Wired Pursuits

Archive for the ‘In pursuit of a Phd’ Category

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 2.16.08 PMI started this blog about 3 1/2 years ago when I decided to change paths and go off in pursuit of a Ph.D. On May 5th I graduated and have the diploma to prove it. For anyone thinking about going back to school as a more “seasoned” student here’s my top 10 list for perspective Ph.D.’s:

10.  Leverage your topic in everything you do. Figure out how to start writing about your research area in your classes even if you don’t have data. I was amazed at how much I was able to reuse from the lit reviews, theory exploration, and proposals that were created as part of my coursework.

9.   Remind yourself that you are here to learn. Just because you have 20+ years of industry experience, that doesn’t really matter. Put that in your back pocket for now. Scholarship is a different ball game, so be open to what you don’t know, admit that you don’t know it, and actively seek out advice from those who are doing it.

8.  You can’t read everything. At some point you just have to stop or you’ll never finish. (TIP: One thing to never stop reading is Ph.D. comics. This guy is right on and will put a smile on your face.)

7.  Talk about your ideas no matter how half-baked. In fact, the most important time to talk about them is when they are just forming. Find a buddy who is working on a similar topic then meet weekly to discuss your work. Just talking about what you’re doing is eye-opening in terms of how difficult it can be to clearly articulate your research. (CAUTION: Alcohol should not be involved, it only makes half-baked ideas sound way better than they really are.)

6.  Plan your work and work your plan. Here’s where being more “seasoned” is a benefit. Create a 4 year plan that outlines semester by semester the classes you want to take, the conferences you want to submit papers to, the key milestones of your program, and the courses you want to teach. Then regularly evaluate how you’re doing against your plan. It will likely change, but it will help you from waking up 4 years later and still not being at the finish line.

5.  Dissertations are like large software projects, they often fail because people keep adding new features. Avoid the moth in a light-bulb factory effect of adding in new stuff just because you’ve become enamored with it. Focus. Focus. Focus. Here’s where your advisor will be key.

4.  Speaking of advisors, s/he will make you or break you. So be sure you have a collaborative relationship, that she knows your area of study, that she has the time to devote to you (meeting every other week potentially), and that she’s not slated for a sabbatical right as you’re reaching the end. She will also be instrumental in finding you a job, so pick someone that has and extensive network and is well respected in the field you want to enter.

3.  Expect to be anxious. This process was a crazy up and down experience. It was the first time in a long time that I couldn’t apply my past business experiences directly to the task at hand (or just wing it based on past knowledges). So expect to wake up in the night with regular “Oh Shit!” moments. They will pass (and come back again), so just know it’s part of the process. (TIP: Yoga breathing helps as does alcohol but both are only temporary.)

2.  Write down what motivated you to do this in the first place and what your end goal is. Then, revisit it often. Academia presents many different opportunities and your advisor and the culture of the institution you are studying at may value different things than you do. You can easily get caught up in what others’ think is important and end up spending time that ultimately doesn’t advance your personal goals.

1.  Get your Ph.D. for you and be “all in.” You have to remain motivated. You have to do all the work yourself. It’s a very lonely process at times, so you have to be your own best advocate and cheerleader. (TIP: Having a spouse who’s willing to take up the slack and deal with late nights and braindeadness is essential.)

In the end, it’s an amazing journey and I’m glad that I’m on the other end of that train.

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shamelessselfpromotionExcited to say that just before Christmas my research was featured in an article on MIT Sloan Management Review’s Blog Improvisations. The author Robert Berkman discusses my paper from this years AMCIS (Americas Conference on Information Systems) Conference.

It’s exciting to have what I’m working on noticed (it also great timing considering I’ll be defending next month).

OK, self-promotion complete, back to writing.

How do you know spring has arrived? In most places the trees start to bud, flowers start to pop up, the weather warms, and the days get longer. Well here in Happy Valley (a.k.a. State College) we have our own unique way of recognizing the arrival of spring.

Here are the top 10 ways you know it’s spring in State College.

1. Red chairs pop up outside at Cafe 210.

2. Gaggles of college kids in matching t-shirts wondering around town (the annual bar tour).

3. The fragrant scent of cheap beer everywhere.

4. Blue Natty Light cans scattered across the lawn.

5. Red solo cups impaled on unsuspecting bushes.

6. Skin everywhere (guys in shorts, girls in sundresses) even when it’s 50 degrees and raining.

7. The slap-slap sound of flip-flops.

8. A sudden increase in desperate emails from students trying to figure out how to make up for missed assignments.

9. Mattresses, broken bookcases, and the odd papasan chair without a cushion left on the curb.

10. And finally, an eerie quite hush blankets the valley as the students leave for the summer.

After 2 years of PhD classes, research, writing, and reading of academic literature I’ve finally become used to the thick descriptions, multi-syllabic words, and long, long, run-on, very complex sentence structure sentences (as this sentence would illustrate).

Coming from business and writing for the web, academic writing was the antithesis of what I was used to (yes I just dangled my participle). But over time, I’ve come to feel comfortable with academic writing and have even somewhat adjusted my writing style. Who’d of thought? It’s a cultural thing. It’s not that one style is better than the other, they’re just different.

I have come across authors who are great at weaving an argument, moving the reader from one point to the other, and supporting their arguments with well-written prose. I have also come across those who like to throw in ridiculous words such as “finalizability” or “multiperspectival.”  I typically roll my eyes and say, “seriously who are you trying to impress?” But I’ve gotten used to academic writing (made up words and all) and I find that within academic literature there is a wide variety of styles just like within business writing.

I will likely always have a conversational tone to my writing, but some academic reviewers have said that it’s “refreshing.” When I first started reading academic literature I wasn’t sure that there was room for different styles. But as I’ve become more familiar with academic literature I am beginning to find my style. This will no doubt keep evolving, but I’m glad now that even with the thick descriptions and multi-syllabic words there is also room for individuality.

P.S. Speaking of academic language, if you’re a PhD student and aren’t aware of PHD comics (Piled Higher and Deeper) you need to check it out. Case in point…deciphering academese…


Just finished my first year as a PhD student at Penn State. Being a student is quite a different lifestyle than running a business. In some ways more hectic, but in many less so because I can focus mostly on my studies. So with one year down (and at least 2 to go) here are some lessons learned for anyone trying to jump back in to academia:

  • Re-train your brain. Academic literature is quite “thick.” It’s full of multi-syllabic words (I really believe that some are totally made up). Anyway, it took about 3 months to switch gears in terms of being able to quickly read and comprehend academic literature. Reading a lot before I came was key to being able to dive in once classes started and not have to reread the same sentence 3 times.
  • Understand the structure of academic papers. Learning how to quickly pull out the salient points of a research article is a very helpful skill especially when you have 100’s of pages to read each week, are writing lit reviews, or are looking for articles to support your current research projects. Abstracts, lit review sections, and discussions can be scanned first to see if the paper is relevant. If so, then go back and read the details.
  • Write it down or you’ll forget it. OK, no age jokes. But seriously, once you turn on your brain again, you’ll have a million thoughts and ideas related to your field of research. Keep a notebook or electronic file of ideas and write them down as you have them. When you’re writing papers or looking for inspiration for research topics, going back and re-reading your thoughts is not only helpful in completing assignments, but it is also a reminder of what you’re really interested in.
  • Don’t forget why you’re here. At times I feel like a moth in a light bulb factory – I’m attracted to everything. Every topic seems amazing. You can easily get distracted. Take the first year to explore different things, but towards the end of the year, start honing in on what you need to do to accomplish your end-goal (and what you’re really interested in as mentioned above).
  • Talk to everyone. As a CEO I hesitated to ask other’s advice and learn from those who had “been there, done that.” Taking the time to talk to both students and faculty is a great way to open up the possibilities for potential research and learning opportunities. You’ll never know if the person sitting next to you in class is a wiz at quantitative analysis if you don’t strike up a conversation.
  • Age can be an asset. Having years of experience in corporate America has been a great asset. If you think about school like it’s one great big client project, you’ll be more organized and less stressed.
  • Beer, summer, and friends are still hard to resist. Passing a bar on a warm sunny day with a ton of people sitting outside and drinking beer is tempting no matter what age you are.  Sometimes you just have to give in and join in.
  • There will be days you’ll wonder if you made a mistake. When you make a huge lifestyle change, some days you’ll wake up in the middle of the night and think, “What have I done?” In talking with others who’ve made lifestyle changes later in life, it’s helpful to hear that this is to be expected. Just take 2 deep breaths and let it pass (or go get a beer).

It’s the end of the semester. I’ve got one term paper left then I’m done. As I write, edit, rewrite, reedit and rewrite again a scene from A Christmas Story keeps popping into my head.

I’m sure you remember when Ralphie was writing his essay for class? As he writes, he imagines his teacher reading the essay and being overcome with joy.  The cartoon bubble over his head shows her smiling ear to ear, holding her red marking pen and saying over and over, “Yes, yes, yes. A +, +, +, +, +, +, +, +.”

The next day Ralphie goes to class anticipating the accolades his teacher will shower upon him only to find a C+ at the top of the page.

It’s actually my nightmare. I worry that while I think I’m writing amazing prose, those in academia may not agree. Even though I have years of writing experience, writing for academia is different than writing for business. Do I have what it takes? Is my background research thorough enough? Will I get a C+?  Arggghhhh.

As someone who’s been around the block, it’s hard to be back in an environment where others are grading you. It’s humbling. And I think it’s a good thing. Ultimately it will make me a better writer and scholar.

I’m done for the semester, off to visit with friends and families, and yes, checking the online grading site likely every day. Let’s hope  I do better than Ralphie did.

I’m what they consider a “non-traditional” student here at Penn State. Basically that means I’m coming into the PhD program having taken a 20+ year detour into the business world. So I guess the non-traditional part is the “real-life” experience I bring to the table (because I don’t really want it to just mean I’m older).

That said, as I walk around campus I’m immersed in a sea of 18-20 something year olds. I get to overhear a lot of very interesting conversations. OK, maybe I listen in in an attempt to feel closer to my kids of the same age whom I left back in VA.

That said, in the spirit of “overheard” Web sites everywhere, I launch the inaugural edition of “Overheard on campus.” It’s about conversations I find interesting or at least revealing in terms of the younger generation and their experiences at college and it’s as close to the actual conversation as my “non-traditional” brain can remember.

Overheard on campus

Male: “As long as I’m here I’ll never miss a football game.”

Female: “Yeah right, unless, like, you have to go home or something.”

Male: “Why would I go home?”

Female: “You know, for family shit.”

Male: “We don’t do shit in our family.”


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