Monthly Archives: March 2015

Reflections on the Process of Qualifying


We recently interviewed doctoral candidate, Rebecca Buchanan, on the process of qualifying. While her work focuses on teacher education programs and linguistic analysis, her reflections offer general guidance for students in the beginning stages of their doctoral studies in the Education Department at UCSC. These reflections are offered with the intention of contributing to one’s overall understanding and approach to preparing for qualifying exams (QEs) understanding that the specific topic of inquiry and advisor-advisee relationship will inform how the process unfolds for different students.

Understanding the purpose of QEs

The way I understand the qualifying examination is that it is a time in your graduate career where a committee of experts evaluates your work as a graduate student and deems you capable of conducting an independent research project. The QEs are a major milestone because they serve as an opportunity to demonstrate your expertise in a set of particular theoretical and methodological fields of study. For our program in particular, QEs take the form of two papers and an oral exam.

For my QEs, the focus of one of my papers was teacher residency programs as a form of teacher education. My second was a methodological paper on linguistic analysis. I analyzed several teacher performance assessments and explicated the different linguistic methods by demonstrating how one could apply them to these particular performance assessments.

General Advice for Students in the Early Stages of Identifying a Topic

Given that the process will look different for each individual there are some broad lessons and approaches that I think might be useful for students approaching the QE process. To begin, my advice is simply to find what it is that really interests you–what seems like the issues, practices, concepts, etc. that are most fascinating to you right now? I ended up at this particular dissertation study because residency programs seemed like an interesting new reform, but it was actually helpful during the qualifying process to reflect on how I arrived at my topic.

My work sits at the cross-section of multiple interests: different models of teacher and teacher education reform writ large, language analysis and the ways in which we use language to both construct and to make sense of the world, and what it means to prepare teachers to teach for equity and social justice within historically marginalized communities. The QE process is about figuring out where your interests intersect and designing a line of inquiry that fits into those various fields.

Creating Structures to Support Concept Development and Writing

The hard part is knowing what you want to begin investigating. What I would have done differently is enroll in at least one independent study each quarter of my third year. I would structure these independent studies by assembling a reading list in the first week and asking my independent study sponsor to provide feedback and additions to the list. At the end of the independent study, I would produce an annotated bibliography. By structuring an independent study in this way for both the fall and winter, one can produce an annotated bibliography for each QE paper. I think the drawback to this idea is that it is a little rigid, but that structure would have really helped me. When you’re also working (as a TA or Graduate Student Researcher), it is easy for other things to fill your independent study space.

Another way to build in supportive structures is to engage in weekly check-ins with colleagues who are also in the midst of the writing process. I’ve tried the “I’ll make myself write however many words a day” approach, but what I found most helpful was having regular Skype meetings every week or two weeks with a couple of other students. It was a form of accountability that worked for me as well as a forum for hearing strategies that others were using to support their own writing.

I would also encourage students to write several drafts of each of their papers and to meet regularly with their advisors and/or committee members. I would send my advisor a draft of my work, and we would set up a meeting to discuss the drafts. During the meeting, I would take notes, and then I would leave with a long list of items to address. I would begin addressing these items the day after our in-person meeting. This system helped to ensure that I was constantly working toward refining my ideas and thinking around my two topics.

Bridging QEs and Dissertation Research

I’m currently collecting data for my dissertation project. The work of reading and thinking about teacher education has informed my focus on what kind of data I want to collect. And I am constantly making connections between the work for the qualifying process and what I am seeing now in the field.

Kip’s Sabbatical: A Preliminary Report

By Kip Téllez

When The Plenary editors invited me to submit a post on what I’ve been doing on my sabbatical, I immediately said yes. Of course I wanted to contribute to this exciting new space for sharing our thoughts on “Pedagogy, Practice, and Policy” but self-doubt soon overcame me. I feared that my report would hold no one’s attention. Maybe I should write about something else, something more exciting. I thought about asking the editors if I could switch my topic, but I eventually decided that the exercise might help me to reflect, and that at least one of my activities would be interesting.

I have three primary tasks for my sabbatical, which roughly form my weekly schedule. The first is the writing of a book, the title of which is “The Teaching Instinct: Explorations Into What Makes Us Human.” The manuscript is about 80% finished, but I fear the last 20% will be the toughest, and I wish I could snap my fingers and have it done. Make no mistake, I like to write, but it’s intellectually challenging, difficult work. It’s also lonely, but there is no other way to write than to keep distractions (i.e., other people) at bay and live inside your mind, considering and reconsidering that idea, this phrase, that paragraph. Of course, I can share drafts and get feedback from colleagues, but in the end I have to put the words on the page. My sabbatical has given me the time to write, a time to be lonely and convince myself that the world needs another book. I still don’t know that it does, but it will get one nonetheless.

Task 2: I was selected to edit the journal Teacher Education Quarterly about a year ago. I’ve enjoyed it for the most part, and thanks to a new manuscript submission system, I can handle the work with about 8-14 hours per week. But I also find it emotionally challenging, primarily because I have to tell authors that their work will not be published. Only about 15-20% of all the manuscripts submitted make it into the journal, so the vast majority are rejected. A cadre of 412 reviewers rate the papers (2-3 reviewers per manuscript), but I am the one who has to make the final decision.

On the other hand, I also work  with the authors of the papers found worthy of publication. This part is pure joy, because, for academics, receiving news that your paper will be published can be quite emotional, a validation of one’s ideas and hard work. In addition, I get to help put the final touches on the paper, refining the writing and argumentation.

The third task for my sabbatical is substitute teaching, and I wish I had more time for it, but…see above. Why have I taken on this work? I’m not entirely sure myself, but I began my career as an elementary school teacher in a 5th grade class. I remember feeling so alive, and it was the students who inspired me. The majority of the students were native Spanish speakers, about five were recent immigrants from Vietnam; others represented various language backgrounds (e.g, Samoan, Egyptian Arabic). I recall my early teaching years each day I work in education. I have worked in hundreds of classrooms and with thousands of K12 students since, but those first years were the catalyzing and animating force behind all I do, and I developed a passion for education that remains with me still. But I’ve been a professor in higher education for many years, and although I’ve worked to develop many new programs and curricula for schools, I wondered to myself, “Could I still get the kids to line up for lunch?” “Did I still have the ‘eyes in the back of my head’ required to keep an elementary classroom humming?”

I am happy to report that the answer is yes, but teaching is never easy. In one classroom, a particular third grader named Jason, smelling of tobacco smoke, who kept his oversized jacket on all day and just could not stay focused on his assignment, gave me fits. And I freely admit to bribing each class with my guitar: if they stayed on task and were kind to each other, we would sing songs at the end of the day. I don’t know if substitute teaching has been a more valuable sabbatical exercise than writing a book, but it certainly isn’t as lonely.