Editor’s Note: Michigan native Jeremy B. Landa, formerly a high school social studies teacher and swimming coach, arrived at UConn in the fall of 2015 as one of the Neag School’s first-ever Dean’s Doctoral Scholars. Having recently defended his dissertation in education policy, he now reflects on his experience as a doctoral student, sharing some of his learnings about the Ph.D. process, and himself, along the way. This month, he begins work as an education preparation improvement data analyst at the Texas Education Agency and will be a data fellow with the Harvard Strategic Data Project.
This past August, I defended my dissertation, which consisted of three studies on minority teacher scholarships and higher education/teacher employment outcomes. I was compelled to embark on this journey after experiencing the joys and challenges of teaching high school social studies in New Haven, Connecticut, for six years. During lunchroom conversations, my colleagues and I would easily identify some problems, among them the high amount of teacher turnover and the glaring and persistent whiteness of the teaching staff. Solving these problems was beyond our responsibilities, but they seemed important to how schools work. I wondered if doctoral studies would give me the space to help solve some of the problems that I observed.
While I won’t stake a claim to have solved systemic educational problems in my doctoral studies, I learned information that is worth passing onto prospective or new doctoral students. Here, I share five key lessons that I wish I had learned earlier rather than later.
1. Expect and embrace the unexpected.
I faced many unexpected challenges to completing a doctorate, both personal and professional. I had two children while completing my comprehensive exams and dissertation. I decided to switch programs, moving from a program focused on research methods, measurement, and evaluation to education policy. I had four advisors in five years. I struggled to gain access to restricted access data for my dissertation. Once I realized that any goal would require me to jump over, dodge, and elude obstacles, I expected challenges to present themselves and moved more quickly to overcome them.
“Once I realized that any goal would require me to jump over, dodge, and elude obstacles, I expected challenges to present themselves and moved more quickly to overcome them.”
2. Keep an eye on your competitors, but carve your own path.
Most of my contemporaries at other institutions are producing fantastic studies, often in collaboration with large educational agencies. For too long, I focused on what my colleagues were doing and producing. I wanted to compete with, if not beat, them. This wasn’t helpful thinking; no one doctoral experience is the same, even within the same institution or department. Once I embraced the fact that I, too, was collecting useful data and pursuing important projects, it mattered less to me if everyone noticed (although having an audience is desirable). As I accepted that I could control my work and had little control over my audience’s response, I also stopped trying to beat my colleagues and instead focused on conducting quality scientific research.
3. Seek support in familiar — and unfamiliar — places.
Building a robust peer support network that was internal and external to my institution was critical to my emotional and mental health. As I progressed through my doctoral studies, I used better strategies to build this with my time constraints. Within my department, I found peers to study with, joined an educational policy group, and found thought partners with whom to trade feedback on emerging work. Within my institution, I aimed to network with individuals whose discipline and focus I admired. Finally, across institutions, I identified professors and doctoral students whose work overlapped with mine. I emailed them before a conference and asked for a short meeting. During these meetings, I shared about my developing work, asked for specific feedback. After the meetings, I emailed them thanking them for their time and continued to reach out when I had relevant thoughts or questions. These are not the only ways to build a peer network, but I wish I’d been more strategic about how I approached interactions from day one.
“Your dissertation committee is a representation of who you currently are and who you hope to be in your career.”
4. Choose a committee whose diversity is additive to your dissertation and career.
Your dissertation committee is a representation of who you currently are and who you hope to be in your career. The members of your committee represent your methodological and substantive content focus, your access into different researcher circles, and how well your research represents the lived experiences of practitioners. I unequivocally recommend you choose individuals whose diversity (methodologically, substantively, and in job responsibilities) will add to your dissertation and career. My committee is a good example of what happens when this works out well. I had three researchers as committee members, each of whom had strong knowledge in the methods and/or substantive content area that I was studying. I complemented these individuals with a committee member who brought criticality and higher education expertise, and another who was a practitioner advising preparing teachers. Each person added value to the project — whether it was helping me access data, meeting with me to give feedback about my developing ideas, or critiquing the methods or substance of my writings. I believe that if any of these individuals had not been part of my committee, the quality of my dissertation would’ve suffered and the types of jobs I pursued would have differed.
5. Keep at it; incrementalism is the name of the game.
Doctoral work, especially once you are writing your dissertation, can be punishing if you do not tackle the work steadily. The mission must be to push your work forward every day you intend to work (because of my children, I worked very little over the weekends the last two years). My dissertation had some huge leaps in production in short spans of time (in fact, I wrote my last two papers of a three-paper dissertation in just two-and-a-half months). What was unobservable but important here is that my momentum picked up slowly and steadily because each day I worked, I tackled something for two years (for example, creating Tables and Figures).
The past five years have been a period of growth for me as a person and scholar, and the lessons I share here reflect some of the ways I’ve grown. Even without meeting these lessons head-on while at UConn, I gained invaluable experience as a researcher while I began answering questions I first asked as a high school teacher. I grew into a scholar with purpose and one who is excited to take the lessons I’ve learned and apply them to education policymaking as I move back into work.