Thursday, May 24, 2012

Doctoral Confessions: Serendipity Embraced

By Suzanne Porath

Recently, I downloaded from Itunes a speech by Lee Shulman given at Stanford University entitled “Preparing Minds for Chance Favors: The Challenges of Routine and Surprise in Professional Education.”  Shulman attributes the origin of the word “serendipity” to Horace Walpole, who told a fairy tale about the princes of Seridip. In the story, the king sent his three sons out to learn about the world. According to Walpole, “as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” Shulman links chance to happy accidents and sagacity to having a prepared mind that recognizes opportunities when presented.  I mention this story because it leads directly into my path to and through graduate school as a doctoral candidate.

It began with a tearful phone call from my mom that informed me that my dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.  At the time, I was teaching at an international school in Aruba.  It was time to return to the US and without a job, housing, or clear plan, I ended the school year –  anxious yet gleefully anticipating a new stage in my life.  (Just a quick preview, so you aren't distressed, my dad is still with us and most likely working in the garden as I write this.  He received both chemo and radiation treatments with a positive attitude and has thrived.)

I had considered completing my PhD in education while overseas, but the online programs were not designed for ex-patriots.  I knew this was the opportunity for me to take the time to pursue my degree. Since the goal was to be near my parents, my choice of graduate school was limited to two schools.  I prepared a solid CV and statement of purpose, but without the advantage of knowing the campus or professors, I depended on someone taking a chance on me and accept me as their doctoral student.  Clearly, someone did take that chance, as I was accepted to UW-Madison in Curriculum and Instruction and will finish my dissertation in the next year.  Throughout this process, though, I've learned a few lessons about being a PhD student.

Lesson 1 – Be open to possibilities when they are presented.

Serendipity came into play again during my first meeting with my adviser just weeks before classes were to begin.  She asked if I was looking for funding, as the Teaching Assistant who was supervising student teachers had recently resigned.  Having been a classroom teacher for 12 years, I jumped at the chance.  I was fortunately to have that funding for 4.5 years. Even though it was at moments, time-consuming and stressful, I am grateful for the support and having the opportunity to visit numerous classrooms and schools.  I didn't know I was supposed to be looking for funding – so this was more chance than being prepared!  Throughout my graduate life, I worked hard to be prepared, but I also had to be an the lookout for chance opportunities when they arose.  When my initial adviser left the university, I had to find a new adviser, but through this I found a supportive group of critical peers and we write and present together.

Lesson 2 – Get in the habit of goal setting, writing and publishing – it is academia after all!

Having lived overseas for over 10 years, I thought I was going to weather the culture shock of returning to the US fairly well, but I wasn't prepared for the culture shock of academia.  Within the first month I was overwhelmed by the reading and writing and the constant doubt whether I had the smarts and gumption to complete the degree.  When I first reached out for help from veteran grad students, I was quickly slapped with the statement, “Graduate school is sink or swim.  If you can't swim, you don't belong here.”  Fortunately, I stumbled on Paul Silvia's book How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing and formed my own supportive writing group. I credit my own survival and positive attitude about academia to this group.  We used positive peer pressure to set and achieve writing goals, and, along the way, encouraged each other through the dramas of grad school.  In addition, an article I wrote connected me to my current research site.  Now that I'm a veteran grad student, I make sure to give the type of support to the new students that I was looking for.  And, I encourage everyone who will listen to plan and schedule writing sessions with an eye to publication.

Lesson 3 – Not everything you do needs to get 100% effort 100% of the time. Prioritize!

In my program, we have three years of classes before preliminary exams, which tend to be the literature review for the dissertation, including both methodology and theoretical framework.  My department tends to be qualitative focused, though more professors are beginning to do mixed-method work.  The guiding philosophy given to new graduate students is to explore, sift, and then winnow.  What many students, including myself, struggle with is having the doors flung open to every possibility and then having to deal with the recognition that you don't and can't know it all.  However, have faith in the process – as I got nearer to writing my proposal, my own focus become clearer.  I can see this struggle in the faces of the newbies – as they frantically try to thoroughly read every assignment.  As a grad student I had to balance supervising, teaching and my own course work, along with family responsibilities.  Jim Burke, my favorite writer and teacher, encouraged me to “honor your roles” - consciously choosing to prioritize and make time for those things that matter most, and sometimes that meant accepting an incomplete on a course until I could devote the time to it.

Lesson 4 – Look forward and backward – but stay focused on the present.

Five years ago, I had no idea I would be a doctoral candidate.  A year ago, I had no idea I would be researching in an elementary school.  A month ago, I had no idea I would be teaching 6th grade in the fall as I finish writing up my dissertation. I am excited to see how my 4 years of intensive study has changed the way I teach. While I have plans for the future, I know that chance favors the prepared mind, so I'm staying focused in the present to enjoy the companionship of friends and family, the excitement of teaching middle school, and the challenge of  academia.

Suzanne Porath is a dissertator at the University of Wisconsin – Madison in Curriculum and Instruction, Literacy studies. Her research focus is embedded professional development of teachers through collaborative reflection.  In addition, she is an adjunct faculty member at Concordia University Wisconsin.  Having been a classroom teacher for 12 years, Suzanne has returned to the full-time classroom teaching in middle school humanities.  Married to a director of information technology, her own professional development is infused with technology through Twitter @LitProfSuz and her blog which recounts her classroom days and grad school meanderings.

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