Posted June 11, 2012 by Missy Burgess 

To Degree or Not to Degree?

Four years ago in July, I began a journey. I chose to begin a Ph.D. program. As my journey gets closer to closer to an end, I have begun to reflect on the road I have taken and what advice I might have for someone making this same decision. Four years ago, when the program I chose to enter announced they were beginning a local cohort, I was caught a little bit off guard; I had anticipated that the next cohort would not start until a year later. However, given the cohort model, my choices were to begin the program at the time or wait another three years. I consulted with many friends, advisors, and mentors about my decision. I did not yet need a Ph.D. for the position I held at the time (and likely will not for my next few positions). However, I had always thought about working toward my doctorate degree, and I anticipate that it may be a qualification I want or need for jobs in my future. My eventual decision came down to time, support, and desire.

For me, the time seemed right. I was at a point where I did not have any family commitments, and I felt I had the time to commit to making this dream a reality. It was also a program designed for full-time working professionals, so I was able to continue to work to support myself as I went through the program. Two areas that caught me off guard in the context of time, though, were the amount of time I would truly spend on classwork and the commitment I was making to my current institution. When the professor for our second full class in the program assigned 1,000 pages to read before the class began, it felt overwhelming. When my colleagues were talking about new and exciting opportunities at other institutions, I knew that I needed to stay at my institution for at least three years to complete the coursework for my degree, so those opportunities weren’t an option for me. However, over time, I learned to get creative and manage these challenges. I learned to schedule out homework time and goals. I learned I could read and annotate at least one article by coming in 45 minutes to an hour early for work every day. I learned to choose projects that were related to my work, so they were more interesting to me and could often serve a dual purpose. I found a new opportunity within my own institution and moved internally. My classmates with families got creative about how to be included in their children’s events. I heard one piano recital over the phone and watched another classmate see his daughter’s swim banquet via FaceTime. Time definitely turned out to be more of a challenge than I anticipated, but I think once I settled in, it has become a part of my everyday routine. So, my first question is: Do you have the time? Are you willing to make time? Can you see yourself at your institution long enough to complete the degree? 

When making my decision, I also realized that I was fortunate to be at a place where I had the support to take this step. My institution offers tuition assistance to its employees. I had a supervisor who was willing to work with me to have a flexible schedule, if possible, on weeks when I had class. I transitioned to a supervisor who had also completed the program and understands what the process is like at each step. For me, I probably took much of this support for granted until I had conversations with classmates who were making much larger sacrifices than me. I will say, though, that these same classmates became my greatest support system in the program. We learned to pick each other up on the tough days, laugh at the crazy memories, and share in each others' successes. So, the second question is: As you consider this step in your future, do you have the support you need?

Finally, I had the desire. I wanted to get the degree. I enjoy learning. I have a faculty advisor with more than 30 years of practical experience in the field of student affairs who has become a mentor along the way; I wanted to learn from her. There may have been times where I questioned this desire (reference the 1,000 pages of reading above), but it has been what has allowed me to keep my eyes on the prize. Despite all the desire, am I ready to be done? Most definitely! But wanting to get the degree rather than feeling forced to definitely made this easier for me. As you look to your future, is this degree something that you want to do?

If all the stars align, my journey will come to an end later this year. For those who have asked, I have an answer: Yes, I would definitely do it again, given the same set of circumstances. However, now that I’m almost done, I’m looking forward to a little more sleep and a lot less homework.


Missy Burgess

Missy Burgess is the Associate Director for Student Involvement at University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh.

Missy supervises student leadership and involvement staff in the Reeve Memorial Union, including volunteer service, student organizations and emerging programs, Reeve Union Board, leadership, diversity and inclusion, and greek life. She holds a bachelor’s from Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville, a master’s from Kansas State University, and a Ph.D. in educational leadership from the University of North Dakota.


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