Thursday, April 07, 2011

The research experience: pursuing one's passions in the face of "tough and struggling" challenges

This semester, I am making a swan song reappearance as School of International Service Director of Doctoral Studies. I held this position previously, from about 1989 through 1999. We are presently in the midst of the “conversion” process, which is admissions jargon for “converting” students admitted to our doctoral program into enrolled students. As part of the “conversion” process, I write personally to all accepted students who do not immediately respond positively to our offer (we are, of course, competing with top schools for virtually all of our Ph.D. students.) I discuss the distinctive culture of our program, the opportunities it provides and the names and backgrounds of individual faculty members with whom the student might work. Not infrequently, our dialogue continues through several iterations. Were I continuing as Director of Doctoral studies, as in the past, it might continue over a decade, or even much longer. Some of my relationships with former doctoral students span more than 30 years.

Here is an exchange with a prospect from Singapore - each exchange of course needs to be framed in the appropriate cultural context. A Sri Lankan, Hungarian, Brazilian or Malaysian student could receive the same message, but it would be phrased differently. In response to my initial reaching out, the student characterized the process of deciding where to pursue her degree as a “tough and struggling thing.” My response was as follows:

Like reaching the decision of where to pursue a Ph.D. degree, the process of pursuing the degree itself can be, to use your words, “tough and struggling.” However in my experience, that process, too, can be deeply fulfilling and not without its moments of great joy. Overall, it has much in common with the most important challenge that doctoral students face, crafting their first major ‘contribution to knowledge,’ the dissertation. Many years have passed since I completed my dissertation and then held it in hand as my first published book. That was a joyful moment, preceded by many tough and and struggling ones. Each subsequent book – there have been a few – has encompassed similarly tough, struggling and joyful moments. The sum total has been rewarding and fulfilling. I believe you have made the right choice in embarking on a life path that begins with completion of a Doctor of Philosophy Degree.”

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