Starting My Doctorate Journey

 

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“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail” -Coach John Wooden

As a begin this new doctoral journey at Middle Georgia State this week I can honestly say I feel the furthest from a “professional” than I have since I have graduated with my MS degree nearly 12 years ago. Some call it imposter syndrome, others call it anxiety. I’m not sure how to define it to be honest with you. All I know is that it is a real and legit feeling. However, that may not be so bad.

I grew up in a small rural town in West Virginia. Salt Rock to be exact. Small community, small school, small town feeling. It was comfortable. Early on in in school I never worried about A’s and B’s or making a 4.0 GPA as I always knew that as long as I put in the work I’d get the grade I deserved. I learned as much as a grade school kid could learn. The teachers always made sure they poured more than just academics into both my classmates and myself. High school was no different. I graduated with a 4.0 and amongst the top of my class, but still never felt as if I accomplished anything. Still, imposter syndrome was at work.

College was a different beast for me. I always felt as if I had to work harder than anyone and everyone because I grew up “rural” and always felt as if I were a step behind my peers. My friends and peers tell me that was imposter syndrome. I still to this day feel as if I were truly behind. Endless hours of studying just to make a B in a 100 level class seemed to perpetually fuel that inadequacy. The only place in college that I ever felt comfortable was behind a computer keyboard or terminal. When I finally started to get into my upper-level classes the realization that I had a love for computer technology was evident. By the time I graduated with my bachelor’s I knew that somehow, some way, that I was going to carve out a path in the IT industry, even though I had little to no “formal” experience.

They say hard work and going the extra mile will get you far in life. When it comes to reflecting back on my professional career I can say that is a true statement. Coach John Wooden once said Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable. As a fresh graduate with no job opportunities coming my way I decided to enroll in graduate school. However, I failed to realize that grad school was expensive and there were no such things as “scholarships” like I had in undergrad. That forced me to start looking for graduate assistantships. In my desperate search for a GA position I ran across an IT graduate assistantship at Marshall University in their Career Services Center. They were looking for a person taht would not only keep up with their hardware, computer, and network infrastructure, but also build and maintain a full website for their CSC. Let me reiterate that I knew LITTLE in terms of formal training or education in terms of what they were wanting. Nonetheless I accepted the role in desperation of securing a full tuition waiver in addition to a graduate assistant stipend. It was this job that would change the trajectory of my career forever. One that would vault me into the career that I always wanted to be in since day one of college: digital forensics.

During this graduate assistantship I would work anywhere from 40-60 hours a week, mainly teaching myself how to network, be a sysadmin, and how to code PHP/ASP/HTML for the website I was building. For about 3-4 months this job was my life outside of the studying for grad school classes, which took up the other hours of my week. By the end of my first semester at Marshall I not only taught myself how to code a dynamic website, but I also deployed aforementioned website much to the delight of the director, support staff, and career counselors that I worked for in addition to making students’ life easier by helping to get an entire computer lab of about 18 computers in addition to a web and database server up and running. Needless to say I was happy and humming along, prepared to finish out my next 1.5 years as a graduate student and GA before mving on to my career path of choice: digital forensics and information security. How quickly things can change in life…

One day I came into my job and the Career Services Director called me into her office. She said that a job posting had come into the Center for a Digital Forensics Analyst working in the West Virginia State Police Digital Forensics Lab. She said before she posted it to the database that she personally wanted to call the person who setup the job and recommend me. While sitting in her (my current boss’s) office I listened to her call my future boss and fully recommend me for a position that I had no formal training in yet. It’s funny how life works that way. Two weeks later I was temporarily leaving graduate school and working as a Digital Forensics Analyst. I’ll be honest. I was scared to death and knew nothing, but I was surrounded by books, so I spent those first few weeks tearing up introductory level books and software manuals to learn anything that I could. Like my last job I worked my way to success. In a few short months I was becoming valuable to my organization (or so they say). Still yet, imposter syndrome reigned supreme. I still felt inadequate among my peers as a “professional” I suppose it just motivated the small town rural kid in me to work even harder. Just 4 years into my tenure at the laboratory a mass exodus of departures found me taking on the role as Digital Forensics Technical Leader and Informtion Technology Director. Needless to say I was MUCH too young to be taking on such a role that early on and in hindsight I was in over my head, but for me at the time it was either sink or swim. Learn new technologies, new servers, new hardware, etc. Same old story, new gig. They say hard work has a way of rewarding thsoe who are willing to partake in it. I tend to believe in that statement the further I get along in my profession. In 2012 my boss/director at the time came into my office and stated that he was on the search committee for an Assistant Professor position in Digital Forensics at Marshall University in their Department of Computer and Information Technology. He encouraged me to submit my CV and application for consideration. A few months later I found myself in the interview process once again with my former boss recommending me to my current boss (chair). A few months later I was given the offer of a professorship by the University. In 2018 I was promoted to Associate Professor with Tenure. I can truly say it’s been one one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I’ve helped students, written papers, written textbooks, been awarded large grants and contracts. I could go on and on all day about how rewarding my career in academia has been. However, there was always that missing element–my doctorate degree. I have had the privilege of working with and researching with many great PhD-level colleagues here at Marshall. That said, I am the non-traditional academic. The one that came in through the door with loads of “real-world” experience from the professional world, but no doctorate degree that formally taught me how to teach and research. It’s a missing element that I always, yet carefully and patiently wanted to add. I’m glad that I took the jump into MGA’s DScIT program.

Simply put, I want to be a better teacher and researcher. Not just for myself but for my students as well. Sure, the thought of adding “Dr.” in front of my name or the degree credentials after my last name is a motivating factor, but it’s not the reason I’m here. I want to be a better version of my “professor-self” I truly am hoping that this journey helps me get to that point. I’m certainly willing to put in the work these next few years to find out. I’m certain it will impact me professionally and help me elevate to that next stage in my career. I’m hoping that my hard work will help others as well. I only get one shot at doing great things in this life. I certainly want to “go big before I go home”

Here’s to the start of my doctorate journey at Middle Georgia State! Go Knights!