Are you developmentally ready for that PhD?

Starting PhD work isn’t something to be taken lightly.  First, there are the logistics:

  • Is it the right time in your career to start a PhD?
  • Do you have the time and money to dedicate to it?
  • What program do you chose?
  • For what purpose?  Are you seeking an executive-type program or a research-focused program?

The second set of questions, however, are some that I think are too often overlooked:

  • Are you ready for the rigor and level of thinking required?
  • Are you at a place in your developmental journey to maximize the benefits of a degree program?
  • Why now?  Not in terms of your career, but in how it can advance your thinking?

UnknownDevelopmental theorist Robert Kegan’s 1994 work, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, is an excellent read to help you begin to answer these questions.  In it, he outlines “order of consciousness,” or levels of cognitive complexity that help us make sense of the world.  If a situation we encounter requires 4th order thinking and yet we have only developed to the level of 3rd order thinking, we are effectively “in over our heads.”  We’re not equipped to deal with the situation presented to us.

For those of you unfamiliar with Robert Kegan’s orders of consciousness, or if you’re just feeling a bit rusty, this quick video/Prezi should get you up to speed (sorry mobile users, no Prezi for you!):

In the case of doctoral level work, I believe that fourth and fifth order meaning-making are necessary to be successful.  If I reflect on my own educational journey, there are a few seminal works in my educational history that I believe are tied to my development along Kegan’s orders. They are (in the chronological order in which I discovered them):

Although I make no claim to be able to self-ascribe an order of meaning-making to my own development, I do believe there are strong connections between these works and Kegan’s theory. The above works have continuously added an additional meta-layer to my understanding of the world.

godphdSince I’ve begun my doctoral work, I have become acutely aware of how fourth and fifth order meaning-making play a role in being a successful scholar. It is not enough to know certain statistical methods and conceptual ideas, although they are important to equip one with the proper language and tools. One must also truly understand how these methods and ideas interact, how they draw upon certain epistemological assumptions, and how those assumptions are compatible (or not) with each other. This is necessary in order to be cognizant of the choices one makes in research. All research involves choices on what to include, what not to include, and from what basis we wish to speak.

Doctoral coursework provides tools and allows space for the comparison and formulation of multiple abstractions. It allows these abstractions to mutually exist in relation to one another even though none may be reducible to one another. It also allows one to make choices and evaluate assumptions to guide their own research and work. One might be able to engage in research with a lower order of meaning-making, but without higher order understanding, one could never integrate this research into the whole of the academic dialogue.

phd081508sThe process through the orders, and fourth or fifth order meaning-making itself, is also necessary, although not sufficient, to be successful in teaching. The tough mental work of moving through the orders allows the teacher to better understand how students experience this same phenomenon. Furthermore, in addressing content, possessing a fourth or fifth order framework helps the teacher to formulate a bridge between the student’s way of knowing and that of the teacher. Fourth and Fifth orders, because they are meta in nature, moving subject to object, help the teacher to better understand the process of cognition. This understanding allows the teacher to better formulate their teaching methods and build bridges for the student. In teaching, although I may never reveal my knowledge of these higher order formulations (or at least the students might not become aware of them as I understand them), they are necessary if one hopes to achieve a more transformative educational experience—an experience that moves beyond mere knowledge and toward the advancement of cognitive development.

Fourth and Fifth order meaning-making are necessary to be successful in doctoral work. Throughout my own journey, I have discovered this developmental process to be key to how I understand the world. I believe it is similar, although perhaps qualitatively different, for all scholar-teachers.

What do you think?

Comic credit: PhD Comics

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