Reflections on my Doctoral Journey

Since defending my dissertation and graduating with my Doctor of Education degree in 2020, a lot of people have asked me about the experience. Some people consider whether that would like to follow a similar path but, often, I find that the path seems fuzzy and people don’t really know what to expect. I know this for sure because I also did not know. As John Dewey states in the picture above, the reflection upon any experience is an integral part of learning. After two year and a half years since my graduation, I have finally decided to share my reflections on the experience, along with some lessons learned and random pointers that may potentially help someone else along the path.

First, attaining the degree was much more of a huge experience than I had ever imagined, both in terms of effort and the time required. When I started out, I assumed I would be completed within fours years, which was, frankly, already a huge commitment to make. In the end, it took me almost six years and I was still one of the first few in my cohort to graduate. I was working full-time and mothering a young child throughout those years. I question myself that if I would have really understood the level of commitment required and the emotional toll that it would all take, would I have reconsidered. Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20 and now that I have achieved my very own Mount Everest, I am very proud of the accomplishment.

A Long, Winding Path

This journey, unfortunately, did not go from point A to point B or “as the crow flies.” There were many changes of plans and many redirects. At one point, I received a huge amount of critique from my committee. I remember that it was so overwhelming that I could not look at my work for 6 months. I eventually crawled back out of my cave and started to deal with the feedback. I would like to think that pushing forward over and over and over again, especially when really I did not want to, grew some extra strength in my persistence muscles.

Some Lessons Learned & Pointers to Those Starting Out

Although everyone’s experiences are different and the context of their research projects are different, I share with you some of the lessons I picked up along the way and some random unsolicited advice.

  1. The proposal defence was harder than the final dissertation defence. I had always heard this to be true but, in fact, it was. By the time you get to your defence, you are the expert in the room on the topic and this makes the questions and commentary much easier to react to.
  2. Before I started, I had no idea about the steps required to achieve a doctorate degree e.g., that I would need to defend a proposal, that I would have a committee, etc. I would recommend to others to learn more about the process and what to expect before stepping out.
  3. Unwittingly, I collected too much data and I could not possible use it all. I could have decreased my scope and still had a fulsome research project. (Perhaps I still have a book inside me!)
  4. Mixed methods seemed like a great idea at the start but as the years went by, it started to feel like I was doing double the work of my program mates. Now that it is completed, I do feel that it really added to the richness of the finding. The rich quotes from service members that I was able to add to the discussion really made the narrative come alive. It cost me time, though, so it is worth weighing out the advantages of quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods, depending on your research goals.
  5. Since my research used military members as participants, there were extra approvals that were required. Any time you interview or survey Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members or public servants, in this context, a Public Opinion Research request must be submitted. In the Department of National Defence, this is ultimately coordinated through ADM(Public Affairs).
  6. All research projects within the department, using DND employees, CAF members or their families as participants, must go through the Social Science Research Review Board (SSRRB), as detailed in the defence directive: DAOD 5062-1, Conduct of Social Science Research
  7. It’s OK to hire help for some things e.g. transcriptions and advanced statistics. If you do receive help for complex statistics, make sure that you can sufficiently explain them during your defence.
  8. At least in my research context, I had a much higher survey response rates from higher ranks. Make sure to have sufficient numbers of participants from the outset for the range of demographics you are targeting.
  9. The data analysis tools ended up being really fun to learn and use (i.e. NVivo for qualitative data and SPSS for quantitative data). I won’t say I’ve mastered every aspect of them but they were essential to mining the gold out of the large data set I collected. Incidentally, there are many great YouTube videos that helped along the way.
  10. Build a group of academic colleagues. I stayed close to my cohort and we helped and encouraged each other along the way. This ended up being invaluable to my morale.
  11. A good reminder on the difficult days: The best dissertation is the finished dissertation! If it is not everything you ever imagined, chances are you will have more opportunities to shine in the future.
  12. After I graduated, I felt a big, hollow: “Now what?” I had put so much effort and time into the program, that I felt somewhat empty when I graduated. Also, let’s be honest, who is truly going to read a 316-page dissertation?! I wanted to share and talk about it! I did find some gratification from publishing a short version of my research as a Scientific Letter for Director Research & Development Canada (DRDC). I have also been enjoying sharing small slices of my research findings in my blog articles.
  13. Try to take opportunities to enjoy the unique experience. After I had my proposal completed, I entered a 3-minute thesis speech competition. I won first place at the university level and that allowed me to travel to the University of Regina to compete against other winners. Although I did not win the next level, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and it is now a wonderful memory for me. If you’re curious: here is the video of my 3-minute thesis – a simplified version of my dissertation proposal. Memorizing the speech was the toughest part of it all!

Defending During COVID Lockdown

Although I was studying at a distance, the defence of my dissertation at my kitchen table was even more significant as COVID lock-down had just begun (end-March, 2020). As you can see below, I had all my notes on hand and was more than ready to go. Thankfully the internet connection was strong that day! Unfortunately, I was never able to cross the university auditorium stage in a robe and cap with all the pomp and circumstance to receive my diploma. I attended a virtual event and my parchment was mailed to me. A bit anti-climatic, I know, but we did drink some bubbly the evening of the virtual graduation and I got a fancy frame for my diploma.

Thanks for sharing in my reflections. As it was such a big experience for me, I really enjoy sharing with others who are thinking about potentially starting a similar program or who are in the midst of it and need some encouragement to keep going.

A special thank-you to my Doctor of Education (EdD) cohort members (#7!) at Athabasca University who were so supportive along the way. For those who are still working their way to the finish line, keep going. There is light at the end of the long and winding tunnel.

Reference

Jones, K.A. (2020). Satisfaction of Canadian Armed Forces Regular Fores Members with their Distance Learning Experiences [Dissertation]. Athabasca University.

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