By Lola Wright Odusoga
I had just completed my Master of Arts in Curriculum Instruction and Assessment, yet I remained intellectually restless. The urge for sustained learning and further academic growth had seemingly taken an unrelenting hold of me. I decided that a Doctor of Education degree (PhD) would be the icing on my cake of educational and academic laurels. Even better, it would be the ultimate personal gift to celebrate the milestone of my 50th birthday.
I soon discovered that the decision and the process were two entirely different propositions. My first surprise was that a doctoral programme takes a little over three years to complete. The rites of passage through the rigorous application process, and my eventual acceptance, were sufficiently thrilling to warrant a family celebration. However, once the initial euphoria was over, the reality of my academic journey stared me fully in the face. I suddenly realised what a monumental challenge a PhD course is.
I recall sitting down very calmly to organise my thoughts into some coherent order. I took a wise decision to familiarise myself with what I needed to do to situate myself in the right frame of mind for the course. I read the first-hand accounts from other students and had to squarely confront the intimidating prospect of juggling doctorate study and the headship of two schools. Standing at the foot of the mountain that was my PhD, I looked up at the peak with trepidation and wondered just how I was going to conquer it.
Taking the right steps
I love cooking, especially African dishes, which almost always demand consummate organisational skills. You cannot compromise. Not only must the right ingredients be easily accessible, but they must also be of authentic and excellent quality. With this philosophy of consummate preparation at the back of my mind, I purchased a very comfortable desk chair for protracted periods, researching articles, reading, making notes and working on assignments. My dining table was converted into what might have easily passed for an office desk. I also undertook a critical and honest evaluation of my finances as I had to fund my PhD programme myself. I was now ready.
Yet, there remained a rather complicated matter. It would defy wisdom if I divulged the information to my work colleagues that I had just registered for a PhD course. There was every possibility that they might come under the erroneous impression that, with such a heavy academic obligation, I would not be able to lead the school at 100% capacity and capability. In the circumstances, I continued to fully discharge my leadership responsibilities without prejudice to my academic programme. In essence, therefore, for me, it was simply business as usual.
As it turned out, there was an advantage to this strategy since, while I was at work, I was not burdened with thoughts of my course, or worries about submitting my assignments in a timely fashion. It soon seemed more like a natural default button whenever I was at work.
Fortunately, the average school day was not only intensely active but interesting. In between meeting parents, observing great students, going in and out of classrooms, the typical school day more than sufficiently guaranteed that I was able to place my work as Head of School and Doctoral candidate in two separate and mutually exclusive compartments. With research and educational theoretical perspectives linking easily to my professional practice in numerous ways, the entire experience served as an affirmation that I made the right decision to pursue my PhD.
I connected theoretical perspectives on school budgets, recruitment, policies, maintaining a safe school environment, student wellbeing and building community relationships with stakeholders. I also started experiencing educational and administrative leadership through a lens that I never imagined existed.
Managing my demands
Studying for a PhD degree and leading two schools was by no means an easy task. A few strategies saw me through the challenging period:
- I organised my daily tasks and responsibilities at work. Each task was properly scheduled. I worked closely with my senior leadership team to ensure that we were in sync with the school’s day-to-day running. This included having detailed timetables and event schedules that were SMART, sustainable and impactful as well as preparing the school for accreditation visits.
- At home, I had a calendar reminder for everything, including ensuring that I sustained my daily connection with family and friends, even if it was only for 30 minutes, through phone calls and text messages.
- I set alarms for my assignment due dates. I took tremendous advantage of the time difference between my current time zone and the time zone in the United States, which worked in my favour.
- I kept track of my expenses to ensure that I could pay my course fees.
- I prayed every day for the wisdom to lead, especially during a global pandemic and unprecedented full online learning or hybrid education.
A PhD is an extremely challenging work. While I did it for intellectual stimulation and academic advancement, I enjoyed climbing the mountain.
Tips for leaders: Treading my PhD path
- Decide on the 5 Ws of doing a PhD: why, what, who, when and where.
- Ensure that your family members fully identify with your decision to embark on a PhD journey. You will need their immense support, especially when the assignments and submission dates are close, not to mention the sometimes excruciating demands of dissertation and research, which is quite different from more routine writing assignments. They can be your biggest cheerleaders.
- Keep it at the back of your mind that you will find the entire process a little overwhelming at some point and that it is perfectly okay to let out your emotions. Cry or vent if you must. Yet, the sweet cry of joy came when I received the critical email confirming that my degree had been conferred.
- Your social life will plummet from 100% to 10%. That is inevitable. Consider it a necessary sacrifice. Once you have completed your PhD, you will be back to normal.
- Keep your university professors in the loop of what you are doing and how you are doing it. Most importantly, let them know when you need help.
- Use the professional development fund allocated for your personal growth at work.
- Seek support and approval from your employers when you need it, such as taking time off to attend classes. My former employer, The English Modern School, was supportive in this regard.
- Finally, celebrate yourself and your achievements, no matter how small they may seem, even if it is just positive feedback from your professors.
Dr Lola Wright-Odusoga is an experienced international school head and educational consultant to schools. She is the former Founding Head of School of The English Modern School and Kindergarten in Al Wakra, Doha. Connect with her directly on LinkedIn.