I knew as soon as I decided to enter campus recreation as my profession that I wanted to be a director.
As any goal-oriented person would do, I started to chart a path to how I would arrive there. A funny thing has happened over the course of my career in relation to that end. The goal has seemingly become harder to achieve. More and more directors have doctoral degrees at a rate where over the next decade close to a majority of large school campus rec departments will be led by those with the letters Ed.D or Ph.D. Earning a doctorate is hard. If it wasn’t, everyone would have one, however very few people in the United States do. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2018 that a little less than 2% of the population had a doctorate degree. The number of professionals in campus recreation with doctoral degrees increases by the day.
If you are like me with a goal of eventually sitting in the director chair or in a role such as assistant vice president (AVP) or vice president (VP) of Student Affairs, you may be contemplating pursuing a doctoral degree. Maybe you are considering the doctorate for completely different reasons. For some, the goal is to feel accepted or validated working in higher education alongside faculty who sometimes seem to not understand or accept the value of what we do in collegiate recreation.
Two years ago, I began my personal journey toward the Ph.D. after a decade away from academics. I now find myself at the mid-point of the process, nearly finished with course work staring down the barrel of qualifying exams and a dissertation over the course of the next few years. This is for those that are considering taking that journey. This article attempts to help clarify a question you may be asking yourself, “Should I get my doctorate?” I briefly interviewed a few Campus Rec professionals that are either near the end of the process or have recently completed it in addition to my own experience as a doctoral student in order to outline certain considerations for those looking to start the process.
Before you begin the journey, reflect on why you really want this and what you actually hope to gain from it. There may be a financial incentive to obtaining a new degree such as the opportunity to teach as an adjunct instructor at your institution, but it’s worth knowing if a Master’s degree is sufficient in your situation.
“I chose to pursue an advanced degree to open other doors and if I wanted to teach and to get into academics, it gave me that option,” said Dr. Jason Linsenmeyer, the assistant director of Recreation Programs at Oklahoma State University. “I have been using this degree as I have been teaching one class each semester. I still love my current work in recreation, so I do not see myself switching to academics in the near future.”
Will you be looking to conduct research and need additional credentials in order to get your work published? Will you need it for advancement to a position such as director, AVP or VP down the line. According to doctoral candidate Todd Christensen, the assistant director of Fitness at Oklahoma State University, it is beneficial to have the doctorate degree to be heard. “Some people determine if the worth of an opinion or plan on the education level of the person offering it,” said Christensen.
There are no real breaks. In order to work full time successfully and complete your course work, you find time wherever it becomes available which may be early mornings, lunch breaks or late into the evening.
It can be a real challenge finding enough hours in a day to fulfill your work obligations, meet the demands of your program and have a life.
“Take two weeks of your typical schedule and write down what you do each day, before and after work, as well as your plans on weekends,” said doctoral candidate Jeana Carow, the assistant director of Facilities at the University of Arkansas. “At the end of the two weeks, go back to each day and decide what things you participated in you would be willing to sacrifice. If there are things you are willing to sacrifice and replace with homework and class time, then you might be ready for the commitment. If there isn’t something you are willing to give up, maybe now is not the right now for you.”
You will need to chart out how many classes you will be able to take per semester or summer term in order to figure out how long it will take you to complete the program. You may have more flexibility taking only one class at a time, however it will take you much longer to complete. For example, I take two courses per semester and two in the summer terms. My program will take me four years to complete. If I were only taking one class at a time, it would take me closer to seven to 10 years to complete in addition to job responsibilities and changing life dynamics during that time.
Research the times when required and elective courses are available to you. You may or may not have the flexibility to take classes during the day depending on your situation or departmental support. In my situation, my spouse works evenings and I have an 8-year-old daughter, making it difficult for me to take night classes. Many of the electives I have selected have been online as a result just to make it fit my schedule.
“Get your education when you’re young,” said Linsenmeyer. “I started my program with zero children and finished with three. It was difficult to devote time to my growing family and fully focus on my class work or dissertation.”
“Don’t wait. If there is even a chance you might pursue one at some point, there is no better time than now. I knew from early in life that I may want to do it some day, but I put it off. Finishing it now in my mid-30s with a wife and four kids has made it more difficult than necessary,” said Christensen.
I have had some people at the coordinator or entry level ask me if they should get their Ph.D. That’s a hard question to answer, and I feel it depends on the situation. Getting a doctorate too early in your career can potentially make you overqualified for certain roles and make you seem like teaching in addition to duties is an expectation as you apply for positions.
“It is also crucial to have open, honest conversations about a decision like this with your direct supervisor at work,” said Carow.
Her point is an extremely important one. If your boss doesn’t support this, there is no way you can make it work in the traditional sense. A supervisor must also support the journey as it will likely require flexible schedules to allow you to attend classes during the work day and might be a possible distraction from your everyday role. You will need to consider the impact of the time you will need to dedicate to this endeavor on your family, friends and your work. The reality is you will have less availability. If your family isn’t onboard with this, it will cause major issues. Make sure they sign off on the process. It is also important to have a solid committee to work with you. Select a committee you can work well with and that work well with each other to avoid personality and workstyle conflicts. It’s important you have a supportive relationship with your committee members as you’ll find yourself relying on them often for ideas, edits and encouragement. If you select someone to be on your committee that really does not have the time or energy to support your project, it’s expected you make a change rather than let issues or lack of support delay your progress.
Every school is different in terms of employee benefits related to undergoing coursework or degree programs. At my institution, I am responsible for 50% of tuition and all costs related to books and fees. Some schools cover more, some not at all, and nearly all have stipulations the coursework must be on your campus which may take an online option away. I have taken out some financial aid in which to help with the costs as well as applying for available scholarships for staff and graduate students.
As a reference point, two classes or six credits — a full doctorate program is usually 60 credit hours — costs me about $1,800 after waivers and scholarships per semester, or $5,400 annually including fall, spring and summer course work. The total cost of my program with a partial tuition waiver will be close to $18,000. Most of us working within campus recreation are not doing this for the money, and for some the cost may be the main limiting factor. At my institution, there is a financial incentive for obtaining a degree while employed in the form of a $4,800 annual raise. Some schools have something like this, others do not. Find out for yourself.
I just mentioned the cost of my program which will vary for each situation. The potential earning opportunity should out-weigh the total cost of the program, or in my opinion it’s not worth it. The added salary from my degree incentive raise will pay for my degree program in a little under four years. If I teach as an adjunct faculty member, it will be paid off much quicker. I will be 40 years old at the completion of my degree with roughly 27 years remaining in my career meaning the added income from having the doctorate degree alone, without the additional adjunct income, will add $129,600 to my overall career earnings which will also increase my retirement pension.
The process itself can be frustrating as you may feel like there are “hoops to jump through.” The amount of “hoops” may be the most challenging aspect of the process. “I could have walked with my degree a year ago if not for some of the silly processes and procedures that truthfully don’t add anything to the education process,” said Christensen.
If you are considering moving forward, write down the potential benefits such as added income, advancement or teaching opportunities, and the drawbacks such as time away from family and friends, fronting money for tuition and fees or taking out loans, and dealing with academic “red-tape.” You will inevitably have to make sacrifices. It is up to each person alone to decide if they are worth it.
Although I have yet to finish the process, I have largely found it very rewarding. I have loved being back in school although things have changed a great deal in 10 years. In many ways, it has reinvigorated me in my work, and it has helped me have better relationships with faculty on my campus which has also helped me in my work role. It is difficult, and it isn’t for everyone as it is a grind. According to Carow, the most important factor is persistence. “When everything seems to go up in flames and you want to quit, which there will inevitably be more than one of those times, you must persist,” said Carow.
As Lao Tzu said, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Don’t fear the journey; embrace the challenge when the time is right for you.