My experience of doing a Ph.D. by Dr. Heidi Blackburn
Heidi Blackburn is the STEM Librarian at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she is liaison to the Departments of Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Math, and Engineering, as well as the College of Information Science & Technology and College of Business Administration.
New methods of delivery
My PhD experience was very different from other students’ experiences, even those in the United States. I attended Emporia State University’s School of Library and Information Management during a curriculum change in the program. Fourteen other students and I started in July 2009 as part of a “weekend-intensive” cohort program created for working adults to attend class virtually from all parts of the country. We worked during the week in cities all over the United States, then gathered in a virtual classroom (Adobe Connect) with microphones and webcams from our homes or offices.
I graduated from Emporia State University with my Masters of Library Science in 2008, so I was already familiar with attending class in person on the weekends. I was eager to try this new method of delivery because I had taken a job as the Research and Instruction Librarian at the College of Technology and Aviation at Kansas State University at Salina, which was 200 miles from the Emporia State University campus.
We met on Friday nights for 3 hours, Saturdays for approximately 7-8 hours with a short lunch break, and 2-3 hours on Sunday mornings. We became experts at helping each other troubleshoot technology, how to give presentations using slide share software and patience for technical glitches in the middle of lectures. We met for class in this virtual environment four weekends a semester, and then had online discussions asynchronously through the course management software in between. This method was designed to let more students attend school without having to move across the country, which would have uprooted many families and careers in the process.
While I was attending courses for my Master’s degree, I noticed that there were far fewer men than women in the program. I started asking these men why they were studying in a field where they were in the minority and weren’t likely to make much money, not to mention they were negatively stereotyped. I asked this question of every man I came across in my classes and a majority of them said they were interested in some aspect of technology in libraries. I thought on this phenomenon for two years and it became my dissertation topic when I joined the PhD program later on. I lived and breathed gender roles, technology, workplaces, the Millennial generation, anti-intellectualism and stereotypes for three years.
The PhD process – coursework, exams, and defending the dissertation.
At Emporia State University, all of the students in the cohort take their classes together for several years. Then they do independent readings for a semester to prepare to take their qualifying exams in the areas that interest them. You must pass two essay exams from a list of topics and all students take a third essay exam covering qualitative and quantitative research methods. I spent a year preparing and taking the exams, which I thankfully passed in a timely manner. Then my faculty committee was formed and I publically defended my research proposal, sharing why I was now qualified to conduct research in the field. In 2013, I conducted 21 interviews and collected 231 survey responses from males attending library school programs across the United States. I wrote a dissertation that was 39,492 words long, went through 52 drafts with three committee members, and shared my theoretical lens, methodology, findings, and conclusions in an hour-long public oral defense. I had heard horror stories about how long it took the committee to decide your fate, with other students having to pace the hall for nearly an hour. I was terrified when they opened the door after less than ten minutes and welcomed me back into the room as “Dr. Blackburn.” After years of giving up nights, weekends, holidays, and much of my social life, I accepted my diploma on stage in front of supportive family and friends in May 2015.
Working full-time and going to school on the weekends requires unbelievable time management skills for balancing your professional, academic, and personal lives. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Here are some takeaways for those considering it.
· You must do a PhD for your own sake. Not for promotion or because your mentor thinks you would be good at it. You will live and breathe it, so you better be motivated.
· Find a topic you want to read, discuss, and write about for the next 4-5 years. Here is a test: If you can’t wait to tell strangers about it at a conference, if you simplify it for your grandmother when she visits, and/or if you talk about it over dinner with your significant other, that’s a good sign you’re in it for the long term.
· Prepare to part from family, friends, and recreational reading. You will need a space to immerse yourself in endless scholastic reading and they will tire of hearing you cite your latest readings over breakfast. They will get reacquainted with you at the end of the semester when you crawl out from the library.
· Find a committee that serves your purposes. You need to get along with your chair and the committee members need to get along with each other. Pick people who have strengths you need (such as an eye for proofreading, good with statistical analysis, etc.) and put them on your team. Do not pick people just because they are available.