I often get asked by people in our field (the learning-and-performance field) about how to select a graduate school and how to approach graduate school once in. Maybe because I spent so much time in graduate school (10 years), I think I can offer some ideas:

  1. Start reading the research now to find out whose research you admire, etc.
  2. The ideal is to find a professor you want to work with, although this is very difficult.
  3. Find a program that is well-respected and offers several professors who are top notch. Go to a school with an active colloquy or open research-discussion sessions.
  4. If you can, go to one of the best schools. It will help you later as you network your way to career postings you want.
  5. Expect a long and difficult haul. Expect wonderful rewards if you put in the effort.
  6. Avoid professors who are evil. Seriously, there are some who are just dysfunctional. Ask for student references and talk to real students who have gone through the program. Ask for the good the bad the ugly.
  7. Find a program with a very strong research methodology approach. If you graduate without knowing how to evaluate research, you won’t do anybody any good. I’ve seen too many smart people who just shy away from the whole research enterprise because they’ve never been prepared for it.
  8. Get a reading list of the articles and books used in the required courses. Ask around to see if these are written by the top thinkers in the field. Do not confuse "top thinkers" with "most-popular thinkers."
  9. My own bias is to focus on the fundamentals of learning at the same time focusing on what is practical, but this is hard to find.
  10. Be prepared to have a very thick skin. Be open to ideas. Relish them, but stick to your guns if you know deep down that you’ve got an intriguing idea.
  11. Ask the professors what journals they publish in. Determine if these are top tier or lesser tier journals. Aim for the top tier.
  12. Beware of the programs labeled as "adult learning, curriculum studies" and the like. These often are weak in the foundations of human learning (but not always). If you go to a school focused on instructional technology, make sure you find one with good background in learning.
  13. If you want to build learning interventions when you get out of school, don’t just focus on academics, build stuff while in graduate school that you can show to prospective employers later.
  14. Note that the best development shops are very skeptical of graduates of instructional-design programs because many come out of those programs with rigidly inflexible mental models of how to build learning. This unbearable hardness of being is often combined with an arrogance that leaves these graduates with little ability to learn. Bottom line: Find a school, and adopt an attitude, that is inquisitive, open, skeptical, and hungry for knowledge. Find a way to test your ideas and learning interventions using valid methods so you can get the feedback loops you need to continually improve what you’re doing and thinking.
  15. Begin to take control of your learning now, before you get into school. In the doctoral program, it’s 95% you.
  16. Realize that when you start reading in the field, it will feel like you are a complete idiot. This is normal as you learn the language of the thinkers and researchers. On the other hand, as you learn more and more, don’t forget how the real world talks.
  17. Most of the time, but not always, PhD degrees are more research-oriented than EdD degrees, which is a good thing.

Note that I write these recommendations because I believe we need many more people in our field who can bridge the gap between research and practice. If you’re completely not cut out to do research, that’s fine. Be practical. But get yourself enough research background so you can evaluate research claims when you see them. Beware of a fear of research. Fear usually comes from a lack of exposure. Expose yourself.

Politics yuck, politics tricks, politics risk, politics fix, politics rules, politics is. Truth is, politics is the hand-to-hand application of anecdotal and scientific wisdom on human learning and cognition.


Here in the United States, we are in the middle of an exciting and critical Presidential election campaign. I love observing politics because I find it intriguing from a learning-and-cognition standpoint. Here are some things we (as learning professionals) can learn from the political wizards.

  1. Repetition is worth repeating.
  2. Space your repetitions over time.
  3. Have powerful messengers repeat the key messages.
  4. Authentic messengers are listened to longer and with more engagement.
  5. Messengers who lose credibility (or integrity) are doomed.
  6. Prioritize your messages. Brand your messages into a potent theme.
  7. Vary the delivery of your messages, but stay consistent in the underlying message and theme.
  8. Learning messages that are aligned with on-the-ground realities are the most powerful. It is only the very rarest of incumbents who can overcome a bad economy. It is only the rarest of learning messages that can overcome irrelevance or everyday business distractions.
  9. When your efforts or credibility are attacked, fight back hard and fast. When candidates are attacked, they attack back, disputing the assertions. If your training efforts are impugned or criticized anywhere in your company, go on the offensive. Dispute the claims immediately and publicly. Let people know public criticism of your efforts will be met with vigorous rebuttals. Pull the criticizer aside privately and ask them not to continue their claims. Explain your realities. Educate them about the learning enterprise. Send out communications to key stakeholders disputing the claims, if not directly then indirectly by highlighting successes. After stopping the bleeding, listen to the complaints to see if there is truth in them. Fix the problems as soon as you can. Go back to the complainers and tell them how you fixed the problems. Ask the complainers for their support and ideas going forward. Remind them of your need for resources, support, etc. Help them solve their business problems. If you do get public complaints, see those as a warning sign that you are screwing up big time. Reach out and get better feedback on how you’re doing and how you’re doing politically. Build better feedback into your learning measurements and designs. Remember, if you’re a leader of the learning enterprise in your company, you have a responsibility to ensure that the learning-and-performance efforts will work. If your training efforts have a bad reputation, the learning will never get the support it needs to move from learning to application and you’ll never get the resources you need to get real results.

Bottom line: Embrace politics; it’s only human.

I started Work-Learning Research 10 years ago in August. Since that time, I’ve been translating learning research into practical recommendations for learning professionals. Unfortunately, it’s not easy. It takes a major change initiative in most instructional-development shops. It takes time. It takes leadership. It often takes a helping hand. Why? Because we have to completely change our mindsets. For example, I’ve recently been using a model I’m calling Situation-Based Learning Design. It is research-based but because it is translated and crafted into a conceptually useful framework, my clients and audiences have found it eye-opening. More importantly, they have been able to see its applicability. BUT, even though the ideas in the model are easy, it is extremely difficult to move a whole work team to the new method. It takes time, perseverance, and guidance. We all fall back on our topic-based learning-design mental models. To develop new mental models aligned with the research is a worthwhile slog, but it is a slog nonetheless.

Recently I’ve been designing workshops around the Situation-Based Learning Design notion. My clients see me present the concept at a conference and want a workshop in their own company. Nothing I have done in my ten years as President of Work-Learning Research has been so satisfying. I’ve learned a few things over the years, correcting mistakes in my delivery. SMILE. One reason that the Situation-Based Learning Design is having such an impact now is that it’s a simple research-based model that immediately makes sense to people. The other reason for impact is that we’re able to build workshops that enable people to begin changing the way they do learning design. Finally, more and more learning professionals understand that for training (even their own training) to be effective, it has to be designed more like a change initiative than a course.