an hour of their time to encourage you to enter their program? Your face is now associated with the name they will see on the application, and you will have been able to share with a key decision-maker your successes and your potential for added impact on the world of education.

You will probably have to take a standardized test (GRE, MAT, etc.) to be admitted to the program. Find out where these tests are given and how often. I found out a local university (not even the one where I was applying) gave the MAT every single day!

The Dissertation IS the Doctorate
The first time I heard a professor say, “The dissertation is the doctorate,” I didn’t believe it. Believe it. You will take classes, and they won’t be so much different from classes you have taken in the past. People don’t wash out of doctoral programs for failure to be able to show up on Tuesday night from 6:00-9:00. They wash out because they get to the end of the coursework, see this gigantic wall called the “dissertation” and think, “There is no way I can do this!”

Decide on your dissertation topic BEFORE YOU START THE PROGRAM, or at least form a general idea for your topic. Go to a university library and spend some time looking through Dissertation Abstracts International. When I started my journey, Dissertation Abstracts had just begun coming out on CD-ROM, and people were able to search by topic. By this time, I am sure the technology is even better.

Who else has done something similar to what you are considering? What new twist could you put on an exiting study? Is there something about your population that is different from the one on which the previous study was conducted?  What big hole exists in the literature? You will be able to find a topic you like and approach it somehow differently than it has ever been addressed before.

Start Writing Now
You are going to write a paper for every class you take, just like you did for your Masters and Educational Specialist degrees. The idea is that every time you have to write a paper, you will find some way to link it back to your dissertation topic. Every paper you write feeds the dissertation. From the day of the appointment with my chair when we hammered out a title, research questions, and method for testing the hypotheses to the day of the dissertation defense was six months. That’s because I already had a wealth of literature review accomplished through previous papers.

I have seen far too many people write papers which have no value beyond the class they are taking. When they finish their coursework, they are looking at a blank computer screen and wondering how to begin. Those who have been feeding the dissertation all along the way already have a wealth of research and are ready to write.

The Secretary is Your Friend
Get to know the secretary in that department. Doctoral programs are often ripe with ambiguity. The secretary is often the one who takes ambiguity and turns it into something concrete. If you want a straight answer, a secretary who has become a confidant is a life-saver.

I guess the last thing should be the first thing: Why do you want to have the doctorate? If it’s something YOU have always wanted to do, sort of a dream that would be the cherry on top of the sundae, then go for it! Are there some doors you want to open that a doctorate will help? Go for it!

Regardless of the reason, you meet people. You expand your network. You will step out of your comfort zone. You will put in some time, and in the process become a better manager of your time than you ever thought possible. You will grow and you will start to realize that you have more to offer than you originally thought. If you have read this far, the wheels must already be turning. Good luck!

What about those of you who have already gone down this path? What are your thoughts? What can you add to the conversation? Thinking about starting on your doctorate and have something you want to ask?