April 11, 2006 Feature

Making the Decision and Applying

I can do everything I want to do with my CCC's…I will never need a PhD.

Within the last dozen or so years, the skilled nursing facility rehab industry crashed, my job opportunities changed, my child grew up, and I tired of traveling weekly in my corporate job. So, I changed my mind. I returned to my home state, remarried, and went back to school.

Fortunately, ASHA's Doctoral Shortage Focused Initiative is planting the seeds for many of us to reconsider our options. Those of us on the doctoral track are seeing first-hand the difficulties our university is having recruiting and retaining faculty while our current professors are beginning to discuss retirement.

Among my peers, over half are traditional students, some are continuing alumni, and some are coming from afar, attracted by departmental specialties. Several of these published, full-time students have had babies along the way. Our nontraditional students are similarly attracted by geography or specialization. For example, one is a talented, augmentative specialist from a nearby city with a long commute, whereas another is in residence for a couple of years attaining a PhD to support her position as a professor of teachers of the deaf. We are all very aware of job openings nationally and the career mobility afforded by a doctorate in communication disorders.

The Decision Process

Deciding whether to apply should begin with a vision. The application process can be arduous, the training extremely intense. I feel strongly that we owe it to ourselves, those supporting us, and those training us to step forward only if we are seriously interested in this journey. The visioning process entails determining the areas of communication disorders in which you would like to specialize, the type of doctorate you would like to pursue (i.e., clinical or research), and how the journey could fit into your life. Part of developing your vision includes considering whether you can attain training locally or through long-distance learning, through commuting or relocation.

Then you research the possibilities and develop a plan. Initial research includes identifying programs that meet your criteria regarding type of doctorate and specialization. Preliminary research may be done on the Web and by consulting with colleagues; then direct communication with specific universities will provide the information to facilitate your decision making.

It is important to communicate with a faculty member who represents your desired specialty as well as program chairs. Ideally, during this communication you will attempt to delineate how you would work together if you were to be accepted into the program. For instance, individuals interested in research should investigate the current projects of the faculty member, the publications in which students of this faculty member participated, and how the faculty member projects you would work together. In the absence of dedicated faculty in your specific area of interest, it is important, especially for those with limited geographic options who must seriously consider the local university, to discuss with the program chair the possibility of an interdisciplinary course of study and/or use of adjunct faculty.

If communication with the faculty is favorable, take the opportunity to speak with some current doctoral students in the program to determine whether their visions are being realized, especially those with interests similar to yours. Students may have additional suggestions of areas for you to explore or lead you to other questions to ask faculty.


Availability of funding, for many, also plays a critical part in decision making. If you require funding, determine the availability of financial assistance including possible fellowships, research/teaching assistantships, grants, loans, and/or tuition wavers.

If this is a criterion for your participation, broach this as an adjunct to your communication with faculty. These individuals will be able to consider their projected student needs and consider how you may fit into their funding options. It would also be helpful to determine whether assignments will be available in your area of interest. For instance, if your field is dialectal variation, you might want to be a teaching assistant in a phonetics lab, or if you are interested in university teaching, you might be able to teach a communication disorders survey course.

Contact the financial aid office of each university that you are considering. Although federal loans may be standard, there may be additional grant monies available. If you decide to pursue admission, make note of the financial aid deadlines and adhere to them closely. Also, be sure to check with your employer and consider whether you should pursue ASHA/state association assistance during your program.

Specifically, communicate your needs and check whether the necessary funding is anticipated to be available when you need it. For instance, you may: need a commitment for funding during your entire course of studies; need funding the second or third year when employer funding runs out; or, if you have been out of academia for quite a while, plan to use savings your first year while you are adjusting to re-entering after which you wish to have an assistantship.

Also, learn the rules that go along with funding. For instance, you may need a full-time course load to qualify for an assistantship which is unnecessary to attain part-time work in the department or at one of the clinic sites. Additionally, tuition wavers, grants and student supplements often require applicants to be full-time students with assistantships.

Another financial consideration is your tax situation. You may check to see if it is possible to receive a tax credit for your educational expenses that may decrease your family's annual tax burden.

Discuss with faculty a projection for completing your doctorate. For instance, there are full-time programs that graduate doctoral candidates in three years, and there are often rules about the maximum time limits to complete the degree requirements (i.e., seven years at my school).

It is important that you keep notes of the information you obtain so that it is readily at hand if you need to follow up with appropriate individuals. Keep materials for each university together, record the e-mail and phone numbers of the faculty members you met with as well as the department secretary.

Before developing your plan there are a few more things to seriously consider:

  • Even if you are in love with the idea of pursuing a PhD, is the timing right? My school limits PhD study to seven years. Can you commit to the intensity of time and energy needed to do this?
  • Do you have adequate support? Can your family/spouse help out financially if needed? Does your spouse actively help with household chores/children? Do family/friends have you for dinner and help with little things when you are maxed? If you are required to re-locate have you met students from the program with whom you can picture being friends? Do you have any other family or friends who live in that area?
  • Ask yourself honestly: Do others in my life think that this is a good decision at this time?

If this assessment is not strongly favorable, consider moving toward your goal by taking some intermediate steps. For instance, take a transferable statistics course at your local university to test the waters; engage in a research project through your special interest group until your youngest child is off to college; or augment your job with contract work to save up the amount of money you and your spouse agree upon to create a safety net for your family who will not have your regular salary for a period of time.

The next step in developing a plan is to inquire about specific acceptance requirements and realistically evaluate whether you can meet them. Is your GRE (Graduate Record Examination) score high enough? If not, can you bring it up with a study course? Also, if you have not yet visited the schools that you are seriously considering, can you do so now to actually meet the individuals with whom you have communicated?

If you decide to apply to a doctoral program, make a plan to ensure that you meet all university requirements on time. If you must take the GRE, leave adequate time for preparation and retakes. Likewise, request letters of recommendation early and remind busy faculty or colleagues before they are due.

Although many doctoral students return to the university after completing their CCCs, conscientious undergraduates who are serious about pursuing a PhD may wish to inquire whether their university has an accelerated program combining advanced degrees. With innovations being considered in our field, this is the ideal time to raise questions about nontraditional possibilities.

Donna Fitzgerald-DeJean, is a full-time doctoral student at Louisiana State University. She returned to school after working in many sectors of communication disorders, most recently as a rehabilitation consultant in long term care. Her area of specialization is adult neurological disorders. She is benefiting from the collaboration of two programs to support her studies with mentors Paul Hoffman, LSU, and Scott Rubin, LSU Health Sciences. Contact her by e-mail at dfitzg1@lsu.edu.

cite as: Fitzgerald-DeJean, D. (2006, April 11). Making the Decision and Applying. The ASHA Leader.


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