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April E. Belback, University of Pittsburgh

April Belback.jpgFifteen years ago, during my M.S.Ed. graduation ceremony, I remember seeing (for the first time) doctoral graduates being hooded by their advisors. I was a young mother of two boys at the time and had decided to pivot my profession ten years after receiving my baccalaureate degree. Since then, my career has taken many different paths. But that moment was the inspiration for me say to myself, “I will do this someday. I will be Dr. Belback.” As a first-generation college student and working professional, the journey to obtain my doctorate was not an easy one. However, with a strong support system, I am proud to say that I did it! Please allow me to share my experiences and some small nuggets of advice in the hopes that it may help others, particularly those in the field of higher education student success.

It is never the right time. When talking with colleagues about their desire to attend graduate school, I often hear that it just is not the right time, either professionally or personally. In fact, I put off pursuing my doctoral degree for quite some time. Like many other working professionals, I have a full plate. While I envisioned myself being hooded, factors such as imposter syndrome held me back and gave me the excuse to continually say to myself that it just was not the right time. My first-generation and working-class roots provided me with resilience and an unmatched work ethic. But, when it comes to confronting my own success, I feel uncomfortable and would rather over prepare and over work to prove my own fears (Long et al., 2000). For some time, these actions played a part in hindering the pursuit of my dreams in academia. It took a friend’s wisdom to give me the push I needed when he said, “It is never going to be the right time; you will always have other priorities, and you have to decide when to make this a priority in your life.” These words changed my mindset and gave me a framework for many decisions in my life since that time.

Find your support system. When I returned to graduate school, I was fortunate to have the support of my family. My husband and I made a plan. I knew that for the next few years, scholarship would need to be a priority for me if I was to be successful. During graduate school, there were plenty of times when I would have loved to (insert something fun) instead of going to class or writing. But my whole family knew the importance of my endeavor and their support meant that I did not have to explain when these types of situations arose. My support system also includes the doctoral student cohort of colleagues from my program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania College of Education and Communications. I have friends for life because we have shared experiences which include long class weekends and pivoting to remote learning during a pandemic. Wherever you are able to find your support system, whether through colleagues, mentors, friends, or family, do not be afraid to show vulnerability and share the experiences of graduate school with them to make the weight just a bit lighter.

Find clear ties to your current (or future) work. When I started my program, I knew I wanted to study advising and student success. I was worried that I needed to figure out my research plan right away. Rather, I learned to allow myself to be open to exploration and new ideas. I did this by digging into the assignments as a path for current and future successes. Each project was an opportunity for me to delve into something I was thinking about at my institution and quite often I asked to present my work (both informally and formally) to stakeholders and leadership. For example, one of my program projects was a proposal for building an institutional infrastructure of supports for first-generation college students, the fruits of which I am seeing play out today. Not only can these assignments help you to set goals for yourself but also to begin collecting literature for a final dissertation.

Set goals for yourself. Speaking of goals, I am often asked about motivation and how I was able to finish writing my dissertation. I am finding that there is honestly no one perfect answer to this question. Instead, you must figure out what drives you and stive toward understanding how to make that impactful for your journey. For me, goal setting was a driving force towards finishing my degree. I started at the end and worked backwards to set both long- and short-term goals. I wanted to graduate by December, so how would I get there? I figured out the timeline of events for university processes which would enable me to reach that milestone. Then, I created a Gantt chart to mark monthly goals. I continuously updated and revised the chart as I worked toward my goal. Each week, I had a goal that would align with the month, and I was able to break the weekly goals into daily tasks. The chart became my daily check in to ensure I was on-track. When I was able to work each day, even if it was just an hour, I grew to understand that I was more connected to the work.

It is what you make of it. This last one was a hard lesson for me to learn. I first envisioned that graduate school would lead me to the perfect research topic with some guiding light moment. That never happened! The process, however, is much more transformational if you allow it to be. I experienced being able to sit in the driver’s seat and define my own scholarship in a way that I could not have imagined. I truly believe that you can find your own voice as a scholar if you are open to this possibility and constantly seek diverse feedback. I grew to love the research process and writing my dissertation. My journey was not linear, but like most good things in life, full of some major ups and a few downs, as well.

My hope is that if you are thinking about a similar journey, but have some reservations, sharing my story may help you consider your own doctoral path. In higher education today, more scholarship is needed in the space of advising and student success. For me, the mantra to never stop learning drives me to continue research in my field as I strive to innovate and succeed. What is your inspiration?

April E. Belback, D.Ed.
Director of Undergraduate Advising and Mentoring
Office of the Provost
University of Pittsburgh
[email protected]


Long, M. L., Jenkins, G. R., & Bracken, S. (2000). Imposters in the sacred grove: Working-class women in the academe. The Qualitative Report, 5(3/4). http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR5-3/long.html

Cite this article using APA style as: Belback, A.E. (2022, December). Reflections from a new D.Ed. Academic Advising Today, 45(4). [insert url here] 


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