Academic Exchange Quarterly     Fall    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  3

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Curriculum Ideas for Part Time PhD Students


Sue Poppink, Western Michigan University

Louann Bierlein Palmer, Western Michigan University


Dr. Sue Poppink and Dr. Louann Bierlein Palmer are both Assistant Professors in the Educational Leadership Unit at Western Michigan University. 



In this paper, we discuss the theory and practice behind the creation and implementation of a new integrated doctoral program approach that requires students to begin the dissertation process at the beginning, rather than the end, of their programs. Via this new program, part-time doctoral students develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions it takes to conduct scholarly research. We’ve found that students appreciate knowing what the process holds, and that their dissertations are richer in content and methodology. This new approach also creates a cohort that understands the expectations of a dissertation and can work on those together. Finally, it enables students to decide if a doctoral degree appropriate for them early in their programs. 



In the best of circumstances, students working toward a PhD degree come to their programs with assets that help them attain their goals, and increase those assets during their time of study. They have the means to attend graduate school full time. They may have a fellowship, or a research or teaching assistantship or some combination of the three, which provides at least a stipend for living expenses. They have conducted research in their undergraduate or master's program, therefore knowing what to expect.  Once in a program, they work under a master researcher in the field of their interest, enabling them to develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed for further research. Via such a cognitive apprenticeship (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989; Lave, 1991), they complete their dissertation work. Overall, they have exposure to the routines of a research community, and opportunities to understand and participate in what many refer to as the culture of research (Berliner, 2003; Labaree, 2003; Richardson, 2003).


Many students do not, however, have the opportunity to pursue doctoral studies full-time.  This is particularly true in applied fields such as education (Berliner, 2003; Labaree, 2003, Richardson, 2003). For example, we in the educational leadership unit at Western Michigan University currently serve approximately 250 doctoral students, only a handful of whom are full time. Our students tend to pursue their PhDs only after they have established themselves as educational professionals. They choose to pursue their doctoral degree as part-time students, while continuing to work full-time.  


As these students come to a research environment, they face issues that many of their full-time counterparts do not. They spend a limited time on campus and thus have fewer opportunities to understand the culture of research, or to think as researchers (Berliner, 2003; Labaree, 2003; Richardson, 2003). For example, because they work during the day, they are unlikely to participate in brown-bag meetings with knowledgeable researchers or non-class seminars. Carrying professional responsibilities in their work lives means they have multiple responsibilities and priorities, some of which have little to do with attending university classes and conducting research (Eisenhart & DeHaan, 2005).


Graduate students with outside professional responsibilities may also see the professional knowledge they have acquired as contradictory, or at least not complementary to, the research knowledge that they are being asked to acquire. Labaree (2003) argued that research demands analytic skills that focus on generalized or theoretical knowledge; while professional skills, for example in teaching, are highly interpersonal and context specific, which may cause graduate students to question the value of research knowledge. Students may need to hold these two seemingly dichotomous ways of thinking to be successful at both.


For part-time students, professors need to find ways to enable them to conduct scientific inquiry without the advantages of full-time focus or commitment, a background in research, and an understanding of the research culture. We have worked to create a culture and pedagogy for supporting such students. 


Our Program

As noted, most students in our educational leadership program at Western Michigan University are part time students. They are working professionals--teachers, principals, superintendents, registrar's at community colleges and the like--who come to class after working all day. To accommodate these professionals, as well as promote high standards in our doctoral program, we needed a different approach for the enculturation of our doctoral students to a scientific way of thinking. We created a curriculum with an attendant pedagogy to better support the needs of working professionals. 


First, we turned the PhD program and dissertation process on its head. In most traditional programs, students complete a number of classes covering the theoretical perspectives and empirical knowledge in educational research before they begin to think about their dissertation. In our program, students start with a two-course seminar in which they are taught explicitly about scientific knowledge and the dissertation process. During the first year of their doctoral program, students create preliminary products toward their dissertations. To do this, they are exposed to topical issues in education research, the research process, and ideas concerning reading and writing social science literature. 


In the first class, students create a tentative methodological sketch that includes a practical, as well as a research, problem and a tentative methodology. Time is spent on issues common to all research projects: deciding a topic, research questions, the significance of the topic, and the methodology. Students conduct independent research tasks, which the professor facilitates, and they are encouraged to help one another via a required peer review process. We walk them through our program from taking the first class, preparing for comprehensives, working with their program and dissertation advisors, defending their proposals and dissertations, and even finishing their dissertations to graduate school specifications. Students are engaged in the process and quite interested in antidotes of how other students have accomplished this feat.


In the second class, they build their own curriculum for a literature review by conducting interviews with academics and professionals in their fields of interest, and spending time with academic journals and books to begin to know the literature. For instance, if they investigate a research question concerning teachers’ professional development, they may interview scholars and practitioners in the field to get a better understanding of what knowledge gaps may be important. In a sense, they take their initial ideas “on the road.” By talking to others, as well as conducting their initial literature reviews, they quickly test out their research ideas, both for the viability of adding to the knowledge base as well the feasibility of actually completing the research.


One key question asked of students at the end of the second seminar is whether their research ideas still holds interest for them. If so, they are encouraged to keep working on this idea while they take subsequent research and content-based doctoral courses. If not, they are encouraged to analyze what caused them to lose their initial excitement, and to continue their search for other ideas as they take their next sets of courses. 


In a more traditional program, students may take several research-based classes covering theory and empirical research before attempting a set of seminars like this. Students are often discouraged from focusing on a possible dissertation topic until they have completed their comprehensive exams. However, in our program we encourage these seminars first for at least three reasons. One is to boost our graduation rate by helping students focus on a topic throughout their doctoral programs, perhaps using research papers in their doctoral classes to help them focus on their topics (i.e., an integrated approach). Another is to provide a seamless transition from graduate student to doctoral candidate, and from attaining doctoral candidacy to attaining a PhD. Also, because they may not be familiar with university and research culture, we want to be as explicit as possible about the scientific process.  


Pedagogy of the Curriculum

The majority of the students in our program will continue to be education professionals after they complete their degrees. They may use this credential to help them become principals, superintendents, consultants, or even a few university professors; but the majority will not become traditional academics. This is not to say that the value of research is down played, in fact it is stressed as an essential tool for leaders in the data-driven accountability world facing educational institutions. Some may argue that the research required within those environments is much different than that conducted by academics. We believe that there are many similarities. Though one is based in practical problems and the other in theoretical problems, or problems from which one can generalize, both use analytic methods to increase the knowledge base.


We are explicit in sharing with them the knowledge, skills and dispositions that may help them conduct research. Dispositions may be more difficult to inspire in part time students. To overcome this, we encourage students to take these seminars their first year, so that they can form a peer cohort support group. We teach students explicitly about intellectual curiosity, the ambiguity of research, and the intellectual debate that is informed by empirical evidence.


These explicit discussions may seem unusual to some--one can't participate in a culture without living in the environment, and teaching isn't telling. Professors are currently being encouraged to use “problem-based” or “authentic” learning (Bridges & Hallinger, 1995; Shulman, 2004) to enable students to develop both practical and theoretical knowledge. We have found that students come to the program motivated to understand the dissertation process and requirements. They have an authentic problem that they need to work through: writing a dissertation which includes what to research, how to research it, and how to convince the community of scholars that this research project adds to the body of knowledge.


We find that because students have an authentic problem to solve, that cognitive and developmental learning theory supports our pedagogy. These theorists argue that students come to a learning task with conceptions and misconceptions of the phenomenon (Bruner, 1990; National Research Council, 2000; Resnick, 1989), and will learn as they participate in authentic tasks that will enable them to confront their understandings and misunderstandings. That is, learning is best accomplished not by telling students what to do and how to think, but by enabling students to problem-solve and learn skills within applications (Lampert, 1990; 2001). We assume that students come to the task of conducting a major research project with conceptions and misconceptions of completing a doctoral program, including their dissertations. While we do tell them explicitly about the process and product, we find that as they work through the development of a research problem and methodology, they work through their conceptions and misconceptions in ways that can't be told. Yet, they are grateful for the explicit responses to their queries. 


How Is It Working?

We find this approach promising. Lovitts reported that approximately half of all students who enroll in a doctoral program leave before they have completed all degree requirements (2001), and Greer-Williams suggested the percent is higher for minority students (2005). We hope to attain much higher completion rates, though it is too early for us to report these data as the first program students are just now obtaining their PhDs.


We have collected significant qualitative interview and survey data from over 100 students, which overall has been positive. One, students tell us the value of this program, especially compared to what they hear from working professionals attending other institutions still following the traditional approach. For example, this student wrote: 


 I found the class to be very valuable and interesting to me. It played a major role in my desire to continue with the program. You managed a masterful creation in structuring the class to provide insight into the process of the dissertation. I know that I am better prepared to begin the journey and I am looking forward to it rather than having a fear of the unknown.


Two, from those students nearing completion, we are seeing richer dissertation proposals and completed research, in part because they have worked on their topic throughout their program. We’ve taught students using the more traditional end of the process dissertation seminar, and see a vast difference in the quality of the research process and product for those receiving this new integrated approach.


Three, the first year seminars and the required peer reviewing processes have helped form student cohorts providing peer support throughout their entire program (something often lacking within part-time only programs). Some students have told us initially they were uncomfortable with the ambiguity involved in the research process. Students who are working professionals are accustomed to identifying and solving problems quickly, and when they discover they can't do this easily in the dissertation process, they are sometimes disconcerted. But, they have the support of their peer group and their professor to work through this early in the process, rather than the surprise of learning at the end of their coursework that research is not a straightforward process.


And finally, these first-year seminars are causing students to consider whether a doctoral program is the right option for them to pursue at this time. They get an early understanding of what it takes to conduct research: the knowledge base, the analytic and writing skills, the sustained interest in one topic, and the level of difficulty. 


Some students who were in our program prior to the implementation of the new first-year seminars and have subsequently taken the seminars, note how significant the change is.  As one wrote: 


...the 686 and 712 component of this program has put everything together for Kim and me. It has definitely helped a ton, and whether the students in the beginning stages of the program realize it or not, it will be a huge help to them as they progress. If more programs had such components with emphasis on development of research ideas as well, there would be fewer ABDs (All But Dissertations) out there and more PhDs.


The overall strategies of this new, integrated dissertation approach are to ensure that part time students understand what it takes to complete a doctoral degree early in their programs; to create peer support groups often only found in traditional full-time programs; and to enable students to begin writing their dissertation proposal at the beginning rather than the end of their programs. Through these efforts, we hope to increase graduation completion rates. 


It isn't perfect, however. We have found that it works best for “mid-level“ working professionals since they have years of experience in their field and often come with ideas about potential research topics. Those with only a few years of experience struggle more (and are sometimes overwhelmed) since they have not necessarily been thinking about issues in their respective fields for several years. However, these students tell us they value the practice of pursuing a potential topic early, even if it doesn’t become the one they ultimately complete. They have been provided with an in depth research framework early in their program.   


But overall, our preliminary data promise enough for us to share our ideas. It’s often difficult to implement ideas outside the traditional academic box, but this program is doing just that. And even more important than just increasing graduation rates, we have found a way to open the research window for our part-time working professionals. Our goal for them is to not just complete quality dissertation research, but to become lifelong researchers within their educational institutions.



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