A most unlikely PhD. But it can be done.

So, why the moniker “Blue Collar Scholar”? 

My father signed his name with an “X”.

I was raised in a blue-collar family. We scraped to get by. My father worked three jobs to help us survive. He could barely write his name and often used an “X”. As the son of a factory worker I was convinced I would spend my life following my father’s footsteps.  I worked a punch press, operated a shear and was a factory grunt at age 19.  My friends had gone on to college, but there was a persistent voice reminding me that my ACT scores had been as high or higher than theirs.

[I am not criticizing blue collar work in any way. My son is a tool and die maker and I am proud of him and have high respect for what he has achieved – takes as long to get a Journeyman’s license as it does to mint a PhD! – my point is to show that the unlikely can be done.]

Because of my father’s desire to achieve and provide for a family, he showed me an incredible work ethic that simply came down to “It can be done”.   As I watched him struggle and persist, his blue-collar ethic gave me the willpower to achieve the unlikely.

Education was not highly valued in my family, and in fact, the culture of my family was wary of those with education and even intimidated by it.  Blue collar people like my father were uncomfortable in the ranks of the well educated, as many of us are when we meet people who do not intend to intimidate but do so simply because of the level of achievement they have attained.

And of course, back in those days (forty years ago) the division between white collar (office/management) and blue collar (factory floor/workers) was significantly more intense than it is today.  That ethos and power distance added to my families’ wariness of the educated. My family felt separated from a group of people who had achieved higher levels of education.

So as you can see, I was an unlikely candidate for achieving the level of doctorate.  But it can be done.

It can be done – here’s how.

Listen to the persistent internal motivation – the desire – the inspiration that continues to call out to you.

Only a powerful internal motivation will withstand the barriers, obstacles and trauma of pursuing a massive goal.

When you hear a voice inside you to take a chance and persist in something you really want to do — and it doesn’t go away — you need to attend to that voice. It cannot be the voice of another. It cannot be imposed or it will die.

I’ve known doctors who really wanted to be landscapers.  Their profession was imposed but they really didn’t like what they were doing.

Only a powerful internal motivation will withstand the barriers, obstacles and trauma of pursuing a massive goal. For me, it was simple: I knew I had to get that degree – it was a matter of personal achievement – nothing more; nothing less.   As a kid in a family without interest in education, I often saw others going on to achievements I knew I could do.  I just started a bit late.  I was about five miles behind the starting line when the gun went off. I saw friends becoming veterinarians, dentists and doctors.  I knew I had the stuff, and I determined to achieve the impossible.


I’m going to offer some reminders of things you already know.  Sometimes it’s helpful to have a refresher.  


Watch for the breakout opportunity and take it.

The day came when someone offered me a drafting apprenticeship. The pay was much lower than I was getting in the factory by a factor of 5. But the opportunity was there and I took it.  That was the breakout moment.

I started out my ‘career’ on the drafting board – an old flat piece of wood with plastic triangles and straightedges to make lines on pieces of paper.  Yet that humble start opened immense doors to other roles and further education through tuition assistance.   When you know that an opportunity is going to get you closer to your goals, take it!

Persist in the opportunity

I completed a PhD through ten years of night school while raising three kids and working on an old home and holding down a full-time job. That takes extraordinary persistence and determination to complete the goal – with no room for excuses. None.  One class, one course, one semester.

In psychology we talk about goals in two ways: Proximal and Distal.  The proximal goals are those we can see right now, but they lead to the distal goals.   Make sure your current goals are leading to something bigger.

What does it take? 

We all know that the media has given us the idea that success is easy. I think we all get the glamourous idea that great achievements just fall into the laps of people, whether they are Olympic athletes or screenwriters or musicians or executives in organizations. But the reality is radically different. People work for years — decades — to accomplish goals like the Olympics or to get published or to be an executive in an organization, or in my case, to finish a doctorate.

Here are a few tips:

Discipline and focus gets stuff done. 

Much self-discipline is unpleasant but it gets things done. Exercise is not always pleasant, nor is reading or memorization or going to night school. But it can be done.

Move quickly past the emotional let downs. 

Sometimes I would get into the parking lot at school, scraping the ice off my windshield on a -10 below zero night in January, and asking myself – “Exactly what are you doing?” but I kept on going because it can be done.  I kept the end goal in mind. One class, one course, one semester.  Bit by bit – day by day.  The emotional loss of energy will drain you.  Gotta move past it quickly. 

Adjust your schedule to make it work for everyone – not just you. 

I would study at 5AM on Saturdays to do projects and read so I wouldn’t disrupt family activities and could be supportive in raising the children.  Burdening others in pursuit of your own goals is not sustainable.  Eventually it will wear you and others down and you will not complete what you started.  The strain on relationships breaks us if we are not careful.  If there are others in our lives, we need to adjust to make room for their goals too.

Discipline your free time.

I needed to exclude useless things that diluted focus – like television and useless time wasters.   It is very easy to get caught in social media and other time wasters.  A quick bit of self-talk is all that’s needed to get back on track.

Take advantage of the time when it’s there.

When moments opened up – perhaps someone’s schedule changed or an appointment fell through – I did not hesitate to hit the books or write – even if it was for 15 minutes.  Something gained is always better than nothing!

Break down the big goals into smaller bites. 

To overcome the sense of the impossible, you need to break things down into smaller pieces.   I recall being overwhelmed at times in my job, almost to the point of paralysis. Had to splash water in my face and reboot.  Sometimes big things can be daunting, but when we break them down into small pieces, we can get them done. One night, one course, one semester, a little at a time.

I am proud of what I’ve achieved, and I would not have been pleased with myself if I had not accomplished this goal.

So what is it you truly want to do? 

It can be done.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.