Becoming vs. Getting a PhD

Well, it happened – and with a little luck, a lot of diligence, and probably a few epic meltdowns – it will continue happening for the next several years. I, once a vocal skeptic of the terminal degree model, am officially a PhD student. This decision comes after years of critically considering whether or not I wanted to pursue a doctorate, perpetually changing my mind about what I might study, and deeply questioning the value of a PhD. In fact, the opening line of my application was, “In concept, a terminal degree has never made any sense to me.” (Strong start, I know.) But somehow, I turned it around from there, was admitted into an incredible program, and am a student again.

About halfway into my first year, this journey has already been paradigm-shifting and mind-and-heart-expanding. It’s been intense, both intellectually and emotionally. I’ve realized I need a space to process not only what I’m learning, but how I’m changing, and why I’m doing this. As I move through the program, I’m planning to share my experience here, for my own reflective practice, but also, to make the PhD process more transparent incase anyone else has the same questions and curiosities that I did.

My biggest discovery so far is that I’m not getting a PhD, I’m becoming one. That’s the whole point of this multi-year, many thousand-dollar adventure. It’s not about what this degree will do for me, it’s about what it’s doing to me. It’s not about changing the letters after my name, it’s about rearranging the letters written in my soul, framing them into questions, learning how to seek answers, connecting with scholars in and beyond my field, and co-creating new knowledge. I don’t know exactly what the end result will be, but I do know that I will come out of this program different than how I came in. I can already feel myself thinking more critically, reflecting more deeply, pausing to truly listen, and asking better questions.

The program I chose reinforces my thinking about a PhD in this way. After years of exploring different programs in a range of fields, I decided the Antioch PhD in Leadership and Change is the only model that makes sense to me, for so many reasons. It’s cross-sector, meaning that I’m learning about leadership and change in community with bright, passionate, experienced professionals in a wide range of industries – government, non-profit, corporate, health care, technology, and education. I’m learning about leadership development and change management not from the narrow perspective of higher education, but from fields and disciplines I know very little about. This interdisciplinary approach is helping me identify relevant parallels in places I might not otherwise have looked, and it’s enriching my understanding of what leadership and change agency mean in practice.

The program is also extremely diverse in other ways, which has contributed significantly to my growth and development, personally and professionally. Instead of learning from other people just like me – a model in which I would question whether or not learning can actually happen – I’m building relationships and exchanging ideas with a pluralistic cohort of highly intelligent scholar-practitioners who inspire me to take my learning and leadership to the next level. Our incoming class identifies as 56 % students of color and 42% white students, 32 women and 9 men. We are geographically distributed across the United States and in 2 other countries, and we range in age from our 20’s to our 60’s:

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The program is also low-residency, so most of our engagement with faculty and students happens virtually and remotely, with quarterly in-person residencies designed to bring the learning community together for intensive, immersive seminar sessions. The faculty are full-time teachers and advisors, committed to our success as much as to their own scholarship. The program also uses an applied research model, where most students are working full-time in fields that align with our research interests. Perhaps most importantly to me, the program is rooted in social justice, with a mission “…dedicated to the study and practice of leading that wins victories for humanity, large and small.”

All of this clicked with me and mirrored my vision of what a PhD program could and should be. So I applied, and here I am today, procrastinating writing a paper by starting this blog series instead…Actually, in all seriousness, I was inspired to create this space after our most recent residency, because I believe it will enhance my writing and help me thrive in the program by regularly reminding me why I started this journey in the first place.

So here goes, and cheers to another new someday!

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