Friday, February 24, 2012

Counterpoint to Tips for Mothers Considering Pursuing an Online Degree by Marlene Samuels, PhD

Marlene Samuels, PhD
After hosting a guest post by Brittany Lyons earlier this month titled, "Tips for Mothers Considering Pursuing an Online Degree", I put out a call to mothers with PhDs. I'm thrilled to have this counterpoint, by Marlene Samuels, PhD, in which she takes up some of her concerns about the nuts and bolts viability of an online PhD experience. Marlene earned her PhD "in person" and brings valuable expertise to our discussion. I am still shopping for mothers with online PhDs...feel free to contact me for a guest posting opportunity. In the meantime, enjoy Marlene's insights.

Recently a post published on this blog addressed the feasibility of earning an on-line Ph.D. degree as an approach well suited to busy mothers. After thinking about it for long time, and being really bothered by it, I realized it was critical for me to post a “rebuttal” if that’s the correct term.  If not, then I think the key term is “reality check.”

After considering each “tip” posted very carefully, I still had a lot of trouble believing they weren’t pulled from the pages of a science fiction tale.  In the name of credibility, I have to mention that I’m well qualified as a commentator on this topic. I, myself, am a PhD holding busy mom.  
I earned my PhD in research sociology from University of Chicago, in real-life time at a real-life “bricks and mortar” kind of place, the old fashioned way while I was a super “busy mom with young kids” whose husband worked insane hours. In addition to managing the daily grind, I was also more fortunate than are most women in my situation because obtaining critical extra household help and child care wasn’t an economic issue.   My two sons were fairly well behaved, too but even though they weren’t babies, they still needed a good dose of adult supervision. So, I guess I can say my situation was (and should have been) ideal, right?  Wrong and here’s why:

Issue I:

If you are considering pursuing a doctorate degree, an online PhD program can be an excellent choice. There are many advantages and disadvantages of online degrees, but for a busy mother, earning your degree online can give you the flexibility you need to balance both family and academic goals.”—(this and all subsequent quotes are from the blogpost by Brittany Lyons  titled: “Tips for Mothers Considering Pursuing an Online PhD”)

The idea of pursuing an online Ph.D. reminds me of the days when matchbook covers sported ads for earning diplomas or licenses by mail. Likely, this is too long ago for most blog readers to remember? One of my favorites: “Earn your semi-truck driver’s license by mail and earn more money”, or how about “become a graphic artist in your spare time.”

It’s not that I’m anti-technology or opposed to online learning - oh contraire! At this time I’m in the 2nd week of a 4-week “online course” for which I signed up and paid. I’m really learning an incredible amount but that noted, even though it’s only a 4-week course, I’m already way behind!

No longer do I have little ones at home who suck up all my attention and brain power. No longer do I have to commute to and from an office - I work from home so I can’t complain. Even better: I have my very own, very state-of-the-art computer so I never worry about access.  You’d imagine all my time is all my own.  In a perfect world, I’d enjoy unlimited opportunities in which to complete online assignments, while writing thoughtful, witty and helpful comments to my online classmates, and ….

Honestly, don’t be na├»ve!  You may be able to stay in your pajamas and participate in class without thinking about your bad hair day but that’s where it ends. Even at this point in my life there are plenty of impositions on my time. My gigantic dog needs walking, feeding, brushing and attention. There’s laundry to do, errands to run, calls to return, doctors’ appointments make and keep, shopping, meals to prepare, family obligations, repairmen to interrupt my deeply creative thoughts, bills to pay and finances that demand increasing amounts of time to manage. Oh, did I mention social commitments as well? Then there’s reading – keeping on top of developments in my field.

The current era has us believing that almost anything we do “live” also can be accomplished satisfactorily online.  And now, earning a Ph.D. degree has joined the list. It might seem enticing to the woman who fantasizes about commanding increased respect with a Ph.D. but there’s a legitimate reason that pursuing a PhD in any field is referred to as the “long-haul degree.”

On-line participation may be possible during the early stages of degree requirements but a true Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) demands significant original research, anywhere from 4-6 years of course work, incalculable hours in the library – researching and reading to prepare for writing, incalculable hours  of revisions, and lots of meetings with lots of professors.

I definitely do know about that too - I’ve done it! Sure, a great deal has changed in the decade since I was awarded my conventional Ph.D. the old fashioned way. One of the major technological advances is the ability to take online courses.  But here are some real life issues to ponder before buying into the program’s feasibility.  

Tough Questions and Honest Answers:

Women need to articulate all their unstated concerns way before they buy into the online possibility of all things. If they don’t, it will be impossible to obtain honest reliable answers. Busy mothers can barely find enough time to go to the bathroom alone.  I know about that too, remember that I’ve been one! Exactly how and where busy moms plan to find time and space (translation: uninterrupted privacy) alone with a computer on which to complete demanding assignments is a mystery.

It’s great to imagine our kids nodding off after an easy dinner and thus allowing the busy mom plenty of time in which to work on her degree. Reality:  by the time kids nod off, the last thing most “busy mothers” feel like doing is repairing to the computer for hours of assignments. By the time dinner has ended, clean up, bath time, homework finished, and all those other quotidian events, I’m guessing little real time remains in which to complete any work. Did I mention that I’m assuming busy moms enrolled in online Ph.D. programs enjoy relationships with supportive and undemanding spouses or their significant others?

We’d have to assume that “nodding off” children do their nodding off without fuss, sleep the night through, rarely take ill, never need homework help or supervision - nor will there occur any of the myriad unanticipated surprises that provide the busy mom’s daily challenges.  Do we never encounter last minute problems such as, “Oh mom, I forgot I need to bring 28 cupcakes to school tomorrow for Pippi Longstocking’s birthday party?”

Issue II:

“According to U.S. News and Reports, individuals with an advanced degree earn approximately $25,000 more per year than individuals with only an undergraduate degree. In the United States, doctorate-level degrees are either professionally oriented, such as a MD or DDS, or research oriented, such as doctorate of philosophy or education.”

At first blush, this sounds like a significant amount of additional income but realistically consider that $25000 is an average, not the norm. Looked at in the way most of us manage our finances, i.e., monthly, the difference after taxes may well be negligible.  My long haul degree incurred expenses – lots of them; tuition, university fees, texts, duplicating and printing expenses, and more. Simply because it’s on-line does NOT mean it’s free. 

U.S. News may claim that advanced degrees have higher earning potential but in academic parlance, any degree beyond a bachelor’s is regarded as “advanced.”  Then too, there’s confusion about two terms - advanced as opposed to professional. Many educational fields remain quite attainable with a master’s degree rendering the Ph.D. superfluous. Again, I’ll bring up the term “realistic.” Further, suggesting an on-line Ph.D. oversimplifies the reasons for which we might pursue one in the first place and entirely overlooks the motivation and commitment critical to completing one.

Issue III:

"One of the advantages of online PhD programs is that they are extremely flexible and often allow you to study around your own schedule. However, one of the major disadvantages of online programs is that they are still relatively new. As a result, many institutions are not yet accredited by governmental accreditation bodies. When talking to school administrators of a prospective program, ask them about their accreditation and if there are plans for accreditation in the future.”

Learning is a complex process but accreditation would not be my first concern when trying to decide about whether to pursue a Ph.D. Surely the idea of a program’s plans for future accreditation have little bearing upon actually attaining accreditation.

Tip #2 – Ask About Access to Professors and Instructors

Anyone who’s participated in graduate level course work would have to question how seriously a student might be taken if their primary concern is: “how much time will they have to interact with the professors and instructors.”  If the primary criteria are convenience and flexibility, on the basis of 2 courses per semester, I’d wonder how many years an online Ph.D. requires. Further, a few courses taken this way may seem fine but is anyone really prepared to spend 6, 8, or 10 years in this way? The average number of years required to complete coursework and other degree requirements such as comprehensive exams, dissertation proposals, defenses, research for the dissertation, committee meetings to say nothing of the actual writing, dissertation defense and final edits currently averages 8.

Tips #3 and #4 – Time Constraints, flexibility and having a “sit-down” with the family termed, “Ask Your Family for Support”

Time constraints and PhD work have never been anything close to pals but beyond that, anyone who’s has one will confirm: earning a PhD is definitely not for the faint of heart, the time constrained or the overly committed. It’s a giant bite of a shockingly large apple.

Even though I was able to buy extra help in the form of after school child minders, household cleaning, and grocery deliveries, spending all day most Saturdays and Sundays at the library required more co-operation from my family than is good for maintaining one’s mental health! Depending upon children and partners for additional help at home reads way too much like a recipe for frustration and disappointment. Rare is the women who has such understanding and compliant families.

“You can also help your kids understand when you are in “study mode” by helping them make a sign that you can hang on your door to let them know you are unavailable.”

Surely this point is a fantasy! Earning a graduate degree is taxing and consequently increases stress both upon families and the student mom.  There are inflexible deadlines to meet but also time needed to research projects, occasionally meeting (whether online or face- to- face)  with classmates concerning group projects. For the distant student, this often entails travel to meet with project members or arranging for video conferences all members can attend.

I’m sorry to say but expectations we have of our children should be suited to their abilities to understand concepts, in this case “study mode”.  We can hang as many signs as will possibly fit on our doors but that won’t alter the daily reality of life with children, especially young ones. “Unavailable” is comprehended by our young ones when we really are unavailable – as in away from home at the library, in a class and not visible to the eye.

Tip #5 – Considering computer accessibility, and another expectation for family support

Since computer access is critical to the on-line learning process, the idea of setting up a schedule for shared time under-mines the very foundation of the argument of convenience and flexibility. Once we set up a schedule and again, require family support and understanding in order to adhere to our goals, we may as well just throw up our hands and say, “gee, I’ll take a course or two while my kids are young but I’d better put off the hard job for a couple years so we don’t all loose our minds.”

Perhaps the idea of earning an online degree is a fantasy at this point in time?

Marlene Samuels is an independent research sociologist and writer. She earned her Ph.D. and M.A. degrees from University of Chicago in Social Science. In addition, Marlene teaches research methodology workshops to non-fiction writers. Currently she’s completing a short story collection entitled BROKEN CHAINS, MISSING LINKS and co-hosts Read more about Marlene on her writer’s blog,

2013 update: Marlene has since written, When Digital Isn't Real: Fact Finding Offline for Serious Writers. The link will take you to my review of her book, which I found to be a great resource for writers, poets included. Marlene reminds us about an eclectic and fun group of print sources many of us have come to overlook in favor of the cursory Google or Wikipedia search. I also wrote a bit more about my experience with her book  at the end of this 2013 post, about the AROHO Summer Retreat,  Emerging from the Cocoon, Sisters Real and Imagined.


Jeannette said...

Remember the song "The House of the Rising Son"?
"Go go tell my baby sister not to do what I have done...."

Marlene...and her Phd deserve much appreciation for the reality check she has word-smithed here for it wasn't pounded out on a conceptual anvil alone.

Is that what our culture, our country, our world and our families need now... more Phd's? and if so what kind...? Does one need a Phd to do what it is they are drawn, called or long to do? What if you did "that" instead of pursuing the "degree." Write the book, do the research..get a grant...validate your own journey.

Should some mothers be getting PhDs...I am sure some should...but for many it is a temptation... a salve for a question of personal value, power or purpose that may not only not cure the rash, it may irritate the whole organism.

And some costs may not show up right away...

Can women- mothers deal with a multitude of variable pressures? Yes...sisters dear, I think so highly of you...but how many responsibilities should we pile up on ourselves...? is so easy to have the experience but miss the meaning...

And of the essence.

As always, thank you to Tanya.
with very best wishes from,

Tania Pryputniewicz said...


thank you for that beautiful response...I'm sure Marlene will respond as well.

I'm hoping we are quietly shifting the power paradigm in such circles as this very one, made up of writers and women encouraging and making real the path to the lives we want, are actively striving to create.

I think the lure is fantastic: doors opening, opportunities, right, the fantasy of the PhD does appeal when you've been raising children, perhaps feel overlooked and not valued for your capacities as a thinker, creator, viable wage earner.

But I do hope we can right that distortion somehow. And still have doors opening for us (I think they do, in synchronicity, when we follow our dreams). I just don't know if everyone's dreamfield receives the same support...but, on the other hand, I believe we can find our way, eventually.

Here's to finding one's way, and in such thoughtful company--