Succeeding as a Doctoral Student

Optimal Mental Health and Well-Being

Succeeding as a Doctoral Student

As more and more adult learners return to school to pursue a degree, an increasing number is seeking to earn a doctorate degree. Reasons for making this commitment include the desire to advance their professional skills and opportunities to wanting to get a job as a professor at a university.

Having successfully navigated this path myself, I am fortunate that I work at an online university serving as committee chair for numerous doctoral students, with almost all of them being adult learners that have existing life and family responsibilities that demand their attention just as much, if not more, than their studies do. What are ways they succeed?

Based on my own experience earning a PhD in Social Work in three years and working for over 15 years in higher education, here are some tips you can use if you want to succeed as a doctoral student, especially if you are an adult learner.

  1. Understand that a doctoral degree is the highest degree that can be attained. As such, the expectations placed on students in terms of quality of work and commitment is much higher than graduate school. Earning a doctorate is more than taking classes, writing a dissertation, and getting to place some initials after our names. It is a transformative experience that changes us and how people see us so the quality standards are high.
  2. Dedicate specific study time to do your course work rather than trying to find time to fit it in an already busy schedule. Carving out this time allows you to focus on your work rather than wait until the last minute and turn in a paper that is not your best. A rule of thumb is that for each hour in class, you will spend another 3 to 4 hours doing homework. You have to put in the work as cutting corners and doing the minimal to get by will not work.
  3. Get a source of support. The increase in online doctoral programs, while making it easier for adult learners to earn a degree, can also be isolating, especially once you get to the capstone or dissertation phase where you are more on your own. The path to completion can seem daunting at times so you need to have people that support what you are doing. Sometimes these people can be your family, but other times they may be friends or fellow students. If you don’t have a support group, get one.
  4. Have source of accountability. The stakes are high in learning how to communicate at a doctoral level both orally and in writing. How you learned to think and write in graduate school may no longer serve you now that you aspire to be at this level. It is almost like learning a second language given how challenging it can be at times. Given the learning curve can be steep, it is important to have someone that can help you be accountable. That person could be the chair of your committee or a coach or mentor to help you maintain the required quality standards as you work toward your doctorate.
  5. Practice self-care. No matter how hard you try and how much time to devote to your studies, it won’t be enough as there will always be another reading to do or another revision of a dissertation chapter to work on. As such, it is critical that you work to maintain a balance in your life by practicing good self-care. This entails eating healthy food, getting plenty of rest and exercise, being around positive people that support you, and doing fun and creative things. If you want to truly succeed at earning a doctorate, you must learn how to manage the process rather than letting the process manage you.

As I write this post, I think back to when I was a doctoral student and how I faced and successfully addressed these areas. While it has been a while since I earned my PhD, I am fortunate that I have the opportunity to work with doctoral students and see that these tips are still useful. If they worked for me and for other doctoral students, they will also work for you.

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