No Doctor in This House

It’s been a long-term goal of mine to earn a doctoral degree.  Until relatively recently, I thought that would be in education, but my grad school experience studying school psychology opened up another research interest for me.  As I was winding down my Ed.S. program over the last year or so, I began looking into doctoral programs in the PA/NJ area.  I was pretty disappointed by what I found.  With very few exceptions, my options seemed to be:

  • quit my job and go to school full-time for 5-7 years
  • forget about getting the doctorate

If I was single, I’d actually consider the first option, but the fact is I’ve got a wife, two kids, a mortgage, day care tuition, and a host of other financial responsibilities for which I have yet to receive my bailout check from the federal government.

Because I live over an hour away from the nearest university that could accommodate my professional schedule, I started looking into online psychology doctoral programs, such as those offered through Walden, Capella, and Argosy.  From what I could glean from the institution websites (as well as some discussion boards on this topic), the trade-off for convenience is huge: often higher tuition rates with little or no financial aid/tuition forgiveness, not to mention the seemingly widely-held attitudes that online graduate programs such as these are inferior to “brick & mortar” universities in terms of academic rigor and career preparation.

Of course, incidents like this, in which it was discovered that two teachers and three high-ranking administrators in the Freehold (NJ) Regional High School District purchased their doctoral degrees from diploma mills, do nothing to advance the cause of distance learning in the eyes of the public or other educators.

Let me make two things abundantly clear: #1: I don’t want to buy a doctoral degree, and #2: I recognize the benefits of face-to-face interaction. I don’t want to get my degree from a diploma mill; I want the opportunity to work hard to earn one.  I would just like to do that while still being able to pay my bills and see my kids.  Is it really necessary for me to drive an hour and a half each way twice a week to be lectured (with bulleted PowerPoints, as was a good part of my grad experience)?  Given the technology that is available to us today, can we not do that online, with maybe a monthly or bi-monthly f2f cohort meeting?

So I’m at a temporary impasse here, folks.  After 5 1/2 years of part-time grad study, I promised my long-suffering wife that I would wait on the doc degree until our oldest was in school full-time, so I’ve got another year or two before I can make a move, but some questions remain:

  • Administrators: Would you dismiss a resume out of hand that featured a degree earned from an online, yet accredited, program?
  • Higher Ed folks: Why must doctoral study and earning a living wage/supporting a family be mutually exclusive?  That’s the implied message I’ve gotten from 99% of the universities I’ve researched in my area.
  • All Concerned Educators: What can/must be done in order to raise distance learning to the same level of perceived credibility as traditional routes of study?  Is that even a possibility?  Or is it already there and I’m just listening to the wrong echo chamber?

Update! As if guided by Providence, this post from Open Education just came through my RSS reader.  While it certainly only addresses one small part of a larger issue, these two takeaways make my heart smile:

Critics have long held onto the fact that being there and hearing the lecture in person, face-to-face, trumps any taped offering. The work of McKinney, et al, certainly undercuts that assertion.

So we have not been able to discern what McKinney postulates as rationale for the students listening to a podcast to perform better than those students hearing the lecture in person.

But the abstract alone confirms that as education gives careful consideration as to how best to implement technology, things change when the focus is on steps to make education more affordable. Because, if lectures and the accompanying power point slides available on iTunes produce even similar academic outcomes as traditional face-to-face lecture formats, then the enormous potential cost savings from taped online versions would in fact render the current educational model obsolete.

8 comments

  1. Ian

    Damian, I feel your pain. I’m also holding off until my youngest hits kindergarten (3 years away).

    Although I’m sure our professional situations differ, here’s some of what I have found.

    The trick to working full time and pursuing a doctorate (and life for that matter) is availability of time and money. It is conceivable to take one class every semester (including summer) and get done within 5-7 years. The financial side is a while other subject. I, like you, have two kids, a mortgage, and other domestic expenses. Most (not all) teacher contracts do not have great tuition reimbursement policies. Act 93 agreements, however, usually do. As a school psychologist, you most likely qualify for Act 93. Check with your district.

    I hope this helps at least a little.

    Ian’s last blog post..Disruption at the door

  2. Robert Talbert

    I’m a higher ed person, and in response to your question above for higher ed people: I have no idea, and I wish it were different too. I have about three different masters’ degree programs in mind that I would love to go through, but the classes cost $500/credit hour and the degrees require 20-30 hours of coursework. I don’t mind doing that much coursework for an MA or MS, but it’s just too costly for the likes of me (married with 3 kids + mortgage). And I want to get the degree so I can be better at my work — having to quit my job in order to get the MA is therefore kind of absurd.

    I don’t offer any sort of defense of the way this all works, but I can say that I think the reason it’s the way it is, is because advanced degrees require a very high degree of personal interaction with other students and expert faculty. There is a high premium on producing original work — that’s the heart of a PhD program — and doing this all online is, fair or not, considered counterproductive toward this end. The “establishment” as a whole does not consider online work to be real academic, intellectual work. And in advanced higher ed, it seems that credentialing is at the center of the viability of a degree.

    I think things are changing, though. There are several MA/MS programs popping up that are offered through real, brick-and-mortar schools that either compress an entire MA program into one year or else combine face-to-face classes with online work to make them doable for people with jobs and lives. Pepperdine University offers an Educational Technology degree that is done mostly online; a guy here at work did it and thought highly of it. The University of Washington now offers a “professional Master’s program” in computational linguistics that can be done in one calendar year, although you do have to be in residence to get it done that fast. I’ve never seen a PhD program on this scale, but I bet that if these accelerated master’s programs offered by well-thought-of universities take off, the doctoral programs won’t be far behind.

    I also think that within ten years, the idea of spending 4-5 years in residence at a university to get a doctorate will be an anachronism as the technology allowing remote academic collaboration becomes cheaper and better. Based on your experiences I think the market would demand it.

    Robert Talbert’s last blog post..The iPod touch: Keeping new parents sane since 2009

  3. micsmith

    If you find an answer to your/my problem, please let me know. I would join you for an online degree.

    As long as it would be taken seriously once I completed it.

    Great blog post.

  4. Brian S Friedlander

    Hi Damian:

    As someone with a doctoral degree from a brick and mortar university I would think that it would be hard to do a Ph.D. in isolation. I know for myself that having the support of my colleagues made it task doable. I’m not sure that I could have sustained the effort or drive towards completion without my friends and colleagues. I do vividly remember that as my colleagues were finishing up just how hard it was for me to keeping persevering-but I did do it. Doing a Ph.D. degree can be an awfully lonely experience and having the interactions and the face to face time is important. On another note if you plan on applying for State Licensure as a psychologist you want to make sure that the program fulfills the requirements and is recognized by State as being primarily psychological. It can get a bit tricky so please investigate this as fully as you can.

    All the best
    Dr. Brian
    http://assistivetek.blogspot.com

    Brian S Friedlander’s last blog post..Chuck Frey Interviews Wallace Tait

  5. Louise Maine

    I feel your pain as well. I have been looking for a doctorate program too. Though my kids are older, we live in a rural area and someone still needs to be available for them. I would love an online program as it is more flexible and I can find something that is the best for me. Hoping the tides change and the upper level programs learn that time and space need not be an issue.

    I look forward to hearing about what you find.

    Louise Maine’s last blog post..Values and courage…

  6. Brunsell

    Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. You are correct in your statement that non-traditional programs (Like Walden, Fielding, etc.) are not valued by many in higher ed. I think you would be challenged to get an interview for a tenure-track faculty position with a degree from these institutions. Depending on the program, this perception may be valid. Some of the programs have great coursework, but the research / dissertation aspect seems to be lacking.

    However, I expect that you will find more traditional universities are offering hybrid doctoral programs – you may still have to do some residency, especially for the dissertation component.

    In fact, the National Science Foundation funded a “Center for Learning and Teaching” that involved a collaboration between five universities (Montana State, U of Montana, Portland State, Northern Colorado, Colorado State) that developed doctoral programs in science & math education with significan components online. I took advantage of the program at Montana State and was able to finish my degree while working full time (I did have to take time off for residency). It was a “normal” doctoral degree from Montana State, so there were no perceptions of a lack of quality. I had no problems in interviews & after 2.5 years of being in a tenure-track position, fell like I was well prepared.

    Brunsell’s last blog post..My Life: Growing Up Digital

  7. damian

    Thanks again for your comments, folks. Here are a few follow-up questions and ideas that came to mind as I read your responses:

    * Which is more important when determining the validity of a degree or program: the sponsoring university or the method of delivery (online vs. traditional)? I can see why people might question some online-only programs, especially given the propensity for diploma millery online, but Penn State, which is about as legit as they come, offers several 100% online BA, MA/MEd, and post-grad certificate programs. Should these programs be devalued because they were not attained in a classroom? Similarly, Argosy has an APA-accredited online doctor of psychology program, though I’ve read some unflattering things about how the program is perceived (though interestingly enough, nothing unflattering about the program itself). Seton Hall has an “executive Ed.D.” program for school administrators that can be earned in two years, including dissertation, over nights and weekends.

    * So as not to take the discussion in the wrong direction, is it only doc programs that are held to this scrutiny, or is it considered “OK” to do undergrad or non-doctoral grad programs online?

    * If I don’t plan on looking for employment as a university professor, does it matter where my doctorate comes from? Brian’s point regarding licensure requirements is well-taken, and I absolutely would look into that before starting a program.

    * Kind of continuing off my first point, I’m also wondering if the perceptions of online degrees as less rigorous or unequal in value are supported by data, or just preconceived notions without basis. I’m not asking a rhetorical question; I really don’t know the answer to that. I would be interested to know how much about online programs those who dismiss them do know. As Michael mentioned, I don’t want to invest the time and money and then not be taken seriously. It’s a legitimate concern.

    * The online issue isn’t just a matter of convenience; as Louise pointed out, some of us don’t live near major universities where we can take courses, and moving isn’t an option for many folks in this economy, especially those of us with families.

    *Eric says, “After 2.5 years… [I] feel like I was well prepared” and Robert says “I want to get the degree so I can be better at my work — having to quit my job in order to get the MA is therefore kind of absurd.” – that’s really what I’m feeling – I want to learn more about my practice, and I’m not trying to impress anybody with the name on the diploma – might as well just write off all the non-Ivies if that’s one’s goal. I have to hope that my ability to do my job well is more important than where I received my training. Maybe it’s not.

    *Ian, thanks for the heads-up on Act 93. I’m going to look into that, but I don’t know if it will apply to me because I’m currently employed in NJ, even though I live in PA. I’m supposing I’d have to be a PA employee to qualify.

    I feel I should add that my preference really is to do a traditional or combined traditional/online program (Eric, what you described sounds perfect for my purposes; wish they had one in my discipline); I’m just wondering why we haven’t made more strides toward viable (and well-respected) distance learning programs. Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) has what appears to be an excellent Psy.D. program for working psychologists, as does Rutgers University, and I think I could possibly make one of those work, depending on where I’m working, living, and what kind of financial aid I could get at the time. Still, I’ll be spending more time in the car than in class in either scenario, and that sticks in my craw a bit.

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