I chose special education for my doctoral study because I became interested in the field while I was pursuing my masters in sociology. In my masters program, I had positive experiences working with disability services through the campus accessibility committee.
Then my advisor pointed me toward an opportunity to work on a publication concerned with the families of children with disabilities and depression. I jumped at the chance to study this area academically. That project helped me realize that I was drawn to disability studies within the context of special education.
I decided to study at University of California, Santa Barbara because it was the only school on the west coast that offered a doctorate in my particular specialization. Even though this school did not provide me with a lot of funding, it has an excellent publication history and useful post-graduate placement information.
As part of the admissions process, I was required to retake the GRE, which was unexpected since I had already taken the test and submitted the results for my masters programs. But the admissions advisor at University of California, Santa Barbara recommended that I retake the exam to update my score. I did, and I think it made me a stronger candidate.
I also drafted a personal statement as part of my application. It included information about my work history, my motivations for studying child disabilities and the ways that I could bring diversity to this doctorate program. I felt prepared for the PhD admissions process because of my 2 masters degrees and the extensive fieldwork I had completed.
First, you should find a program that meets your educational and professional goals, and allows enough flexibility to meet those goals. For example, if you are already employed in your field and the PhD program requires you to quit your job, it is probably not a good match.
It is important that you make sure the people in the program are compatible with you on a professional and personal level. Writing a dissertation is a personal and professional endeavor. Before you commit to a program, you should meet face-to-face with faculty members who you might consider for your doctoral commitee. Make sure that you can imagine working closely with them in the future.
I also suggest that you solicit letters of recommendation from individuals who can speak to your development as a student, a professional and a person. Do not settle for just any professor. Choose people with professional credentials who know you on multiple levels because those letters are far more meaningful than generic letters.
Finally, make sure you have more than just a cursory interest in any program that you are considering. I was fortunate to have a lot of professional experience in the areas of special education and disability studies. You don’t want to invest the endless time and money that a PhD program demands on anything less than your passion.
My program took 6 years to complete. The first 2 years were devoted to coursework, which generally focused on school psychology. I spent the next several years simultaneously working on my dissertation and fulfilling other PhD requirements, such as independent research projects and getting published.
My dissertation focused on special education, disability and risk studies, with an emphasis on the factors that affect the way that treatment is implemented. It was primarily oriented toward policy since I could draw upon my professional background to bolster my research. I chose the policy angle because I could not directly examine the situation from a medical standpoint, since I am not a practitioner.
I did have an advisor, and my relationship with my advisor was extremely important. He was instrumental in my research apprenticeship and he facilitated the proposal committee for my dissertation. He read countless drafts of my dissertation and took on a supervisory role during that process. In addition to all that, he alerted me to an array of research opportunities.
I selected my advisor after we talked during my campus visit. I knew it would be vital to have an advisor that was both supportive and critical of my work, so I made sure to have his support before starting my program.
Although my program had no required practicum, it involved a nontraditional internship of sorts called a research apprenticeship. It was designed to give me hands-on research experience that would eventually turn into a published work. I think the experience was very beneficial because it exposed others to my work and allowed me to contribute new research to my field.
Doctoral students typically do not pay for their education, so I paid for very little out-of-pocket. Nearly all of my tuition was covered by my work as a teaching assistant. I also received additional grants and fellowships as part of my doctoral program.
Life as a PhD student involves juggling many different responsibilities and projects at the same time. When I was studying for my doctorate, I worked on an independent research project, completed coursework, prepared for exams and published work simultaneously. It absorbed almost all of my waking time, particularly during the last 2 years of the program when I was working on my dissertation.
It was difficult to strike a balance between my personal well-being and the requirements of my PhD program. Luckily, I could rely on loved ones to watch out for me. I needed my family to alert me when I was getting buried in work. They told me that when I could not remember the last time I went out to pizza, that meant it was time for a break.
In the future, I want to work in a position that allows me to directly and positively influence a community. In a sense, I would like to see the work I was doing as a doctoral student continue during my professional career. Right now I am focused on finding a publisher for my doctoral research and volunteering in my community.
I think it is important for students to acknowledge that a PhD program is a big investment on their part, but that investment should go both ways. Make sure the school and program are willing to make an equal investment in you. Consider aspects like funding, research and publishing support, and networking opportunities that a program can offer before you commit several years of your life to a program.