A Music Lesson for the Doctoral Candidate
Trill or Not Trill?

As educators, and as lifelong learners, if we didn’t learn anything about last  year, we learned the fragility of life. We came face to face with our own mortalities as we wrestled with the deaths of our childhood heroes—musicians and actors, activists and pastors, athletes and writers. In the world of higher education, where the very purpose is to question, we hypothesize why 2016 had been incredibly relentless in stripping us of the people, the music, the films, the songs, the affections, the laughter, the passion that once brought us joy. All who have passed on last year left us with so much on which to ponder and reminisce. Such untimely departures, we conclude, teach us one very important lesson about our own journeys—to never go to our graves with the music still inside.

The metaphor of music resonates differently for each of us. For doctoral candidates in Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs in education, we sing of one day being part of the 1.68% of the country’s population that have earned terminal degrees. We are driven by an array of motivations: respect and honor, promotion, income, a desire to affect change, the first in the family to be called “Dr.,” prestige, influence, and even pressure. Whatever the motivation, we embark upon the doctoral road with the intent to endure until the end, which essentially means finishing before we die, or, an even more ambitious thought, finishing before our grandparents, mommies and daddies pass on to glory. Thus, we lift Image result for juju on that beat gifour voice and we sing a song, “full of the hope that the present has brought us,” or we “Juju on That Beat.” Either way, we finish.

To finish requires much—it is an ensemble of grit, faith, endurance, fortitude, and will. It is the harmony of humility and confidence, the timber of ignorance and wisdom, the unison of reality and theory. It requires the re-dedication of time from events and activities to literature and statistics, from family and friends to experts and theorists. It’s a commitment to writing in solitary confinement for days, months and years, while the process continually reminds us that good writing just ain’t enough. “Like a perfect verse over a tight beat, our research skills must be sharp. We must be able to cite Chickering with the same enthusiasm we cite those that support our doctoral journey.

We stay encouraged. We shoot for the stars knowing that “sometimes our guns will jam,” but we shoot anyway. We identify accountability partners, and they remind us of our purpose—our degrees are not our own. We climb to unimagined scales with the promise to return to our institutions, to our students, to our communities, and to our families with an orchestra of ideas that play to the drum of a better humanity—a melodic antidote for Aleppo’s cries, a resounding pitch against racism and misogyny, a steadfast tenor of equal rights for all.

We stay the course and we finish, but we remember that the music inside, like that of those gone too soon, must be shared with the world. And so, we sanction our hearts to a rhythm-less hell—the dying institution of our souls—if we forget this very purpose.




Tamara Cunningham has been a leader in higher education for 18 years and has held roles in both Academic Affairs and Student Affairs, including adjunct faculty in the Department of English, Coordinator for Residence Life, Assistant Director of Campus Life, SGO & Greek Life advisor, Assistant Dean of Students, Supervisor of Transfer Student Services and Assistant to the President and Provost.

She is currently in the doctoral program for higher education. Tamara and her husband are ministers at Christian Love Baptist Church in Irvington, NJ, and they have three children.