Thinking of Going to Graduate School?

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.