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Greenville Business Magazine

Converse introduces the area's first Doctorate in Professional Leadership

Feb 05, 2020 11:58AM ● By Leigh Savage

Photo by Amy Randall Photography

Wanda Cody was looking ahead. She had worked in human resources and then taught for 12 years, but she wanted to expand her options for the remainder of her career. And after two years researching dozens of doctoral programs across the United States, she was thrilled to find that the ideal program was right here in the Upstate.

"This is exactly what I was looking for," she says of the Doctorate in Professional Leadership being offered by Converse College in both Spartanburg and Greenville. "A degree that provides a bridge between my business and education experiences." 

The first doctoral degree offered at Converse, the program kicked off in late 2018 and the first class—including Cody—is set to graduate in May 2021. Dr. Lienne Medford, dean of graduate studies and distance education, is heading up the program and helped develop it. 

"I think Converse has always tried to be responsive to the community, and leadership and the development of leaders is really a hot topic right now," she says. "We thought, as an institution of higher learning, this is a good way to respond to that need."

While there are many options for people in a variety of fields to earn a master's degree, there are very few paths for those who want to move on to the doctorate level, Medford says.

The program is groundbreaking in numerous ways, like being hailed as the first doctorate in professional leadership in the state. Other programs focus on educational leadership, but this program "includes educators and administrators from the public schools, but also those in healthcare, industry and the business community," Medford says. "So we are looking at leadership simultaneously in a lot of different contexts."

Designed for working professionals, the current participants range in age from their 20s to their 50s. Some are teachers looking to expand leadership skill—and get the pay bump that comes with earning a doctorate—while others midlife career-changers. Some want to stay in their field but learn more about leadership to benefit their careers in architecture, the arts, or psychology. Several are entrepreneurs, and some are earning credentials that will assist in future consulting work. 

Cody falls into that last category, as she continues to teach but also plans to supplement her work and eventually her retirement through consulting, coaching or serving as an adjunct professor. The degree "opens up options for the rest of my career," she says. She was looking for something broad in scope that would expand her horizons without taking too long or building up too much debt. The Converse program delivered on all counts, she says. 

According to Medford, the diversity in the classroom benefits the participants as they discuss and learn about different perspectives and fields. The courses begin with topics such as leadership theory and organizational management and then focus on case studies so that students can consider real-world application of the concepts. 

Cody says she has already benefited from relationships with her group. "We have quickly formed a bond and are walking this journey together," she says. "It's refreshing to have classmates to bounce ideas off of, ask questions and challenge each others' thinking."

The dissertation question

Another big selling point for the program, Medford says, is the embedded dissertation. While graduate programs often end up with a significant group of students who are ABD—all but dissertation—Medford and her team have found a way to build the dissertation into the three-year process, making it ABD-proof. 

Medford knows about this issue from personal experience. "It was difficult to get (the dissertation) done," she says of her time earning an Ed.D. in educational leadership from East Carolina University. "You don't have your cohort or your classmates anymore. You don't see your advisor as much. You're out there on your own." By embedding the dissertation into the coursework, students avoid these common pitfalls. 

The Converse team also chose to create an Ed.D. program as opposed to a Ph.D., which means that participants become practitioners, applying what they learn as opposed to studying it theoretically. "Our approach to the dissertation is called the targeted proposal, where students find a question, a gap, and seek to find the answer or the solution," she says. 

Students and their companies value this approach, as it can make an immediate difference at their workplace. Among the first group of students, projects include a curriculum for teachers of emerging bilinguals and a curriculum on study skills for middle schoolers heading to high school, along with projects in business and healthcare. 

There are currently 70 students split between Converse's Spartanburg campus and the University Center in Greenville. The ideal cohort will be about 20 per year at each location, for a total of 120 students. Converse is also looking into a similar program at the master's level, which area industry has requested specifically, Medford says.

"It was unprecedented growth," she says of the program's first year. "Word-of-mouth was good, and we're just starting to get the word out. It really is a unique model."

Over three years, students attend courses for six semesters and two summers. Classes are held once per week in the evening, and summer classes may be online or hybrid. "Our focus groups showed that people wanted that one in-person class per week to create connections with colleagues and professors," Medford says.

In building the first area doctorate for working professionals, Medford says each aspect was designed to help people get exactly what they need to flourish. "We really make a commitment to our students," she says. "If you stick with us, you'll be finished in three years. If you make the commitment to us, we make the commitment to you."