A Higher Degree

For as long as anyone in the College of Graduate Studies and Research can remember, officials from Minnesota State Mankato had been lobbying legislators for approval to offer doctoral programs. “It was a natural progression for the University,” says Chris Mickle, the director of graduate studies. “We were prepared, there was a need in the state, and we were equipped to meet it.”

Perhaps it was the changing landscape of higher education in Minnesota. Perhaps it was the changing needs of potential doctoral candidates. Whatever the case, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) granted Minnesota State Mankato approval to offer its first doctoral programs in March 2007. By May 2013, doctoral candidates from all four programs will have been conferred: nursing, counselor education and supervision, educational leadership and school psychology.

Paul Peterson received his Ed.D. in May 2012.

Paul Peterson received his Ed.D. in May 2012.

“We truly are poised to become an even greater University, one that is not only an engine but a leader in generating solutions for the problems facing our state, nation and world,” says President Richard Davenport.

Even in their infancy, the doctoral programs clearly have attracted a different caliber of student and faculty to the University. The people involved are passionate about their fields, and they challenge each other to think about themselves, their professions and the world in a new way.

“Without a doubt, obtaining a doctoral degree is unlike anything I could have ever imagined,” says Katelyn Romsa, who has the distinction of earning the first doctoral degree conferred by Minnesota State Mankato. She received her Ed.D. in counselor education and supervision in 2009. “I have become mentally stronger and more courageous than I have ever been and, as a result, I see the world differently.”


Gaining approval to offer doctoral programs required state legislative action. And that was just the beginning.

In 1998, MnSCU received a legislative directive to assess the feasibility of doctoral degree programs within the system. In November 1999, the MnSCU Board of Trustees authorized the state universities to offer doctoral degrees in select applied areas: education, nursing, psychology, business administration and audiology.

It was then that the real work began. Four Minnesota State Mankato programs—nursing, counselor education and supervision, educational leadership and school psychology—submitted doctoral program proposals. In addition to falling within the parameters of legislation, faculty in these areas showed the interest and perseverance required to make the programs a reality.

“We viewed the creation of a doctoral program as a natural evolution of our department,” says Rick Auger, counseling and student personnel professor. “We had been providing master’s programs in mental health counseling, school counseling and college student affairs for 40 years and felt it was time to expand.”

The process for each program was long and work-intensive. Entire curriculums were developed and approved. Funding was secured. Faculty was hired and/or reassigned for effective program delivery. Prospective students were recruited and interviewed.

Adding doctoral programs requires multi-level approval. “Proposals were vetted with departments, college deans, the dean of graduate studies, graduate curriculum and policy committee, council of deans, provost, MnSCU and finally the Higher Learning Commission (a regional accrediting body),” says Barry Ries, interim dean of the College of Graduate Studies and Research. “It required months just to get HLC’s approval.”


In order to teach at the doctoral level, faculty members must be appointed to Graduate Faculty as research faculty. “Research faculty status requires a demonstration of significant research productivity,” Mickle says. Doctoral programs require a different level of commitment to research. This commitment is reflected in the programs and noticed by graduates.

“A program is only as good as the people who put it in place. It starts with the professors,” says Paul Peterson, who received his Ed.D. in educational leadership in 2012. “The level of support from the faculty was incredible, but on the other side, they had extremely high expectations.”

“The collaborative efforts of faculty are a real asset to the program,” says Joyce Bredesen, who earned her Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in 2012. “Professors were well prepared and the courses were rigorous and well done. And the push to review evidence-based literature redirected my career. It enhanced my teaching and it is evident that it impacted others as well. I see people from my cohorts also presenting and sharing their research at conferences.”

In addition to presenting their research, Mankato’s doctoral candidates are publishing their work. Julene Nolan, a doctoral candidate in school psychology who is expected to earn her Psy.D this May, co-authored studies published in peer-reviewed journals such as School Psychology International and Education and Treatment of Children. “Faculty in the school psychology program push research really hard,” Nolan says. “I will have three papers published when I graduate.”

“All the faculty members have high expectations,” says Romsa. “They stretch you as far as you can be stretched. I remember Dr. [Jacqueline] Lewis saying, ‘We want you to feel like you have earned this.’ I definitely feel like I have earned it.”

Romsa’s research explored student-faculty interactions on the Mankato campus. “I was interested to learn how student-faculty interactions and grade point average might predict student retention and satisfaction,” says Romsa. Her findings determined that students’ overall satisfaction and GPA were statistically significant in predicting student retention.

As she moved through the program, Romsa changed her ideas about herself as a researcher. “The faculty challenged me to think about things at a higher level,” she says. “If I have a question, I know how to find the answer scientifically. I can conduct my own research. I have gained the tools to find solutions.”


The doctoral programs at Minnesota State Mankato serve as a springboard for graduates. They complete the programs feeling enriched, confident and energized to make significant changes in their professions and the communities in which they live and work. Often, the research they conducted as part of their dissertation opened doors for them professionally.

Bredesen used Photovoice methodology to compare national healthcare guidelines to the actual experience of 15 homeless families in St. Paul, Minn. “I gave cameras to people who were homeless and asked them to take pictures of things that affected their health, either positively or negatively. Then we met regularly to discuss the photos,” Bredesen explains.

In the process, she collected some powerful feedback about access to healthcare.

“For example, a photo of a pencil might signify a homeless family’s challenges with filling out and maintaining healthcare paperwork,” she says. “They ask, ‘Where am I going to keep these papers? How am I going to access them? How am I going to fill out this paper when I don’t have an address?’”

Bredesen is using her study to bring about awareness and improve delivery of healthcare service. She held a community forum with representatives from 15 different organizations in St. Paul. Forum members used the findings to develop ideas to improve delivery of care. She wrote up and distributed the recommendations to community agencies. In addition, Bredesen has presented at 15 different conferences, some internationally.

Peterson studied the perceptions of licensed principals on the effectiveness of Minnesota’s principal licensure procedures. “I conducted a series of surveys and focus groups to study the relevancy between what we are teaching people in higher ed and whether it is linked to the actual job of principal,” he explains. “I found strong or high relevancy to virtually every competency.” The study provides critical information to the principal licensing review board.

The educational leadership doctoral program addresses the need for advanced preparation of educational leaders and focuses on applied research. “The process of my research and the doctoral program has made me a better administrator,” says Peterson. “Having access to the latest and greatest research and great professors opens your eyes to the possibilities within the field. It sparked my interest in other areas of educational leadership—research, focus groups, etcetera—and how that information can inform what we do as a school.”

Peterson pursued his doctorate because of his love of learning. “The jobs in education are always changing. As an educational leader, I wanted to stay sharp myself,” he says. “We expect so much of our educators; we talk about 21st century learning and staying relevant. I want to make sure I model that.”

Nolan, who was looking for an opportunity to work internationally, developed a research study that documented the results of implementing the Good Behavior Game (a classroom-wide behavior management tool) at an international school in Belize. Results from her study indicate that the Good Behavior Game is effective in reducing students getting out of their seats, talking out during class and tattling across three elementary classrooms; it was the first research to do so.

Now Nolan is making a difference in Minnesota through her work with schools in Belle Plaine and Jordan. “In addition to testing, I serve on problem-solving teams where we develop early interventions for struggling students,” Nolan says. “Now that they know what I can do, both teachers and parents are reaching out for help. I am getting the full experience of a practitioner.”

The school psychology program prepares students to attain certification to practice as school psychologists and/or pursue other doctoral level employment, including teaching at the university level.


Earning a doctorate changes the way people think. “They leave the program very different people,” says Sue Ellen Bell, a professor of nursing. “It broadens both their thinking and their career opportunities.”

Many of those career opportunities are in Minnesota. Romsa teaches at Minnesota State Mankato. Bredesen teaches at Metro State. Peterson is a principal with St. Peter Schools. Nolan works as a school psychologist in Belle Plaine and Jordan. And they are not the exceptions to the rule.

Ries sees such graduates staying in the area as a return on the state’s investment in Minnesota State Mankato’s doctoral programs.

“I think the University was very forward looking—realizing there were needs in the state that were not being met and recognizing that our faculty and future doctoral students could help solve some of those problems and meet some of those needs, especially workforce needs in education, psychology and nursing,” he says. “Many times traditional doctoral program graduates move out of state, but the majority of our graduates stay in state. There is a need in the state, and Minnesota State Mankato is taking care of the need.”