DeWitt Scott received his doctorate in Educational Leadership from Chicago State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered.
Many graduate programs in higher education, whether at the master’s or doctoral level, teach students to become better thinkers, scholars, and experts on particular theories and ideologies within a given discipline. We often enroll in these programs to obtain advanced degrees that will help us gain greater knowledge and skills needed for the careers we want to pursue. Professors help us view questions and problems from different perspectives, enhancing our analytical skills, while pushing us to become better at articulating our points of view and consuming and developing new knowledge related to our field. In these programs we explore, think through, and prepare for the new jobs we are going to pursue after we complete the program.
But what about those of us in professional graduate programs that teach about the work we already do in our daily jobs? Students in programs centered on subjects such as business administration, social work, counseling, educational and academic administration, organizational leadership, and others are often current professionals who hold 9-5 jobs in the subject areas they are studying. These students are not typical graduate students who are looking to learn about a new subject they are interested in. Usually, students in these professional, applied programs are already doing the work discussed and are seeking other outcomes from enrolling in these programs.
Below are some tips for students who are in programs teaching about what students already do professionally. These tips center primarily on how to get the most from your program even though the theories and methods being taught may not be entirely new to you.
1. Have an open mind. A high school principal of five years might be understandably skeptical about enrolling in an educational leadership doctoral program. After all, you may have been an administrator for 5-plus years before entering the program. However, everyone, regardless of experience, still has something to learn. Experienced students must be willing to admit they do not know everything. Yes, as a business manager you have led your department to unprecedented growth and expansion, but there may be some ideas or strategies encountered in your MBA or DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) program that may spark new strategies or inspiration for you. Keep an open mind and be willing to challenge your assumptions. You may be surprised at what you learn.
2. Focus on building relationships. Considering you are in a professional program, filled primarily with experienced individuals from your industry, class time and projects can be an opportunity to build relationships with other people who are succeeding and looking to grow in your field. Countless advice columns and graduate workshops discuss the importance of graduate students networking to get ahead. Students in applied programs have built-in networking opportunities every time the class meets; take advantage. Get to know the brighter, more industrious colleagues in your class/cohort. Meet up to discuss ideas, career paths, and future plans. You may, incidentally, meet your next business partner, assistant vice president, or district superintendent.
3. Bring your lived experiences to the class. Often MBA, counseling, and educational administration programs tend to teach through case studies as a way of simulating everyday issues for students. If you already work in the industry you are studying, you have a backlog of case studies from your years of experience. Present issues you are dealing with to your professor and classmates. Bounce ideas off of them. Ask them to compare your experience to what they have seen. Instantly you will realize that sometimes having smart colleagues from outside your organization give you a fresh perspective on issues can enhance your work. Reciprocate these acts and help others. You may learn more from your classmates than you do from your professors.
4. Share texts and readings with colleagues at work. Much of the reading you are assigned in class will be closely related to the work you do. When you come across helpful material, share it with the colleagues at your company/school/institution/non-profit. Let them know what you’ve picked up from those night classes that you run off to twice a week. Return to class and share how helpful (or unhelpful) these readings were in a real-world context. Doing so can provide a sort of quasi-professional development for your employees/constituents and honest critique of the viability of your class readings and lessons.
5. Lastly, don’t dismiss the theoretical. Practical application and experience are usually seen as more valuable and useful than the theoretical/philosophical. Some would argue that it does no one—particularly the populations you serve—any good for you to know all of the theories (and their sources) if you cannot do your job effectively. But, as you master the functional, also work to master the theoretical. Know what works but also have the ability to adequately articulate what you are doing when necessary. Be able to give detailed explanations about the procedures and decisions you employ that go beyond “I can’t explain it, I just know how to do it.” There is nothing wrong with being a practitioner and a scholar. It truly is the best of both worlds.
As a graduate student who is studying what you already do for a living, you are in a unique position. You bring a wealth of knowledge to the table before you even begin, and you pick up more as you advance through the program. Take advantage of this opportunity and build the skills needed to change your industry for the better.
Have you or someone you know had experience in an applied program related to their occupation? What do you think about these programs, particularly at the doctoral level?
[Photo courtesy of Google Images user Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license]
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