Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Now is the Time

By Annie Saint-Jacques, Ph.D. (ABD)*

A few days ago, my friend Will asked me if I wanted to contribute to his blog as a guest blogger. He was interested in my perspective as a Ph.D. Candidate, my experiences as a doctoral student and my advice to those considering this journey. I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to share my story and perhaps help people “think outside the box”.

My background
As a young adult, I did not get the chance to study due to personal circumstances. Nevertheless, being resourceful, computer-savvy and bilingual, I was offered good positions and was able to make a decent living for myself, but I always regretted not having a degree. To make a long story short, I managed to overcome all these hurdles and with a graduate diploma in Multimedia Instructional Design and a master’s degree in Distance Education. In 2008, I decided to make my old dream come true and to embark on the (at times crazy) journey of doctoral studies.

My studies
I was strongly interested in educational technology and the closest institution offering such a program was a thousand kilometers from home (I live in Canada). As much as I wanted to get accepted, a year-long residency or moving to another city was not on my radar. I contacted the professor with whom I wanted to work, made an appointment and went to meet him. I explained my circumstances, demonstrated my potential and asked for his help: I wanted to enroll in the on-campus program as a regular student, but I would take online courses from home. The key is to know what you want/need and contact the right person. Had I written to my university’s registrar, I doubt that the outcome would have been the same. Thankfully, my future supervisor was very supportive, and in September 2008, I started in the program.

The ups and downs on a Ph.D. life
Working full time and studying full time is not something I would recommend.  I did it for the first term and at Christmas, I quit my position as an instructional designer and academic advisor at a local university. I had no idea how I was going to make it, but I just knew that was the proper thing to do. For the next six months, I struggled to make ends meet, but I felt freer and happier than ever in spite of all the challenges.

Indeed, there were multiple challenges as my institution did not offer my program at a distance and from an administrative perspective, it was a nightmare. Secretaries would contact me to “pop in and sign a form”, I did not have access to the library, I missed out on helpful workshops and training sessions… But I was extremely lucky: my supervisor introduced me to a wonderful woman who was the Dean of Graduate Studies (she is now Vice-President) here at a local university. She literally took my under her wing, introducing me to key people, making sure that I was on their graduate students’ listserv, keeping me informed, allowing me to attend numerous workshops, giving me access to the library. I was even invited as a Researcher-in-Residence at one of their faculty. As a result, I did not miss out on all the exciting opportunities that on-campus studies can offer and would certainly recommend getting involved in an institution’s life, even if it is not yours.

Being the lucky girl that I am, I applied for a bursary, and in the Spring of 2009, I was awarded a substantial bursary from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for the next three years. Needless to say that I was thrilled – all my financial worries were over and I could just concentrate full-time on my doctorate. To me, this is probably the most important step to success. It also confirmed what I truly believe: make things happen and the rest will take care of itself!

So this is basically the “what went well” rubric. Are there things that I would do differently? Most definitely. From a personal point of view, I would say very few though: I am always extremely happy to get up in the morning and embark on another day of reflection and discoveries. With time, I have learned that stressing over deadlines, comprehensives, conferences, writing, is totally counterproductive. Your life will be crazy from now on, better get used to it. I make a point of setting aside time every day to go for a walk and/or exercise and I try to take my weekends off as much as I can. One awesome advantage of working from home is that you don’t waste time telecommuting and you are not disturbed. Being very self-disciplined, this is a winning situation for me, although I confess to feeling isolated at times, hence my strong interest in social media and personal learning networks.

From a Ph.D. studies point of view, yes there are many things that I would do differently. I designed my research so that I would work with various North American universities, both in English and in French. This basically means that I doubled up my workload, having to translate everything all the time. And this lovely idea of “hey, let’s study what’s happening out there” translated in ten Institutional Review Board applications. If you are not familiar with those, they are mandatory if you are to do research in a university and follow a very rigorous and time-consuming process (45 pages is not uncommon – but then nobody has the same requirements, which only adds to the confusion). In retrospect, one application in one language should have been enough for a doctoral study, and I strongly recommend keeping things simple. A dissertation is “only” a dissertation!

Another thing that I would certainly do differently is involving students in a doctoral research. This was probably the most difficult thing for me. My data collection relied on student interviews, a mid-term online survey and a post-term online survey, among other things. They strictly participated on a voluntary basis. In one class, after having gone through the IRB process, met the faculty requirements, met the students in their virtual classroom, carried out observations, taken field notes (and dozens of friendly reminders), I could not get any data from the students. In another class, only one kindly participated in the study. I was shocked. Altogether, full participation in the study would require an hour of their time, I was very flexible in terms of schedule and communication channels and yet they totally ignored me. If you are asked to participate in such a research, please volunteer to help a peer, so much is at stake.

So that is basically it. If you are considering doing a Ph.D., I would definitely encourage you to start “making things happen”. Now is the time. You cannot get anywhere if you don’t take the first step. There will be challenges, there will be stressful moments, there will be awful days. It will also be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life and you will push your limits in ways that you cannot even imagine. You will be proud of yourself. I am. 

Annie's research interests include increased and open access in higher education, learning communities, synchronous (real time) online learning, efficient online teaching practices, and higher education policies (see her blog: Completing her graduate studies at a distance, she is currently writing the conclusion of her dissertation, which is titled: “Effective Teaching Strategies for a Virtual Graduate Seminar: Developing a Community of Inquiry in Synchronous Mode within a Blended Online Learning Design Approach”. Annie is hoping to defend in June-July. Addicted to Twitter, you can find Annie @A_Saint_Jacques

*ABD means “all but dissertation” and may be used by Ph.D. candidates who are at the stage of writing their dissertation.

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