The fall semester has come and gone, and I begin afresh in the spring with new classes building off of a successful first semester pursuing my PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in their School of Library and Information Studies. The past months have proved trying at times while always reaffirming my belief that higher education is where I belong and where I flourish as a professional.
I must admit that in no other program – my bachelors or my masters – have I been so introspective about my professional aims, personal goals, and overall philosophy on life. I would imagine that that is an appropriate signal of a quality education: A program that makes you think deeply and reflect constantly. A majority of this reflection was brought on by the course material and my experiences in the classroom, but I must admit that the stress from the academic rigor placed on me was also an impetus for thought. As a beneficiary of degrees from two private, small liberal arts schools, stepping onto an R1 campus was an eye opening experience. You feel a part of a campus culture that is concentrated on doing quality academic investigation.
Taking part in that feeling of intense study and concentration has helped me to adapt to a course work load I’ve never experienced and has helped hone my research interests in particular. I feel confident in my academic path in the forthcoming years and at times find myself excited by the prospect of writing my mastery defense papers and my dissertation.
I can easily state that I’m more than happy that I chose the route I did. I could have pursued an academic librarianship position, I might have continued in public libraries, but I always felt drawn to campuses, to the vibrancy of a space where teaching and learning always co-existed and knowledge building was at its best.
With good timing, a friend recently contacted me about his own interests in pursuing a PhD in library and information studies. Knowing that I had just wrapped up my first semester and wanting to hear specific parts of my reflections, he sent me a few questions to answer. Happily, he allowed me to turn these questions in to a reflective post for all to read.
What has taken you by surprise?
I was very much used to a study schedule that could be done last minute, to readings that could be skimmed, and to writing papers the night before on a pot of coffee. Non of this works now and it would be amateurish to try it.
My assignments require close reading and constant reflection. It’s quite easy to see well over 100 pages a week assigned, if not more. And writing responses, while they vary in length depending on the professor, are always supposed to be critical and insightful – no summaries here.
Would you do anything different to prepare for your first semester?
I did try to prepare for my first semester by catching up on academic journals, honing my close reading, and picking up texts of a difficulty level that I thought I might be presented within my first term. In hindsight, I would read much more about theorists that pertained to my research interests and begin to create an extensive reading list in advance. Doing so would have saved me valuable time in research for my longer papers and cut down on some stress.
Also, I would emphasize the need to get into a strict schedule. Over the semester, I struggled to discipline myself, which led to times of sleep deprivation and, again, increased stress. If you can get yourself into a very controlled schedule for reading, writing, meal times, and relaxation it will most definitely help you to succeed.
Have you found anything (really anything) to be expected of you that took you by surprise?
I knew my program would be challenging. Pursuing a PhD is not something you should compare to some minor in your undergraduate experience. That being said, I really got blindsided by the amount of reading. It took me several weeks to understand that I was entirely responsible for all of the reading and to be ready to respond to minutiae of the texts.
You commute to campus by what means?
I live 25 minutes away from campus and drive my car to my parking garage whenever I need to come onto campus. I say “my parking garage” because I feel a real sense of ownership of my parking spot seeing as I paid over $750 for a year’s worth of parking. Please take into consideration how much parking may cost you if you choose to commute.
Would I plan my residence differently knowing how much my parking spot costs and that I’d have to commute? No. My place of residence is a great choice for me and my wife. Additionally, I was used to commuting an hour or more on I-95 during my time at Darien Library in Connecticut. A 25 minute commute into campus with traffic going the actual speed limit is a gift that I will never complain about.
How tired are you at the end of the week?
This is an excellent question because it can act as a marker for how one is doing personally as they progress through the program. I never found myself exhausted, I don’t believe I ever said the words “I’m tired.” Surely, I said “I’m stressed” or “statistics is terrible,” but never did I say I was tired.
If you find yourself exhausted each week ask what about your schedule or lifestyle you can change. I’m a laid back, easy going man who needs little in terms of entertainment besides a good book, a few video games, and relaxation time with my wife. My social life is limited, and I’m okay with that. Maybe I never found myself saying “I’m tired” because I didn’t have any activity at the end of the week – like social outings or sporting events – where I needed a major amount of energy.
Do you feel balanced?
I feel more balanced now than I ever have since I graduated from Elmhurst College, my undergraduate alma mater, in 2007. I love what I do, and I feel like I’m making progress towards a spectacular achievement.
More to the point, I’m truly my own boss and responsible for my own successes and failures. Since I don’t report to a manager or director it has brought a lot of steadiness to my life.
That being said, I have to give a lot of credit to my wife. She comes from a family of academics: her father is a professor emeritus of theology and her mother was a biology professor. She understands the commitments I have to make to my studies and supports me wholeheartedly. I would imagine that having a spouse or significant other who is not as supportive of hours upon hours of reading and general separation would make finding a balanced life extremely difficult.
What do you think of the technology on campus?
As a teaching assistant for the distance education instructors and students of my program’s distance courses, I felt it was my responsibility to find out quickly what the technology resources were on campus. As I did, I was blown away to find out how much technology and technology training support was available. It would be difficult to list every such resource, but if you can imagine it the University of Wisconsin-Madison most likely supports it in some way.
How often do you talk/think/are required to meet about your dissertation?
As I haven’t started to write my dissertation, and really won’t for sometime, I don’t talk about it specifically. But as I work through my course load my mind is constantly on my research interests which I truly believe will become the framework for my dissertation. In that regard I think about it always. I use writing assignments as a way to explore relevant theories and find the right researchers whose work will become, hopefully, a major part of my dissertation. Every thing I do will hopefully become a part of my dissertation in some form or another.
As for meeting about my dissertation, I have no dissertation committee yet and no one person with whom I should speak about it. I feel as if my department has an open door policy for research questions. If needed, I could walk into a specific faculty member’s office whose research interests are aligned with mine or who could best answer a question about a specific theory. In that model, everyone is on my committee! But always first and foremost, I go to my advisor who, I must state, has been a godsend. There have been a couple of instances where I’ve sent brief e-mails about topics of interest and I’ve received responses back that are gold mines of research that I’ve flagged, starred, highlighted, and stored away for safekeeping. I feel blessed to have been guided by great advisors in the past and am grateful that that trend is continuing at Madison.
Would you say you’re structured?
Absolutely. In my lifestyle and in my physical and online organization of thought dumps, book lists, and academic documents. Being structured and organized saves me from unnecessary stress. I couldn’t highlight this enough to potential PhD students: Get organized.
How many classes will you teach?
My TA position is unique as I’m not actually teaching or assisting a teacher in one or two specific courses. I’m responsible for technology requests from faculty and students who are teaching and learning in an online environment for my program.
Hours of work for my position are entirely flexible; it’s not odd for me to be filling requests at 11:30 at night or to be meeting the next day with a student at her convenience. In the same vein, my responsibilities are varied based on need. The distance education committee for my program, of which I am a member, is working to clearly define how to best utilize my skills and position to best meet the needs of the faculty and students.
All this being said, I will have the opportunity to teach courses in the future either partially or in full.
You have to take statistics, give me insight in your math skills.
I am not mathematically inclined, to say the least. But my program requires two statistic courses, and I finished my first successfully and walked away appreciating the reasons why they are required. For my dissertation, I foresee doing quantitative and qualitative work; these statistics courses will help me accomplish this research and accurately report my findings. Additionally, a general understanding of statistics, even if one does not complete any statistical analysis, will help one better understand the results reported in academic journals. I am so inclined to this idea to support that students at masters level library and information studies programs pursuing a career in academic librarianship should think about taking a statistics course.
How much time did you spend worrying about your stats class?
The first half of the semester was rough for a couple of reasons. First, being no mathematical genius, I did wonder about the looming doom that awaited if I received less than a B grade: Probation. It’s a stressful thought. Secondly, I knew that stats would generally cause me a great deal of stress in the course material than any of my other two classes.
There was a point in my reflection about statistics where I hit a crossroads: Either let it dictate my mood and progression for the semester or take control of it. I chose the latter. I worked tirelessly to study statistics, adjusted my study routine based on assessments, gathered peers who acted as allies and peer tutors, and sought out the assistance of my lab instructor when needed. I wasn’t ashamed of the fact that I needed some help with statistics. I’m not getting a PhD in the hard sciences and I get no personal enjoyment working through mathematical equations. I did what I needed to succeed in the course.
Who was the professor? Would you suggest them?
I won’t name names, but I will say that I gave my lecturer and lab instructor high reviews. They understood that the students in the class were from the social sciences and that the statistics we all needed was for particular types of study and research. Moreover, they provided heaping amounts of support and outside assistance whenever we requested it.
Thoughts on your dissertation topic?
My research interests extend out of my observations with the social learning management systems I’ve built using WordPress and BuddyPress for Michael Stephens’ courses at the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at Dominican University. There’s unique learning going on at these sites and I want to pinpoint what the affordances are of social technologies in learning situations. I imagine I’ll most likely find myself doing some social networking analysis for a research method, but am still searching for a group of theorists who really align with what I’m thinking about. In a short sentence you could say my research interests are in e-learning informatics, a branch of social informatics.
Are you narrowly focused and then will go broader with topic?
I’d say I’ve narrowed my focus successfully and will keep it that way.
How fast do you think you must settle on a topic?
The faster you can commit to a topic the more relevant and powerful your coursework becomes as potential pieces of your dissertation. I have not been forced to “settle” on anything, but I’m extremely pleased with my interests and where they are leading me at this point. Also, I have been given nothing but support and have never once felt corralled into a specific faculty member’s research interests.
Pursuing your PhD is a marathon of many years. I see now that this pursuit takes much personal sacrifice. I recognize that some of my personal aspirations and superficial wants will be placed on hold for several years. If this is something that you can be at one with as a possible PhD student, then furthering your education might be an excellent investment.
I’ve posted this as a way to open up to my friend who requested this information but also to my readership and potential readers as a way to invite others into this discussion. If anyone has more questions, I’d be happy to answer them.