Every year I have students in the Reading M.Ed. program ask me for advice about entering a literacy-related doctoral program.
I loved my doctoral program. I would have stayed a graduate student forever if I could have figured out a way to do it without bankrupting myself. My doctoral program in the Department of Language, Reading and Culture at the University of Arizona made me a better teacher, helped me answer questions about children and learning, forced me to think in new ways and about new ideas, and in many, many ways changed who I am as a professional, as an educator, and as a person. That said, should you pursue a doctorate in literacy? Probably not.
Before you decide to pursue a doctorate in literacy, consider the following questions:
- What do you want to know about literacy? What are you passionate about? How will this doctorate help you explore this passion? If there isn’t some area related to the field of literacy that you are desperate to know more about, don’t do a doctorate. Good doctoral programs are immensely rewarding, but, unfortunately, also immensely frustrating. You have to be passionate about your subject because that is the only thing that will carry you through the bad times. And there will be bad times.
- How much family/friend time are you willing to sacrifice? How many of your kid’s soccer games are you willing to miss? How many Friday nights are you willing to spend studying instead of going on a date night with your honey? A doctoral program requires time—anywhere from three to seven years of focused work, depending on your program.
- What are your professional goals? How will a doctorate help you meet those goals? A doctoral degree is required for certain jobs (college professor, for example), but for other career paths a doctorate is not worth the required time and money. If you do want to be a professor, are there going to be jobs when you graduate?
- How will you afford the program? Can you quit your job and be a full time student? Can you move to attend a good program? What sort of funding can you get for your doctoral program? How much are you willing to take on in student loans? You can do a doctoral program part time—though I don’t recommend it—and you can do a long distance doctoral program—though I REALLY don’t recommend that. The best way to do a doctoral program is to be a full time student. This is because the learning that takes place in a doctoral program doesn’t only occur in classes—it is working on your advisor’s research project and attending as many brown bag lunches as possible where people share their research and forming a study group with your classmates and being a teaching assistant and going to the lecture series and….
- How do you handle frustration? Can you handle criticism? If you fall apart when someone tells you your ideas are wrong, a doctoral program is not for you. Academics are REALLY GOOD at being critical. This is usually a positive thing because it leads to stronger research and thinking. Grow a thick skin.
- Are you a strong academic reader and writer? Can you handle a reading load of six books (or more) per course each semester? Can you write ten four-page critiques and one 20 page final paper (or more) per class each semester? Am I exaggerating the work load for effect? No, not really. Of course, some classes will require less reading and writing than this—but some will require more. And, frankly, if the majority of your classes don’t require major amounts of reading and writing then you are not in a good doctoral program.
Should you get a doctorate? For me, the choice was absolutely worth it. But make the decision very carefully.