This is the post I’ll re-read when I want to remember my five years at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.
Why Grad School
My first year at Stanford was almost my last. A talk I had given right before I arrived at Stanford rolled past one million views. That opened up a lot of opportunities outside of Stanford, very few of which I declined. During what was supposed to be a perfunctory first-year review, my advisers invited me, with as much grace as I could expect of them, to leave Stanford, to return when I had more focus. I stuck around but I think all of us knew then I wasn’t really cut out for R1 university work. Still, I figured I’d work with teachers in a preservice program somewhere and a doctorate wouldn’t hurt my employment odds.
Two years later, just before my dissertation proposal was due, I received a job offer that was really too perfect to pass up, from people who didn’t care whether or not I had a graduate degree. They were nice enough to allow me to defer that offer until this summer.
All of this is to say, I had every incentive to walk, to join the ranks of the ABD. Here’s why I stayed, why I’d do it again even though my new employers don’t care about the letters after my name, and why I’d recommend graduate study to anybody who can make the logistics work: developing, proposing, studying, analyzing, and writing a dissertation works every single mental muscle you have and forces you to develop a dozen new ones. It’s the academic centathlon. I know how to ask more precise questions and how to better interrogate my prior assumptions about those questions. I know many more techniques for collecting data and statistical techniques for answering questions about those data. I know how to automate aspects of that data analysis through scripting. My writing is stronger now. My presentation skills are more polished. My thinking about mathematics education is more developed now, though still a work in progress.
It’s certainly possible to develop all of those muscles separately, without the extra overhead of a dissertation. (Michael Pershan seems to be making a go of it on Twitter, with Ilana Horn as his principle adviser.) But tying them all together in the service of this enormous project was uniquely satisfying.
If you’re thinking about grad school, take advantage of your tools:
Papers to manage references. Dropbox to sync them across machines. iAnnotate PDF to read and mark them up on an iPad. Google Scholar for everything. Scrivener for writing anything with more than five headings. Google Docs for writing anything else. I couldn’t survive grad school without those six tools.
Google Tasks for scheduling to-do’s. Boomerang for scheduling emails. I couldn’t survive professional life without those two tools.
The Last Five Years
- Wrote two books.
- Foster parented three kids.
- Buried my dad.
- Traveled around the world with my wife.
- Learned from the best.
- Collaborated with great people on interesting projects.
- Traveled to a bunch of states and several countries, meeting basically all of you at one point or another.
- Keynoted a couple of big-ish conferences.
- Never presented at AERA, PME, or ICMI.
- Never attended AERA, PME, or ICMI.
- Never gave a poster talk.
- Never gave an academic presentation of any kind until my dissertation defense.
- Never taught a course.
- Never TA’d a course.
- Never supervised any of the promising new teachers in Stanford’s teacher prep program.
- Never connected with the people in my research group as much or as often as I would have liked.
- Attended only a small fraction of the lunch talks and job talks and colloquia and dissertation defenses from the great thinkers passing through Stanford.
- Heard “Oh — do you still go here?” way too often.
- You guys. I thanked you all in my dissertation’s front matter and I’ll thank you here. The difference between a happy and sad graduate school experience often cuts on whether or not you like to write. In our conversations here, you guys made me, if not a great writer, someone who likes to write. As much as some of you drive me crazy, our back-and-forths made my arguments sharper and easier to defend in the dissertation. There was also that time that I asked on Twitter for help piloting assessment items in your classes and dozens of you helped me out. You have no idea what that kind of support is worth to a grad student around here.
- I never got sick of my dissertation. I didn’t enjoy some of the logistics of its data collection. I didn’t always have the time I wanted to work on it. But I never got tired of it, which is some kind of gift.
- Michael Pershan. My codes needed interrater reliability, the stuff that says, “Someone else can reliably see the world how I see the world, whether or not that’s the right way to see the world.” I hired Pershan onto my research team (doubling the size of my research team) when my time was crunched. He coded a bunch of data as fast as I needed and also changed “how I see the world” in some important ways.
- Desmos. I had some of the area’s best computer engineers and designers building my dissertation intervention. I got very lucky there.
- Jo Boaler. Jo was my principal adviser for all but my first year of grad school. There were a lot of great reasons to ask for her mentorship, but one of the best is that I never had to hide from her my lack of ambition for a tenure-track research job. As those ambitions faded, a lot of advisers in her position would have waitlisted me, focusing their efforts (rationally) on students who stood a chance to carry their research agenda forward. She invested more in my work than I had any reason to expect and I’ll always be grateful for that.
So that’s that. On to the next thing.