23 June 2013

10 strategies for a successful doctoral program

It’s summertime, and many nurse faculty members enrolled in doctoral programs are very busy. The lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are not so lazy for those colleagues of ours who are immersed in graduate coursework and dissertation studies. Their diligence and enthusiasm prompt the subject of this post: How does one survive the rigors and demands of pursuing a doctoral degree? In response, I offer my top 10 strategies for a successful doctoral program experience.

First, I want to underscore that researching and writing a sound dissertation or scholarly project can be a daunting undertaking. It is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that requires exploring and organizing evidence related to a body of knowledge, and arranging associated discussions and arguments into a coherent, readable document. The overall goal is to communicate your scientific discovery or practice application, demonstrating a capacity for critical and engaged thinking. This is commonly achieved by reading broadly and deeply, by analyzing and organizing a comprehensive and thoughtful discussion, and by posing a convincing argument for original ideas.

One of the most important aspects of the doctoral experience—and for me, one of the most joyful—is the student’s relationship with his or her primary adviser. For me, the pleasure and stimulation of scholarly collaboration has never been greater than with the professors on my dissertation committee. Being a member of a community of scholars engaged in meaningful discourse, deep questioning, argument, debate, and social discourse is an incredible high. I encourage all doctoral students to stay in close touch with their community of scholars, learn much, and enjoy the experience.

With Russell Joki, PhD, my dissertation adviser, at my 2006 graduation.

Here are those 10 strategies:

1. Determine your study topic early in your program, and stick to it as much as possible. Work smart and efficiently. Use classes in your program as much as you can to more fully develop your study area. For example, my dissertation topic was civility, so one of the papers I wrote for a course titled “Law and ethics in higher education” was about a case of suspected faculty incivility, in which a senior nursing student alleged that she was publicly and repeatedly demeaned about her obesity and for not conforming to the school image. The case was eventually argued before the U.S. Supreme Court (Russell v. Salve Regina College, 1986).

2. Once you establish your study design, diagram it. One of my committee members once said to me, “If you can’t draw it, you can’t explain it.” Use pictures, diagrams, concept maps, algorithms, or any other method that suits you. Then, write out a detailed narrative that explains your depiction. Share your illustration and associated narrative with anyone who will review it, and ask for input to improve it. Revisit and revise it often. Similarly, it’s helpful to make a strategic plan, logic model, or map of your study that includes a projected timeline and resources needed to achieve each item. Share your plan with your primary adviser and others who will help keep you accountable and on track. Set deadlines and keep them. Even if you have not completed a specific requirement, you will likely come close.

3. Visualize your goals! I used to visualize myself at graduation, surrounded by friends and family, being hooded with the most glorious and colorful hood imaginable. A bit silly perhaps, but it worked for me, especially during down times or when I felt discouraged. Visualization is a powerful tool; use it to the fullest!

4. Select an excellent committee, and don’t be afraid to redesign your committee or replace members, if necessary. This is your program and your study. Assert yourself, and speak confidently about what you need and expect.

5. Read, read some more, and keep on reading! When reviewing the literature, start with the “Dissertation Abstracts” database. Each published dissertation will have an updated and comprehensive “review of literature” (R of L). Use it to begin your own review. Read books, not just journal articles. Some of the greatest sentinel works are published in books. Constantly update your R of L. (You will have two reviews, one on your topic area and one on your research method.) When studying your topic, look for gaps in the literature, what still needs to be studied. What about the topic ignites your scholarly juices? How will you study your topic? Begin developing your research questions, and remember, your questions determine the design—not the other way around.

6. Set up a data management system—both hard copy and efile—that works for you, and constantly back up your computer files. Keep your hard-copy files in a safe, fireproof place. Save your work in efolders and three-ring binders that are clearly and precisely labeled. Don’t throw anything away, not even after you complete your dissertation, as you may want those resources for additional publications or presentations. Also, the Federal Wide Assurance Code of Federal Regulations requires that data files be kept securely for three years.

7. Consult experts and non-experts, and ask everyone who shows interest in your work for input and opinions. Don’t be afraid to ask the heavyweights in the field for opinions and advice. Stay connected to your committee members. Get feedback from people in other disciplines. Carry a calendar, always have your next meeting scheduled, and keep the meeting!

8. Write every day, even if it’s only a paragraph or two. Start anywhere in the writing process, and keep writing. Keep excellent editors close, and use their suggestions. Peer review is integral to great writing. Ten to 20 revisions of a piece are about average.

9. Put up a NO sign, or download an app on your smartphone that reads NO. Craft a short script to recite when someone asks you to take on a project or initiative. You may not always be able to say no, especially if the request is job or family-related, but be careful not to say yes just because you think you ought to or because the project interests you. You will have lots of time after your dissertation is completed to say yes. Practice phrases such as, “It sounds interesting, but I need to say no. Perhaps we can work together in the future, when I can give your request the time and energy it deserves.”

10. Maintain balance in your life. Find what gives you joy and, whatever it is, keep doing it. Graduate with yourself and your spirit intact. Celebrate along the way, and be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to do what is needed to live your life. Stay plugged into your family, yourself, the people you love, and the people who love you back! A wise friend once told me, “The most important thing you will get out of your doctoral program is yourself.”

Russell v. Salve Regina College, 649 F. Supp 391 (U.S. Supreme Court, 1986).

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.