Odd though it may seem, I am just realizing that this is my last semester of being in a classroom taking classes ever (ever ((ever(((ever))) echoes into the infinite hollow). I have been in school in some shape of form for the past 27 years. That is a significant amount of time and now that I’ve come to the end, I genuinely can’t believe it. True to form, all I can think is, “What happens next?”
Technically I know. I mean next semester I enter dissertation stage and I’ll be in seminar, then I’ll propose and transition from Doctoral Student to Doctoral Candidate (Jessica Williams, ABD!) and then…it begins. I am very fortunate that Annie, my work-wife and writing partner, is a speed racer and I am a slow turtle because it means we are now on the same pace and will be going through this together. I keep reminding myself ‘one bite at a time’ that’s how you eat an elephant and that’s how I’ll finish this dissertation. Come what may, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.
As I take a moment to reflect on all the tiny moments that got me here a few stick out that I think serve as lessons I can always return to.
- If it is meant to be, IT WILL BE. This is the greatest lesson. My journey to physically get to San Diego was crazy, dramatic, unbelievable and so humbling. It really taught me the lesson that the universe really is conspiring on my behalf and I was supposed to be here. In fact, I was never not going to be here. I am so happy I went with my gut. USD was the only PhD application I completed. My Stanford and Vanderbilt applications went unfinished because I just did not get the same feeling from those universities that I did from USD. All of the things in the checkboxes matter: Cost, Program, Faculty, Location, etc. But at the end of the day you have to feel it. At the end of the day your doctoral program, or really anything has to FEEL right. It has to be somewhat organic. Fit is by far the most important decision making factor for me when it comes to things I align myself with or commit to and I learned that from this process.
- If its costing too much energy to keep it together, let it fall apart. It is kind of the antithesis of #1. There were many things I tried to force into fruition. My timeline, my topics, certain projects and even certain friendships or relationships throughout my program. But, what I’ve learned is that it is not working for a reason, pay attention to the signs! There has been nothing I’ve lost that was not for the better (in the long run). So if you are falling out of love with your topic that you have so much research on it is okay. Do not cling to it fearful of what you might lose, open your arms in anticipation of all you may gain. You might find yourself returning with renewed perspective or you might find yourself somewhere entirely new, but do not deny yourself that journey.
- This is YOUR education, own it. I am not exactly what one would call a rule follower. Sometimes I do things my own way and in my own time and the beautiful thing about a terminal degree is that you are charged with the task of being original. Take that up! There have been assignments that I’ve completed in a different way than asked by the professor. I explain my process, and then I do it in a way that is more suited for me and my learning. It is tricky because you want to make sure you are challenging yourself, but at the same time you have to be true to your vision. I am fortunate that my professors and my program support innovation and creativity (see why fit matters?), and I have really been able to step into my own as a professional as a result of their blessing. Your professors are your future colleagues, collaborate with them in that way.
- Year 1–meet everybody Year 2–say yes to everything Year 3–tighten your circle and your interests. It was important to me to leave my university, and every university I have attended, with relationships as rich as knowledge I acquired. In many cases those relationships have opened more doors than the knowledge. I have found at the doctoral level, the situation is no different in fact in education, who you know is kind of everything. My first year I was a sponge, and I absorbed everything. I met everyone that I possibly could and kept in touch with them too (that’s important). Those relationships led to opportunities that I was offered my second year when I had a bit more experience under my belt and had my bearings. My third year I had discerned which opportunities were great for the experience and which ones I really wanted to invest more of my energy into. I could not have done this if I hadn’t experienced so many things the previous year. For example, I got my job teaching in the counseling program (2nd year) because of a relationship that began and I nurtured from my 1st semester. When offered the chance to TA a class, I took it even though I could technically teach my own. That lead to me being able to teach abroad in Jamaica that summer. Which leads me to the next lesson…
- You are never “too smart” “too experienced” “too successful” to take a back seat. One of the first assignments I had to complete as a doctoral student was shredding for our teaching department. I hated it, who wouldn’t? But I did it and showed up everyday in business casual attire to lift heavy boxes and shred paper. The professors who were around would notice me shredding and eventually they started to talk to me. I told them I didn’t mind the work even though I hated it, and seeing my work ethic I got two more assignments. One was a research project with a professor in that department. I have experienced so many doctoral students who are “full cups” and who are unwilling to really listen and take in feedback or humble themselves and do menial tasks; but people notice that. It is unattractive to say the very least, and in the field of leadership? And yes we are working towards terminal degrees so that we never have to make copies and shred papers again, but that does not make you better than the work. It does not make you above the work.
- Don’t be afraid to be wrong, and don’t be afraid to be right. Some of my greatest learning lessons have come from conflicts, arguments. When I disagree with someone or something that was said about me and I have to sit back and engage in critical self inquiry. Not only was the comment or observation true, but why was it bothering me? What did I believe about myself? It resulted in the greatest growth. Similarly, learning when to stop hoarding insights was key. Why was I holding onto it and not speaking up? Whatever the reason it was not a good one and I finally started speaking up and coming forth with my opinions. Sometimes people agreed, sometimes people didn’t respond at all but it was out there. The most rewarding byproduct of this degree has been access to really really intelligent and opinionated people. Take advantage of that audience, dialogue really helps to sharpen the saw.
- Have Fun. Seriously, if this work doesn’t fill you up with all the good stuff at least some of the time, why are you doing it? It is a question worthy of consideration. I’ve had people who just want the title of Doctor. I’ve had people who just “love school” I’ve had people who feel its the “next step” and having been through3/4 of a PhD I can say with some authority that that’s ridiculously stupid. Yes stupid. It is far too difficult a process to go through not to love it and quite frankly what joy will you have at the outset if you’re killing yourself in the meantime? I may complain (often) about my program, my being a professional student, my debt (!), my work, but I sincerely love what I do. Otherwise I would have walked away a long time ago. Marching too long in the wrong direction just means more work for me in the long run. There were certainly times when I thought maybe I’d gotten what I needed from the experience and could quit, but then I would learn something new. I would have another opportunity, I would gain another new insight and I would be reminded that I am supposed to be here.
What a blessing this has been. What an absolute blessing.