Why a PhD?

For me, I had a lot of questions that I wanted answers to after working in research labs throughout my undergrad career, graduating with my BS in psychology and working at the VA and Baylor for a year and a half. (It didn’t hurt that I was definitely that kid growing up that always asked the “why?” and “how?” questions). After working on a project involving spirituality and mental health treatment, and hearing a lecture on spirituality in psychology, my curiosity took over on how social workers integrate their clients’ spirituality into clinical practice and how social work education teaches students about this delicate area of practice.

So after a year of learning the evidence-based practice process under Dr. Danielle Parrish and spending two semesters immersed in an independent study under Dr. Andrew Achenbaum studying the amazing work that’s been done on spirituality, clinical practice and social work education, I was hooked. There’s really no other way to describe it. Everything I was reading and taking in caused me to ask more questions and fed my desire to understand more about how and why what I was learning was so important to social work practice and education. So I applied to the PhD program to learn how I could go about studying this area further.

If you’ve ever seen the Nicholas Cage movie, National Treasure, that’s sort of what my experience has felt like. You’re on a hunt – you have this curiosity, this hypothesis that something exists, and that you really want to uncover it, one layer or one clue at a time. The more you learn, the better you understand what you’re after and the clearer whatever it is you’re after becomes. Each of these new clarities somehow boosts your ability to solve the “clues” (or the little questions) to get to that treasure (or that one big question for researchers). As dorky as it may sound, the process is absolutely exhilarating!

I know that not everyone feels this way about research or the PhD venture, and that’s really ok. You certainly have to be ready (as does your main support system at home!) and have a strong desire to learn the methods, the previous research, and the statistics. I think the whole process is a lot like the MSW program, in that it’s really what you make of it and that we’re each designed to do something specific, but our job is to first find out what that is. If your inner guide leads you to the PhD program, definitely talk with students in social work PhD programs and programs in related fields, talk with mentors you trust, get involved in current research studies to see if it’s really what you want to do, spend time mulling over and studying the background research on the questions that you want to study, and discuss what’s ahead with your spouse and loved ones (probably one of the most important steps). And after all of that, if you end up deciding on the PhD route, get ready (with a self-care plan in hand!) for an incredibly unique journey!

By: Holly Oxhandler


The MSW/PhD Balancing Act

With my last blog being about my reflection on the MSW program, I was asked to touch on the PhD experience thus far. With only couple months into what I foresee as an exciting journey ahead, it’s hard for me to really capture my thoughts as I ride along this learn-and-process train.

There are two things I have learned though that may be helpful to students who are considering the dual degree or PhD program. The first is the balancing act. One of the most important things about being in the PhD program is how important it is to love what you do wholeheartedly and for it to be more sustaining than draining. However, with all the goodness that comes with being so passionate about your topic, there is a downfall as well… the “no” button stops working sometimes. Enter: Self-awareness. Above anything else I’ve learned in the past month of balancing MSW classes with PhD classes, continuing to work, plan a wedding, and remaining involved in multiple student organizations, I’ve learned that:

1) it’s hard work (don’t ever let anyone try to tell you getting a PhD is easy – it has been very rewarding thus far, but it definitely requires a lot of time and effort),

2) it doesn’t improve your social life, and

3) it karate chops hours of sleep.

Yet somewhere in the toughness, I’m learning something every day about my capabilities and perspective and I’m falling more in love with my research topic. Few words could explain the relationship I’ve built with my topic (which is exactly what it is… a relationship) and the excitement and enthusiasm I feel in response to learning about it. The more I learn, the more I love it and want to learn more.

Another thing I have learned while in this program is that I have found some of the greatest mentors in my life housed in our faculty. Not only have my immediate mentors (Danielle Parrish, PhD and W. Andrew Achenbaum, PhD) been brilliant lights on my intellectual path, but I have also shared some of the best conversations and connections with so many other wonderful faculty members here at GCSW. I have found some of the most supportive, encouraging, and empowering individuals to intellectually push and guide me. While one sent me some great links before starting the program on life as a PhD student, others attended a talk I gave last month on Integrating Spirituality into Clinical Practice, and even others have reached out to me to help with projects. We’re so lucky to be surrounded by such incredible individuals!

My time here thus far has been just wonderful, there’s no doubt about that, even as I learn the balancing MSW/PhD piece. As I spend this year wrapping up my MSW coursework and begin my PhD journey, I am wholeheartedly grateful to be surrounded by some of the most incredible individuals (faculty, staff, and students) who really care about education, creating opportunities, and growing through connection.

By: Holly Oxhandler