I’ve had several conversations with different colleagues this past week about students who are either acting helpless or are truly lost in academia. Professors usually love it when students ask questions….except when the answers to those questions are things easily found in the syllabus, previously announced in class, or posted on the class website. Or all three! I am constantly frustrated by the number of students who don’t look at their syllabus after the first night of class, especially since I devote a lot of time to writing a clear, information-filled document.
I love this post about how parents can help their students understand the importance of syllabi.
Part of my job as a professor is writing letters of recommendation for students and former students who are looking for work or who are applying to doctoral programs. I get a lot of these requests, and generally I’m happy to write the letters. However, some students seem unfamiliar with the professional etiquette and practical aspects surrounding letters of recommendation.
As someone requesting a letter of recommendation, you have a few responsibilities:
- Ask the right person. It needs to be someone you have a good professional relationship with and someone who can be positive about your qualities for the job/program that you are applying to. It’s usually best to ask someone that you’ve had several courses with or who has known you over several years, though I realize that’s not always possible.
- Some applications now ask for recommender information then contact the recommender through an online system or a phone call. DO NOT give out a professor’s name, address or email for a recommendation unless you have already asked if they would be willing to do one.
- Ask someone you think will actually write the letter. Unfortunately, some professors will enthusiastically agree to do a recommendation, then never follow through. It’s unprofessional, but happens.
- Request the letter of recommendation AT LEAST two weeks before it is due. Your letter is only one of dozens of tasks the professor needs to complete, so give plenty of time for the professor to fit in into their schedule.
- Once the professor has agreed to write the letter, send them an email with the following information: a short description of the position/program that you are applying to, an updated resume/vita, the name and address of who the letter should be sent to, and a reminder of the deadline. You also might want to remind the professor of that brilliant class project you completed or other achievements related to whatever you are applying to. A pre-addressed envelope is always nice, too.
- Follow up with the professor as the deadline approaches. This isn’t rude or presumptuous—it’s practical. Professors forget things. Also, ask the professor to inform you when they’ve sent off the letter.
- Say thank you!
Finally, most professors really appreciate it when you let them know if you’ve been accepted or rejected from whatever you’re applying for.
As a professor I also have some responsibilities in this process. These include:
- Only agreeing to do a recommendation if I feel I can write a positive letter. If I don’t have good things to say about the student, I tell the student they need to ask someone else.
- Meeting the deadline.
Follow these steps and you should get enthusiastic recommendation letters!
Earlier I tried to convince you that you don’t really want to do a doctoral degree. Then, for the persistent, I began discussing how to choose a good doctoral program. Here are more things to consider.
- Your professional interests. What do you want to learn about? What do you want to research? It is very, very important that you attend a program that matches your interests. Think about the professional readings you’ve done. What authors really resonated with you? Where do they work? Do a literature search on your area of interest. Are there certain people who have written a lot on that subject? Where do they work? Explore the university website carefully and look at the course descriptions in the catalog. What appeals to you?
- What sort of funding is available? Most doctoral programs support their students financially to some degree. The student works as a graduate assistant or a research assistant and receives tuition reimbursements/stipends/scholarships/etc. I’ve had people tell me that a student should never go to any doctoral program that didn’t offer full funding. I have mixed feelings about that statement, since I loved my program but certainly didn’t get full funding. However, the financial support you are offered certainly can influence your decision.
- Completion rates and time to graduation. How many students who enter the program actually graduate? How long does it take them? Low completion rates can mean that the program is not very supportive of its students. You really don’t want to be in that kind of program.
On additional comment. I’m seeing a lot of advertisements for online doctoral programs. Please be very cautious of these. I know online programs are going to grow in numbers and in quality, but at the moment the majority of them are nothing more than diploma mills. If you must attend an online doctoral program, make sure it is run by an accredited, respected university.
If my previous post didn’t discourage you from pursuing a Ph.D. or an Ed.D., you may be seriously considering applying to a doctoral program. Choose your program carefully! Perhaps the most important thing to consider are your professional goals. Do you want to teach at a college or university? Conduct educational research? Focus on policy? Academia has a fairly rigid hierarchical structure; there are Tier I/Research I universities, which focus on research (and sometimes ignore teaching) and have the highest status in academia; Tier 2 universities, which focus on both teaching and research and are lower status; and teaching colleges, which, as the name implies, focus on teaching. Teaching colleges are generally low status in academia. (Yes, academia gets kind of snooty). However, they have a strong student focus.
This matters because it is extremely rare that you will be hired at a higher status than the place you got your degree. If your goal is to focus on educational research, you will probably want to work at a Research I university, which means you need to get your degree from a Research I university. If you want to focus on teaching, then either a Research I or a Tier 2 doctoral program would work.
Also, remember that you will not be hired to teach at the university you graduated from so if your ultimate goal is to end up in a specific geographical location, don’t get your doctoral degree from there.
More on choosing a doctoral program in the next post.
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.