Whether your goal is to earn your bachelor's, master's, or doctorate, the thought of being in an educational setting can be an exciting yet scary step for so many students contemplating higher education. For me, my journey began back in 2014 when I decided to enroll at a local college in Connecticut. After earning my bachelor's degree in just three years, I was encouraged by a dear friend to go for my master's, and by the summer of 2019, I had earned my degree. You see, I never imagined that a girl from an inner-city who left high school at the tender age of 17 and who had three failed attempts at completing my GED would one day earn a doctorate in education. Here's my story.
In 2019, after much thought, prayer, and encouragement from my friends and family, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree at Northcentral University (NCU). I was both excited and scared at the thought of being a doctoral student as I did not know what to expect, especially since I'm one of very few in my family to attempt such a degree. Now don't get me wrong, I was still in student mode since there were no breaks in my educational stride. But leading up to my start date, I was crippled by fear of the unknown of attending a new university. To help ease my mind, I did what most people would do; I went shopping, not for clothing or accessories, but for my home office. I knew that I wanted to prepare well for the long nights and weekends dedicated to my studies. So, I purchased a new desktop computer equipped with two monitors, a new printer, flash drive, desk and chair, and the 6th edition of the APA manual. I was ready!
Strategies to getting PhinishED
As you continue to advance within your coursework, things will materialize for you. It is best to begin thinking about your future research (dissertation) sooner than later. Having a general idea of your research topic and the type of research you wish to conduct is vital well before the pre-candidacy stage.
Be open to constructive criticism
Like so many other NCU students, my first class was Effective Communication-EDU-7100. I recall crying in my office and feeling discouraged after receiving my professor's feedback on my first paper. I thought I was a strong writer, but man, was I wrong. You see, I learned during the early stages of my course work to be open to constructive criticism concerning my writing. Instead of going back and forth with my professor about why I thought my papers were okay, I chose to take the path of least resistance. After all, I knew that my professors meant well and only wanted the best for me. I had to break old habits in my writing style, as they did not align with scholarly writing.
As I would write papers, I would look at the previous feedback from the week before to help ensure that I was not making the same mistakes in my writings. I would also utilize the APA manual when I was unsure of the proper way to format or cite certain bodies of work. In addition to this, I used the resources provided by NCU's academic success center. There, I researched APA writing templates, videos, and much more. This strategy helped a lot, and with time my writing improved.
Look at other published dissertations
Once you make it to your prospectus course, this is when things will begin to shift. Not only will you need to be mindful of your writing abilities, but you will also need to know how to align things within your body of work. In scholarly writing, alignment is an essential component of ensuring that each section speaks to the focal point of your research. To help ensure that my work was aligned, I followed the guidance of the dissertation templates/rubrics provided by the dissertation center. This tool helped me a lot, as each section was coupled with valuable information on the types of content that should be housed within the applicable area.
As I begin to work on each section of my dissertation, I would look at some published dissertations from NCU through the ProQuest database within a two-three-year timeframe for inspiration. Because I planned to do qualitative research, I would only look at qualitative studies closely related to my research topic. This particular strategy helped me from start to finish. By doing this, I was able to get a general idea of how each section should potentially be written. For example, even though I went through and did exceptionally well in my research method and advanced qualitative design and measurement classes, the most challenging section of my dissertation was section two, Methodology and Design. I was unsure how to align this section with my previous section and ensure the focal point of my research remained in view. I looked at so many published dissertations before my ah-ha moment occurred.
Set personal goals and deadlines
Setting personal goals and deadlines was my primary strategy as a doctoral student. This strategy helped me finish my degree well before my scheduled completion date. Throughout my time at NCU, I would set personal goals for achieving each task, whether coursework or work geared towards my dissertation. Achieving my goals consisted of utilizing effective time management and communication skills. As a full-time higher education professional and mom, I would devote a specific time to my studies nightly. My friends and family thought I was crazy, but I was focused, and I enjoyed getting lost in my work with limited distractions as a researcher. So, every weekend beginning on Friday night, I would work well into the morning hours before taking a brief nap. I practically lived in my office on the weekends.
Because the dissertation is broken down into four 12-week classes, my personal goal was to always complete the section by week eight. The rationale for this strategy was that I would have enough weeks remaining to make edits based on my committee members' feedback without running the risk of potentially retaking that section of the class. This strategy is coupled with strict discipline and commitment in order to achieve your goal. By utilizing this effective strategy, I was able to get through each section of my dissertation without experiencing any setbacks. In fact, I would receive a meets expectations based off of the sections rubric from both committee members well before the class scheduled end date. My committee chair would jokingly call me an anomaly because most students have difficulty fulfilling the section requirements within the designated timeframe. But I was a woman with a plan.
Look, you are getting close! I knew you could do it. Here's the last strategy I used to help me cross the finish line early. Towards the end of my journey, I had lots of free time. Who knew! Whelp, although time was on my side, I took advantage of it. First, I scheduled IRB sessions to familiarize myself with the process. I also watched a couple of students defend their dissertations, so I knew what to expect when it was my turn. In addition, I utilized all of the resources in the dissertation center. I had the PowerPoint template, the IRB materials, and more. I started drafting these items while I waited for final approval from the academic reader. Each day, I was working on something. I knew where I wanted to do my recruiting and the process of getting permission. I was very proactive. I knew the end was near, and I wanted to be ready.
Once I got the green light from the IRB to conduct my study, I hit the ground running. I went back to my personal goal and deadline strategy to help ensure that time remained on my side. During this final stage, my organizational skills kicked into gear. I had everything I needed to execute my study from start to finish flawlessly, which I did in record time. I started my journey in 2019 and PhinishED on my late mother's birthday in 2021.
Attending NCU was the best decision that I made. Whether you're attending in person or online, these strategies can help you achieve your educational goal. I strongly encourage you to take advantage of the resources provided by NCU. In addition, I also encourage you to take the time to connect with your fellow NCU peers who are currently going through the process, as peer support is often needed. You're not alone, and best of luck as you finish this final journey.
Dr. Ebony S. Cole
School of Education
Specialization, Ed Leadership