Students generally join a doctoral program after achieving academic excellence in their previous graduate degree. But they usually achieve success by being good students, completing work on time, and following instructions from their teachers. These qualities are undoubtedly valuable.
However, what distinguishes the doctoral experience is the undertaking of original research through the dissertation. As aptly stated in an article, “being a good course-taker is not enough.”
When thinking about their future dissertation experience, many students overlook the importance of doing independent research for their doctoral degree. The transition is gradual, not instant. Our Doctor of Education program helps students on this journey.
What is a dissertation?
A dissertation is a substantial paper that is based on original research. It allows students to explore a specific research question or topic of interest in great depth. Through this, students demonstrate their ability to conduct independent research, analyze data, and present coherent arguments.
It’s like a long essay where they explore a specific question or topic they’re interested in. Students have to do research, study what others have written, and come up with their own ideas. The goal is to add something new to what’s already known in that subject.
Writing a dissertation takes a lot of time and effort. Students need to carefully plan what they want to study, collect and analyze data, and then explain their findings in a clear and formal way. It’s not just a regular school assignment; it’s a significant piece of work that contributes to the knowledge of that subject and shows the student’s expertise.
Dependent vs. Independent
During the program, I ask students to think of terms that they associate with the words “dependent” and “independent.” Usually, the lists seem completely different, and the students agree that “dependent” and “independent” belong to different areas. However, they are hardly as mutually exclusive as we might think.
In order to understand this concept, I decided to present students with an image that would spark a debate on the ideas of dependence and independence. The image I showed them was that of a teenage individual with a beaming smile, confidently holding a set of car keys. This visual served as a starting point for our discussion about the extent to which this image portrayed dependence or independence. The answers diverge in either direction, with some claiming it’s both.
When a teenager embarks on the journey of learning how to drive, they find themselves in a position of reliance on an adult figure. The adult assumes the responsibility of guiding, teaching, and supervising the teenager as they navigate the complexities of the road. At this stage, the teenager does not possess the full freedom to drive wherever they desire. Therefore, they are bound by the rules and regulations set forth by their adult supervisor.
However, despite this initial reliance on an adult, the teenager gradually gains a sense of autonomy over time. As they improve their driving skills and become more confident, they begin to drive the car by themselves and become more independent.
Striving to be an independent scholar
The student driver example shows the gradual and intentional transition from dependence to independence. It’s a fitting illustration for doctoral students who excel as “dependent” course-takers, yet are also on the road to becoming more independent scholars. Such a transition takes time and hard work and fundamentally involves a process of identity formation.
Students must both recognize and accept that achieving a doctoral degree goes beyond simply gaining expertise in a subject matter. In addition, it involves a transformation of one’s identity, which is a fundamental aspect of becoming a self-sufficient academic.
The significance of an identity transformation lies in recognizing that dissertation work encompasses more than just acquiring techniques or skills. In fact, the journey toward becoming an independent scholar involves immersing oneself in the department’s social environment, exploring diverse methodological disciplines, and grappling with fundamental questions surrounding the essence of scientific research. This continuous learning process during one’s academic pursuit inevitably nurtures and supports profound shifts in students’ mindsets and worldviews.
In our Doctor of Education program, students begin their dissertation experience in the first month. This means that students will be working on the dissertation in manageable pieces throughout the program, something that makes our program unique. The dissertation work occurs through a series of independent study seminar courses that each tackle a specific phase of the dissertation.
The early seminars have built-in much more guidance to help support student knowledge and skill development. Students are, after all, just learning to drive a car.
But as the student’s dissertation progress moves forward, the amount of direction and instruction in the seminars is reduced. All of this is an intentional decision in our curriculum to offer support when needed most but phased out as independence grows.
Are you interested in such a journey? If so, I would encourage you to consider learning more about what the Doctorate of Education in Leadership program can do for you and your goals. It won’t be easy; then again, the transition from dependence never is. The good news is we will be there for you during your dissertation experience every step of the way. However, as you stride across the commencement stage, adorned with your doctoral degree, you do so as an accomplished independent scholar.