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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

My Ph.D. was Earned!

From the time I was in high school, I dreamed of one day completing a doctorate. It was a mixture of desiring validation and the simple fact that my father had instilled a love for learning. Along the way, I began to understand that completing a dissertation meant that I would hopefully know more about one small sliver of human knowledge than anyone on the planet. That thought thrilled me.

The recent WSJ article that demeaned Dr. Jill Biden’s accomplishments prompted this blog post. There is no disrespect for honorary degrees when I say that earning a doctorate is not the same thing. Yes, both are a lot of work, but being awarded an honorary degree resulting from one’s life work (worthy) is not the same as earning a doctorate while also doing one’s life work. This is especially true for those of us, like Dr. Jill Biden and myself that completed doctorates past the age of 50.

I offer a glimpse of my determined five-year path to completing my doctorate:

  • Teaching as a full-time faculty member

  • Began taking classes locally (hours that I confirmed would be accepted)

  • Studied for and passed the GRE (Graduate Record Exam)

  • Applied for admission to a doctoral program at Missouri State University—Columbia

  • Completed 18 graduate hours by commuting 3 hours each way and then staying in the homes of (very generous) strangers while attending summer courses

  • Taught online as a second job to pay for these courses

  • Released from my faculty position because of my online teaching (story in A BRAVE Life)

  • Moved to Colorado for a new job (three months ahead of my family—again housed by kind strangers)

  • In two car accidents in the first three days of starting a new job

  • Applied for/accepted into a new doctoral program at University of Colorado—Denver

  • Commuted for courses each week for two years (one-hour each way)

  • Taught additional online classes while on faculty full-time (to pay for classes)

  • Moved four times, became a grandma, and sent my son off to college (all during menopause)

  • Completed my dissertation (research and writing) in three months (unheard of, and was told I had done enough research for three dissertations)

  • Was debt-free when I graduated

Two of those bullets are understated. The first, applying for a doctoral program, is not like anything for which you have ever applied. I completed the process twice. The second time involved an entire day of interviews, impromptu essays, and role-playing in a “fish tank” surrounded by the faculty members. I have gone through the interview process at multiple universities—none compared to the stress of that day.

The second bullet involved “taking courses.” No more than half of my cohort made it through the program (50% -70% attrition is normal). There are no words to describe how much work I accomplished in five years. Every time I write, the rigor of my doctorate informs me.

A doctorate isn’t just academics. I appreciate all who mentored me at both Universities. After reading my slightly-angry first draft, one of my dissertation committee members offered important advice. (My anger resulted from recognizing the blatant misuse of power by authority figures throughout my life—a foretelling of my healing journey.) He said, “When you write, you need to be sure that you do not alienate the very ones you are trying to reach.” Wise words–I took them to heart.

By the time I completed the program, I had nearly destroyed my health and had horrible oozing sores all over my body (TMI, but necessary information). I went to a dermatologist who asked, “Have you been under a lot of stress?” At which point, I collapsed into a weeping flood of tears and misery. As he held my hands, I was sure he was the kindest man I had ever met. He said, “You have overloaded your body with stress. This can heal, but it will be difficult.” (Healing took six months of painful cortisone shots—directly into the sores.)

After all this, I could not find it in within me to fully accept being Dr. McConnaughey. Imposter syndrome runs strong in survivors of childhood abuse. My advisor, Dr. Donna Wittmer, said, “Janyne, you need to understand how rare a doctorate is. I know your work surrounds you with people with doctorates, but that is not normal. What you have done is an amazing accomplishment; you should be proud.”

I tried to be proud. I purchased a large diploma and bought an even larger frame. Then I asked for a new nameplate for my office door. But I never published my work—which confused my committee because what I had done was significant research that needed publishing--and everyone knew how well I could write. Instead, I began blogging and created a website called “Janyne” ( It was an acceptable marketing strategy but didn’t represent my academic accomplishments. I didn’t recognize how profoundly I diminished my accomplishments until I read the article directed at Dr. Jill Biden. The realization felt like an arrow shot directly at me—I had unwittingly diminished myself.

I believed the narratives that were handed to me by those who agreed with the WSJ article. My husband (who watched me live through all this) overheard someone with an honorary degree say, “Well, I don’t know why those with a Ph.D. make such a big deal about it. I worked harder for my honorary degree than any of them did for their Ph.D.s.” (I honor my husband’s self-control at that moment.) Thus, the article about Dr. Jill Biden did not surprise me—this diminishment of accomplishment is not new. That I had unwittingly accepted it did surprise me.

To my credit, I did put Ph.D. on my book covers. I understood how hard my survival instincts fought for that degree. Not mentioned in the above list are all the ways I crawled through shame, anxiety, panic attacks, and trauma-related learning challenges. I ignored my body to accomplish my goal; the sores were the least of the problems. (The picture on this blog was taken after five years of healing and before I entered therapy to heal from trauma.) My healing journey will hopefully help me to avoid that unhealthy focus, but now it is time to step forward with dignity and fully embrace all the Ph.D. after my name has to offer to the world in 2021 and forward.

Thank you Dr. Jill Biden for standing up and saying, "Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished."

My Ph.D. is an earned degree; my name is Dr. Janyne McConnaughey.

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