7 Steps to Earning an UnPhD

You’ve heard of Unschooling and Uncollege — the Ungradschool and UnPhD is closer than you think…

My life would have been a lot different if I had found unschooling before I was 28. I first learned about unschooling from the fantastic documentary Ivory Tower (2014). The movie features UnCollege’s Gap Year Program, which turned out to be down the street from me. I connected with someone who worked there and got coffee. Down the rabbit hole I went!

So you just don’t go to school? How do you learn anything? The idea of trying to get an education without an official, accredited “school” seems chaotic, difficult, and maybe even impossible.

It turns out people are pretty curious naturally and like to learn. When you look at the glazed-eyed stares of a room of 32 tenth graders, this might be hard to believe. However, unschooling supporters would say tenth graders have already had the love of learning beat out of them by going through 10 years of the gristmill of traditional schools. Catch them earlier, give them 6 months to a year to forget all that traditional schooling, and you could have a very industrious group of unschoolers on your hands.

But so you just don’t have any classes or teachers or anything? Not exactly…

As I learned more about UnCollege and UnSchooling I found this form of education is not actually just “NOT going to school” — unschooling is a deeply patterned and designed process. Unschooling might actually be the way schools used to work. The emergence of the internet greatly supports a self-guided form of education. In any case, as a society we are just beginning to learn (or relearn) the pattern of an unschooled education.

Unschooling is a deeply patterned and designed process

But, learning all this doesn’t help me one lick, I already have a “schooled” education. Unless… What if I could still continue my own education but take the unschooled path. So… ungradschool? Is ungraschool more farfetched than any sort of unschool? Is an unPhD possible?

Traditionally, a PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is someone who has a doctorate degree from a regionally accredited school of graduate study. However, a PhD is rewarded for any candidate that can prove that they have made a contribution to the sum total of theoretical knowledge. So then unPhD would be someone who has made the same contribution, but doesn’t have any special degree.

I decided to try designing and executing my own unPhD, so I designed an ungradschool program and enrolled myself in it. Through the program I became an expert in education, and I wrote a book that stands as my contribution to theoretical knowledge.

Step #1 — Start Anywhere: Popular Books, Podcasts, and Magazines

Any field of study has popular books, podcasts, and magazines about that field. Considered by serious academics these books are sorta “fluffy” and simplify the complexities of a field. Nevertheless, they are the perfect gateway into a field you have an incipient interest in.

For my unPhD in education I watched Ivory Tower, Waiting for Superman, and read many popular books such as: How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, The Smartest Kids in The World by Amanda Ripley, The Growth Mindset Coach by Annie Brock and Heather Hundley, and “On The Education of Children” by Michel de Montaigne. And I watched all the education TED talks, especially Sir Ken Robinson’s and Sal Kahn’s.

Most people stop at this level of depth, and remain amateurs. But if you want to get your unPhD, then continue onwards!

Step #2 — Read The Books that Popular Media References

Each popular book cites other books and writers. Generally these books will be more “serious” and more advanced. But you will be ready for them because you read the popular books. You are moving stepwise to a better and better understanding of the field. Likely some of the simplifications made in the popular books are becoming more complex.

I moved from the most popular books and videos to reading more advanced books.

  • Made to Stick by Peter Brown (about assessments and memory)
  • Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin (about deliberate practice and mastery)
  • Mindset by Carol Dweck (the original researcher who coined the term growth mindset).
  • Deschooling Society by Ivan Illych (about transforming all of society into a learning experience)
  • John Dewey’s two classics: Experience in Education and Democracy and Education

Step #3 — Get a Few Hunches

You likely started out your Ungraschool with some kind of direction or interest or theory. Now that you have started to gain some insight, you should already begin forming some deliberate hunches and the direct your reading towards those hunches.

In my research into education, my hunch was always about motivation. It seemed like motivation was the most important thing in education and no one was pointing at motivation itself as something to study and optimize for in school. I started to Google Scholar and Amazon search aggressively about the topic of motivation so I could validate or invalidate my hunch.

Step #4 — Read The Papers Those Books Cite And The Papers Those Paper’s Cite.

Ok it is time to move from books to papers. People write papers before they write books, so as you move towards the bleeding edge of research, we leave books behind. As you are reading the books popular media refers to, the next step is to read those books bibliographies and read the papers those books are based on. Although these citations might not be neat footnotes or a few pages in an index in the back, pick out the names that come up again and again.

BTW — if you ever are asked to pay for a paper, don’t do it! You can always find a free version. Or at the very worst case, you can email the author and ask for a copy to read. They generally will send one because they want their work to be popular.

I bought a laser printer because reading on paper is nice. I started to print the papers that interesting books cited.

Here are just some papers I found, printed, and read:

  • “Interest and Its Contribution as a Mental Resource”— Suzanne Hidi
  • “Interest and Effort in Education” — John Dewey
  • “Self-Determination Theory and The Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being” — Richard M. Ryan and Edward E. Deci
  • “The Role of Expectations and Attributions in the Alleviation of Learned Helplessness”— Carol S. Dweck
  • “Effective Teachers of Indian and Eskimo High School Students” — Judith Kleinfeld

Step #5 — Start Writing

Now that you’re reading about topics all the way to their roots and all the way to their bleeding edges, its time for you to start practicing writing.

Remember those Hunches you were forming? Now its time to spill some ink about them. Start out by writing little pieces, manifestos, notes, reviews of books or papers you read, and keep a list of insights and pet theories you are having.

Don’t stop reading, but time to start writing!

Step #6 — Make an Original Contribution

Once you’ve read deeply and broadly and you’ve practiced writing, its time for you to find an original contribution to your topic and to write it down and publish it. It can be published on Medium or anywhere you like.

The trick with me (and maybe many potential unPhD candidates) is that I actually started my research with a hunch. An uncharitable commentator might have said I had an ax to grind. However, looking back, it is normal to have hunches and even a bit of a pet theory you are trying to validate. It motivates you. The risk of course is that you are just confirming your biases by citing only the research that supports your original idea.

As your reading and writing progresses, naturally your original ideas will deepen, and perhaps you will discover that your original ideas were wrong headed. That’s not such a big surprise, though, when you consider that you weren’t an expert then, and you are becoming one now.

Step #7 — Make Contact

At some point after Step #5, you should start reaching out to other experts in your field and begin a conversation. Ask a lot of questions, be humble, and don’t come out blazing with your half baked theories. Once you have a strongly supported argument, ask for feedback from these experts and take what they say seriously.

My fiance is an educator and through our discussions I learned about Restorative Practice and read the book Better Than Carrots or Sticks.

If you didn’t get that unschooled education you always wanted, its ok, you can still unschool yourself and even earn your unPhD following these steps. The world needs unPhD’s just as much as it needs unschool’s and uncollege’s.


If you think this article is a neat idea and maybe more people should be doing their own UnPhD or UnGradschool, be sure to recommend and share this article with your friends, colleagues, and community. You can always tweet @ajbraus to get in touch with me. Thanks!

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