Thinking About Getting a Doctorate: How to Choose a Program

Choosing a Doctoral Program
Michael B. Grossman, DM, MSN, RN, NEA-BC

     I am often asked for advice on what doctoral program to enroll in. There are so many choices today for doctoral education it is almost like buying a car. Somehow you need to narrow your focus: do you want a sports car, a family vehicle, something that is economical, or something luxurious? Sometimes it is easier to catch people early in their educational journey when they have already explored the question of what they want in a doctoral program. But, if that’s not your situation, now is as good a time as ever to begin the journey. As they say, Today is the first day of the rest of your life. So, let’s begin looking at what’s next for you. A variety of authors have suggested that it is useful to have friends in your career journey that provide support, guidance, feedback, and hold you accountable to the goals you are setting (Ferrazzi, 2009, Ibarra, 2003, Rath, 2006). I follow a similar process for choosing a doctoral program to the approach I recommend for finding a new job in my two earlier books (Grossman, 2011a, 2011b).

Figuring Out Which Doctoral Program is Right for You

     People often need to do a little career planning before choosing a doctoral program, as a lot depends on what you want to do career wise with a doctorate. Once you figure what is next for you (Grossman, 2011a) and what you are passionate about (Grossman, 2011b), it will become clearer what path you want to take in terms of doctoral education. One question you need to decide is if you want to take a traditional approach or the road less traveled. Early in my education I was a psychology major and the graduate school I was looking to attend preferred people without an undergraduate degree in psychology. You read that correctly, they did NOT want you to have an undergraduate degree in psychology. They said they wanted people with varied backgrounds who brought that perspective to the field. Some of my favorite nursing professors had doctorates from outside of nursing, which I thought made them very interesting and contributed new ideas to the field of nursing. Of course you need to be comfortable with doing that. I don’t mind when people snub their nose at me because my doctorate is not in nursing. I think I bring a lot of valuable insights to the field I love; nursing.

Hermenia Ibarra, PhD (2003) did some interesting research about organizational dynamics and individual role transitions. Broe (2012) replicated her research showing how leaders transition to different careers. Both of their research is very interesting in that they debunk some of the conventional wisdom in leadership practice. Ibarra and Broe based their work on the results of qualitative studies of over 30 people who made career moves and the formula, which is somewhat counter intuitive to conventional thinking. Their suggestions are very much in line with my own experience in coaching people to make career transitions. Briefly Ibarra’s theory (with Grossman comments in italics) is:

  1. Take action; don’t just think about what’s next. (Actually this is the foundation of cognitive therapy: push the patient to take  action, rather than rehash why they think their mother didn’t love them when they were four years old. So you need to talk to people with doctorates and interview at some doctoral programs).
  2. Try different things in protected environments (e.g. With a career move I recommend people try development programs, action learning, pipelines to working in other areas, short term assignments to different units, projects, task forces, shared governance committee work. It is possible to try out a doctoral program. You can usually take a course or two at the university before enrolling in the program).
  3. Don’t try to look for one thing, that is the essence of you. Instead find a bunch of ideas and test them (e.g. Grossman always says, “create a vague vision and then test out jobs or assignment that have those attributes rather than find THE perfect job.” This same principle applies to doctoral programs. There may not be one perfect program, but one that provides the flexibility to achieve your dreams. I had an interest in organizational dynamics, leadership, and the challenges of working with emotionally difficult people. I was able to achieve all those objectives with my doctoral program).
  4. Build in a transition period (e.g. William Bridges, 2004 Neutral Zone concept), rather than jumping right into a new position. So try some things like part-time jobs or temporary assignments (e.g. again, see if you can take a couple of courses before formally enrolling in the program. Even if you do enroll in a program, and find you don’t like it, you can switch to a different program).
  5. Shift your network-Don’t focus on the tasks of the new job, but on people who do the kind of work you’re thinking about. Ibarrah says to never, ever expect your boss or the workplace to be invested in your transition! (This is complicated by the old saying, “You can’t be a prophet in your own land.” It is very difficult to make a school decision based on input from the people in your own environment. The people in your own environment may be worried that going back to school means you are going to eventually leave or get promoted. They may give you biased suggestions like, “Why do you need more education?” Find some people with doctorates from outside your environment and seek their advice and support).
  6. Don’t look for a BIG BANG to hit you over the head…ideally the transition is slow, with mini-steps and psychological transitions occurring every day! (What’s nice is if you have worked on a Plan B, you can refer back to it when you are having a bad day and feeling discouraged with your current work).
  7. Take time to step back and reflect. But, keep the breaks just long enough to reflect, put it all in perspective, and get right back to changing (Here’s where a coach can be useful in reminding you of your goals and keeping you on track).

Ibarra and Broe’s work has huge implications for most fields, especially those that need a next generation of leaders. It also has huge implications for selecting a doctoral program. Frankly I don’t know many fields that have a surplus of good leaders and well educated people. The number one take away message for me is that people need coaches, mentors, and structured action learning experiences (LaRue, Childs, and Larson, 2004) in order to test their theories of what they would like to be in the future.

Why Can’t You Just Do the Work on Your Own?

     You can do a lot of the career development work on your own, but what is difficult is being objective about your strengths, growth needs, and holding yourself accountable. It is too easy to get busy with your current work responsibilities and slowly
the days, weeks, and months pass you by without any progress toward your new career or school decision. It is also hard to push yourself toward loftier stretch goals. Here’s where a mentor or career coach using a formal structured process is useful. Ferrazzi (2009) suggested it is a lot easier to be successful in life if you have other people help you. Ferrazzi suggested that good relationships are based on intimacy, generosity, vulnerability, and candor. A true friend helps you to build your dream, gives you honest/realistic feedback, and holds you accountable to achieve the goals you have set. That’s what he calls having your back. It is not always easy to find good friends like that. Tom Rath (2006) suggested that it is difficult to find one perfect friend who meets all your needs in life. Instead Rath’s research with the Gallup Corporation showed that most successful people have different friends for the different pieces of their life.
I have a network of friends in my academic career, other people who provide me with clinical support as a nurse, artist friends who support my cartooning career, and my sports fanatic buddies who I go to the ballgame with. Bringing this back to Ibarra’s work, you can not always expect the people around you to be invested in your progress. They may not want you to leave them alone in your old work environment, they may be jealous of your career success, and they may not want to take on the work you leave behind. Much of this is not conscious, but comes out in discussions with friends and work colleague’s. Which, is why Ibarra suggests you talk to folks in the field you envision yourself moving to, not the people in your current work environment. I was always interested in on-line learning, leadership, and organizational dynamics. Unfortunately I often asked the wrong people for advice. I spoke to my friend who had a traditional PhD. He said the hallmark of doctoral education was face-to-face interactions. I spoke to another friends father, who was a dean at an Ivy League College. He said on-line learning was just a fad. So, I dropped my dream for a few years, till I realized I was speaking to the wrong folks. Then I switched my approach and started talking to people with on-line degrees, who told me it was the wave of the future. I often sabotaged myself by talking to
people in my own organization who had left academia or consulting for the comfort of
working in an organization. What kind of advice do you think they gave me? You
guessed it, stay in the organization and not pursue a degree. The more I networked with with people in the kind of academia and consulting where I wanted to be, the more support and encouragement I received to take the leap.

Formalizing the Process

     One approach to choosing a doctoral program is to make it into a formal process like many people do with other important decision like buying a car or purchasing a house. Make a list of 5 questions and interview 5-10 people with doctorates. Here are some good questions to start:

  1. What was your goal in getting a doctorate?
  2. Why did you choose the program you went to?
  3. What did you like about the program you choose? What do you wish was different?
  4. I appreciate why you went to the program you went to. In my field what sort of doctoral program will be the most valuable in the future?
  5. What surprised you the most after you had your doctorate that you hadn’t thought about ahead of time?

Another approach is to hire a career coach, who will lead you through a formal process, and whose only investment is in having you be successful and find a new career or educational opportunity you feel passionate about. That structure can be very instrumental in exploring your strengths and building a business plan to make your next move. A good coach can also hold you accountable and remind you when you are making forward progress so you don’t get discouraged.

Dr. Michael Grossman, DM, MSN, RN, NEA-BC is a nursing consultant, academician, and career coach. As a professor in the graduate schools of nursing at both University of Phoenix and Walden University, he specializes in healthcare ethics, leadership development, career coaching, teambuilding, motivation, change, communications, and dealing with “difficult” people.
He can be reached at 610-331-8470 or


Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, Revised 25th Anniversary Edition. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo  Press.

Broe, S. (2012). Leaders in Transition. U.S.A.: CreateSpace available on

Ferrazzi, K. (2009). Who’s Got Your Back: The Breakthrough Program to Build Deep, Trusting Relationships That Create   Success and Won’t Let You Fail. New York: Broadway Business.

Grossman, M. B. (2011b). What’s Next Create Your Dream Job With a Plan B. Bala Cynwyd, PA: Nurse Leadership Builders @

Grossman, M. B. (2011b). Passion: Finding What Energizes Your Career (1st ed.). Bala Cynwyd, PA: Nurse Leadership Builders@

Handy, C. (2002). Elephants and Fleas: Is Your Organization Prepared for Change. Leader to Leader, 24.
Ibarra, H. (2003). Working Identity Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

LaRue, B., Childs, P., & Larson, K. (2004). Leading Organizations from the inside out unleashing the collaborative genius of action-learning teams. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Custom Services.

Rath, T. (2006). Vital Friends: The people you can’t afford to live without. New York: Gallup Press.

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