It was almost 20 years ago that I was at a crossroads in determining whether or not to pursue a doctoral degree, and at that time the options were many. However, it was nowhere near the number of programs that a prospective student has to select from today. In fact, a quick search on the internet currently yields thousands of program options. As a teacher, it seemed obvious to me that Curriculum and Instruction would be a likely option and fortunately, the past two decades have helped me to reaffirm the choice I made to complete a “C and I” program, and I would like to share some insights regarding choosing the right program for those who find themselves at a similar crossroad.
The Importance of Curriculum and Instruction Doctoral Programs in Education
Now more than ever, those of us who have an interest in education should be doing everything possible to ensure that our doctoral programs continue to thrive. New teachers enter the workforce each year, and the likelihood of them staying in the profession is small. In light of high stakes testing demands, merit pay systems, ever-evolving lists of standards, the rapid change in curriculum, and the diversity of instructional models, it is no wonder that our profession is hard pressed to find individuals willing to stay and invest a lifetime in this work.
Nevertheless, a wonderful thing often happens when an education professional finds the motivation to consider a doctoral degree in the area of curriculum and instruction. It is as if the sense of empowerment that had been lost is suddenly found again. As undergraduates, a majority of the information is new and being learned for the very first time. There is no expectation that as a student you come into a program knowing everything and a high percentage of undergraduate programs in education are experiential with the expectation that you will learn instructional strategies and refine content area knowledge for the grade level you intend to teach. It is likely you will also engage in field experiences and internships that will prepare you for the teaching experience immediately upon graduation. Teaching as a profession typically does not require advanced level graduate coursework. For the most part, if a teacher seeks to continue his/her education, it is likely a Master’s degree will be earned to add a new certification or endorsement to a teaching certificate. Given that students will have earned Bachelor’s degrees and Master’s degrees in a variety of specialization areas, one of the issues that colleges and schools of education must address when developing doctoral programs is to render the degree broad enough to bring together a variety of disciplines. In doing so, the program must also be specific enough to truly engage students in a rigorous research based program that culminates in a high quality doctoral experience.
Through personal experience, I have come to the realization that a doctorate in the area of Curriculum and Instruction meets the needs of many who have an interest in education. The program offerings vary significantly from institution to institution, yet it is clear that “C and I” programs are designed for students who have an interest in furthering their knowledge in the area of curriculum development and evaluation, who want to know the latest in instructional strategies and who have a desire to learn more about opportunities to transform educational experiences. We often hear about what is not working in our educational systems, and ironically those pieces are written by those who have not had much experience in the classroom. It is time to develop a generation of strong leaders in education, who have the experience necessary to truly impact the policies that are driving the changes in our school systems. I am not suggesting that upon earning a doctorate that one would miraculously know how to fix the education system here in the United States. However, I do believe that a doctorate in “C and I” informs a generation of leaders and engages them in analyzing and synthesizing the theoretical underpinnings of curriculum and instruction.
How to Select the Right Curriculum and Instruction Program
With the variety of Curriculum and Instruction program offerings in the United States, it is helpful to establish the criteria you want to use for selecting the right program. Here are some important points:
• Ensure the program has a strong connection between theory and practice.
A solid Curriculum and Instruction degree program allows students to consider the integration of theory and practice throughout the program. Request a list of courses required for the program and ensure that there is a strong core requiring students to study theory and important historical trends in education, in addition to more practically oriented courses. If the course title is not detailed enough, then take the time to request a graduate catalog and read through the course descriptions. There should be a balance of theoretical and practical courses throughout the program.
• Look for a program that encourages students to engage in research and scholarly presentations throughout the program.
In addition to taking research courses at the doctoral level, a prospective student should be concerned with finding a program that allows him/her to actually engage in research opportunities prior to the final dissertation research project. This is important for two reasons: first, as a student you want to ensure that there is an occasion for you to be part of a project before you are responsible for engaging in your own research. This way you will know how to set up a research project and how to go to IRB (Institutional Review Board) for approval prior to your final research. Second, if you know that you want to seek a position in higher education upon graduating with your Doctoral degree, you will need to start developing your CV (Curriculum Vita) as soon as possible — which means that every opportunity you have to publish your work or present your work during the Doctoral program is important. Listing publications and presentations on your CV will be significant when trying to secure an Assistant Professor position upon graduation.
• Find a program that provides students with a chance to teach in higher education.
If your ultimate goal is to teach for an institution of higher education, then you want to ask if the doctoral program that you are selecting will support and mentor you in finding adjunct teaching assignments throughout the program. (Similarly, if your desire is to focus on research will the program provide opportunities for you to participate as a research assistant? Or if you know that you want to work on policy issues, can the program support you in finding occasions to work on local, state or federal pieces?)
• Make certain that there is a vibrant community of doctoral students.
Take the time to speak with current students in order to ask them what their experience has been. If possible, ask to speak with alumni who have an interest in your area of specialization. It is helpful to hear first-hand how the program has impacted their professional lives.
• Select a program format that fits your life style.
Starting a doctoral program is a major commitment. Ensure that the days/times that courses are being offered fit into your schedule. With the variety of program offerings, you are sure to find fully online programs, hybrid programs and traditional face-to-face programs. Also, there are some full-time and part-time program offerings to consider. If you are geographically bound and you know that you cannot move in order to begin your doctoral studies, at a minimum learn more about all of the program offerings in your area before making this important decision. Visit the campus and ask to speak with the chair of the department and faculty in order to attain answers to the many questions you may have. Some programs may allow you to “sit in” on a class, which would most definitely help you in making a final decision.
• Investigate the differences between the Ed.D. and the Ph.D.
Some institutions offer both an Ed.D. and a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. If this is the case, it is important that you learn what makes the programs of study different and which one is right for you depending on your future goals. You will want to know how many credits are required, if there is a comprehensive exam component and if the culminating research project is a dissertation. Compare and contrast the options that are available to you and when in doubt ask questions.
• Keep program application deadlines in mind!
Lastly, take the time to organize yourself for the application process. In many cases there are firm deadlines that must be met when applying for a doctoral program. Make sure you are aware of the deadlines and that you take the time to contact the chair of the department or the graduate admissions director to ensure that your materials have been received in a timely manner. If you know that you must take the GRE, do not put off this requirement because it may impact whether or not you can begin your studies.