Returning to School … 9 Years Later A clinician, acting on a long-held desire to research AAC strategies, begins a doctoral program after a nine-year career. Student's Say
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Student's Say  |   December 01, 2018
Returning to School … 9 Years Later
Author Notes
  • Christina Lynn Corso, MS, CCC-SLP, is a doctoral student in the Division of Communication Science and Disorders at Ohio University, researching technology and AAC that enhances independence and supports language development for people with severe and complex disabilities. cc199016@ohio.edu
    Christina Lynn Corso, MS, CCC-SLP, is a doctoral student in the Division of Communication Science and Disorders at Ohio University, researching technology and AAC that enhances independence and supports language development for people with severe and complex disabilities. cc199016@ohio.edu×
Article Information
Augmentative & Alternative Communication / School-Based Settings / Professional Issues & Training / Student's Say
Student's Say   |   December 01, 2018
Returning to School … 9 Years Later
The ASHA Leader, December 2018, Vol. 23, 42-43. doi:10.1044/leader.SSAY.23122018.42
The ASHA Leader, December 2018, Vol. 23, 42-43. doi:10.1044/leader.SSAY.23122018.42
As I write this article, I am on a plane to Australia, a place I would have only dreamed about prior to returning to school for my PhD. I am going to present at the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication biennial conference.
But let me back up a little ….
I am a first-generation college student who fell in love with augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) when, just before I started the five-year speech-language pathology program at Duquesne University, I observed a child calm down after using her communication book to request “juice.” After completing my master’s degree in 2008, I worked with students who have severe and complex communication needs, a population that uses many different AAC strategies.
Pursing a doctorate in speech-language pathology has always been in my mind. The seed of the idea was planted by some influential Duquesne professors, who often discussed the shortage of PhDs in the profession and the need for continued research to provide the best treatments.
The longer I was a clinician, the more serious I became about getting a PhD. Every year I had more questions about the clients I worked with and had difficulty finding the answers, as their needs were becoming more complex. I went to the ASHA Convention every year in search of interventions and research with this population. I would find one or two ideas that I could adapt, but I saw the large need for more research on serving this population. And so, I began my doctoral journey.

The longer I was a clinician, the more serious I became about getting a PhD. Every year I had more questions about the clients I worked with and had difficulty finding the answers, as their needs were becoming more complex.

Budding research
I decided to establish a research identity to better prepare for doctoral study and to strengthen my application (I had applied to one program three times with no success). As a practicing clinician not associated with a university, I presented a poster at the 2013 ASHA Convention on applying what I learned at convention with my clients.
With my colleague Antoinette Sparte, a special education teacher, I created the “Experiencing Literacy Program,” which uses sensory input, hands-on experiences, social activities, movement and motivation to help children develop literacy regardless of their intellectual or decoding abilities. We felt a responsibility to conduct research on our program to support its use and add to the evidence base. We conducted a study through The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh, using a pre-post group design to demonstrate literacy learning that resulted from the program.
At an ASHA Convention, I had a chance meeting with a doctoral student at Ohio University who was doing research on a similar population. I decided to look into that program and meet with the student’s mentor.
Choosing a program
At this point, I was considering only Ohio University, but I knew that meeting with faculty is an important first step in committing to a program. I wanted to meet with my prospective mentor, John McCarthy, associate professor in the College of Health Sciences and Professions, to see if we connected on a personal level and if our research ideas meshed. Indeed our interests overlapped, in the areas of improving the design and accessibility of AAC systems, creative expression by and for people who use AAC, and the quality of life for people who use AAC.
A second important step is investigating funding for this major life change, as each doctoral program has different financial arrangements. This was a priority for me, as I already had a mountain of student loans from my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I was single with no children, but I was living with my parents to save money and to pay off my student loans and their parent-plus loans.
At Ohio University, the department covers my tuition and I receive a stipend for expenses in return for 20 hours a week of work as a graduate assistant in my mentor’s lab—grading assignments,running the online portal for classes, responding to student concerns, conducting research for my mentor, and establishing my own research.
I am taking out student loans as well, to make sure I have enough money for things like summer tuition (which is not guaranteed) and traveling to conferences. I pay for health insurance through the university. I also need student loans to cover anything that the basic accidental or illness insurance does not cover, including the cost of current prescriptions or visits to out-of-network doctors.

Knowing what I do now, would I still make the decision to leave a stable, decent-paying job with great benefits to pursue a doctoral degree? I say “yes” without hesitation.

Social challenges
A third consideration is the challenge of learning to be a student again and maintaining friendships and relationships. With social media, I can quickly catch up on my friends’ or family’s lives. But it can be hard to discuss what I am working on—research methods/theory, my statistics class, or how interactive media design is helping to strengthen my technology minor—because others often don’t understand, so we often talk about other topics.
This very busy time in my life is like any other adjustment I’ve weathered before. Starting a doctoral program is very similar to starting a new job, with the stress of navigating unfamiliar work and forging new relationships. I am figuring out who I am as a researcher.
Finding friends my own age has been another challenge I did not anticipate. I live and work with a lot of younger women. Most of my fellow students are 22 or 23; I’m 35. I sometimes feel like the mother hen and need to remember that 12 years ago I wasn’t as confident in my life experiences as I am now. But I have learned more about current technology and being more spontaneous from these colleagues.
Knowing what I do now, would I still make the decision to leave a stable, decent-paying job with great benefits to pursue a doctoral degree? I say “yes” without hesitation. My presentation in Australia—my first international conference—was successful and solidified my decision. My research on smart-home technology for people with multiple disabilities was very well-received. I had a packed room that included several people who use AAC! I’m doing my research for them, and their attendance provided the reminder and motivation to keep going.
PhD students are important for the continued growth of our profession—not just as researchers, but also as professors to provide support and knowledge to students in graduate programs. I was fortunate to have a handful of professors who inspired me to dig deeper into our profession and continue to move it forward. We need more academic faculty to inspire future generations of our profession.
If, as a clinician, you question the best way to provide treatment or think you have an idea that is working well, you should do research! To begin, find a mentor who shares similar research interests and with whom you can work well, and investigate the university’s funding for doctoral students. Good luck!
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December 2018
Volume 23, Issue 12