I am currently in the dissertation phase of my pursuit of a doctoral degree in Education at Johnson and Wales University! This means that my coursework and comprehensive exams are over and I am fully into the research, writing, editing, etc. that comes in the final stages of the doctoral journey. A few years ago, my friend and colleague Jeff Jackson wrote a post highlighting advice for me when I began my doctoral journey. With many friends and colleagues starting their coursework this fall, I wanted to pay it forward and briefly share some lessons learned and advice from my first year … with the goal of demystifying what it means to be in a doctoral classroom.

1. Embrace Your New “Normal”
As an active student affairs administrator both on and off my campus, family man, and volunteer, one of my biggest fears going back to school was how to balance it all. The truth is that this idea of “balance” was not real at all and that a “negotiation of my time” was a more realistic frame to operate from. I chose to do reading, writing, research each night once my children were in bed; on weekends; in car rides to and from places; and during my workouts & runs 🙂 For me, it was the only way I could keep up.

My new normal included a vast reduction on what I was doing before with that time (social networking, blogging, watching television, generally procrastination, etc.) and focusing on the tasks at hand. Additionally, my house or office weren’t as neat or organized as I would have liked it, and the same may go for your’s as well. Just know, you may not get it things done the way you used to do it. Overall, this shift will take some getting used to, but once you find your new “normal” routine, use it to your advantage to gain experience and build confidence as you move forward through your program.

2. Build Structures that Support Success
Your success in a doctoral program may be predicated on the type of structures you put in place at the beginning, along with how those are modified as you go through your program.

People: All of the people in your life (e.g. cohort, faculty, family, colleagues and friends) play important roles in your success. Share your goals, the times when you are struggling, and the type of help you need along the way. Allow them to help you. Find folks who have already completed their doctoral journey and ask them for advice and to be sounding boards as you develop your research topic interests. Without this support, you may lose motivation and slow down your forward progress. If you are a Twitter user, connect with folks on the #SAdoc or #PhDchat hashtags. Both are wonderful communities who want to help you succeed.

Accountability Measures: Build in rewards for hitting goals and milestones. For example, if you find yourself finishing a paper or readings ahead of when they are due, give yourself a mental break instead of trying to move further ahead and watch some TV! In part, your coursework should be your training ground for your dissertation work, where you will be working mostly alone and on a schedule you set for yourself. Use this time in your doctoral work to see what motivates and inspires you and what type of incentives build strong accountability.

Technology: The use of digital technology in your doctoral coursework should be focused on creating efficiency… working smarter not harder. Here are some of my favorite’s that have worked for me:
a. Kindle Books + Highlights: While I love the touch and feel of books, I’ve largely used the Kindle App on my iPad to consume my required coursework readings. While highlighting in Kindle, an automatic “notes” page is created at http://kindle.amazon.com/your_highlights where I can quickly share notes with cohort members or cut and paste them. If I make highlights in paper books, I then have to type those notes… this way, I save precious time. Additionally, if there books for your courses on Audible, download the audio file. What’s neat is that if you are reading a book on Kindle and bookmark your last location there, you can open the Audible version of the book and it will start reading to you where you last left off (and vice versa). Last year, there were many moments where I would go for a run and listen to a book only to continue right where I left off when I opened the Kindle app (so cool!).
b. Evernote: I use Evernote for all my class notes. I like its versatility to not only type notes into it, but also take pictures of handouts, teacher notes on a whiteboard, audio reminders, etc. Because it syncs wirelessly across my laptop, mobile phone and iPad, I can review these notes whenever I need to. When you add in the ability to share notes and notebooks with others, it becomes a powerful tool for centralized note sharing.
c. Google Drive/Hangouts/Alerts: Eventually, you will have to do some group projects and collaborating on documents, presentations and spreadsheets are done well on Google Drive. When you pair this up with Google Hangouts, you can virtually be with cohort members online using video chat to get your class projects completed. Additionally, setting up Google Alerts around your research interests will streamline the process of collecting content that is regularly fed to your inbox.
d. Mendeley: Once you start collecting articles around your research topic, Mendeley is a great place to store and organize all this content. It is important to properly tag, using keywords, what each article is about, along with annotating key points you will want to remember later. While it may not be your most used doctoral tool at the start, it will be a key tool in the dissertation phase.
5. Dropbox: Centralize all your doctoral files (Word Docs, PDFs, Spreadsheets, etc.) in the cloud using Dropbox. This way, you’ll always have what you are working on readily available, accessible through multiple devices. Leaving them only on a local device, like your laptop, leaves it vulnerable in case your hardware crashes and doesn’t make it accessible unless have the device with you. In 2014, there is no excuse not to be saving content to a cloud based solution.
6. The Purdue University APA Owl: Becoming proficient in APA is an important skill in academic writing. A great tool to help, along with the APA Handbook (spiral bound is best so it can stay open on the page you need it to while writing a paper), is a website by Purdue University, called the Purdue OWL. I have used this site many times for quick answers to APA related citation questions I had.

3. Never Forget Why You Started
Without a doubt, there will be moments in your first year where you may feel overwhelmed and underprepared, where “impostor syndrome”  may creep in. Whether you are doing this to advance to Higher Education leadership and/or to become a faculty member, or because its something you’ve always wanted to achieve, focus on why you are doing this when times are tough. The work is hard, but the results will be worth it. As I reflected back while writing this post, the hardest part for me was saying yes to the journey.

It is inspiring to see so many of you on this journey, whether just starting, still in it, or recently completed. You remain my motivation to become Dr. Cabellon.

What are your best pieces of advice for first year doctoral students? What other structures, inspiration, etc. would you recommend?


    ~Susan Polis Schutz
    Believe in yourself; Get to know yourself what you can do and what you cannot do for only you can make your life happy.

    Believe in work, learning and achieving as a way of reaching your goals and being successful.

    Believe in creativity as a means of expressing your true feelings and as a way of being spontaneous.

    Believe in appreciating life. Be sure to have fun every day and to enjoy the beauty in the world.

    Believe in loving. Love your friends, love your family love yourself, and love your life.

    Believe in long-term relationships. Be sure the people are worthy of your love and be very honest with them.

    Believe in your dreams and your dreams can become a reality.

  • Great write-up, Ed.

    First, you ROCK. I’d have never had the guts to write this while in my second year. Kudos to you for getting this out there. Balance is tough, but attainable. I stopped television totally; actually, this past weekend was the first time I’ve re-connected cable, and I phinished in 2009! I found that other things “replaced” TV nicely, and really, never missed it. We use it now for my partner’s listening practice, and that’s about it. 🙂

    Second, I’ll offer four tips that helped me, immensely. These may or may not “fit” you or any readers, so feel free to shake them off like water on a duck’s back.

    1st tip: find your #1 time-waster and put a sign up where you normally do that. I made mine a poster. “Does this help your dissertation?” I eventually put one up on the light-switch heading outside, so I HAD to ask myself that question every time I left the house. It worked, for me.

    2nd tip: Hire, yes, HIRE two editors. Choose one with a PhD, and one that is not really that academic, but that you KNOW loves to read. The balance that you will eventually strike will satisfy your chair and your committee. And, if you are like me, a first-gen student, you’ll feel comfort in knowing that your dissertation is “accessible.” You can re-write your pubs later in a most-serious and high-falutin’ academic voice if it suits ya.

    3rd tip: Be consise. Pretend you pay a dime a word when you write, then enhance (but never editorialize) as your committee asks you to do that. Narrow down your topic as focused as you could, possibly, then prepare to cut it down even more. My first draft had 800+ pages; final draft was 269 or so. Each cut felt like pulling teeth. It is natural to want to tell the world everything you know, but you cannot afford that luxury, and your committee will hate your writing anyway.

    4th tip: Phinish it. Don’t fret about perfection; it won’t be perfect. Despite having two paid editors and three phinicky committee members (all three of whom I love to this day!) my abstract has a grammatical error. It is the first thing I notice every time I take it down to reminisce. Know what? Almost nobody will ever read it other than me, my Mom, maybe my sisters, one of my brothers, and of course, my editors and my committee. The main thing is that I got it done. That’s all anybody cares about. Yeah, you can talk about your study with others that want to share the accomplishments, but they probably won’t ever read the whole thing.

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