3 Questions for An Alt-Academic Working Towards A PhD

A Q&A with Ashley Kehoe, Associate Director of Experiential Learning at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning.

May 10, 2017

Ashley Kehoe is the inaugural Associate Director of Experiential Learning at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning. (Where I also work). 

Ashley has graciously agreed to share her thoughts and experience as full-time alt-academic who is also working towards a PhD.  

Question 1:  Why are you studying for a PhD?  How does your graduate work relate to your job?  What will a PhD give you that you think will contribute to your goals for your institution and your career?

A:  Something I’ve discovered in my first year as a doctoral student is that I’m not actually studying for a PhD, I’m studying to become a PhD. The distinction there is that this experience is inspiring me to think more deeply, approach problems more critically, and engage with my own learning differently than I ever have. It’s really not about what the degree will do for me, it’s about what the experience is doing to the way I think and how I approach my work. It’s truly been a transformative process so far.

The program itself - Antioch University’s PhD in Leadership and Change - connects strongly to my career in higher education. I purposefully chose a program that cuts across disciplinary boundaries, so I have the opportunity to study higher education from multiple lenses beyond the field and learn in a diverse community of faculty and students with years of experience in a wide range of industries.

As an aspiring leader in higher education, a PhD is sort of a mandatory credential for career advancement, but I try not to think of it that way, as a box to check. Instead, I’m framing this as a multi-year opportunity to dedicate time and energy to questions and ideas I have about higher education that I’ve otherwise been too busy to explore as a full-time professional working in the field for the past decade. A year into life as a PhD student, I fully believe this will make me a more effective professional in the long-run, and that I will come out of this program deeply rooted in the scholarship of my field with significant contributions to make and the skills to actually make them.

Question 2:  Tells us about your PhD program.  What is it?  How is it structured?  How much does it cost?  How much time will it take?   Why did you choose this one?  How are you managing to work full-time while studying for your doctorate?

A:  I chose the Antioch PhD in Leadership and Change program for several reasons:

  • It was critical for me to find a program that valued learning design, faculty-student engagement, and experiential education as much as I do. Given what I do professionally, I struggled to imagine myself sitting in classes that were not well designed, or navigating a curriculum that wasn’t intentionally developed. Our program is based on a progressive education model, where we move through the program by completing a series of learning achievements that allow us to demonstrate mastery in specific outcome areas. Each project aligns directly with program outcomes and is assessed by a different member of the faculty, which gives us a chance to get different types of feedback as we progress through the program and narrow in on our research interests.
  • I also knew I wanted to continue working while pursuing my degree, which limited my options either geographically or to online programs. As a social learner who thrives in learning communities, I was concerned about doing a program remotely, so I was thrilled to find a low-residency option. Antioch’s program is a flexible, hybrid approach, where much of our learning happens at a distance and we gather in-person for multi-day residencies several times throughout the year. A year in, I can honestly say it doesn’t feel at all like distance education. There are so many intentional check-ins and touch points built into the program that I feel highly connected at all times - to my advisor, to our faculty, and to members of my cohort.
  • The program is interdisciplinary, which was a major selling point for me. The curriculum draws from many disciplines - including psychology, education, management, social science, and the humanities - which I felt would broaden my horizons intellectually and professionally. My cohort is also extremely diverse demographically and in terms of our experience. I’m learning in community with brilliant leaders in the non-profit, corporate, government, technology, and education sectors. In the rapidly changing landscape of higher education, I want to be prepared to work both within and across institutions and industries. This cross-sector model presented an opportunity to expand my knowledge and networks, while applying what I’m learning to my specific field.
  • Antioch is deeply committed to social justice and “winning victories for humanity,” which has been a common cornerstone of all my educational experiences so far - so this was another critical aspect of my decision.
  • Costs for the Antioch PhD in Leadership and Change program can be found here. The program is based on a three-years-to-candidacy model, and we have a maximum limit of seven years from when we enter the program to complete all PhD requirements.

How I’m managing to work full-time and work toward a PhD - also full-time - is a great question, one I’m not sure I can answer some days. I’m taking it day by day and using all of my available resources and support networks to keep moving forward. Within the program, I rely on the relationships I’ve built with my advisor, our faculty, and members of my cohort to keep me motivated and inspired. The program is designed for working professionals, so that definitely helps. There’s a clear and logical progression through the program, so when I plan ahead, I’m able to stay on track.

Beyond the program, I’m unbelievably grateful to have friends, family, and colleagues rallying around me. I also have an incredibly supportive supervisor and professional circle who recognize the value this adds to my life, academically and professionally, so I’m regularly encouraged to write and share what I’m learning at work.

Question 3:  What advice would you give your non-faculty educator / alt-ac colleagues who are considering applying to a PhD program?

A:  This question is actually exactly how I started my own PhD program search. I did a listening tour with friends and colleagues who had successfully earned a PhD, and asked what they wished they had known when they started out, and what helped them persist through to completion.

One piece of advice I heard loud and clear was to find a program that prioritizes the student-advisor relationship, so that you end up with faculty advisors and a dissertation chair who are squarely in your corner and who will support you throughout the experience. Not all PhD programs are learner-centered in this way, so that is something I would highly encourage. Based on my own experience, I can say that having a positive advising relationship in my first year has made a major difference.

I would also encourage my non-faculty educator colleagues in particular to be willing to take risks and think outside of the traditional PhD box. I debated whether or not it would be too risky for me to choose an unconventional program, but in reality, it has actually felt like walking the talk for the first time in a long time. I regularly encourage other educators to innovate and take risks in their teaching, and this experience is empowering me to innovate and take risks as a learner. I’m experiencing progressive, individualized, low-residency, experiential education firsthand - and it’s having a radical impact on how I think about my own work with learning design and faculty development.


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