This past week I began a new journey – a path to becoming what one might call an “official” academic as a PhD student.
This is a journey that crept up on me quickly. When I completed my MBA in 2007, my business school tried to “upsell” us on a doctoral program. I thought then, “What do I need that for?” Looking back now that statement was foolish, but I had just completed 3 years of school and accumulated a sizable student loan debt. I was focused on a corporate career and only thought I’d ever need an MBA.
When did I think about becoming a professor? I don’t know, but I know there have been several events that I can see now slowly started turning me in this direction.
When I moved into the HR function at my last employer, I worked with several Industrial/Organizational Psychology (I/O) PhDs. (You know who you are…) I found them brilliant and the banter about workforce development strategy exhilarating.
In 2017, on a flight back from London, I then sat next to a full professor in the french history field who told me about her life. Half of her time was spent at the university, the other half spent doing research while she lived in her house in the south of France. She told me how she also turned her historical research into best selling historical fiction novels. I had never thought about having a life like that with so much freedom, having previously been tethered to my employers and the schedule that THEY demanded for 20 years.
Then I left my job at the end of 2017 and contemplated what I wanted to do next. When I saw some teaching positions at our local university become available, I jumped at the chance. I began adjuncting in addition to a staff role at Coastal Carolina University last year and this fall I move into a full-time lecturer role. When I first applied there I knew then that I would commit not just to teaching but to become a PhD. To become a tenured professor. To research.
I handily found out about UNC Greensboro’s brand new PhD in Business Administration in the Bryan School of Business and Economics, the first of its kind approved by AACSB to be a distance-based doctoral program. I like firsts. I applied and, in May, was notified that I was accepted into the first cohort. Eighteen of us, out of 200 applicants were selected for the program.
This brings us to this week, where our cohort met for the first time at our orientation. I was stunned. These are 18 of the most impressive and accomplished people from across the country, and even internationally. Nearly all of us are instructors or professors already and come from similar previous backgrounds in the industry.
Of course, I am nervous about going back to school after 12 years. But I am excited about the focus this program has on teaching us to be researchers.
What struck me during the orientation was the need for intentionality in my writing. I think about all the words that I have written over the course of my life – it must be millions by now – and how they have been wasted where no one may ever see them again. Did they have meaning? They are like breaths I’ve taken in my life that I will never get back. Time spent wasted on words driven by what other people said I need to talk about.
Our professors said, “You should not write one word in this program that will not be used in your dissertation.” This includes the words we write for our assignments in our coursework. Given the assignments that I give my own students, this struck me. I think I have struggled in finding my voice my entire life, and that has what has held me back from publishing a book. Perhaps one step in this journey is about learning how to be intentional.
This idea was further reinforced by the last session of the orientation program which focused on work-life balance. They took us through several hundred questions we needed to ask ourselves about our life, our happiness, our relationships, what we value, what we feel we uniquely contribute. I expected the hours we spent at the library talking about research and citations. But I did not expect a session like this to have such a profound impact on me.
I left our week there knowing that the work I need to do over the next several weeks before our classes start is really to define what a PhD really means for my own identity, beyond just simply being a qualification to apply for a tenure-track professorship.
As this quote from the session says, “Our job is to find out who we already are – and become it.”