Day in the Life–PhD Student in Higher Education

The blog as a snapshot of my life

This blog is just a small snapshot of my life –most blogs are, actually. I mostly write about running, social experiences, and what life is like in Charlottesville. I don’t write much about my professional life just because I feel like the blog is an escape from the overwhelming amount of work I do every day, not to mention it would bore y’all. But truth be told, research, writing, conference presenting, and dissertating make up such a large part of my life that it’s a little strange that there is a dearth of professional life posts on this blog.

A recent conversation with a friend who is new to blogging allowed me to reflect on what makes a blog interesting. What makes people want to follow a blog? Why do I follow certain blogs? And I realized that I am most interested in the blogs where I feel like I somehow know the blogger. Like we are, or could be, friends even though we’ve never even met. I try to be completely genuine on my blog if just for that reason. I want you guys to know what makes me happy, what I struggle with, what I like and don’t like. And while I recognize that the blog is just a tiny glimpse into the complexity of my life I try to give honest accounts of it (there’s nothing worse than a blogger who is always super happy/optimistic…everything in life can’t be that great, right?)

So I thought I’d do a mini-series of posts that help to explain what it is I actually do on a daily basis. Maybe there are some of you out there considering getting a PhD and any insight I provide will be helpful. At most these posts will help to round out the other “facades” of myself that I present.

My professional self (with a smile…not forced!)


My social self (with my twin sis!) I’m on the right, btw

What does it mean to study higher education?

Whenever I tell people that I study higher education, I inevitably get asked “what does that mean? Does that mean you’ll be a principal somewhere?” It is, understandably, confusing. I am a PhD student (a student in higher education) studying higher education. But I’m talking about higher education as a field of study. Anything relating to postsecondary educaiton (after k-12) is fair game. Higher education administration (you know, all those people who actually run colleges and universities), development and finance, student affairs (res life, study abroad, service learning, etc), teaching and learning, you name it. Higher education policy, both state and national, is another element of the field.

Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda on the UVa grounds in many ways represents the beginning of public higher education in this country

Doctoral students are trained to understand, develop, and analyze empirical research findings that tell “us”–practitioners, programmers, and policymakers–“what works” in higher education. Basically we are being trained to become good consumers of research so that we can either a) pursue a tenure-track faculty position (my path!), b) a policy or research position at a think-tank or association, such as the one I held over the summer, or c) an administrative position at a college or university.

Here’s an anecdote to help explain my personal focus. While studying to complete my master’s degree in higher education at the University of Michigan I learned about a group of philanthropists who “endowed” a classroom of twenty first graders in Detroit sixteen years ago, guaranteeing them the funds for college when they finished high school. When the Detroit Free Press decided to write an article tracking the students’ progress, however, it could not find even five of the students much less confirm their enrollment in college. The philanthropists, news media, and indeed many of the readers had believed that if the financial barriers to college could be eliminated, students would prepare themselves to pursue a postsecondary credential and actually persist in higher education. Sadly, for those underserved students in the Detroit Public Schools, and many like them, there are too many barriers in the path to higher education. This anecdote serves as a reminder of why I chose to enter into the field of education, first as a high school history teacher and subsequently higher education researcher, because it highlights two major factors that speak to the issue of educational equity and profoundly impact the field of higher education: college access and persistence for underprivileged students.

I personally study what works to help underprivileged and low-income students access postsecondary education and persist to degree completion. Many of these students face extraordinary challenges regarding inadequate academic and “college” knowledge as well as a lack of social and cultural capital that more affluent students take for granted (connections, access to resources, etc).

Attainment gap disaggregated by race. National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES, 2008)

From a social justice standpoint, the large disparities in both student achievement and attainment in this country are a travesty. I am hoping to build a career as a researcher and faculty member in which I can continue to  empirically study (analyze both quantitatively and qualitatively) what works to better prepare these students for success.

Steps to Getting a PhD

In order to build a career in the academe, the first thing I needed was a Masters degree and then a PhD.

College grad…I’m a baby!

Four years later, graduating with my master’s from the University of Michigan

As a fourth year doctoral student, I am on the last and final leg of this long journey and am just now looking for jobs for next year so I can start over anew on a path to tenure as a professor. It might sound crazy, but I have been in school for 10 years past high school (B.A., M.A.T., M.A., and now Ph.D.). Somehow in there I worked for three full years (2 years teaching high school and one year at a non-profit). That’s a lot to cram into my 20’s, but somehow looking back it seems to have gone really fast.

The daily life of a Ph.D. student consists of a handful of things. The first two years of the program are comprised of coursework in addition to research assistant responsibilities (that’s how doctoral students are funded. I don’t pay any tuition and get paid a modest salary for the work I’ve done every year, which is funded partly by my department and mostly by my advisor, whom I owe my life. Seriously). If you have an advisor that pushes you–like I do–then you have to travel to collect data for research projects, submit conference proposals, and write journal articles  in addition to coursework you have to do the first two years. Oh, and you also should get experience teaching at the graduate level. For me that meant a few masters-level courses and teaching my own classes at the local community college.

This is me teaching high school seven years ago, but you get the idea

My beloved classroom my second year of teaching

The final two years aren’t any easier, they are just different. After your coursework is completed you have to take a Comprehensive Qualifying Exam (CQE) that is submitted to a review committe made up of faculty members from the department. You work on this document for 4-5 months. If you play it right, the CQE can be incorporated into the first 3 chapters of your dissertation. Then you wait for the verdict. AFTER that stressful process (if you pass) you are able to start work on your dissertation proposal, which is about 80 pages, and put together a dissertation committee. Many students stall out here because they either can’t narrow down the research they want to conduct or their research idea is just unfeasible. A supportive and helpful advisor is key here.

THEN after a few months of writing the proposal you convene your committee and defend it. If your committee signs off on your defense you are then considered “ABD” or “All But Dissertation” and are free to start collecting data (with IRB approval of course), analyzing, and finally writing. After on average about a year and a half, you are ready to submit your dissertation and defend it. Did I mention that while doing all of that you also have to work as a research assistant and make sure that your advisor’s research agenda is being met (journal articles, conference proposals and presentations, data collection, etc). It’s a lot, no doubt. But it’s not the highest degree an institution confers for nothing (and they don’t call you a doctor afterwards for nothing!). It’s amazing if you are extremely passionate about what you want to study and have extremely good writing–academic, publication style writing not the style you use in papers for a class or sadly on a blog.

My day-to-day life

So here I am on the first day of the semester on my last year of being a PhD student. I have an office, where I go to a couple times a week to analyze the data from my dissertation and work on research for my advisor’s projects (which is how I get published and build my Curriculum Vitae). When I was teaching master’s students my office also served as a meeting place for office hours.

ahhh, the glamorous life of an academic

Just a few of the many books I have accumulated over the years as a student and as a lecturer for classes I have taught

I usually have a few conference calls and meetings a week and use my other time on data analysis software and writing. The writing is like being a hamster on a wheel. You have proposals for conferences due as well as manuscripts for journals while you are revising other proposals and articles. There is always something due or something to be revised. Oh, and that dang dissertation that keeps lurking in the background. Sometimes I’m amazed that I find the time to blog (it actually keeps me sane)!

 So there’s a little glimpse into the kind of work I do as a doctoral student and the career I have been working on building the past several years. Yes, I enjoy running, shopping, and going out with friends–all “frivolous” pastimes and hobbies that make me who I am–but I also have this huge part of my life that is predominantly absent from the blog. Work-life balance is hard, but I suspect that’s the case for everyone 😉

I’m always SO interested in hearing about how people get to where they are in their careers and I’d love to hear about what you do or what your career path is! If you feel comfortable please share the type of work you do and what your life is like “outside” of the blog world (no need to share names of workplaces)!

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18 Responses to Day in the Life–PhD Student in Higher Education

  1. i agree, i love reading blogs where I know the person. I am actually kind of freaking amazed by how much you do in regards to schooling. I give you credit, four years in college and I was burnt out. You have held strong and continue to have that drive. give me some of that please! I like this series a lot.

    • Aww, thank you! But from what I read on your blog, you are so dedicated to helping others and work so hard at your job! It’s really hard right after college but as with most things, it just takes time and a good mentor. I think you have so much more than you realize!!!!

  2. Thanks for sharing. This was really helpful! I know I want to pursue another degree and one of my interests is a PhD. I loved hearing your day-to-day as well as the path you took to make your decision.

  3. WOW congrats, you are amazing! Gosh I am only in my first year of medicine, it’s a bit different here in Australia, but I think over there it’s pre med equivalent? I was hoping to go to Florida actually got a sports scholarship, but I can’t go as I have to look after my dad, it would be so selfish of me to go as I lost my mum in 2010, and I have no other relatives. I some times wish I could make my blog more personal, but every time I do I delete it as it was initially set up to keep my sponsors, friends informed, so it just feels wrong of me to write too much, although mind you I think I may have already done that hehe… Anyway, I hope I can get through all the years of uni like you, just reading your post made me tired, not in a bored tired way I was like WOOOOW you’ve done so much! Wow opps note to self must stop rambling on everyones blog hehe sorry about that! Auds 🙂

  4. I am totally in awe of everything you are able to accomplish! I am struggling just trying to figure out when I can squeeze in my Masters (eventually).

  5. I love that you are sharing this! Sometimes I forget that the people I know in the blogging world have a life other than running and fitness! =) My husband would love for me to pursue a doctorate in higher ed, (I only have my masters right now). But I have been working for the university for 3 years now and while I am endlessly thankful for the experience, it’s not my passion. Best of luck in the job search!!

  6. Carina says:

    It’s funny that you ask. I always assume everyone knows the basic career path for a lawyer (as you may assume everyone understands what a PhD student does), but you’re right, people don’t! I did 4 years of college in DC, then 3 years of law school at U.Va. In law school, at least at a good one like U.Va., during your second year of school, you interview with various law firms for summer jobs and pick one that you like (most students have several offers to choose from). You then spend a summer working at that firm as a law clerk (doing basic attorney work but not appearing in court or doing anything unsupervised; basically lots of legal research and drafting of memos, briefs, and corporate docs). Then at the end of your summer, if you’ve done a good job, the law firm makes you a permanent offer. Then you have a lovely third year of law school where you spend lots of time skiing at Wintergreen or Massanutten, drinking with friends, watching bad tv, and napping while you skip class. Third year, all you have to do is pass — your grades don’t matter as you’ve already got your job. Then you graduate and spend the summer going to bar exam review classes and pretending to study for the bar exam. Then the 4th of July comes and you REALLY start to study for the bar exam, which is held nation-wide at the end of July (but you take in the state where you will work). Then you use the summer stipend you got paid from the firm to take a totally awesome bar trip (I did a safari in Africa for a couple weeks, then bummed around Europe for a couple weeks). Then, after the law school class behind you has gone back to school, you start your job at the law firm, doing work similar to what you did as a summer associate. Then, and this varies by state, you find out if you passed the bar exam in about early November, then you can do real legal work — unsupervised possibly — but in reality, you mostly keep doing stuff supervised by senior attorneys until you get to be more competent in your practice area. Some people stay at a firm forever, making partner, etc., other people change firms, go to work in-house for clients, or leave the practice of law completely.

  7. tempesst says:

    LOVE this post!

  8. kaitwatts says:

    Thanks for the insight! I too was a high school social studies teacher and took a break to complete my master’s. I have the option to go on to a Phd, but I’m not sure that it is the right path for me-especially in my discipline. And, I am not sure that I could do this introverted work for another 4years! Anyway, thanks for sharing.

  9. I immediately was drawn to your blog because of your genuine/authentic representation of who you are in a variety of roles (runner, student, woman, girlfriend, etc.). My husband received his PhD last May and I understand (through his experiences, lol) how much dedication and hard work it takes to go through that journey. I give you a lot of credit and admire your commitment to higher education! I received my undergraduate degree in Social Work then got into a 1 year Masters program in Social Work…so luckily 5 years and I was in and out with a Masters. I work for the Alzheimer’s Association (4 years at a chapter in New York where I used to live) and about 10 months at my current chapter in NJ. In NY I did a lot of counseling, home visits/assessments, crisis intervention and this role that I have in NJ I educate the community and professionals about the disease and various aspects related to it. I also am the outreach coordinator to help raise awareness about our services, research, the disease, etc. Good luck with your last year and I hope you never get writing blocks! lol You’re awesome lady! 🙂

  10. awesome post, Claire! You have done a lot of schooling, it’ll all pay off so soon. You’re doing awesome! As you probably know I am a hygienist. Before that I was a dental assistant, but everyday I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, I just felt like I could do more with my life. The extra education was a big bonus, too. A lot of extra (and hard) work, but completely worth it!

  11. I found that so interesting! Thanks for sharing! My mum is a High School Principal and when she was a classroom teacher it was history. So even though I’m not a teacher I’m passionate about Education. Thanks for sharing!!

  12. What a wonderful post. You are just AWESOME girl. I can’t get over how much you’ve already been able to accomplish. You should be so proud of yourself hunnie ❤

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  14. phyllinphat says:

    Great post! After I finished my Master’s Degree I vowed I wouldn’t go back to school for at least four years. It’s so time consuming working a full-time job and going to school. I don’t know how you did/do it! Also, you’re office is much more glamorous than my tiny cubical at work.

  15. Tracy says:

    I am just starting my Master’s and was wondering what came next. This post was so insightful, thank you so much for posting. Good luck with your job search.

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