Declaring December 1, 2009 as My “PhD-Day”

After twice trying to find a doctoral program that satisfied my intellectual curiosity while giving me the tools and credentials I need to become a university-level researcher and teacher, I’ve decided that the time is now for me to finally make it happen.

pic_phd_degreeTo anchor this desire to a tangible goal, I will give myself until Tuesday, December 1, 2009 to prepare and submit all of my applications to doctoral programs.

From this point forward I will refer to this date is my “PhD-Day.”

Why this date?

Simple: of all the doctoral programs that interest me, December 1, 2009 is the first application deadline for fall 2010 enrollment. This is the date on which I will finally take that “one giant leap” into my long awaited career in academia.

Although circumstances beyond my control were partially the reason behind my pulling away from my doctoral pursuits, I know now that I was also not clear enough about my goals. I just wanted a doctorate and did not give any meaningful consideration to the discipline in which it was anchored and how that would impact my future career options.

Previously I thought having a PhD qualified you to teach any subject, but I now realize that, with rare exceptions, the discipline in which you earn you PhD is the discipline in which you will concentrate your research and teaching.

Knowing the purpose of a PhD is to, as one of my colleagues comically suggests, know more about less, I must start with a question of “what” first, then determine “how.” I have therefore stopped first looking for a program (the “how”) that I will then try to make work with my interests (the “what”).

Instead I will take the opposite approach and first determine the topics I want to research and teach (the “what”) and then find a program that offered opportunities to study it (the “how”).

After evaluating what most interests me, I realized it had been staring me in the face the entire time: social media. I have previously mentioned my interest in this burgeoning topic in previous posts and in my list of research interests, so this is not breaking news by any means.

However, I have finally embraced the idea of studying it academically so I can understand it as a researcher and not just as a user.  Specifically, my research interest is to investigate the impact of social media on the creation and distribution of information.

What is social media?

I define social media as follows:

Social media includes information generated with and shared by individuals using various web-based tools including blogs, message boards, video sharing sites, wikis, chat, IM and similar technology.

I also feel it is related to concepts such as crowdsourcing and collective individualism.  Social media also touches on the idea of distributed computing, though in the case of social media the “nodes” are human and not computers.

In a more abstract interpretation, social media could also cross into the realm of artificial intelligence — especially as the tools we use to connect socially online continue to become more intuitive and personalized to each user.

The main use of social media is knowledge sharing among individuals for the greater good. However, it can also be leveraged (or exploited, depending on how you look at it) for commercial gain. Of course, marketing in this medium is not without its challenges and it certainly can’t be done in a traditional way (e.g. forced and artificial vs. the natural, organic feel of true social media).

Beyond products, people who participate in social media often market ideas or even products by the information they share (consider the metoric rise of Barack Obama who, despite your political persuasion, was impressively effective at using social media in his presidential campaign).

Social media can also be used as a training and development tool.  As a father to a child diagnosed with autism, I also wonder how social media might help my son learn social skills and share information in a virtual environment. As a parent, I have already been impressed by the power of social media to connect me with important information and individuals focused on autism.

I am also fascinated by the thought of using social media to enable many individuals to complete parts of a larger task (what first piqued my interest in this was when Steve Fossett went missing and there was an attempt to find him using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, even though that effort was not successful in finding him).

Clearly, social media can be both a communication tool and a marketing channel. I am interested in social media in both of its forms. It intrigues me that technology can so intensely enhance our human experience.

How will I study social media?

My investigation into current doctoral programs that include social media revealed it is relevant to several disciplines. Information Technology/Computer Science and Communication are the two I have most frequently found. Social media is also relevant to the disciplines of Psychology, Marketing and Sociology. Given the impact social media has had on the workplaces, Management is also a reasonable discipline in which to study it.

It makes sense that social media crosses into several disciplines — it is quite pervasive, but can also be investigated from many different angles. Perhaps what angles I want to study, or maybe how I want to study social media, will ultimately dictate the discipline within which I will investigate it further.

At the moment my assumption is that I will most likely be studying social media either within a Communication or Marketing program.

Where will I study social media?

Given my practitioner mindset and entrepreneurial orientation I would like to be able to teach in a business school. To do that I will need a PhD from an AACSB-accredited program.

However, given my background in communications and journalism I wonder if Communications would be a more suitable environment (especially since I am not as interested in traditional business subjects like finance and economics)?

I am still evaluating my options, but right now my top choices include the following (in alphabetical order):

  • Claremont: PhD in Management and Information Systems (Interfield)
  • Claremont: PhD in Management and Organizational Behavior (Interfield)
  • UCLA: PhD in Marketing (Anderson School of Management)
  • UCSB: PhD in Communication (Technology and Society Emphasis)
  • USC: PhD in Marketing (Marshall School of Business)
  • USC: PhD in Management (Marshall School of Business)
  • USC: PhD in Communication (Annenberg School for Communication)

Aside from the obvious criteria of being accepted into a program is the issue of funding. Having already borrowed my way through an MBA program, my goal with the PhD is to get the cost of the program covered while also earning additional income through fellowships and other related methods.

Why do I want to earn a PhD?

I have always wanted to understand why and how certain things work (or don’t work). Whether I am contrarian by nature or unquenchably inquisitive, I was never satisfied with a surface level answer about anything. My problem was, and remains, not having the proper “tools” with which to conduct proper inquiry.

I also fundamentally enjoy creating and sharing knowledge. Looking back to my years in journalism, I think the desire to craft a story and share it with readers is related to the same idea. Notably, I recently learned the first academic paper I wrote and presented was referenced in a book called “MBA in a Day” and an article I wrote about non-profit fundraising five years ago in Marketing News (the bi-weekly trade paper of the American Marketing Association) was cited in a recent academic paper.

I was energized knowing that something I wrote helped someone else create something of their own. I want to be an active part of this process. On a related note, my experiences at academic conferences were unquestionably positive and motivating. I relished those opportunities to exchange ideas and information with difference people, creating knowledge in the process. This is why I am so endeared to the concept of “generative learning,” which Peter Senge defines as learning that “enhances our capacity to create.”

My long term purpose in embarking on this undertaking is to secure a position at a university where I can engage in active research while still teaching. I have been adjuncting online and in person for roughly 18 months now and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It has been a very liberating and affirming time for me, especially when I continue to get positive reviews and comments from students. But I also want to be adding to the academic dialogue, not just guiding students to a basic understanding of what has already been produced.

Also, although I have no pressing desire to go back to the corporate world, I am open to partnering with industry on research and also potentially consulting on the side. I just really don’t want to have to worry about red staplers and TPS reports! Even when I was in industry I tended to approach things in a more intellectual way than most. I even had two managers with whom I had good relationships tell me I was definitely “an academic” and would do well in that world.

I am a thinker and a tinkerer, but not a hard-core corporate type. I enjoy discussing and debating a topic sometimes more than “doing” whatever that topic is related to. For example, I enjoy the concept of branding and understanding how people develop allegiance to a brand, but don’t necessarily want to go launch a branding campaign.

How will I stay focused on my goal?

Staying focused on achieving my goal of earning a PhD will be challenging, given the various personal and professional obstacles I will need to overcome to see it through. At the same time, I find myself thinking about a PhD with increasing frequency: it is something I must do, not just something I want to do.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of distractions. Ironically, during the past eight months, I have repeatedly encountered one kind of distraction while driving to and from my adjunct teaching job: a delivery truck with graffiti on the roll top door that reads “PhD.” I am sure this is some tagger’s initials, but for me it represents and reminds me of my dream: a PhD.

What makes it more significant to me is that I have seen it numerous times — driving north or south, in the morning or afternoon. Usually I encounter it on or near the Grapevine portion of Interstate 5. I am unsure where it is driving to or coming from, all I know is I have seen it numerous times — at least a half dozen.

Perhaps this truck is my albatross — or maybe its just coincidence? Maybe it was sent by the “PhDMV” to keep me on track?

Below are two photos I took of the truck on March 25, 2008 while heading home from DeVry (southbound on Interstate 5). Following the photos is a short video clip I filmed the morning of October 6, 2008 while heading north between the base of the Grapevine and the split between Interstate 5 and Highway 99 North (near Lebec, CA):

What are my next steps?

Now that I have defined and committed to this ambitious goal, how do I intend to achieve it? My next steps include the following:

  • Thoroughly research the PhD programs at the aforementioned schools.
  • Read “The Craft of Research” and write a specific research statement.
  • Begin reviewing the academic theories relevant to social media.
  • Speak with colleagues and mentors to understand my options.
  • Start writing my statement of purpose.
  • Explore grants and scholarships.

See you in a year on PhD-Day!