Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Too Many Variables

A new correspondent writes:

I currently hold a BS and MA in my field and teach FT at a private college as a visiting instructor. I get very good course evals am involved in as many things as they let me be and have even written my own course (and got it approved!). I"m in my second year there with a very strong promise of a renewal for a third year. 2 department members hold MA's, (includes the chair) and 2 have PhDs (one tenured, one might be next year). VPAA (who seems to have a final say in hiring) first said that he doesn't want me there long terms b/c I don't have a PhD. Now he's saying that's not going to matter, it's more my youth and lack of "political savvy". Chair told him that she'll mentor me in whatever I'm lacking (she does too) and how much I've been doing for the college and dept (that the possible TT member has not done).

I can get a PhD locally, where I got my MA in fact. I'm there for 1 course this semester, non matric. Problem is the time it'll take to finish, money and that they pretty much solely focus on research (R1 school), so I'm not learning much that I find directly useful. I considered getting a PhD in another field, but was told that doing that makes it harder to get hired teaching in my original field. I've also considered an Eed which would be free to me in F'09 (provided I get hired at current institution for that long), but have been told that that degree holds less clout than a PhD, and again would make it harder to teach in my original field.

Chair and mentor feel that they can find ways to keep me at current institution for the long term, and I'd like to believe them, but I can be pessimistic (or realistic, your choice). They also both feel the PhD is a waste of my time and money. Mentor feels EeD is way to go. I just want to keep teaching. Will an EeD hurt me? Should I stick with the PhD? Would a PhD limit my long term options (if I need to/want to get out of academics)? What about the fact I'd rather read and teach the research than actually do it?

Lastly, do I stick out the course I'm currently taking even though I'm not sure I even want this, just to save face? I have no idea what to say if I quit without burning a bridge. Oh, moving is not an option for the next few years, given my husband's situation.

My first thought is, that's way too many variables in one equation.

You need to reduce the variables.

If I understand the letter, you're place-bound for a while for spousal reasons. You have a Master's, and like to teach, but don't know if that will be enough to get you the kind of job you want. But you don't know what kind of job you want, so it's hard to say. The PhD available locally – which you're kinda pursuing and kinda not -- doesn't seem useful to you, but you don't want to lose face by walking away from it. A PhD in another field would be of limited relevance to your career goals. An EdD (or however it's usually noted) would be free, if you're still there, but you're not really sure what that leads to. Also, your VPAA says you're too young and lack political savvy, so you may not be there long enough to get the free EdD anyway. Unless you are.

Okay, time out. Deep breath.

It seems like you're trying to decide which road to take, but you aren't really sure where you want to go. Not knowing the latter, it's impossible to answer the former.

I'll throw out a few basics, ask my readers to fill in gaps that I've missed, and make a suggestion.

A few basics:

  1. There's no shame in walking away from your PhD program. You're in it on a 'non-matric' basis now, meaning that you're only barely in it anyway. If the program isn't for you, then it isn't for you. That's okay. A full-blown doctorate is a major life undertaking, consuming money both upfront and in opportunity costs. It is not to be undertaken for lack of a better idea, or because you don't want to lose face. (If anyone asks, just cite unspecified 'personal reasons' and leave it at that.) If you don't have a burning passion to do it, don't do it. Life is too short, and doctorates take too long.

  1. The same applies to the PhD in another program, or a 'free' EdD. (And there's no such thing as a free degree. Again, see “opportunity cost.”) Each has its virtues, but only if you really want what it leads to. If you don't, then either is a colossal waste of time and resources.

  1. You like to teach. You don't like to do research. A doctorate is a research degree. This is true of both PhD's and EdD's.

Rather than looking for the next external stamp of approval, I'd advise stepping back and giving some thought to what's actually important to you. Strip things to their essentials – I'm guessing that your teaching gig right now keeps you fed, so that counts as essential – and use the suddenly free space to reflect on what you'd like to be doing five or ten years from now. What kind of family life do you want? Do you want to still be in the same city? Is a long-distance marriage an acceptable option? Is teaching the only thing you enjoy, or could you envision doing something else? What do you do when left to your own devices? What can't you stop doing? Is there a way to pay the bills doing that?

(I had to laugh at myself recently when Recently Married Grad School Friend reminded me of a conversation we had over a decade ago in a parking garage in Grad School City. I had just discovered 'zines – this was the 90s, people – and was all atwitter about how cool it would be to do a higher ed zine. I just couldn't figure out how to make money on it. He patiently endured my uncharacteristic enthusiasm, which apparently made an impression. Now I blog at IHE, which didn't exist then. I write this stuff because I'm constantly thinking about it, whether it's useful or not. What do you do all the time, whether it's useful or not?)

Good luck. This isn't something you'll knock out in a week or a month, but you'll get there. You'll know you were right when, looking back, it seems inevitable.

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I think you need to answer two questions: do you want to teach, either at the school you are currently at or at another college or university? And if so, do you need the Ph.D. to get and keep a teaching position? If the answer to question 1 is yes, then chances are the answer to number 2 is also yes. If those are the answers, then go for the Ph.D., even if you don't like doing the research. If the answer to either question is no, then don't do it. Many of us got Ph.D.s because we cannot teach at the college level without one. Personally, I also love my research, but I'm not at an R1, and I could do a lot less of it than I do and still keep my position. But DeanDad is right - it takes way too much time, effort, and money to do the Ph.D. unless you are sure you need/want it.
I'm the person: The EeD is tempting b/c it'd be different and about things I care about but does anyone know if that would be limiting my ability to teach in my original field?

For anon-Q1: yes, Q2: I have no idea. I'm told I need it, by other PhDs, I'm told I don't need it by other MA's. I have no idea what the truth is!
What the fields are and and what level you want to teach are critical.

I agree with DeanDad that neither a Ph.D. is worth it if you do not really want to do it. Completing either is hard for even the most dedicated student, if you are not dedicated it will be torture.

Figure out where you want to be and use that as your guide.

One other note: research expectations seem to be increasing at formerly teaching oriented 4 year college. This might be important in thinking about where you want to head.
Anonymous 9:30 has some excellent points. Further notes:

1) If the MA's telling you you don't need the degree are older than the Ph.D's, then odds are you are in a department and/or field where standards are rising. This is the case in my field: we are glutted with doctorates, so not having one means permanent bottom-of-the-totem-pole status for new hires.

Without knowing what your field is, I can't say if it's a factor for you. However, your VPAA's reaction suggests that you probably do need the sheepskin to stay in your department long term.

Also, the comment about "youth and lack of political savvy" is very worrisome. If one of my higher-ups said that about me, and I knew about it, I'd take concrete steps to correct the perceived problem, and then change institutions. It strongly suggests you are not being taken seriously.

2)A big second on the "know what you want" comment. I'm currently job-hunting (just came back from an interview, in fact), and I am deliberately targeting positions that would allow me to combine my major interests: science, computing, and working with people one-on-one or in small groups. Some positions are academic, some are not, but that's what they all have in common.

You need to know what it is you truly want, and then map out the best strategy to get there. You say your main love is teaching. In that case, why not take your Master's and teach high school? No pressure to earn a degree that doesn't interest you, better pay, and (to be blunt) more respect at work. Or, you could become a corporate trainer.

If those choices are not appealing, then there may be something additional driving you. It would help you to figure out what that is.
I think you need to go with your gut on this one. If your gut lurches unpleasantly at the thought of a Ph.D or you can see spending the time, don't do it. If you have warm happy feelings in your gut when you think about the EdD., do that, even if some people tell you it might be a waste. If you enjoy it and you learn something, it will be worth it.

The problem with your situation is that you are trying to pick the path that will lead to the outcome you want and in this case, as for much of life, that can’t be done. There may be things happening right now that will create the perfect job for you somewhere else in 2 years. Your VPAA may have a nephew that's ABD who will blow your chances of a TT job by sailing in and stealing all your classes. The earth may open and swallow the school. Life is full of unexpected things and you can't prep for most of them.

So what to do? I follow the “God helps those who help themselves / Chance favors the prepared mind” school of thought which dictates the following strategy: Do things that interest you. Do not sacrifice personal time for jobs which may or may not someday appear. Be a free agent always (tenure is a trap!!!). Keep your eyes peeled for new opportunities and jump at them when they appear. Stick to your mentors like glue. Meet as many people as you can. Be open to new ideas. Keep your skillset up-to-date and full of juicy tidbits and you will never starve.
Ivory: I love that the earth might open and swallow the school! The more likely scenario is that the neighbor school starts building on top of us (there's literally a fence between us!)

Dictyranger: thank you for acknowledging what I felt--that it is worrisome that the VPAA made those comments. Granted my Chair put him through the ringer on it, but any time I've tried to stand up (or anyone else) something happens. People have disappeared with him here. Problem is, I really love this place and my department. The MA's are older than me but not older to the department by much more than 2 years.

There's so much I like about academics, but what I teach is not offered at a high school level, at least not anywhere that I've seen.
Better to have the degree and not need it, than want the degree and not have it.
Here is a case where anonymity might be affecting the quality of the advice. The answer "yes" to Q1 of anon 1 leaves a huge hole between teaching at a community college and teaching at an R1 (research intensive) university. Current "private college" could be either 2 year or 4 year, with or without a masters program (or maybe without but with dreams of with).

At our CC, an EdD or a PhD in education is perfectly acceptable (and desirable) for someone teaching (say) physics, but not required. A PhD in the content area is also fine, but not because of the research knowledge. An MS with suitable credit hours keeps SACS happy up through calc-based classes, etc, ... but only a PhD in physics would be acceptable in the physics department at a university with a masters or PhD program.

Your VPAA might be telling you that an MA will remain acceptable in the long run at your institution and that your teaching ability might make up for your lacking an advanced degree. It certainly does at our CC, but you might seek a more definite answer and find out more about the reasons for that answer.

For more detail, look about 2/3 of the way down in a blog I wrote last summer about types of jobs and their requirements. There are links to the SACS documents on faculty credentials as well as comments about what this means from the physics point of view.
CCPhysicist has done potential physics grad students a great service. It would be wonderful if this kind of info existed for all fields.
Thanks, Anonymous, but it is really the AIP that has been doing the heavy lifting for many decades. My only contribution is one of perspective (the jobs issue was huge when I was in grad school) and data analysis skills honed in basic research to try to summarize it in as few words as possible.

I suspect that similar information exists for other fields, but it has not always been in the best interests of faculty to share it with students so it had to be rediscovered every few years. (Wasn't there something in IHE about History jobs recently?)
I suspect the VPAA may be sensitive to your age. If you are finding yourself sensitive to two year age gaps (I couldn't quite follow what "older to the dept." meant), then I'm going to guess that you are fairly young (early 20's?). The VPAA probably isn't as used to dealing with young people who haven't been beaten down by the PhD process.

If teaching is your dream and the level isn't important, then I would still consider other levels. Even if you haven't found high schools with your area yet, they may be out there. I recall my HS having courses in sociology, psychology, etc., besides the typical history classes. (I'm guessing that you may be in the social sciences, given your BS and MA.) There may be high schools near your area that really do have your field, or potentially would be interested in adding it. (Justify the case for them.)

Be creative as you look for a long term job that fits all of your interests. I was amazed to learn several years ago that a college friend was working as an editor of a logic puzzle magazine. Her job was doing and checking logic puzzles. Now that's a job that was never mentioned during career sessions at school.
"Better to have the degree and not need it, than want the degree and not have it."

That is a very simplistic view of this situation. Are you going to help this person pay his or her student loan debt for this degree that this person does not necessarily want or need?

On another note, I think the VPAA needs to be clear about what he expects. If MAs have been acceptable in the past, then he needs to give you a good reason for the desire to have a person with a PhD. Is it about the "cred" that come with it? Sounds to me like this person needs to give a clear understand of what is at stake.

Good Luck
I think teaching high school is a great idea for this poster. You don't need to teach in your field; many states have alternative accreditation procedures.

I would absolutely NOT get a PhD in anything unless (1) you don't have to pay a dime for it, and (2) you are absolutely sure you need it to do the one thing you must do above all other things. It is an extremely rigorous process that takes a minimum of 4 years (assuming full-time status). I worked every single day for the first 4 years I was in the program, and while I don't regret getting the degree, it is a research degree and I am a teacher. The EdD sounds more promising, although as DD notes it is still a research degree.

Frankly, the situation at your university does not sound promising. I agree with an earlier poster; if the VPAA is against you, you need to get out. It may not be fair, but you have to protect yourself against hostile people, whatever the cause of their hostility.

Good luck; read the answers to your post carefully. There is a lot of wisdom and pain here.
I examined the variables in my own career and decided a PhD was not for me. I'm an asst. prof. of English at a cc, and if I want to earn promotion to associate, I need the MA +30 and all the attendant service and whatnot. I do not have a desire to perform research, so I have opted for an M.Ed. in TESOL. This gives me a second teaching field (making me more flexible professionally and hopefully a little more valuable to my employer) and it gives me the education requirements for promotion. And the M.Ed. is not a research-oriented program; it's all pedagogy. That's something I can live with.

The moral of my story: find out where your passion, your professional goals, and your employer's needs/demands intersect, and you'll be in business.
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