Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Journey to Online Doctoral Study

Recently, The University of Northern Colorado admitted me into their education doctoral (EdD) program in Educational Studies. While I'm thrilled to have been accepted into a premier program of study, the journey to doctoral study was not without its struggle. In addition to trying to determine what to study at the doctoral level,--one would think that after 12+ years in the field of education, I would have developed an expertise or an idea for research, but this year provided me the opportunity to hone my vision for academic pursuit--I also had to determine whether I would pursue an online degree or attempt to attend a local school in person. Because of the plethora of doctoral programs in education available to potential students, I had to weed through each program's goals thoroughly and determine if I would receive a reputable degree in which I would have the opportunity to publish and collaborate with faculty and other doctoral students, and lastly receive a rigorous, inspiring curriculum.

After graduating from college and completing two different master's degrees in Education (one in C&I and one in Educational Leadership), I knew I would eventually pursue a doctoral degree. However, I earned my master's degrees early on in my teaching career, so I felt I needed more experience which would eventually be the catalyst for my doctoral research. I began my career  teaching 7th grade Language Arts in a large suburban school district. About five years into my career, I began teaching Developmental Reading and Writing courses at a local community college. I was heavily immersed in the field of English Education, which was the emphasis for my first master's degree. English Education seemed like a natural fit for a doctoral program, and so I started my research by reading (multiple times) The Doctoral Degree in English Education by Allen Webb. A doctoral degree in English Education (or Language, Literacy & Culture--often the umbrella term for programs in Literacy/Reading, English Ed, Bilingual/ESL programs) appealed to me because the methods, curriculum, and literature used in my classroom would serve as the basis for my research.

I found a local university that offered a doctoral program (PhD) in Curriculum & Instruction with a concentration in Language, Literacy & Culture. The program seemed like a perfect fit for me, but the timing was bad: I learned about the program, attended an informational meeting, and a week later I went into labor with my first child. So, I considered an online degree program. I completed my second master's degree online, and while I didn't enjoy the program, I attributed it to the subject matter rather than the online nature of the degree program. I later realized that third-party academic services might have contributed to my distaste for the program--more on that later. I steered clear of for-profit universities (University of Phoenix, Capella, etc.) mostly because the tuition was often times $100-$200 per credit hour more expensive than traditional brick & mortar universities that provide online degrees. I found a reputable  university in a state in which I had family members living. It was an online doctoral degree (EdD) in Language & Literacy Studies. The entire degree program could be completed online, but in order to meet the residency requirement one would have to travel to the university to attend a conference at least once. While the university website provided the course sequence, I had trouble locating the faculty research interests or a way to contact the school for more information. In addition, I left the K-12 classroom at the time and began my current career as a program specialist in the department of at-risk and prevention services. Now I create and evaluate programs designed to address non-academic barriers to student success. Much of what I do now relates to social-emotional learning, mental health, social justice, conflict resolution and restorative justice. My interests had broadened instead of narrowing.

I considered other doctoral programs in Educational Leadership, Curriculum Studies, and Developmental Education (yes! There are three programs in the nation--two in Texas-- that focus on remedial/developmental education), but none of them addressed the areas I had grown to love. Also, most of the programs were geared at those wanting a career change. Eventually, I want to teach pre-service teachers at a university, but for now I want to continue my current career path and expand on my current work. I am pursuing a doctoral degree for the pursuit of knowledge. I decided to pick the brain of those I know currently pursuing doctoral degrees in education. They provided me with much needed guidance in selecting a program, taking the GRE, and preparing for the dissertation. One friend shared a link to the 30 best online doctoral degrees in education. This link opened my eyes to the universities out there offering online doctoral degree programs and it was through this link that I discovered Northern Colorado. I instantly knew that it was a perfect match. The core course requirements include a strong base in social-cultural foundations of education (another branch of interest for me, but there is one doctoral program in this area of study in the entire state of Texas--UT) and the emphasis in Innovation & Educational Reform provides a nice mix of Educational Leadership and Curriculum Studies courses. With titles like Social Justice in Educational Reform and Literacy as Social Practice, I knew I found the right program. The icing on the cake, so to speak, was when I discovered that in order to meet the residency requirement, I would  travel to Northern Colorado for a week each summer to collaborate with faculty and other members of the cohort, and I would defend my dissertation in Colorado as well. This provided the legitimacy I desired in an online program. I quickly requested information and received an email from the director of the program urging me to apply even though I missed the priority deadline.

After I completed the application, I waited and waited and wondered: "what if I don't get into the program?" I had put all my eggs in one basket by applying to this program and if I didn't get in, I would have to wait two more years before applying again. I referred back to the "30 best" link. I requested information from two or three other universities. I was immediately turned off from two of the programs after they hounded me by calling  2-3 times per day. I learned that I wasn't actually receiving phone calls from the universities, but from Academic Partnerships, a private, third party recruitment company that administers much of the  recruitment and academic services for online programs at state universities. I was even more turned off when one "enrollment specialist" employed by Academic Partnerships pre-interviewed me (I guess this was done to determine if I should even apply) and asked questions like, "do you think you'll take out loans or will you pay for the program one course at a time?" and "do you have any friends who would want to complete a doctoral program with you?" When I told the enrollment specialist that I was very interested in collaborating with peers and professors and that I would like to come on campus throughout my study, she made a point to tell me that I wouldn't have to step foot on campus and that I could collaborate via telephone conference, email or BlackBoard. I resigned to the fact that Northern Colorado was for me. I could not attend a university that partnered with Academic Partnerships or similar academic recruitment businesses. If I didn't get in this round, I would wait the two years and try again. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait.

I hope my research helps someone who can't complete a traditional doctoral program, but seeks a challenging online curriculum. I often felt alone in my pursuit because my interests weren't the same as many of my peers in education. As mentioned earlier, an advanced
degree in Educational Leadership and becoming a principal or superintendent aren't part of my plans. Creating & evaluating programs, writing curriculum, and eventually teaching pre-service teachers are my passions and completing a doctoral degree that would allow me to build on those passions is what I want. I know the journey to doctor won't be easy, but I'm glad I don't have to second guess my choice for the institution where I'll receive my degree. The choice I made was the right choice.

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