Getting a Doctorate? Tips from Women Who’ve Been There

Not many full-time women doctoral students start a family during their degree program, despite flexible hours and biological clocks.

Dr. Sonja ArdoinDr. Sonja Ardoin

Thinking of going for your doctorate? Prepare for a balancing act of studies, work and personal life. You can go full-time or part-time, quickly or slowly, starting earlier or later in your career. In a panel at the NASPA 2013 conference in Orlando, current or recent women doctoral students agreed there’s no one right way to do it.

Dr. Sonja Ardoin, moderator, completed a PhD in May at North Carolina State University. In July she became director of student leadership and engagement at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

Vicki Dobiyanski begins parttime doctoral studies for an EdD this summer at Florida State University, where she is the director of student government.

Amber Garrison Duncan is a doctoral candidate in higher education pursuing a PhD at the University of Oregon.

Megan Janasiewicz is a part-time PhD student at the University of Georgia while working as director of sorority and fraternity life at Emory University GA.

Mary Medina is a full-time PhD student at North Carolina State University, where she is a grad assistant in multicultural student affairs.

Dr. Claudia Mercado completed an EdD at the University of Kansas in August 2012. In April she became associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at the City Colleges of Chicago.

Jingjing (Kate) Zhang is pursuing a PhD at North Carolina State University and serves as director of research for the National Initiative for Leadership and Institutional Effectiveness.

Two more sent written comments to participate virtually. Melissa Shehane and Daphne Wells are doctoral students at Texas A&M University and Morgan State University respectively.

When to begin

“There’s no right time to get a doctoral degree. You have to figure out the best time for you individually,” Medina told WIHE. Hearing other women’s stories can be helpful, but only you can decide what fits your life and career ambitions.

Some of the panelists took exploratory courses before committing to work toward a degree. One went straight from finishing her master’s degree to starting her doctoral studies; for the rest, the gap ranged from two to six years.

“You can work full time and take classes,” Dobiyanski told WIHE. She and Janasiewicz chose the part-time path for their doctoral journeys, while the rest decided to study full-time. Ardoin fast-tracked her coursework into a two-year time frame; Garrison Duncan started eight years ago and is finishing this year.

The timing will never be right. Women graduate students— especially those with children and/or partners— face bigger challenges with work-life balance than do their male peers. If you wait for the perfect time, you will never get your doctorate.

One panelist had her “aha!” moment about three years ago: Her work situation gave her a supportive supervisor and the option to take courses tuition-free. Another decided to go ahead while she was still single.

Speaking of babies

For Shehane, the suggestion to pursue a doctorate came from mentors who advised that she would meet a glass ceiling without one. “I knew that I wanted to try to start having children and that balancing numerous courses with an infant would be challenging. I realized, for me, it would be best to begin courses before starting our family,” she wrote.

One of her professors told her to give birth to her dissertation before giving birth to a child. She disagrees strongly. “If you want to start a family, do not put the decision to have children on the back burner!” she advises. She wouldn’t trade in this time with her child for any career achievement, she said.

When is the best time to start a family relative to getting your doctorate? “There is no best time, only a worst time,” one said. Not many full-time women doctoral students start a family during their degree program, despite flexible hours and biological clocks.

Cost is one issue. Fellowships and assistantships don’t pay much. Few programs offer doctoral students maternity leave and even fewer provide dependent care for a child.

But the biggest disincentive to childbearing is the fear of being viewed differently by faculty advisors or future employers. Gender bias persists; some people who admire dads as good family men assume that moms are not serious about their careers. It can help if your major professor either has young children herself or did when she was getting a doctorate.

Ultimately you will have to define your priorities, hopes and goals. For too many women who postponed family while they establishing their careers and finishing their degrees, getting pregnant is harder with the approach of menopause. There is never a perfect time to start a program or a family.

Where to get your degree

Choosing the right program depends on many personal as well as educational factors, including:

Academics. Who are the faculty and what are their research areas? What concentrations does the program offer? Is the research orientation qualitative or quantitative, and which do you prefer? If you have a dissertation topic in mind, be sure the faculty will let you do it. No matter how good a school’s reputation, the program needs to match your interests to be a good fit.

Do the places you are considering attending offer a PhD or an EdD, and which degree do you want? Their advice: Get an EdD if you plan to continue as a practitioner and a PhD if you want to do research. If the school you’re considering offers both degrees, check out the difference in required coursework; it may be negligible. “I’m going to get a PhD and be a bad-ass adjunct,” one quipped. Dr. Sonja Ardoin Not many full-time women doctoral students start a family during their degree program, despite flexible hours and biological clocks. 

Money. Look at the financial package. Can you study tuition-free at the university where you already work, or will your program of choice offer you a fellowship or assistantship? If one school offers the best deal but another suits you better, ask the second place if they will match your first offer.

Work/school/life. How will your doctoral studies dovetail with the rest of your life? Are you placebound because of job, family or both? Do you want to study part-time or full-time, and which will the program accommodate?

For Wells the other big factor besides money was location. “Having studied and worked in very white cities for the past 12 years where I constantly felt like ‘the other,’ I was ready to be in an environment where I was affirmed in my identity as a black woman,” she wrote of her decision to go to Morgan State, a historically black university (HBCU) in Baltimore MD.

“Not all doctoral programs are created equal. It’s important to think about what you want and need in a program and find a program that will match you,” Medina said. “The components that are important to you will help you find a program that’s your best fit.”

Coursework and dissertation

Coursework involves a lot of reading, which eats up time. If you haven’t gotten a master’s degree, you may need more practice in rigorous writing. “Allnighters do not exist in the doctorate. Do a little each night,” one advised. “If you have only an hour to study, that’s better than nothing.”

Shehane found it much easier to study in large chunks of time. Early mornings were most productive for her. Whatever study schedule fits your life, try to strike a balance between meeting actual program demands and placing unrealistic demands on yourself. So long as you do well enough in classes to move on to the dissertation phase, nobody will care whether or not you earned straight As.

To conserve time and maintain focus, they recommend writing something related to your dissertation topic in every single class. One panelist built the first three chapters of her dissertation that way. If you haven’t chosen your topic, use classes to explore various options.

At last it is time to write your dissertation. “Write and write and write. Don’t worry whether it’s good,” one said. Find out what way you write best, in large chunks or 15-minute intervals.

Hang in there

“I am so tired of school! The sooner I get finished with this dissertation, the sooner I can be done with school and get back to doing things school has kept me from,” Wells wrote. “Seeing my friends and peers complete their degrees provides constant motivation that I too can do this and will do this!”

Fewer than 60% of all entering PhD students hold a doctorate ten years later, according to a Council of Graduate Schools estimate. Common causes of attrition include lack of preparation (cited most by faculty), personal problems (cited most by students) or a poor fit between the student and the program. It is not a matter of weeding out weaker students; academic measures such as grades or GRE scores are much the same for those who quit and those who persist.

A factor in the high attrition rates of PhD programs compared to business or law degrees is that a PhD generally takes longer to earn. That allows more time for changes in personal life, relationships or career goals to intervene. Minority students leave at a higher rate than white students, and women drop out at a higher rate than men.

You will need to find sources of support, on and off campus. “At some point you will need someone to give you that extra little push,” Medina said. Most doctoral students have been tempted to walk away at some point.

Support: faculty and peers. Research assistants or teaching assistants are more likely to stay in a doctoral program, not just because they have funding but because they interact with peers and faculty. By contrast, students with fellowships have funding but are no more likely than average to complete their degrees.

Retention rates are higher in the sciences, where professors admit individual doctoral students to their lab and work closely with them. Dropout rates are higher in the humanities and social sciences, where many programs start out with large lecture classes and students have little or no faculty contact for the first year or two.

“Find an advocate with the faculty by meeting with faculty members and getting to know them if you are able to,” Dobiyanski advised. Get to know your fellow graduate students too, including some a year or two ahead of you who can help you to navigate the system. When you step out of the workforce to pursue a degree full time, you lose your professional support system. Be intentional about creating a new one.

Support: family and friends. Shehane relied heavily on talks with friends, especially those who were juggling full-time work and families. Her parents were also very supportive; they watched the baby during the weekends of her comprehensive exams and proposal defense.

Still, she found it difficult to relax her high self-expectations. “As a full-time employee and 2/3 through my program— and new mom, I had to let go at times and realize that my work may not be completely perfect, which was difficult to swallow, but something a colleague who was further along shared with me. I really needed to hear that,” she wrote.

Hang in there, and invest in building support systems for the times that your interest falters. “Completing a doctoral degree can be challenging; and the sooner you realize you’ll need people around you that can be a source of support, the sooner it’ll seem more manageable,” Medina said.



Amber Garrison




Jingjing (Kate)


 Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, July). Getting a Doctorate? Tips from Women Who've Been There. Women in Higher Education, 22(7), 16-17.



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