“To Ph.D. or not Ph.D.,” by Nicole Tobias

Ever since I was a child I knew I wanted to go to school forever.  I often said that I would go to school forever if I could find a way to go to school and still pay my bills.  I learned about graduate school and assistantships in my junior year of college and thought “here is my chance”!  After completing my Master of Science degree in College Student Personnel I chose to work in order to apply some of the knowledge I had just gained, and to pay some of those bills I just mentioned.  I always knew I wanted to get a terminal degree, but there were so many things to consider.

My intention with this blog is to ask you some of the questions I asked myself when making the decision to go back to school.  My hope s is that with these questions, and a few tips that worked for me, you will be equipped to make the best decision for you.

Can you imagine being back in school again?

  • Really, think about that!  Can you imagine reading books, writing papers, taking tests?  Do you have the energy to make this commitment?

Do you long for the professional and personal development?

  • Doctoral coursework can offer you the chance to discuss and debate policies, procedures and theories, and affords the opportunity for other people to challenge your thoughts and ideas.
  • Is this something you are missing in your current position?

Is another degree necessary for a career change or to climb the ladder?  Do you career goals require a terminal degree, or something else?

  • Do you have the ability to climb the ladder at your current institution?  Would a terminal degree provide you more opportunity to advance, at your current institution or somewhere else?

Do you have the motivation?  And is it YOUR own?

  • In order to complete a terminal degree I believe it will take your full motivation and stamina.  I’m guessing I will lose motivation at times, but I take comfort in knowing that I WANT THIS more than anything else!

Can you afford it?  The full time vs. part time debate…

  • Would you go to school full time or part time?
    • If full time, could you get an assistantship at the university or in the program?  What is your compensation for the assistantship?  Is the University’s tuition waved?  How much money would you make?
    • Will you be working full time or part time or do you want to focus solely on your education?
    • If attending school part time, would you work another job?  If so, will your current employer help you with the costs of attending school?
  • Are you willing to take out loans?
    • Remember, most federal loans can be placed into deferment while you are a full time student!
  • Do you have other sources of income (partner’s income, savings, etc.)?
  • Please remember there are many additional expenses!  In addition to housing, utilities, food and other living expenses are expenses for books, parking, and charges for other administrative responsibilities like obtaining an ID card.
    • Health Insurance is a big expense.  Many universities require you to have it.  You can choose to participate in the university’s insurance, or you have to prove that you have insurance from another company.  This can be a huge expense if you do not have insurance through your employer or your partner’s employer.


  • Would you have/want to move to go to school or is there a reputable university and program close to home?
  • Is there a program close enough to commute to?  How many times per week would you need to travel to the institution?  Can you afford the commute?
  • Are you willing to move?  If so, can you afford to move?
    • What is the cost of living where you would live?  Is University housing an option?  Could you find a job there if you would like one?  Would you buy or rent?  Do you have a down payment or security deposit?
    • Find out information about the local area.  Sometimes the University’s website will include information like this, but the Chamber of Commerce is a great source, as well as realtors, Visitor’s Centers, and, most importantly, faculty and students themselves!

Time is KEY!

  • Would you have the time to work full time and attend classes?
    • Would an online program work better for you?
    • Some programs function primarily online and meet face-to-face on weekends. Others are strictly online.  Is this something you would consider, or do you require a classroom?
  • If you plan to work and go to school, would your current position give you flexibility to go to class and complete work?  Could you work on your assignments during work time, or get time off during finals or comprehensive exams?
  • How much time per week can you put aside for graduate work?
  • How many years would you like to spend to pursue a degree?

Other life considerations:

  • Do you have “Community” support?  This might include your family and friends, your partner, your supervisor, your colleagues.
    • While this may not be required it certainly is helpful!
  • Do you have a partner, children or pets to consider (particularly if you have to move or to quit working)?  How would their presence in your life affect your ability to go back to school?  Would they support you in your efforts?

Do you have enough work experience?

  • Sometimes people believe that if they have a terminal degree and little work experience they will be hard to hire.  Some employers may believe the person is over qualified or would cost too much to employ.  This is certainly something to consider, and to talk with your mentors about.  How would you respond to this concern in an interview when you apply to graduate school and how would you respond when you apply for your first job after graduating?

Are you willing to step back from being an administrator and a supervisor, to being “just a student” again?  Sometimes the acclimation from being a manager to being managed can be a difficult one.

What are you looking for in a program?

  • Reputation of the University, the program, and the faculty
    • Ask around!  The world of Student Affairs is a small one and everyone knows someone, or some program!
    • What is the application process like?  Does the university have a face-to-face interview?  Do they require letters of recommendation?  Do they ask about your work history?  Do you submit a Statement of Interest or a Personal Statement?  Although many of the application processes are difficult and lengthy, it is my belief that the more reputable programs make you work for it!  They have lots of people applying and they want to make sure their applicants are serious and sincere!
    • Is the program accredited?  If so, by whom?  This could be an important aspect to consider, especially when interviewing and completing your resume after finishing your degree.  You want to choose a program that is well known, well respected and one that feels like it fits your needs.
  • Faculty
    • Do you know of any of the faculty in the program?  Have you attended a workshop they presented or read a book or article they published?  Could you work closely with them?  Would you be able to see them as mentors and professional colleagues?
  • Research interests
    • Can you get support and challenge to complete your research?
    • Are the research interests yours or a faculty member’s interests?
  • Ph.D. vs. Ed.D.
    • This is another controversial topic, and I found that everyone I asked had a strong opinion.  You will have to make this decision for yourself, but be able to explain it, and occasionally defend it.
  • What is the average time it takes to complete the degree
    • Ask faculty AND STUDENTS in the program how long it takes full time and part time students to complete their degree requirements.  Can you spend that much time working toward your degree?

How will you find a program that meets your needs?

  • Websites are your friend!  Check the university websites and look for words that peak your interests.  I paid attention to programs that talked about cohort models, about Community Expectations, about support and challenge.  I didn’t want to be competing with my classmates; I wanted us to work together!  I wanted a program where everyone was better and learned more because of one another.
  • Conference Graduate School Fairs—make a point to attend Graduate School Fairs and meet current students and faculty in the program.  Go to the fair prepared to ask questions.  Remember, this could be one of your first impressions on the University, the faculty and the students!  This is also a great opportunity to see how you interact with students in the program and get a sense of whether or not you would “fit in”.
  • Consider national rankings like US News and World Report.  This can be a good place to start in finding reputable programs that you would like to do more research about.
  • Find out if it’s possible to visit the University, go on a campus tour, and SIT IN on a graduate class in the program you are inquiring about.  This is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the University as a whole, and to see your program coursework in a more direct way.  You will also get to observe the faculty member and the students interact.  This can be very telling!

Ugh…the dissertation

  • I don’t know about you, but this is one of the biggest anxieties for me!  As I researched programs I looked for supportive faculty and classmates, a chance to meet with students to talk about research on a regular basis, and frequent check-ins with a research advisor.  I also plan to set goals for myself.  Some programs have these opportunities built into the coursework or the program, others don’t.  It is important to talk with faculty and current students to see how long the dissertation usually takes to complete.  Please remember that some/most of your dissertation work will occur outside of your classwork.  It is important to figure out how much TOTAL time it will take to complete your coursework, your dissertation and what the timeframe is for defending your dissertation.  Most importantly–determine what you need in order to complete the dissertation and make it happen!   A phrase I have heard from many doctoral students regarding their dissertation is that it has to be “good enough”.

So, after doing all of this work and reflecting on my wants and needs, I decided that I was going to move forward and begin researching Ph.D. programs.  I made a huge spreadsheet to collect the information from several different programs so that I could compare them as equitably as possible.  Some of the information I looked for included: the name of the University, the name of the program, the location and size of the university and the program, how many people would be in my entering class/cohort, the cost of living in the university town versus the cost of living in the town I was living in, the number of credits required for graduation, whether or not assistantships were offered, the cost of tuition, were there job opportunities for my partner, etc.

In the end, I had a partner who is completely supportive and we decided to move several states away so that I could pursue my Ph.D. at a reputable institution with a very well-respected doctoral program in College Student Affairs Administration.  Thankfully, my husband will be supporting us and our dogs as I will be attending classes full time this fall.  I will have a graduate assistantship which will cover my tuition and I will be responsible for paying for the university fees, parking, textbooks, etc.  I am hopeful to not have to work part time in addition to my assistantship, but I am not sure about that at this point.  It is my philosophy that if this is the last time to go to school I want to take full advantage of it and get the very most of the education as I can.

In the long run, I hope to become a strong, female senior level administrator and I want to encourage other women to do the same.  I want to work in a collegial, supportive and challenging university and face those challenges with confidence, knowledge and experience.  Most importantly, I want to ensure that students are the priority.

Nicole Tobias is a doctoral candidate in College Student Affairs at the University of Georgia.



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5 responses to ““To Ph.D. or not Ph.D.,” by Nicole Tobias

  1. Nicole this is amazing! I’ve been bantering the idea of doing a PhD in my head for longer than I care to admit. I’m going to have to use this post as a checklist as I seriously consider the option in the coming year (it’s on my 30 before 30 list to decide, finally, if I want to pursue a PhD). Thanks for this – it’s perfect and perfectly timed. 🙂

  2. Great post, especially for those of us who trying to make this decision! I’m still stuck at the very first question you asked so that tells me that I’m definitely not ready to tackle the other questions! But this gave me perspective and what I need to be thinking about when I do make the jump. Good luck and I hope you have a great experience in Georgia!

  3. Nikki Ruth Tobias

    Thank you so much for the compliment! If I can help answer any questions for you or process it with you, please let me know!

  4. Interesting. The PhD is a research degree – that is what it should be. Yet I don’t see any of your questions that deal with that part of the overall decision parameters. What does the candidate hope to accomplish? How developed is the hypothesis, or even the area of the research question? It appears that many areas of study have a glut of PhDs, while there are never enough PhDs in STEM fields. I wonder if that is partly because of the intense focus necessary to choose a research problem in STEM? I think it is crucial to have a good idea of your research topic before you start a PhD program if you want to guarantee a positive outcome.

    • Nicole R. Tobias

      You’re right! The research component is a huge consideration. Some people have a very good idea what they would like to research, and there is a faculty member in the country doing some kind of related work and it makes sense for the prospective student to work with that faculty member if it is at all possible. Others of us, though, don’t have a very specific idea what we’d like to research. Others still come to a PhD with an idea, and then change their mind. Another consideration is research methodology. I would have always thought that I was a quantitative researcher, but I did a research study that utilized qualitative research methods and really enjoyed it. I’m not sure that without the qualitative research courses I was required to take I would have been confident or competent enough to do a qualitative study justice.

      trickfletcher–You’re right…there is a lot to consider!

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