Friday, March 20, 2015

Being a Non-traditional Student

To my surprise, many years ago I was accepted into the doctoral program in the English department. I am what is called a non-traditional student. This means that I have a couple of gap years between undergraduate and graduate school. Also, it means that I am a lot older than many of my classmates.
When I first started, my biggest concern was that I hadn't set foot in a classroom as a student in a long time. Would my experience out of school be an asset or a liability? Would I be able to balance school and work, much less school and my responsibilities as a father?
Once I overcame this initial discomfort, I had the idea that I would double my workload and finish my doctorate in five years. And why not? All I had to do was:

  1. Pass my course work
  2. Teach a few classes
  3. Fulfill my language requirement by showing proficiency in two foreign languages
  4. Pass two field exams
  5. Choose a dissertation topic
  6. Put together a dissertation committee
  7. Write and defend a prospectus
  8. Research and write my dissertation
  9. Defend my dissertation and, finally,
  10. Submit my dissertation
Along the way I realized that it might be helpful to earn some money so that I could pay some bills, put dinner on the table, put clothes on my daughters’ backs, and start working off my school loans. This meant that I had to work. Many non-traditional students have families and full-time jobs while completing their degrees.

But then I found myself spending less and less time on my dissertation. I had to make lesson plans, unit plans, help review textbook selections, attend staff meetings, hold conferences with students, read and grade essays, and spend a lot of time in my car driving from job to job. I kept to a schedule. But you know what doesn’t keep to a schedule? Kids. I was responsible for raising two daughters, in addition to my teaching load, and attending night classes.

Somewhere along the way, my five-year plan turned into a six-year plan, and then a seven-year plan. At this point, I don’t even want to think about how long I’ve been working on my dissertation.

In March of 2008, the Ph.D. Completion Project published a report by Robert Sowell (click here to review his data) in which he revealed that of the students who successfully completed their degrees: 57% of graduate students took at least ten years to finish their doctorate; 49% of which were earning their degree in the humanities; and 47% of them were male. So, according to the data, the odds are in my favor. On the other hand, the data for the attrition rates was rather disheartening: 31% of students dropped out after ten years; 32% of which were studying the humanities.  (If you are interested in reading about the reasons behind doctoral student attrition, check out the following article by Melonie Fullick: “War of Attrition – Asking Why PhD Students Leave”).

Reviewing this data made me wonder: What is the key ingredient that makes all the difference between failure and success for doctoral students?

Thus far, research indicates only one thing: support. Support from your professors; support from your classmates; support from your writing group; support from your committee chair; and support from your department. I would add: support from your boss (if you are employed while working on your graduate degree); support from your partner/spouse; and support from your family. Graduate students – especially, non-traditional graduate students – need support.

If you’re reading this entry, ask yourself: Are you receiving the support you need in order to successfully complete your graduate degree? If not, from whom do you need this support? How can you go about getting this support?

If you have any comments or feedback about being a non-traditional student or how to get the right kind of support, please feel free to share your thoughts on our blog or our office Facebook page.
Also, please know that you will find support at the Thesis & Dissertation Office.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Impostor Syndrome

Diane von Furstenberg, creator of the wrap dress, recently wrote of her semi-retirement and subsequent career. She says that after some time off, she knew she needed to return to fashion. But she was scared, having been absent awhile. Her fears were that “the fashion world would not take [her] seriously, or that a second attempt would fall flat [making her] early success seem like a happy coincidence” (Chicago Tribune, Business page 5, March 1, 2015). This, from the woman on the cover of Newsweek in 1976!

Furstenberg’s fears correspond with those of the Imposter Syndrome (IS), something that up to 70% of us experience at least once in a lifetime (Warrell, Forbes). IS entails having negative thoughts, particularly that others will “find out” how inadequate we really are, even as we accomplish much. Historically, the syndrome has affected more women than men, but now, nearly as many men are affected.

(slide found at flickr - part of presentation by Julie Pagano at Open Source Bridge 2014)

This condition often afflicts college students. Carolyn Law, NIU’s Thesis Advisor, felt such fears herself while attending graduate school. She looked for a book on the subject but could not find one. So she created one called This Fine Place So Far From Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class (Temple UP, 1995). Many who undergo IS are first-generation college students, but the syndrome can affect anyone.

I, too, have faced IS. When I began my English graduate studies, I offered to help a colleague move. Another graduate student, in process of writing his dissertation, also helped. When I asked him about his work, he replied: “[Insert esoteric language here] … Emerson.” My immediate thought was, “Emerson? Of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer? (the band) Boy, I don’t belong here.” That was the beginning of my experience of IS, and for those who feel or have ever felt likewise, we have found some tips.

First, let’s remember that this condition only happens to effective people. Caltech’s counseling center says that the “syndrome is associated with highly achieving, highly successful people.” Kyle Eschenroeder, in a blog on this topic, points out that many “famous people” have suffered similar thoughts, and he lists 21 steps to overcoming this syndrome. But some of us may be in danger of having these thoughts inhibit our degree completion, so let’s think through this condition further.
Caltech tells readers to question such negative “automatic thoughts” and come up with a more balanced assessment of abilities. Warrell advises us to “reset” the bar to a more realistic level. She cautions people not to be so highly driven as to be “forever striving [and] feeling inadequate,” saying not everyone is the “Einstein” of his or her field.

These are good tips for those of us writing a thesis or dissertation. We don’t have to author THE BEST study that ever existed. And we are competent scholars, so we can do this! Remember that others are or have been in the same position, and contact our office anytime for help. If anyone has ideas to offer, please feel free to comment below!