The joys of not knowing, the dog eating your homework, and taking your own advice: 3 thoughts on life as a part-time Phd student

Over the last few weeks we have been sharing insights about graduate student life from the part-time Master’s and full-time PhD perspective. Today, Melinda Scott shares some thoughts as a flex-time PhD student now six weeks into the program. She is the Dean of Students at University College in the University of Toronto.  She completed her Masters of Education in Higher Education at OISE in 2007 and is currently enrolled in the flex-time PhD program.

Over the past few months as I’ve started my PhD I’ve often found myself thinking about a conversation I had with my Advisor as I neared the end of the first course of my M.Ed. We were discussing course selection and my future plans. She told me that the only thing she really encouraged me to do was ensure that I did an independent research course so I would have a Qualifying Research Paper (QRP) when I applied for my PhD.  I looked at her surprised and said “oh, I don’t think I want to do a PhD”.  She laughed, looked me right in the eye and said, “Oh, you will!”

When I graduated with my Masters degree I still wasn’t sure that a PhD was for me.  At the time I had a number of other personal and professional goals that I wanted to pursue.  It was several years later after I had refined my professional interests and sought the advice of several mentors – both with and without PhDs – that I really began to consider applying, but I still wasn’t ready to commit.

While there were certainly some practical considerations involved – like time and money – I now realize that what I was really waiting for was to feel excited again about the prospect of going back to school.  When I received my acceptance package in the Spring I knew that I’d made the right decision.  I was excited by the prospect of starting this new adventure – not just because of how it may (or may not) support my professional advancement – but because I was eager to learn and I felt like I might just have something to contribute.

Having made it through the first month of my PhD these are a few reflections on my experience so far:

1. The joy (and sometimes the pain) of not knowing

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in my professional life it’s the importance of knowing what you don’t know.  I am currently enrolled in “Administration of Colleges and Universities” with Professor Dan Lang – who is a walking encyclopedia of things I don’t know!  While I’ve certainly had moments of anxiety about meeting the expectations of the course and the program, as well as my expectations of myself, ultimately I’m really trying to focus on what brought me here in the first place and find the joy in not knowing.

With several colleagues in my class, it can sometimes be challenging to separate my professional identity from my academic identity; to feel that the classroom is a safe space to take risks and possibly fall down.  However, when I left after my first classes I realized that I had probably spoken more in those 9 hours than I had over entire terms of my Masters.  Some of it was right, some of it was wrong – but it didn’t matter.  I felt engaged and ready to continue exploring.

2. The dog ate my homework (and other adventures in work/school/life “balance”)

The day before my first class my dog really did eat my homework.  I left the room for a mere moment and returned to find him happily devouring the case studies I had meticulously highlighted and my pages of notes.  I would love to say that I laughed it off and went merrily about my business, but I was stressed, and he spent a good part of the evening in puppy “time-out” while I madly tried to re-write some notes and prepare for a number of meetings at work the next day.

When I got to class what I realized is that the only person who had expectations about how much I highlighted and the quality of my notes was me.  What was really important was that I had retained what I read and came prepared to engage in the class. In fact, I probably contributed more just by jumping in than I would have if I was madly digging through my notes to double check my answers.

My life has changed a little since I was in my Masters degree. I have more personal and professional commitments and there are greater demands on my time.  Even in just these first few weeks I have realized that I need to be more proactive about actually scheduling time to complete my course work – and stick to it!  I have a job that can sometimes be unpredictable and leaving everything to the last minute is no longer an option.  Oh, and my desk has been officially puppy-proofed!

3. The importance of taking my own advice

As Dean of Students I spend a lot of my time talking to first year students about the importance of attending Orientation, getting involved in campus life, forming social connections with other students, and utilizing campus resources.  I have to be honest and say that at this point I have done almost none of these things myself. I can give you a list of excuses as to why I haven’t had time, but the reality is that I know these things are important and I need to start working on them.

As a part-time student it can be very easy to disappear into the background.  However, I know that a PhD – particularly a flex-time PhD – is a marathon, not a sprint.  The excitement that I felt about joining the program will wane at points.  I will face challenges and I will need to seek out sources of support and motivation from those who truly understand what I am going through.

I work with students in transition every day, but the reality is that right now I actually am one myself.  With less than two months of the program under my belt at this point I know that I have barely begun this particular adventure, and I am looking forward to seeing what’s to come.

Remember, you can come and learn more about the programs at OISE and how graduate study can enhance your professional practice at our upcoming open house on October 21 at 5:00 in OISE 5-210


4 thoughts on “The joys of not knowing, the dog eating your homework, and taking your own advice: 3 thoughts on life as a part-time Phd student

  1. Totally understand with the taking your own advice part! Working as a Don and in recruitment, I often advertise different resources and services on campus that I often forget to take advantage of myself. Great post! Makes me excited about the possibility of graduate and post-grad work in Higher Ed. 🙂

  2. Taking the advice we so often give to other is not easy. And I think one of the most interesting issues Melinda raises is what it means to have some of your colleagues as classmates. It can make for really rich discussion having all those practical/professional experiences, but I can also imagine cases where that can potentially difficult situations too. Thanks for reading and sharing!

  3. Pingback: Taking The Plunge: Going to Grad School and Working Full-Time | Supporting Student Success

  4. Pingback: Bringing it all together – research, grad school and professional life | Supporting Student Success

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