Doctoral Direction Considering a research doctorate but not sure where to start? Here’s what this doctoral student learned about choosing a program. Student's Say
Student's Say  |   March 01, 2015
Mary Mitchell and her parents, John and Kathy Mitchell.
Doctoral Direction
Author Notes
  • Mary Mitchell, MS, CCC-SLP, is a first-year doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. She works in a local school 20 hours a week with graduate clinicians to support children and adolescents who struggle with language and literacy.
    Mary Mitchell, MS, CCC-SLP, is a first-year doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. She works in a local school 20 hours a week with graduate clinicians to support children and adolescents who struggle with language and literacy.×
Article Information
Professional Issues & Training / Student's Say
Student's Say   |   March 01, 2015
Doctoral Direction
The ASHA Leader, March 2015, Vol. 20, 32-33. doi:10.1044/leader.SSAY.20032015.32
The ASHA Leader, March 2015, Vol. 20, 32-33. doi:10.1044/leader.SSAY.20032015.32
Have you ever thought about—or seriously considered—returning to school for a PhD in communication sciences and disorders? Is uncertainty about your qualifications, experiences or skills holding you back?
Two years ago, I was in the “seriously considering it” stage with a lot of uncertainty about whether I could do it and how to even begin. I was finishing my eighth school year as a school-based speech-language pathologist and decided the time was right for me. So I took a deep breath and jumped in.
I lined up some visits with researchers in my area of interest—language and literacy intervention in schools. I ended up on a cross-country journey to visit family and CSD doctoral programs throughout the summer. I visited, spoke with or Skyped with professors, current and past doctoral students, prospective mentors and other professional mentors.
My copious questions resulted in encouraging advice from CSD faculty that could be helpful to anyone thinking about a research doctorate. Here is some of what I learned.
What should I look for in a prospective mentor?
Guidance from the right mentor makes all the difference to your doctoral experience. Look for someone who’s knowledgeable and kind, will encourage you through your mistakes, and will help you become actively engaged in their research and their networks, suggests Lynn Fox, professor emerita at Portland State University.
To find the right mentor for you, read the literature that prospective mentors have published, advises LaVae Hoffman, an associate professor at the University of Virginia. Initiate open conversations with prospective mentors about their interests in research, teaching and service to see how well they align with your own, she says.
Is funding available?
Funding is often part of the acceptance package. Program directors will tell you if funding is available through grants or university departments, which tend to involve a graduate or research assistantship. In general, a package might include a tuition waiver, health insurance and a $15,000 per year stipend in return for about 20 hours per week working as an assistant. Some packages are set for three years with possible extensions.
If you are funded through a grant, the type of grant might dictate your work responsibilities and, possibly, where you work after finishing the program. For example, a federal leadership grant may require two years of work in a public institution for every year you receive funding. If you’re on a researcher’s grant from the National Institutes of Health, you will likely be heavily engaged in research.
Scholarships are available through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation and the Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders.
What else should I consider in a program?
Program health. Are faculty actively publishing? How many tenured faculty are in the department? Will you have opportunities to publish before you graduate? Will it prepare you to teach and conduct research?
Program size. Every size has advantages and disadvantages. Bigger programs may have more funding opportunities, ongoing projects with more than one researcher, and more opportunities to work with other doctoral students in your field. In smaller programs, you may receive more individual attention.
Understand your degree track. Be clear about your goals and the type of degree you need to achieve them. Ask potential mentors about degree tracks. The differences between the EdD, PhD and clinical doctorate hold significant implications for later work. The PhD is designed to train you to conduct research.
Program expectations of students. Programs should clearly outline how students should measure their progress toward a degree, explains Julie Wolter, associate professor at Utah State University. Examples of guideposts include exams, products and presentations. You also need to communicate to your advisers what you want to accomplish. But just as programs have a responsibility to provide a rigorous education, students have a responsibility to define goals, take initiative for their own learning, and seek out opportunities to apply their skills. If you want to conduct research and publish, connect with others who are doing the same.
Ask program directors about opportunities for outreach and interdisciplinary coursework, says Lissa Power-deFur, associate professor at Longwood University. She also encourages students to take initiative and present at state and national conferences.
A culture of collaboration is important in a doctoral program, says Barbara Ehren, professor at the University of Central Florida. She adds that coursework should be leveraged into research and potentially publishable works.
Do I need to know my dissertation topic when I start?
Although you should have an idea about your research interests, you may not have chosen a dissertation topic when you begin a program. Students should read current literature, identify gaps in the research, and develop research questions to help guide a dissertation focus, says Alan Kamhi, professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
Doctoral programs teach research skills. My background was in clinical practice, and I worried that I didn’t have the right skills for research. These fears were quickly alleviated when my professors helped shape my understanding of research.
Your research interests may change and evolve through the course of your program, advises Sandi Gillam, Utah State University professor, and a good program will expose you to an array of experiences.
What can I do with a PhD?
There are many opportunities in CSD for PhDs. According to the 2012–2013 CSD Education Survey, more than 25 percent of faculty openings went unfilled. The longstanding shortage of faculty-researchers indicates your efforts are likely to pay off. Employment can be on a tenure track, on a fixed-term clinical track, or as an adjunct professor. Talk with recent PhDs about their opportunities and experiences—I spoke with some who have assumed leadership roles at universities, private practices and public organizations overseeing program development.
How long will it take?
Most full-time students complete a PhD in four to six years. This is an intense, yet temporary, career transition. A program’s location may be a quality of life consideration for you and your family.
When do I need to start the application process?
I started about 16 months before enrollment date.
  • June–July. Visit schools and interview prospective mentors. Begin studying for GREs and register to take the test at the end of October. Allot time to take it again if needed by the time the first application is due. If you plan to take a prep course, build that into your schedule and budget.

  • August–October. Study for the GRE and organize what you need for each school’s application. Contact people who will write letters of recommendation and talk with them about your goals.

  • November–December. Work on applications (many have similar components): Update your resume, write your letter of interest, select an academic writing sample. Arrange for your undergraduate and graduate schools to send transcripts to the programs you are applying to (don’t wait until winter break—most registrar offices will be closed).

  • December–February. Complete and submit applications. Make sure you have communicated your interests clearly with prospective mentors at the institutions to which you are applying.

  • February–April. You will hear from programs—wait patiently and try to stay sane! Talk to more students to get their perspectives on mentors, courses, research opportunities and graduate assistant responsibilities.

  • April 15. Let all programs know of your decision. Although it was hard to decline offers from programs that showed me so much support, faculty continued to offer encouragement as I moved forward. Let programs know early if you are declining an offer; it’s a courtesy to the program and other applicants waiting for a spot.

March 16, 2015
Katie Ryther
Great information!
Thank you for sharing this information. I have also contemplated obtaining my Ph.D. This article is a very good starting point to get people thinking about the logistics of what a program entails. Thank you for sharing!
January 18, 2017
John Talley
Thank you!
A very nice place to start. Thanks for the information.
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March 2015
Volume 20, Issue 3