I have been struggling with this blog post for much longer today than I probably should admit. Lots of people ask you what you are going to do “now that you have a Ph.D.” And the truth is, I really don’t know. I currently work in a nice position that requires Ph.D. level work, so its not like I am in a hurry to change things. But it is also a position that requires me to determine what I want to research, so staying put or looking elsewhere leaves me with the same confusion over “what’s next?” either way.

But why do I feel so confused over the future? This line from Jim Groom’s recent post seemed to finally clarify my hang-up:

“a bunch of folks who have been, for the most part, marginalized by the ed-tech gold rush for MOOCs, big data, analytics, etc—a push for the last four years that dominated the field’s time, energy, and precious few resources.”

There are interesting things happening in those “gold rush” areas, and also some concerning things. But our field, overall, does have a “cool” crowd and a “not so cool” crowd. If you are not currently into analytics, wearables, and a few other hot topics… you are usually left in the margins. I’m not sure if marginalized is the best word, but maybe… toiling in obscurity? For example, even bad ideas in analytics get more attention, more funding, more awards, etc, than great ideas in more obscure fields like instructional design, learning theory, etc.

That is not to slam analytics or wearables or whatever as a whole. There are some great ideas there. As Vitomir Kovanovic stated today:


The “gold rush” is often focusing on the “bad ones” at times because they can get something out there quicker. As George Siemens wisely pointed out:


So for a lot of these “hot topics,” I don’t hate them as much as see them having a long waiting period to mature into something practical. In the meantime, the instructional designer in me knows of practical ideas that can be used right now to make a dent in things.

But, the depressing truth is that these ideas will mostly always be kicking around on the fringes. When people like Mike Caufield complain about feeling obscure, and his ideas are a hundred times more popular than the ones I am interested in… it doesn’t make one want to sign up for years and years of fringe work.

Personally, I think the idea of “thought leader” is a bit along the lines of “rock star.” Others see differently, that is fine with me. But “thought leaders” are still part of the cool crowd, where as “thought synthesizers” tend to get left out of the conversation frequently. Most of the really interesting things that I like to work on, like customizable pathways design, are not really the result of “thought leaders” as much as “thought synthesizers.”

So the problem is, should I throw my lot in with the cool kids and do things that I am maybe-kind of interested in, or follow my passions into obscurity?

To be honest, I don’t really know. I am technically already in obscurity, so no where to go but up, right? A lot of this is not really about me, but the ideas that I think have great potential. They are also, unfortunately, ill-defined, poorly worded (too many syllables, which I say in all seriousness and not flippantly), not sexy, not flashy, not cool. I could very easily hitch my wagon to some ideas that are cool sounding and sexy. Someone sent me a link to a university that was looking for a Professor of Game-Based Learning that they thought I would be a good fit for. Sounds fun, flashy, hip, etc. But it was also in Texas, and let’s face it: Texas is not a great place to live (sorry if you think it is). And they pay academics poorly. I just found out this week I could get a raise if I went to teach high school down the street. Not interested in that at all, but…. ouch.

Also don’t know if I could spend all day teaching game-based learning. Not my passion. You see, I went to get a Ph.D. as a frustrated instructional designer that couldn’t get a foot in the research door because I wasn’t a professor. I wanted to follow my passions into researching ideas that made a practical difference (like many other Ph.D. students I am sure). That was five years ago, and the general state of academia has declined rapidly since then. I’m hardly enthusiastic to jump on the tenure track when that is such a minefield. If I can even get on the tenure track – that is difficult at best in the current university climate.

Oh, and now in many states students could be packing heat. So, yay safety.

edugeek-journal-avatarSo now that my pity party has been dragging on forever and will probably cost me the 6 readers I get for any post (WordPress stats are depressing as well), I leave anyone still reading this my depressing confession: if you get a Ph.D., you may end up finding yourself at a crossroads to choose between your passions and what will actually get you somewhere. If your passions line up with the cool crowd, you are lucky; if they don’t, you have a hard choice to make. I can’t tell you which one I will make. Obviously, I will be choosing very soon. But do I really want to push off in the opposite direction of the stream of hip ideas that have “dominated the field’s time, energy, and precious few resources”? It’s hard to say. But an important question to ask oneself.

3 thoughts on “Depressing Confessions of a “Newly Minted” Ph.D.

  1. Struggling to write or struggling to hit post? The words are often hard to admit, but you are just at the end of a journey. When the road ends we never know where to find the next one so that we can get started again.
    We have at many times thought of the state of higher ed at being at a cross roads – but it persists.
    Over the last two years I have asked myself many times, what now? Do I go back an finish or do I move on to something else? But I always find that I need to ask myself (this may sound kind of gloomy but) ‘If I only had a year to live, is this what I would want to be doing?’ … truthfully, not really, I’d rather be traveling, but short of being on a permanent vacation, the answer is generally yes. I like what I do. I love teaching online. I like the research that I’m doing. It may not feel that sexy or be that high profile, but it does matter. It makes a difference .. lives beyond mine are made better by it. I think that is true too of the work that you do. It is true of any path that you will take. Perhaps there is a third path in the fork that allows you to make a difference in whatever way you want …
    I agree that the state of salaries in higher education are getting a bit pathetic. I’m actually happy to hear that a high school teacher makes more because I think they have an infinitely harder job that we do … they don’t get to choose to research what they want. They have to ‘stick to the curriculum’ and are sadly measured on how well their students perform on standardized tests, rather than on how they shape the lives of others … not something that I’d ever want to do!

  2. Interesting post. I too thought about a PhD because I wanted to do research but decided against it. I watched a colleague work on one over several years and heard many many complaints about the stinking quality of the profs. ID really is a problem of working in obscurity – we are not the masters of our domain.

    Wondering if you’ve checked out Association for Educational Communication and Technology – they seem to be the most serious of the organizations I’ve investigated. Started by Charles Reigeluth of Indiana U.

  3. Hello Matt, thank you for your post. I am at the start of a journey that you have just completed. Not only am I a newly minted instructional designer (only 2 years young) but have embarked on studies in this area, heading towards a Masters at the moment. After many different jobs such as a teacher and librarian, I have finally found my passion.

    It is so nice to read about a fellow ‘marginal’ traveller on the road. I only came across your blog courtesy of my current teacher, David Jones, https://davidtjones.wordpress.com/ in the Networked and Global Learning course I am doing. So at least 2 more people (in Australia) are reading your blog :)

    Your question about whether to throw your lot in with the cool kids or follow your passion really resonates with me as I have only recently found my passion as instructional designer. If you know your passion than continue on that path and pursue the marginal items like customisable pathways design as this can make a real practical difference to a student’s learning experience (and I am extremely interested!). Congratulations on your Phd as I am sure you now have the research to back up your ID skills.

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