Lisa Toler photo

Lisa Toler PhD in Organization and Management

Name: Lisa Toler

Hometown: Wading River, N.Y.

Profession: Project Management Administrator, Brookhaven National Laboratory

Degree Earned From Capella University: PhD in Organization and Management [this degree program is no longer available; a comparable program is Capella’s PhD in Business Management]

Q. Why did you pursue a PhD?

A. Several years ago, opportunities to advance my career in a different direction began to surface. I felt I would be more marketable and could set myself apart from others by obtaining a terminal degree.

Q. What made you think education was the answer?

A. Growing up, I was very unsure of myself and lacked confidence and ambition. I earned an associate’s degree from a community college, but I had no clear path in mind. I had a child in my 20s, went through a divorce, and struggled to make ends meet until age 30, when I decided to go back to school. By earning a bachelor’s degree, I was offered a much better role at work and my salary nearly doubled in a few short years. Later on, that role grew into yet another advanced position. The experience of gaining knowledge was rewarding and stimulating to me psychologically, emotionally, scholastically, and professionally. I went back to school for the second time, at age 41, to earn a master’s degree.

Q. You were in your 50s when you went after a PhD online.

A. Yes. I began in October 2009. At the time, I was optimistic that I could complete the degree in three years. But you cannot foresee what is going to happen in life: family medical issues consumed much of my first year. It took me four years to finish.

Q. What was the biggest challenge?

A. The sense of being inundated and stressed during that period of time should not be underestimated. When an adult chooses to go back to school, no matter at what level, he or she has to be prepared to balance studies with work, home life, family needs, and social obligations. You must go into it with eyes wide open!

Q. Talk about how you handled that stress.

A. I shared my ambitions and plans with family, friends, and coworkers prior to beginning any coursework, which helped immensely. The more flexible those around me were, the more it helped me juggle coursework and other responsibilities.

Thank goodness for the support of my husband and friends. Without their encouragement, I wouldn’t have finished—or it would’ve taken me far longer to complete the program. My husband has a doctorate, so he empathized with what I was going through. He was by my side at every step.

Q. How did you manage your time?

A. I set specific days and times during the week when I would be completing my coursework and research. To the maximum extent possible, I would not deviate from this schedule. If I had to depart from that schedule, I made myself make up the time. Oftentimes, this meant getting up early before work, or staying up late, or missing social events.

Q. What advice would you give others about maintaining work-life balance?

A. It’s very easy to become discouraged, but remember: you’re building self-discipline. Also, you need to take time for yourself. It may end up being just a few moments a day—go for a walk, or listen to music. But believe me: it will deliver a huge payoff mentally.

Q. How has earning a PhD benefited your career?

A. I’m beginning to see the benefits of all those sacrifices I made in order to obtain my terminal degree. I’m about to get another advancement in my career where I can take on more of a leadership role. Completing the degree has left me feeling like I’ve reinvented myself for the better.

Q. Any parting wisdom for prospective students?

A. Pressure, stress, doubts, and frustration are bound to happen at this level of learning. However, if you outline a plan early on to mitigate the inevitable, you will succeed.


Read more of Lisa’s story in “Their Journey to the PhD: Stories of Personal Perseverance and Academic Achievement,” edited by fellow Capella University graduate Amina Abdullah-Winstead, PhD.