The doctor is in: PhDs at school

Julia Robbins and Gabby Kepnes

Many faculty members at the school hold hard-earned PhDs, and their journeys towards receiving these degrees are all unique and complex. According to the school’s website, there are currently 28 faculty members with doctorate degrees.

There are three steps to receiving a PhD, all of which lead to writing one’s dissertation, an extensive research paper about their chosen topic.

“Depending on the program, you usually start off with two to three years of coursework,” English teacher Dr. Andrew Fippinger said. “It’s almost like an extension of college where there are greater expectations of writing.”

Fippinger mainly focused on 19th century British Literature and analyzed books written by George Eliot and Charles Dickens in his dissertation.

Once PhD candidates have chosen their thesis topic and received their advisor, they begin their research.

Candidates often travel to foreign countries or different parts of the United States to conduct research. History teacher Dr. Elisa Milkes spent a year abroad researching in England and Scotland, and History Department Chair Dr. Daniel Link used the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. as a resource.

Milkes received a PhD in history and wrote her dissertation on 19th century Britain. She looked at how Britons from around 1815 to 1915 commemorated and remembered the Battle of Waterloo.

Link also received his PhD in history, but he focused on the ramifications of the Cold War in New York City. Link chose the topic partly because the Cold War had a formative impact on him as a young man growing up at the end of the conflict. 

Finally, after completing the research part of the process, PhD candidates write their dissertation and complete an oral examination before university faculty.

Students that should consider working towards a PhD should enjoy working independently and feel confident about creating their own scholarly community, Milkes said.

People need to be very focused and diligent with the ability to see long term goals, as it takes many years before a PhD candidate receives their Doctorate, Link said.

“You really have to be interested in what you’re doing,” Science Department Chair Dr. Stephen Palfrey said. “You’ll be working on the same topic from two to eight years.”

Palfrey received his PhD in physics, in which he performed experiments on precision measurements in helium atoms. He measured these energies to a higher degree of precision and compared his results to a theory of the actual value.

“If I look at people who’ve gotten physics PhDs in the last 30 years, it’s clear that they’ve all successfully pursued varying careers,” Palfrey said.

“There are many different paths you can take from having a PhD; for me it didn’t have to be just science research,” Palfrey said.

Having a PhD opens up opportunities to work at universities and colleges, Link said.

While applying to Horace Mann, it was an advantage to have a PhD because the school could see that Milkes held extensive knowledge about how historical thinking, including historiography, actually works, she said.

Link has been able to apply his knowledge from his Cold War dissertation to his Global Cold War elective at school, he said.

Science teacher Dr. Ndeye Diop-Bove uses her experience from working in a molecular biology lab to help students in her Biotech class learn how to manipulate DNA sequences, she said.

Diop-Bove earned her PhD in chemistry with a focus on cancer biology and drug resistance in cells. “[I] wanted to contribute to this field as so many patients are affected by the lack of drug efficacy while undergoing chemotherapy,” she said.

It is important for students, especially students of color, to see teachers of color with PhDs, said Diop-Bove, who identifies as a woman of color.

Math teacher Dr. Linda Hubschman earned her PhD in philosophy, focusing on how moral reflection is necessary for moral improvement. Growing up in a religious household, Hubschman became interested in the ethics of religion from a young age, which led her to focus on ethics in the field of philosophy.

However, before studying philosophy, Hubschman received her BA in mathematics.

“I thought it would be fun and very satisfying to teach math because there are clear answers. This suits my personality and interests me more than philosophy did,” Hubschman said.

Fippinger received his PhD only last year.

“I’ve been at HM for five years where for most of my time, I was known with the prefix ‘Mr.’,” Fippinger said. “I still haven’t adjusted because every time I write an email, I have to remind myself to sign it ‘Dr.’”

For Hubschman, it is rewarding to be called ‘Dr.’ because her graduate school journey was very challenging, she said.

French teacher Dr. Niamh Duggan, who received her PhD in French literature, first earned her master’s in Gender Studies at a university in England.

For future PhD candidates, Duggan recommends working hard on receiving a strong undergraduate degree first, reading as much as possible, and understanding that the process won’t be easy, she said.

“Make sure you can’t imagine doing anything else,” Duggan said.

“Get your PhD first and your Nobel Prize second,” was the advice Palfrey received during his PhD process. “You don’t need to do something totally earth shattering to have a successful PhD.”