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.

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