Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Thinking about getting a PhD

I’ve been thinking about getting a PhD for a since before I ever stepped in a classroom. After completing a researcher preparation program, and doing work on work with various Math Education professors, I was convinced that I would only teach for 2 or 3 years before pursuing a career in academia. “Just as soon as I figure this teaching thing out, I’ll get a PhD, start a tenure track position, and use that position to change the way the world thinks about math instruction!”  After 11 years in the classroom and I still have so much to learn as a teacher I kind of have to decide to forget about this dream forever, or perhaps give it a shot while I’m in my 30’s. Merely having a dream is useless without a plan for being successful. So here is my plan organized by the most important questions I need to answer for myself. 

WHY? Why do I want to get a PhD?

This question is key as it’s answer is going to have to be good enough to sustain you through academic difficulty, economic hardship, and emotional strain through the process. Some people really want to prepare new teachers. Coaches or consultants may want to add the authority and expertise to their work. Others want to take the degree into the district or state administration to change policy or curriculum. And then there are people who are just going for the ride, who just want to get the degree and figure out their lives afterwards. From what I’ve heard in talking to people, those people in the latter category are going to have a bad tim

  • For me the answer has always been wanting to pick the research up where I left off and study math teaching practices in order to disseminate new, research-proven teaching practices, kind of like Jo Boaler did in her last book. I also thought it would be cool to operates in the chasm between the ivory tower and real classrooms, like Magdalene Lampert who wrote a book about her own teaching while an MSU faculty member and now prepares teachers outside of the traditional university structure. It would also be great to work with schools and districts to empower their teachers to take risks and leverage new resources in their teaching. I also think my personal experiences and perspectives could amplify some voices that are not frequently heard in Academia.
  • If I was proposing my dissertation right now, I think it would be something like this: “Teacher knowledge of instructional approaches and applications on student understanding.” I would measure the degree to which teachers take it on themselves to learn new approaches to teaching content and how their students understand those concepts. My time would probably spent doing a big review of all the ways teachers approach personal growth, and the different conceptual approaches for the specific math topics we will explore, and the most appropriate ways to measure student understanding of those topics. Then there would be a lot of travelling to actual schools to interview people and assess kids, before then parsing through teacher qualitative data and student qualitative data. Wouldn’t that be cool!
  • One thing I realize is that many of the things I want to do don’t really need a PhD, hence the decade or so of debate about pursuing one. There are loads of people who do amazing things without a PhD like Gail Burrill and Fred Dillon. However, if research is something that I value, then a PhD is really the only way to do that.
  • Walking away from the classroom to think and discuss schools abstractly, seems like taking off my pants to go run through a brush full of prickers. Being around kids and in schools gives me confidence as an educator and a person, while my ability to annotate research journals and finish grad school assignments on time makes me worried. Separating myself from the classroom for 4+ years makes me afraid that my understanding of what works for kids will rapidly decayed by the time I finish. At the same time, it also requires that I have a success with school that has always eluded me.

WHAT? What kind of program do you want?

Getting a PhD is more complex than buying a car, with much worse marketing materials to look through. Every program is different, most have crappy websites, and Math Ed isn’t listed nice and easy in the US. News and world report.

If you don’t want to do the research you run the risk of settling for whatever school is convenient. Without finding out what you want, you risk signing up for a PhD that isn’t in what you want, leading you to do research you don’t want, and maybe not getting to into the kind of work you’re interested in.

  • I’ve always thought about a straight Math Ed degree, firmly in the sliver of the Venn Diagram comprising “Mathematics” and “Education” programs. There are loads of Mathematics degrees. Something centered around topology, or field axioms, or abstract analysis for example. There are also loads of Education degrees. Perhaps centered around leadership, urban education, program evaluation and others for example. The intersection of these two sets isn’t easy to find, and ones that are around may not have what you want.
  • Some people may want to get an EDD, which is good for people in the field, not researcher. My principal is working on his EDD and when he finishes he can probably work in the superintedents office, for example. Some researchers get EdD (such as everyone graduating from the Harvard Graduate School of Education).

WHERE? Where could you earn your degree from?

This question is important for a lot of people. But I’m trying to support my wife’s career and provide consistency for my daughter, so I’m in looking for driving distance from New York, if this thing is going to happen at all.

  • Like David, I’m interested in the program at NYU along with others that I found nearby. Columbia (possibly too mathematics-y?) CUNY Grad Center (possible too education-y?), Rutgers & Montclair State (possibly too far?).
  • So, my wife saw human feces on the street a block away from our daughters Day Care. Knowing I’ll have to explain this in a few years to my daughter is a sign that NYC may not be the best place to raise children. Leaving the city for grad school has been a discussion my wife and I have discussed. I will definitely apply to  MSU & UMich as they are close to my parents, and Stanford which is close to my wife’s family, but I could still look for other programs.
  • So, I didn’t really pick a lot of schools, and they are all insanely good. That’s because I’m taking the no-safety-school approach. The whole thing is kind of a pipe dream, so why not dream big? So I’m only applying to dream, schools and if I don’t get any, then maybe it wasn’t meant to be.

WHO? Who will you study under?

Who you work with is super important. Take this quote from Rutgers PhD description of their personal statement

  • …We are especially interested in knowing what your research interests are and with which faculty members you would like to work.

At the end of your PhD you will work on your dissertation very closely with a small number of professor at the university you are interested in. These relationships are so intimate you should take a minute too do some research on each of the actual people. Will learning and working with them on their research line up with the kind of research you want to publish? Will they be able to support you on the kind of research that you want to do? It’s worth thinking that through before you even apply.

  • I’d like to try to read all of the publications of the people in each program, but I’ve had luck finding people on social media and youtube. For example, here’s a really intresting lecture from Marty Simon (the NYU professor pictured in David’s tweet).
  • Reaching out to actual people is pretty cool and I’ve already asked professors, or people familiar with professors, to have coffee or a little email back and forth with good results.

WHEN? When are you going to make time for this?

So when do you want to start, when do you want to finish, and how long do you expect things to work out. A lot of people talk about taking 8 years to do a PhD. That scares the crap out of me, so I have to tell myself that the 8-year person didn’t do enough work on the previous questions before entering the program.

For me I plan to use a number of transfer credits to buy some time. Hopefully the credits will allow me to work part-time and go to school for the first year. I could hopefully take a full year of working as a student, finish my qualifiers and getting my dissertation idea off the ground. Since I may eventually want a University job, it kind of makes sense for me to be full time at some point to gain experience teaching college classes and doing research. After that, I would have 2 years to focus on writing, and maybe work in schools part time somewhere.

HOW: How are you going to do it?

If you figured out your five W’s the last part is the how, the actual doing it. Lots of little steps here.

  • What’s your GRE timeline? Most programs will want a GRE, and the preparation for that is best done in little bits overtime. If you’re trying to start that prep let me know and I’ll tell you what I’m doing.
  • Who is writing your letters of rec? Not all programs accept professional references. Some may want your undergrad/grad professors which may be hard to track down. I plan on preparing a little “remember me” packet for each with a little letter about my time with them along with my resume and personal statement.
  • What is your personal statement? This post is helping me think about the general themes of my personal statement which I can tailor for each school.
  • How are you paying for school? Most schools offer full time tuition for PhD students, but only give a 25K-ish stipend that you have to live off of.  I am hoping I can do the whole first year part time out of pocket while working full time to be able to put off the costs of the program. The struggle is real, but universities have financial aid departments that can help, and other things that may work.
  • Built in a long the way should be little reality checks so I know when to step off of this roller coaster and do something else. If my GRE scores are bad, if I can’t get positive letters of recommendation, if my personal statement can’t match what I want to do with what a school’s focus is, and if the money doesn’t work out then I know I’ll have to shut it down and say “at least I tried.”


It’s Time To Talk More About Mental Illness

Today is the last day in May, which means it would be the last of my #MTBoS30 posts, if I hadn’t missed like 17 days. My ‘drafts’ are full of posts of half written nuggets of ideas that didn’t make it into a full fledged post once life got in the way. There is one post that has been there longer than any of the others. It’s the one that is the closest to completion, and will probably be the longest and most personal thing I’ve written. It currently has the working title of “Bipolar post.” and it details my whole story with mental illness. This is not that post. My hesitation in posting about my mental illness is stems from my fear of the stigma our society has around mental illness.

May is also National Mental Health month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has been running a campaign all month about the importance of getting rid of the stigma surrounding Mental Illness. The stigma around mental illness shows up at the dinner table, in the halls of government, and in numerous places in our society. People seeking treatment for mental illness must plan as much for the negative labels around their condition as they do for the medication they will take to treat it. It’s a big problem, especially among people who deal with youth. Here is Mayim Bialik, former keynote speaker at NCTM Annual 2013, talking about the campaign:

Stopping use of harmful words is one thing, and it’s important. What I want to advocate for, is to take it a step further. If you’re one of the 1 in 5 people who are affected by Mental Illness, I would say that it would be good to share your story with someone. The most recent time I did this was with a student who we had admitted to the hospital and was returning to school. I also try to make it a point to do this whenever I hear someone use the term ‘Bipolar’ as an adjective. Whenever I have shared my story, I’ve found that it resonates with more than just 1 in 5 people, and it also leads to a good conversation, and a better, broader picture of what Mental Illness is.

Now you may be asking yourself, “Why is Carl advocating for this when he can’t even put his ‘Bipolar post’ live on the site?” I’m asking myself that too. I feel like I have a lot to talk about in terms of mental illness based on my experience, but then if I do I know people will look at me with ‘that look’. So sometimes throttling back and not telling the whole story is a good first step. It’s a start. That’s why this post is about starting. It’s not about putting yourself all the way out there all at once. It’s about taking one little small step.

This week: Let’s pretend it’s Monday again!

This is the post I was supposed to put out on Monday, but my face was attacked by pillow and I had no choice but to take a nap and then stumble from the couch the bed shortly after. I jotted down some ideas for this post, so I am going to carry it out now.

What I’m Teaching This Week

This week we are going to be reviewing standard deviation and working on a survey we are going to give to the school. (I have actually already wrote about his, here). Following this we will talk about how to avoid writing biased questions and we will talk about procedures for identifying outliers and also looking at the spread of data. It would also be good to plant the seed for a talk about looking at correlation and causation as that will be an issue next week.

What I’m Blogging This Week

Last week I made a post about the Shadowcon Calls to Action that I worked on. This week I wanted to look at Kaneka Turner’s talk, but I haven’t got very far (aside from a really awkward conversation with one student that left me filled with a lot of respect for how clearly Kaneka explained the concept). The concept of an “invitation” to be good at math is hard for me to get, because I don’t really know when I got the invitiation, or whether it remains in my posssession. If I can’t think of anything, I may just end up with a post explaining my largely ticket-less math history.

What I’m Thinking This Week

This week I feel really behind on a lot of things. Unfortunately, this feeling is not new for this year. If this chapter of my life had a title, the front runners would be either “Overwhelmed”, “Time-Managment Breakdowns”, or “New Wife, New House, New Baby, New Job.” So it hasn’t been good, however, it is getting better. Getting organized has been as illusive as finding a four-leaf clover, but I think I am more effective than I was a year ago, and I am probaly going to get a lot better. I usually figure things out at the end of the year, only to forget it all over the summer. Hopefully this won’t be the case this year, and writing can help with that.

CLOG: Google Sheets and Flash Cards

Yesterday in class we had a day of getting kids on board with the technology and ramping up for our final project. For this class, students write a little research paper about what their peers beliefs on, well, anything. Prior to this class I looked at the calendar and freaked out a little after realizing that we need to get this survey drafted and out to the school ASAP.

But Before We Start On The Project…

Before we get started on the project I want to bring back the conversation we have been having about outliers and review it a little. I had an idea for a review “game” that was slightly more interactive then asking kids to do a bunch of problems and could also serve as a reference for finding outliers with Standard Deviation and the IQR. I made little cards that kids could work in pairs to see if they could put the steps for finding those outliers in order. It was cute, check it out, let me know what you think in the comments.

Let’s learn spreadsheets!

The next part of the lesson was to have students learn how to do all of this statistical analysis we have been doing by hand on our good buddy Google Sheets. I asked the kids to learn average, median, mode, min, max, range, quartile 0-4, Standard Deviation, and Variance.

Whenever I do this kind of thing, flashbacks of the age old ‘calculator’ debate echo through my brain. Visions of my old professors glowering at me appear like a bad dream alongside images of students understanding withering from the glow of their computing devices. I’ll probably never get rid of the dirty feeling associated with replacing by-hand work with computing devices. I think when it gets down to it, kids need to be able to explain the purpose of all the statistical tools that they are going to use in the future. They will get to have more practice explaining if they do more calculations done on computers than if they only did work work by hand.

Starting the Survey Project

Once I finished asking students work on their spreadsheets I asked them to get in groups and talk about their potential survey questions. The kids decided on the following topics: Color/Haircolor, Music, Meditation, and (As always) Marijuana Legalization. They went on Gallup, Harris, and others to learn more about their topics. By the end of the period students had some ideas of things that are interesting about their topic that they can ask questions about. Next class we will write the questions down on paper and talk about biased questions, and also sample size.


Talking about Common Core at a Wedding

Yesterday I was at a great wedding for a friend of mine (Congratulations Kevin and Jessica!). While I was there, a friend of mine asked about Common Core and I suddenly couldn’t stop talking about it. The standards situation is likely to come up at any point when I’m outside of my education circles (this time it came up about 15 minutes after toast). It doesn’t seem like an open bar and loud pop music are a good back drop to discuss the intersection between theory, practice, and bureacracy, but I think I did a good job.

My main points were the following, and be sure to let me know if I’m not making sense in the comments below:

  • Standards are the best description we have of how students should learn math in the grades K through 12. While debate about the implementation, or the assessment, or the marketing could be debated the content of standards are solid. Considering the years of trying to change math class it’s the best shot we have at making real serious progress right now and should be fully implemented (in writing this I realize I was basically channeling Matt Larson’s great ignite talk).
  • CCSS-M is written by great people who have brilliant ideas of what should be going on in classrooms.  My buddy asked “do you even know who writes the standards?” suggesting that the standards were thrown together by special interest groups and not teachers. The authors are super-smart and they are around teachers all the time at NCTM and other conferences, and they always say brilliant stuff (like Phil Daro here on Answer getting).
  • The Common Core is suffering from a marketing problem. I think anyone can write anything, regardless of how little sense it makes, and put “aligned with Common Core on there” and face little conflict.  Common Core is the kind of project that didn’t really have all of the lawyers needed to attack publishers and school districts for intellectual property or trademark violations, (at least I think this is true) so it is possible for someone to put out some garbage that anyone could windup on some parents dining room table who could end up making a #STOPCOMMONCORE Facebook post.

We talked through the throwing of the bouquet and when we stopped at the the cutting of the cake and I thought that was the end of it. What I said in my last post was true, as he was obviously mulling this over in his head. After the cake was being plated my friend came back over and said, “So we need to take less funding from military and for more funding for Common Core’s marketing department?” I kind of agreed, but then I said no. What needs to happen is we just need to trust schools, researchers and teachers what are doing the hard work of education and stop second-guessing them every time things get scary. The military budget would be great, but this change doesn’t cost any money at all. Give schools the time, space, and respect they needs to attempt big changes and big shifts, otherwise don’t be surprised when things remain traditional.

I started back into a rant mode, arguing “You won’t see people question doctors and their medical practices, but when it’s a teacher it’s a whole different story…”, but we were interrupted. The DJ put Taylor Swift on and the bride was making the groom dance to it with her (I might have danced a little too). I know there are much more things to say about common core, but this is what I could put together yesterday. Let me know in the comments if I missed anything.

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