The goal of earning a Ph.D. is attainable even when a student can’t be on campus. The University of Oklahoma’s unique approach awards students an Interdiciplinary Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership through its Advanced Programs model.
The Ph.D. is offered to military stationed in Europe under a contract with the United States Army and is the only doctoral program approved by the Department of Defense in Europe. Since its inception in 1996, the program has graduated about 63 students. The program faculty are drawn from faculty on the Norman campus who agree to teach classes in Germany.
One of the key strengths of the program is that it draws on programs all across campus, including human relations, communication, economics and business administration.
For the current cohort, there are 25 students who began on Jan. 7. Although the program is delivered in Heidelberg, it attracts commuters from England, Italy and Belgium.
Dr. Peggy Lerner, director of OU Europe, said that roughly 30 percent to 40 percent are active-duty military. The rest are associated with the military in various leadership positions.
Dr. Peggy Lerner,
director of OU Europe
“What we do and what excites me is that we infiltrate the military community, so to speak, offering a quality program that has become fairly widespread among the leadership of the military,” said Lerner, who herself is a graduate of the program. “We create an intellectual community that is distant from campus but provides a similar environment.”
Building the Cohort
When it comes to navigating the program, officials believe success lies in the cohort model. Although other programs delivered on campus follow the cohort model, students pursuing a Ph.D. delivered at a distance especially benefit from the model.
“It’s delivering a doctoral degree for students that are not in residence on campus,” said Dr. T.H. Lee Williams, dean of the Graduate College. “Because the doctoral experience is a scholarly apprenticeship, the challenge was how do we provide that experience to students who are not on campus? The cohort approach provides an intellectual environment. We are offering a valid doctoral experience to a very capable group of students. The completion rate is at least as good if not higher than on campus.”
Because it’s a Ph.D. delivered at a distance, the cohort is designed to function the same way that a department functions on campus, officials said. In that way, the selection process is key. The students in the program have incredibly rich professional and life experience, resulting in a stimulating group of students for the program.
“We are looking for as much diversity as we can get: intellectual, ethnic, personality, the whole gamut,” said Dr. Rich Little, associate vice president for outreach at OU and administrator for the Ph.D. program. “The cohort provides an intellectual and emotional base for success in the program.”
Each student must go through a rigorous application process where he or she is forced to think through their commitment to participation. Inevitably, each student is going to have to agree to give up something in his or her current life to make it through the program. Students have been variously aged from 28 years to 65 years. The individuals have very active busy jobs and families, and they have to agree to spend one month each over two consecutive summers in Norman.
Dr. Joe Rodgers, Academic director for Ph.D. programs through
“They do everything in this cohort that they would do on the main campus in any other doctoral program that they might be involved in,” said Dr. Joe Rodgers, academic director for Advanced Programs and a psychology professor.
“We’re both insistent and very proud of that,” he said. “We don’t relax any requirements or standards to make things easy. We’re still training with the rigor that programs do on campus.”
With the consecutive summer requirements, students get “two very rich, one-month experiences. In some ways, it’s richer and better. In some ways, it’s not as good as being a student on campus. One of the things they clearly miss and lack is the camaraderie of students on campus. The cohort provides that,” he said.
The experience offers richness for students who may never have stayed on a college campus in their lives. Generally visiting during July, the students are able to stay in campus dorms.
“These are fabulous times for a lot of students,” Lerner said. “They get to experience that community within those hallowed halls of campus. Many of them because of military duties are experiencing that for the first time.”
Among the alumni of the program, there are many inspiring stories. Dr. Michael Pierce was stationed in Iraq for a 15-month tour with the Army when he was completing his dissertation.
Pierce said that the dissertation was a positive outlet for him, a great way to focus his energies.
Dr. Michael Pierce, OU Alumnus
“We worked every day,” he said. “I wrote nearly every day. Either I was going through the research I brought with me, writing observations, or making edits.”
Completion of the program took a lot of planning. Pierce sent all of his material in a few foot lockers.
“Once I arrived in Iraq, I had my own ready-made library away from home,” he said. Even though he is a communicator for his work in the Army, he still made the occasional trip on a Blackhawk over the landscape at night or rode in a vehicle over some pretty dangerous roads.
“Ultimately, the daily wearing down process takes its toll on everyone while deployed,” he said. “I am very thankful that I had the dissertation to work on. Honestly, I think it was what kept me sane.”
Pierce now works in the Exercise Combined Endeavor, a multi-national interoperability communications exercise involving more than 40 countries and organizations.
For Dr. Pedro Ramirez, his accomplishment meant following through on his mother’s wishes for his higher education. Dr. Ramirez now is a guidance counselor at Mannheim Elementary School on Mannheim Air Base in Germany.
Dr. Pedro Ramirez
“I have felt a strong desire to strive for higher education ever since I was a child,” he said. “This was very strongly influenced by my mother (who is from Mexico), whom herself was only afforded a sixth grade education and had always wanted more formal education for herself, but never had the opportunities she provided for us (three boys, one gir)l.”
When Dr. Ramirez defended his dissertation, his mother flew from California to the OU campus in Norman.
“I can’t tell you how much it meant to be able to do that for my mom and myself,” he said. “I feel I have gained a lot of knowledge, a more positive attitude (I was barely a C average student in high school) about what I can accomplish, and just an overall sense of satisfaction in life.”
Dr. Lewis Porch now is an adjunct professor for Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, and Central Texas College’s Fort Sill campus. He completed his dissertation defense in December and will attend the May graduation ceremonies in Norman.
Since retiring from the Army in 2002, Dr. Porch focused on fulfilling a long-time desire for higher education.
“Education is priceless, professionally and personally,” said Dr. Porch. “A bachelor’s degree allows a prospective job seeker the opportunity to stand in line for employment; a master’s degree opens the door; a doctorate allows me to invite others in the realms of educational propensity. The opportunity to advise, mentor, and lead others is a challenge I accept honestly and aggressively.”