A successful distance Ph.D. – by Morgan Young

On May 9, Morgan Young will walk across the stage at Littlejohn Coliseum and officially receive his Ph.D., which he earned through five years of hard and smart work. I asked Morgan to write about his experience because he completed his Ph.D. without being physically located in Clemson. It seems like more students should be able to follow this path. The Ph.D. is, after all, about independent research. But the reality is that distance Ph.D.’s pose unique challenges and don’t often work out. Morgan’s advice can help turn these challenges into opportunities.    

Greetings all. My name is Morgan Young…eh hem…DR. Morgan Young, that is….and, just recently, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation under Leidy’s guidance. While many, much more talented students have also accomplished this endeavor, my path is perhaps a bit unique. I completed the Ph.D via distance.

It seems that every time you turn on the television you are inundated with advertisements for online/distance education. I am sure that many of these programs are reputable and, in the end, move the student closer to his or her goal in life. However, these are not Ph.Ds. According to Wikipedia, the Doctor of Philosophy is the highest academic degree awarded in the field of study (fyi – I cite Wikipedia here to continue my storied history of citing this website since wikiquotes comprise almost all of my dissertation’s literature review). All kidding aside, the grand question is this: how does one satisfy the strenuous academic requirements and produce novel research via distance? I offer the following three points to this end.

A picture from hiking club was most appropriate
This is Morgan. A picture from his beer drinking club would probably be more entertaining, but this one of him hiking is what I have.

1. Find your Venn diagram: While this term is certainly broad, I would like to distill this down to something helpful. First, we all must recognize the limited number of hours in the day and that our lives, at least for the time being, are not going to move towards more order. We operate entropically (is that a word?). I have a full time job, a wife, kids, a mortgage, a church family, a beer drinking club, a hiking group, among others. This is not a pity party…its reality…and its good!

Imagine all of these demands beings represented by a circle in a Venn diagram. To put it simply: the PhD via distance must fit within the common overlap of all of the circles. For me, this came in the form of research for an existing client. I was able to “overlap my time” by helping a client with an issue and using this research as my dissertation. Their wastewater system was my laboratory. Of course, a principal challenge with this approach is generating fundamental contributions from applied research but that is a topic for another blog entry. One of the trade-offs with this approach is that it does limit one’s ability to choose a topic that makes them really “happy.” For example, I would have preferred to research the relationship between my racquetball racket and the carpenter bees currently and incessantly burrowing holes into my brand new deck. That would have made me very happy. However, the distance PhD requires that form follow function.

2. Find a supportive employer: For the past 6 ½ years, I have worked for a large international engineering consulting firm. Our firm has over 10,000 employees and has worked on every continent on the globe (yes, even Antarctica). However, our local Greenville, SC office has about 12 engineers and our primary focus is the municipal sector. The support and flexibility afforded by my employer over the past five years has been tremendous. Not only did they cover my tuition but they also entrusted me with a flexible work schedule to allow me to attend classes at Clemson as well as perform research in the field. The only way the distance PhD was going to work was for me to continue working. As I mentioned, I owe a lot of money to a bank and my wife REALLY wants a new minivan (never thought I would ever say that last one). I could not afford to stop working. I owe a tremendous debt to my employer for its support.

3. Find an advisor who will work with you: Traditionalists beware…this last point is a doozy. Historically, the only path to a Ph.D was to labor for 3-5 years in a laboratory or classroom on a college campus. It was almost seen as a rite of passage. You have observed this. Think. How many times have you overheard old grad school buddies talking about pulling “all-nighters” and “getting closing the library down” and “running naked through the quad all hopped up on academic adrenaline and Red Bull?” Only me on that last one? Ok. ANYWAY, I am very grateful to Leidy for his interest in advising a student whose research leaned more towards industry. He understands that a research group is only as good as the variety of interest, viewpoints, and experiences it encompasses. It is critical, of course, to produce. You cannot be the guy who is rarely around (me) and does not produce (not me). Don’t confuse flexibility with effortlessness.

I hope this helps those of you interested in the distance Ph.D. Feel free to contact me with any questions you might have (dmorganyoung@gmail.com). Best of luck in your academic pursuits and I hope you can find your Venn diagram.