This weekend has been a great blessing. It’s been (and continues to be) a time to celebrate a long academic journey with my family and friends which has resulted in, among other things, the following document and new initials to follow my name in professional academic contexts.
In this post, I’d like to share a few reflections on not only my own academic journey to a Ph.D., but also the rituals of college/university graduation more generally and the rites of passage which we celebrate within our culture in and around “college.”
First of all, it’s vital to acknowledge my graduation (and the graduation of most people, I’d guess) are the combined result of MANY different people working, supporting, encouraging, and sacrificing. The graduation ceremony and graduation weekend is therefore a celebration earned by a family and a network of supporters, not simply a “shining moment” of achievement for a single individual. The acknowledgements page of my dissertation details these more exhaustively, but the images below capture many of the highlights.
My #1 piece of advice for anyone working on a doctorate is: Get your dissertation finished RIGHT AWAY after you complete your coursework! Don’t enter the limbo world of the ADB (“all but dissertation”) doctoral student.
I’m not sure what the current statistics are, but I’ve heard it’s something like only 20% of doctoral students who complete coursework finish their dissertation and complete their degree. At the Texas Tech graduate school commencement last night, a speaker said 5% of people in the United States have completed Master’s degrees and 3% have completed doctorates. Those numbers sound high to me, but in any event it’s a small percentage of the population. After leaving Texas Tech in 2006 to live and work in Oklahoma, I found it very challenging to set aside the time and dedicate the energy/focus to finish my dissertation.
There were MANY people who were pivotal in my eventual completion of my dissertation and Ph.D., but two stand out among all the rest. Dr. Dana Owens-Delong, a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, was my primary dissertation mentor and encourager. Without her assistance, I am positive I would not have conducted my dissertation study and jumped through all the hoops necessary to cross the Ph.D. finish line. Dana is not only a professional mentor but also a good friend. The professional impact of her encouragement, work, and networking has been profound on my life, and those ripple effects continue today. I owe her a tremendous debt I will have difficulty ever repaying.
The second professor to whom I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude is Dr. Gerald Knezek, a professor at the University of North Texas. Not only was Gerald the first professor to encourage me to pursue a doctorate back in 1997 when I was a fourth grade teacher in Lubbock ISD, he also provided the encouragement and connections for me to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNT in the fall of 2010 and dedicate “time set aside” to write the first three chapters of my dissertation in Denton.
Note that while my Ph.D. is from Texas Tech University, neither Dr. Owens-Delong or Dr. Knezek are associated or paid by TTU. Members of my dissertation committee were also pivotal in helping me reach the academic milestone of the Ph.D., as were many others, but the roles played by Dana and Gerald were absolutely “beyond the call of duty” and constitute examples of professional mentorship I will never forget.
This idea of personal relationships and mentorship is something I’d like to reflect on a bit more. Today we hear a great deal about “the amazing power, value and potential” of virtual learning. EdX, Khan Academy, and iTunesU are all examples of distributed learning content projects which ARE amazing. Yet in every story of “thanks” I heard this weekend during TTU graduation festivities, I never heard anyone “thanking WebCT.” No one said, “Thanks Blackboard.” People thanked individual professors, staff members, family members and friends. It’s the individuals and the relationships which make the biggest impact on us during our academic journeys… and more generally on our journeys of life. Listen to my November 2005 audio podcast, “Teacher Impact Stories,” for more evidence of this. It’s the relationships we form with students, as educators, which make the most impact and create our legacies as professionals.
The takeaway I’d like to share on this with you is: Never underestimate the impact and importance of YOUR WORDS. Never underestimate the importance and power of the encouragement and words of kindness you share with your students. Do not focus on the stresses of testing and accountability: Tests are ultimately not instruments which transform lives. Educators and the relationships educators have with students as we encourage and ‘stretch’ students beyond their own expectations are the real catalysts for life transformation. Keep that reality in mind and remind yourself of it regularly.
I’d lastly like to reflect briefly on the traditions, rituals, and celebrations which surround graduation time, and juxtapose these with current realities of student debt levels.
It’s a bit ironic I read the May 6th article from The Chronicle of Higher Education today, “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.” “Oklahoma Open Source Yoda turned Wyoming Cowboy” Kent Brooks tweeted that link earlier today.
The landscape of job opportunities for college graduates, including Ph.D. grads, is far from rosy today. According to the November 2011 report from “The Project on Student Debt,”
Two-thirds of college seniors graduated with loans in 2010, and they carried an average of $25,250 in debt. They also faced the highest unemployment rate for young college graduates in recent history at 9.1%.
I’m guessing those statistics today, in May 2012, are even worse.
We were told to work hard and stay in school, and that it would pay off. We are not lazy. We are not entitled. We are drowning in debt with few means of escape.
Contrast this to the words of Billy Joel’s song, “Allentown.”
Well we’re waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
Iron and coke
As I enjoyed the graduation festivities of the induction and commencement ceremonies yesterday with family and friends, I thought about student debt. My last required action for the Texas Tech graduate school was completing the “Survey of Earned Doctorates,” which is administered to every doctoral student completing a degree in the United States.
Questions A7a and A7b pertain to undergraduate and graduate school debt. It is a HUGE blessing our family isn’t saddled with either one today.
That’s NOT to say we don’t owe other financial debts… we certainly do. We don’t, however, owe anything for school costs. I’m guessing I’m an outlier among my peers in this regard.
I wonder when college debt is going to reach a “tipping point” when families as well as students are going to say: Enough is enough. As teachers, we should NOT simply tell our students, “If you graduate from college you’re guaranteed to find a super job and make lots of money.” Life and the economy are much more complicated than that. Our focus as educators encouraging students to “dream no small dreams” (as we heard at the TTU commencement ceremony last night) should NOT be to simply “go out and get a good job.” It should also include “Become an entrepreneur and help INVENT the future.”
Life as an educational entrepreneur is very challenging and difficult. I’ve been wanting to write a post on “Lessons learned after three years as an educational entrepreneur” for months, and I still plan to do that soon. Suffice it to say for now, life IS a lot easier and simpler when you have a “regular’ job with fixed monthly paychecks and medical benefits. The path of the entrepreneur has many other benefits and positives as well, however, and I’m hoping to realize those more fully in the years ahead. It’s a challenging journey either way, however, whether one opts to work for a “regular job” or invent a unique career path.
This weekend has and continues to be a wonderful time of celebration and thankful moments. It’s also, however, providing opportunities to reflect on graduation rituals and the messages we share with our students and our children about education, college, and “getting a degree.” As the father of three wonderful kids, these are important questions we’ll face from a different perspective as college expenses loom on our near-term financial horizon.
Today, I’m counting my blessings. I’m extremely humbled by the encouragement, sacrifices, and work of SO many who have made this day possible for our entire family.
Never underestimate the power and importance of your encouraging and kind words as a teacher, parent, and friend.
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