Earning a Ph.D today
By Jennifer Hannigan,
photography by Jeff Montgomery
Meet the Ph.D.s:
Denise Fisher is an instructor in the department of family and consumer sciences. She received her doctorate from Iowa State University in Ames.
Deveryle James is a new assistant professor in the English department who earned her degree at University of Buffalo in New York.
Frank McCown, assistant professor of computer science, attended Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
Jim Miller is an instructor in the College of Communication and received his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Shakespeare once mused, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet." However, each year for a select group of professors, earning the three little letters at the end of their names smells the sweetest of all.
For some, such as Denise Fisher, the journey to earn a Ph.D. is a long process, with doctoral classes and dissertation research worked around their teaching schedule at the University.
Others choose a different approach. Deveryle James, Frank McCown and Jim Miller all chose to leave the place they called home to immerse themselves in their doctoral work. Although their disciplines and alma maters differ, their struggles, triumphs and ultimate goals are similar.
What made you go back to school?
James (right): While attending a community college [in Houston], I met this amazing professor. She was a little, fiery, enthusiastic woman, and she told me that I needed to go on and get my Ph.D. I thought I was doing well where I was, just plodding along, but she saw something in me and told me I needed to go. And that lit the fire in me. I made up my mind to go, and she encouraged me all along the way.
Miller: I've always wanted to get my Ph.D. I believe that higher education is an incredible opportunity to expand your mind and to think about things you've never thought about before. That has always appealed to me.
Fisher: I went back because Dr. Ellen Daniel, who worked at Harding, came to me while I was teaching adjunct courses and said that I really needed to get my doctorate. I had never thought about it before, but she encouraged me to go.
Why did you decide to go away and get your Ph.D.?
Miller: I wanted to immerse myself in the pursuit of my Ph.D., so I decided to work on it full time. I didn't want to have to teach full time and also work on my degree. Leaving gave me the opportunity to be in a completely different educational context.
McCown: By leaving, I could be completely engrossed in my schoolwork and not have to balance that with my teaching. I could just focus and do what I needed to do.
James: I lived in Houston before I went to University of Buffalo. I had just graduated from University of Houston and could have stayed in the South since I've lived here most of my life, but I wanted to go somewhere different.
How did you adjust to living in a new place?
Fisher: All of the students in my cohort lived in a learning community for each three-week course. The program had rented a sorority house, and we all stayed together. It was a huge bonding experience because we were pressured to get so much done during those weeks that we would get together at night and have study sessions. It really made us close.
Miller: My wife and I loved our three years in Knoxville. It gave us the opportunity to establish friendships and relationships at a new church, and it broadened our horizons. We found a church that we just loved. It sponsors the Christian student center at U.T., so we were able to work with a lot of wonderful students. We were able to get really involved with that congregation.
James: Coming from Texas to New York was exciting and new. However, the weather was the worst part. During the winter, I had to layer up every day to go outside. It was like putting on a uniform with my boots, coats and scarves. Fortunately, I had good friends and a good church home, and I had contact with family and my mentor back home. They were all very encouraging.
McCown: At school, I developed several friendships. I had fellow Ph.D. students with whom I shared an office, so we became good friends. I also got to know the other master's and doctoral students, the faculty, and my adviser really well. My wife and I found a really good church that became the core of our friendships there.
Was it difficult to leave once your doctoral work was finished and return to Harding?
Miller: Frankly, it's been hard. Three years is just enough time to really build relationships. We had become part of that culture and church. Trying to figure out where we fit back in is part of the struggle. But being able to work with such talented and gracious faculty and students here has made the transition easier.
McCown: When we were going to Virginia, I kept telling my wife that I wanted it to hurt when we left. It would mean that we had genuinely made some good friendships. And that ended up being true. Coming back was hard. When we returned, it was like starting over.
James: When I left Buffalo, I came to Harding to work. The transition has been great. My colleagues here are wonderful. I really feel like part of the gang. They have really made it a pleasant process for me.
Explain your dissertation topic.
Miller (left): I qualitatively investigated how public college administrators balance the First Amendment rights of the student press and the broader welfare interests of their campuses. I am a former director of Harding's student publications and worked with students on the Petit Jean yearbook and Bison newspaper. Student press law is one of the biggest issues that college media advisers face. One of the first classes I took at U.T. was on communications law. In that class, I wrote a paper about student press law, and, through the help of my professors, I realized that topic was something I could pursue.
McCown: My dissertation was on something called lazy preservation. It's essentially about reconstructing lost Web sites. If a Web site were to totally disappear, how would you get that Web site back if you didn't have a backup? By getting copies of the Web page from various locations and bringing them together, you can rebuild the Web site as best you can. I describe how you can use Google, the Internet Archive, and a variety of other Web entities to find lost Web pages.
Fisher: My dissertation was a narrative inquiry looking at young, up-and-coming women who had emerged as leaders in the field of family and consumer sciences. I listened to their stories and looked at what it meant for them to be in their position. My whole purpose was to see what we can do to produce more heads of our profession.
James: I have always been interested in women's literature and have noticed that women are always sort of special characters. They can either stop the action or act as a catalyst for the action in the novel. I've always loved film as well, so when I went to University of Buffalo, I majored in comparative literature, which speaks to different genres from visual text to printed text. I also knew that I wanted to use the topic of women, but I wasn't sure how to narrow that down. I chose to look at violence toward women after working in a domestic shelter and decided to take a historical view of it through film and literature.
Describe the research process.
Miller: While researching my dissertation, I traveled to different colleges and spent hours interviewing college administrators. I learned a lot about higher education in the Southeast and about the struggle administrators have working with student press. In my course work, I tried to gear my papers toward that one topic. In the end, I was able to take those papers and change, edit, and use them toward my dissertation.
James: It was a lot of trial and error for me, but I was really excited to have the chance to write about something I was interested in. I was selective in the films I chose. I watched more than 35, but I chose to write about 16 of them. I looked at the different ways the law affected how women were treated. At first, a woman had to prove that violence had occurred. It was her word against a man's. Once the feminism movement started, things began to change, and I wanted to track that change. I began to notice a pattern as I watched the films. The more a woman deviated from a standard and the mainstream, the more graphic the violence became.
McCown: Before I could begin research on my dissertation, I had to pass a very rigorous test on different fields of computer science. Once you pass that at a high enough level, you can decide on your dissertation topic, which involves a great deal of planning, reading, writing papers, and really understanding a large body of knowledge. Sometimes the plan doesn't work out, and you have to do other things instead. You have to manage all of that and keep going to bring it all together.
Fisher: I went to part-time teaching while I was working on my dissertation. The research was very intense because I had to interview people multiple times, and those interviews had to be transcribed. One interview might be 50 pages. I then had to sort through that and look for themes. My major professor was going to resign due to family issues, so she told me in August that I had to be finished in December. I went to part-time teaching, and, whenever I wasn't teaching, I was in my office glued to my chair.
Did you ever want to quit?
Fisher (right): When I was working full time and taking courses, the load was heavy. It can be overwhelming, but you get so far in that you can't turn back. I was thinking about all of the people who were supporting me, and I wanted to finish for them and for me.
James: Sometimes I would get bogged down with the cold weather and how solitary the work was. Once I finished my course work, I didn't have that interaction of working with everyone, which I love. I was on my own. There were days where I had to get up and go to the computer, and I didn't want to do it. I made a sign that said, "Never a day without a line." I was committed to writing something every day, even if it was just that one line. I always knew I was going to finish; it was more a question of when I would finish.
Miller: My dissertation defense in December 2007 did not go well. I remember walking into the proposal defense confidently, believing I was ready to wow my committee with my dissertation proposal. I left thinking I would never complete a dissertation worthy of my committee's expectations. But a couple of factors kept me going. First was my family. I knew I had a responsibility to them to finish what I started. I wasn't about to let them down by failing to complete it. Second, I felt a strong responsibility to Harding. They entrusted me with the responsibility of improving myself so I could contribute in greater ways to the faculty.
What was your relationship like with your dissertation adviser?
James: Dr. Robert Daily was my adviser, and I could not have made it without him. I could tell that he really believed in me. He gave me a lot of direction and encouragement. I had taken a couple of his classes when I first got to University of Buffalo, and, even though I had not chosen a dissertation topic, I knew I wanted him as my mentor.
Fisher: Yvonne Gentzler was my major professor, and she was definitely a huge support. I had her home, office and cell phone numbers, so we became very close. She came down here [from Iowa] twice and spent the weekend. We would sit and hash things out and get a lot accomplished.
McCown: My adviser was Michael Nelson, and he was only four years older than me. We would go play basketball together a couple of times a week. We had a pretty good relationship. We went to conferences and wrote a lot of papers together. My wife and I even had him and his wife over for dinner.
Miller: I had four committee members who served as mentors in different ways. Dr. Barbara Moore, my chairwoman, had done a lot with legal research and press law and had written a book about press law. She was the professor of that first communications law class that I took. We worked the closest together. She had the most practical advice for me. She ultimately provided the inspiration for me.
How is your teaching different now?
Fisher: Because I focused so much on leadership in my dissertation, it really caused me to reconsider what I'm contributing to the profession. I want to give back more through participating in professional organizations and forming everyday relationships with my students so that I can be a mentor to them. I'm ultimately training my future colleagues.
James: It's more challenging now. There's more at stake. Now I'm really doing what I set out to do. I feel more empowered. I got to see how people teach and what makes a good teacher. But I'm still learning. Not a day goes by that I don't learn something from my students. I think I'm more equipped now.
Miller: My experiences at U.T. gave me a greater appreciation for scholarly research. I've tried to bring in more academic research and expose my students to that. I didn't have as deep of an appreciation for the research side of teaching before I left. I want my classroom to emphasize more than technical skills needed in mass media professions and for my students to think more holistically, understanding through research how the mass media influences our world.
McCown: Professionally, I think I am a better teacher. I have more context in which to place concepts I am teaching. My knowledge is a lot deeper, and I am now an expert in some areas that I did not know about before. I am able to apply some of those things to my classes. I'm also a little bit more involved in research, so I'm having students do more research-oriented projects.
How are your relationships with students different now?
James: I tell my students that I was recently a student myself and that I was on the other side of this desk. I don't want them to feel that I am better than they are. Since I've been on both sides, I can truly empathize with them.
McCown: I'm teaching a seminar course in which my students have to write a paper, which I didn't teach before. Now that I have written so many papers, I know what it takes to write a good one. I'm probably a harsher grader because of it, but I want to show them what is required to write a good paper.
Fisher: One of the things I incorporate into my classes now is reflection time. While doing my course work, we would reflect on what we had learned, and this helped me to cement it all together. I also try to make projects more applicable. I've changed some of the work to be more research-based to help my students if they choose to go on to a master's program.
Where do you go from here?
McCown (left): Computer science is constantly growing and changing, so you really can't afford to just stay still. You have to keep learning. I do my best to read a lot and keep up with the latest research in my fields. If I don't keep learning, I'll be in trouble because the students will notice if I'm not up to snuff.
Fisher: I hope that I can do more research because I think you definitely grow through research. I'm hoping to work collaboratively on research projects with some of the colleagues I've gained through my Ph.D. program.
James: I plan on writing more. I presented in Fort Smith, Ark., about women in fairy tales and the idea of beauty, which kept with the theme of women in media in literature. I want to get involved in Hope Cottage [women's shelter] in Searcy as well.
Miller: I don't know what's next. I do know that I am always looking for new challenges. I have made a goal for this year to present research at a conference and be published. Next year I will make new goals concerning research because I understand the importance of contributing knowledge to the field. The journey is really the beginning. The Ph.D. is done, but there is still so much to do.