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.”