D.A. Graham photo

D.A. Graham PhD in Education

When he was 10 years old, D. A. Graham* decided he wanted to become a doctor.

But there was a hitch: He didn’t like the sight of blood. When a wise teacher pointed out that there are non-medical doctoral degrees, Graham decided that was what he wanted. And in 2014, he realized that dream by graduating from Capella University with a PhD in Professional Studies in Education.

Graham didn’t have a direct path to his dream, however; several detours nearly derailed him.

*Actual Capella graduate who agreed to appear in promotional materials for Capella.


Starting the Journey

Graham earned his undergrad degree in speech/communications from the University of Alabama and took a job as a grocery store manager trainee in Waco, Texas. But the job didn’t suit him, so he returned to Tuscaloosa, AL and began a master’s program. Partway through, he realized what he really wanted to do was enter the seminary.

Once he completed his seminary education, he became a U.S. Navy chaplain and served for nine years, five of which were in active duty, including stints with Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the same time, he completed a master’s in human relations from the University of Oklahoma.

After his Naval career, Graham began work as a student ombudsman and adjunct professor at San Diego State University and Southwestern College. And that’s when his dream of becoming a doctor resurfaced.


Doubts and Concerns

Even though Graham had already obtained post-graduate degrees, the thought of a doctoral program was daunting for him. “I didn’t believe I had the acumen to get a PhD,” he says. “Plus I was working two jobs, and I knew a PhD program was going to be demanding.”

He researched brick-and-mortar programs first, but soon began looking into what was then a fairly new field of online programs. “I wanted to find something legitimate,” he says. His research led him to Capella, and he found it to be the school he was looking for.

Graham found Capella to be so rigorous that it was overwhelming at first. “Juggling two jobs and trying to manage the coursework was daunting,” he says, “and so I quit.” But thanks to a Capella faculty member who reached out, he reconsidered. “She gave me some tips on how to stay current with the reading, keep up with the discussion posts, and make the coursework manageable,” Graham says. “So I jumped back in, caught up, and it all began to make sense to me, the rhythm of the process, how to manage it.”


Life Happens

Big life changes slowed his progress. In 2008, he was offered the role of associate ombudsman at Princeton University. He was not unhappy with his work in San Diego, but a colleague pointed out to him: “In 20 years, when you talk to your children and grandchildren and say, ‘I had the chance to work at Princeton, and I didn’t take it’—how’s that going to feel?”

The Princeton role worked well for him, and Graham eventually became the University Ombudsman. In 2011, he decided to strike out on his own and started a consulting business in human performance improvement for corporations. While building his business, he also went through a divorce and spent time away from the degree program. “Through all of this, my mentor was phenomenal,” he says. “She stayed in touch, even when I wasn’t in the program.”

Graham never meant for this blip to be permanent. “I had completed all my courses and taken my comps,” he says. “I was ready for the dissertation phase. In fact, I’d written the first three chapters, and they were approved before I had to stop. I was determined I was not going to be one of those statistics. There was still that 10-year-old in me, wanting to be a doctor.”


The Path to Completion

In 2012, Graham was hired to work in human resources at the University of Philadelphia, and there he found two incentives to re-engage with his PhD: an encouraging boss and access to tuition reimbursement.

So he jumped back in to research and write the final two chapters of his dissertation, which took a little over a year. In July 2014, he received his long-awaited PhD. “I’m the first in my family to reach this level of education,” he says. “It was very emotional for me. That little black boy from Alabama had finally achieved what he set out to do.”

And it had an immediate effect on his career. “I was promoted to HR Director directly because of getting my PhD,” he says. “My boss said, ‘We don’t want to lose you.’”

In 2017, though, a new opportunity arose that was too good to pass up, and Graham became the Vice President Global Integrity Leader for Nielsen, an ombudsman position. “My degree, along with the work I’ve done, opened that door for me,” he says. “It gave me credibility. That credibility makes me proud to hear the words, ‘Dr. Graham with a PhD from Capella University.’”


Advice for Others Considering a PhD

Graham is a marathon runner, and he considers that an apt metaphor for the PhD process. “You don’t try to run 26.2 miles. You look at small increments, small wins,” he says. “Stay focused on the objective, which is to graduate, but celebrate every mile marker. It’s not about how fast you get it done, it’s about finishing. Pace yourself. Conserve your energy.”

Just like with marathons, PhD work requires preparation. “Make sure you’re prepared mentally, physical, and financially for the rigors of this program,” he says. “You’ll need the support of the people around you. Make sure they understand what this commitment entails.”



Learn more about Capella’s online doctoral degrees in education.