What We Were, What We Are, and What We Might Be with Dr. Erin Kelley

Erin L. Kelley, Ph.D. is a Professor of English at Dallas College in Dallas, Texas.  Prior to completing her doctorate in Literature, Dr. Kelley earned a Juris Doctorate degree at Texas Tech University School of Law and worked in the Criminal District Attorney’s Office in Lubbock, Texas. She is a TEDx speaker and author of multiple academic journal articles.

Dr. Kelley is a first-generation college graduate. She began her postsecondary studies at the community-college level. Those studies culminated with earning her Ph.D. as a full-time student while also balancing a full-time career. She now teaches community-college students beginning their own academic journeys.

Dr. Kelley has practiced martial arts throughout her life. She enjoys instructing her students, speaking at conferences, and writing about how law and literature teach us about who we are, as a society. 


Available_Black copy
Available_Black copy

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • J.D. – Bar Exam = Lit Ph.D.?
  • Ceiling or Sign?
  • Just give it to them!
  • Down the rabbit hole…for ten years?
  • Writing a dissertation is hard…even for a writer!

In this episode…

So, you’re a lawyer, and a Ph.D.? You must be an elitist, right? Well, not if you’re a kid from Muleshoe, Texas!

In this episode of An Unconventional Life, Dr. Erin Kelley shares with Dr. Russell Strickland the fascinating story of her unlikely journey from small town to law school; the gentle nudge the bar exam provided, again and again; and how she ultimately found her true calling by uniting her two passions. It’s easy to look at some folks and think that they’ve got the world on a string. Well, Dr. Kelley wants you to know that making it look easy doesn’t come easy! The real search sometimes begins when you think you’ve reached your goal. That’s OK, because the rewards far exceed the effort!

To paraphrase Dr. Kelley, think about who you were, who you are, and who you want to be. Keep striving for your goals, and before you know it, people will be wondering how you make it look so easy!

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by Dissertation Done, America’s #1 authority in dissertation completion for working professionals.

Founded by Dr. Russell Strickland, Dissertation Done serves people in two ways:

  1. If you’re struggling with your dissertation, getting ready to start your dissertation, or just plain wanting to get your dissertation done as soon as possible, go to www.dissertationdone.com/done and Let’s Get Your Dissertation Done
  2. If you’re busy living your Unconventional Life and have a message that you want to share, maybe you should join our Expand Your Authority Program to become a published author. Go to www.dissertationdone.com/book and let me know that you’d like to talk about Expanding Your Authority.

Visit www.dissertationdone.com to learn more about our other services and leave a message or call them at 888-80-DR-NOW (888-803-7669) to schedule your free 30 to 45-minute phone consultation.

Episode Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript is here for your reading convenience. It was created by machines and may (a-hem) contain some errors. If you email us about these errors, the machines will undoubtedly find out. I hope they won’t get angry.


Intro [00:00:03] Welcome to An Unconventional Life, a podcast where we share stories about the crazy one percent out there who earned their doctoral degrees and then went on to use them in crazy, cool, unique and unconventional ways. Here’s your host, astrophysicist turned teacher, author, dissertation coach, and more, Dr. Russell Strickland.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:00:28] Hello and welcome to An Unconventional Life. I’m your host, Dr. Russell Strickland, the founder and CEO of Dissertation Done. I have with me today Dr. Erin Kelley, who is a professor of English at Dallas College in Dallas, Texas. She has her Ph.D. in literature, but also a doctoral in the law, J.D. She went to Texas Tech Law School and worked in the criminal, you know, the district attorney’s office for a while now. She really enjoys instructing her students, speaking at conferences and writing about the law and literature, and has had some chances to speak on the topic as well, which I can’t wait to talk to her about. Kelley is joining us via phone because she’s in the Dallas area, which is still ravaged by the recent storm. If you guys remember, in twenty twenty one, the winter of twenty twenty one is when it snowed on Dallas. And I thank you for being a good sport and joining us here today.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:01:26] Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:01:28] You’re quite welcome for everybody that today’s episode brought to you by Dissertation Done. If you are an adult doctoral student and you are about to face your dissertation or in the middle of facing your dissertation right now, reach out to us at DissertationDone.com/done. And let’s see if you might be a good fit for our Fast-Track Your Dissertation coaching program, where we help students get through the dissertation process as quickly as possible. And our our guidance and support normally helps you to avoid a lot of frustration in that process. And if by any chance, you’ve already finished your dissertation, you’re out there in the expert space and you want to amplify your message. The best way to expand your authority, in addition to having a first name doctor, is to be a published author. And we can get you from a blank page to publish a book in less time than you imagined possible. Check us out at DissertationDone.com/book, and we have a cohort of new authors getting started soon. So check that out again. Dr Kelley, welcome and thanks for being here.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:02:29] Thank you.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:02:31] So I usually start off by asking folks what possessed you to pursue a doctoral degree? And we’ll get to that. But you did a few things before. So tell us a little bit about the career path. I know I have a very circuitous career path myself, but but yours is quite interesting. Tell us a little bit about that.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:02:54] Well, I’ll tell you, if you were talking to my child self or my teenage self looking that there would have been no way that that small person, that younger person would have thought that this is what I’m going to be doing with my life,.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:03:13] I think that’s a good thing, quite honestly. I think a lot of the most interesting people, in a sense, still don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, because if you ask me in five or ten years, I might be doing something very different than what I’m doing right now. I’m I’m going to continue to evolve, I’m sure. And I think that’s that’s one of the things that makes life interesting.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:03:33] Yeah, I totally believe that, and from an early age, I was just this lifelong lifetime kind of learner type, but I was also a first generation college graduate. So that presented kind of its own problems. That was a lot of times having to feel my way through things and try to figure out especially the academic past. But it turned out that I was really good at school, especially when I went on to college and I started college as a community college student, because that was kind of we didn’t really have the means. My family just didn’t have the means at the time for me to go on to university. So I started there and I just fell in love with higher education really early on. But you’re talking you were talking about being kind of this lifetime learner and maybe you’ll be doing something different in five years or what have you. I was the same way. I loved learning so much that it ended up that I had almost a double major and a double minor. I got my English degree and obviously I had that major, but I had had met all the premed requirements. So that was almost its own major in and of itself and was a psychology minor and a chemistry minor. So I just really, really loved school. I feel comfortable the in the in the it’s the institution at the university. I felt like I was just at home. It was just a really it was just kind of this innate feeling that I should be there. But I didn’t know for sure as I got closer to graduation. Didn’t know for sure, really still what I wanted to be. There were so many things that I found so interesting, but I wasn’t sure what path or direction I should take. I thought about maybe getting to a PhD program for literature at that time, but. It looks so daunting to me just that process and, you know, a lot of times you kind of are on your own, especially you towards the end of the day. And I just had this imposter syndrome and I just felt like I couldn’t there was just no way I could do it. So I kind of just fell into law school. I ended up going to law school and I watched parts of it. I liked criminal law. I liked civil rights, constitutional law. But I didn’t have just that drive and that passion and that I just love for learning so much in law school. And you know, that that was a sign that early on that was a sign. But I was twenty three years old. Twenty four. And you just kind of barreled through because those are the kinds of people that we are. We’re go getters and we’re just going to keep going and go through it. And so that’s what I did.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:06:35] I thought about going to law school when I was younger as well. And I liked the idea of arguing things and coming up with the perspective and and presenting things in a certain way. Yes. But the notion of you have to know all of the cases and all of those books just did not have to be at all. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about science is the leverage involved in science. Learn one thing in science and it’s like a tool and you can use it everywhere. You know, it’s like you get a new screwdriver and all of a sudden there’s all of these things that you can twist or you get a new hammer. And that’s what I feel like science is like. But I felt like some of the things in history or law or something like that, you learn one thing, you know one thing. And if you want something else, you got to go learn something else. You can’t really tap into another.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:07:25] Yeah. And I mean, in the law is consistently changing. It’s consistently evolving. It’s not a stagnant tool by any means. And that definitely can be frustrating, especially if you live in a certain state and another state is doing something else and then you have federal laws. You know, it can be it can be a lot. I love argumentation. Obviously, I’m an English professor now and I love that aspect of it as well. But, you know, that was about it. I had little moments in law school and I certainly learned so much from it. You know, my critical thinking skills just shot to the roof. And I was definitely prepared for grad school escapade. If I wasn’t if I wasn’t already, I definitely was after law school. But but yeah, I mean, it was just one of those things. I got a job right out of law school in the district attorney’s office. Love, you know, loved the people. It was an excellent place to be. I mean, just a wonderful, wonderful environment. But I was also I had trouble for the first time in my life. I had trouble with the bar exam and talk about another sign. That should have been another sign right then. But, you know, I had already gotten a job. I was having trouble, really. I had never struggled in academics ever before, like taking plenty of standardized tests, the whole thing. But I just couldn’t get I couldn’t force myself to have the level of commitment really to study for that bar exam. I just this time it didn’t work just to force myself into burrowing through everything. And and it showed, you know, that was that that’s how it was supposed to be, too, it turns out. But at the time, it was it was really hard. It was you know, it was it was an existential identity crisis for me. I’d never, you know, quote, failed anything in academia before. And and and I took it hard. I take it really hard.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:09:32] How do you think you decide? Whether something was a as a sign, as you put it, that this is just not what I really want to be doing with get ceiling, because I think it’s important, a lot of the doctoral students, folks, they’re working on their dissertations, sometimes think they’ve hit a ceiling when in fact, I don’t believe they have. But it’s just because they haven’t had those struggles before, because they haven’t felt like I’m trying and I’m not getting there. They haven’t had those feelings or that they interpreted as, this is it, I can’t go any further. I feel my wall, so to speak, the ceiling and I can’t get. How do you make that decision that this is something that the reason why I’m not being successful is because my heart’s not in it and I really don’t want to be doing it. And so I should stop as opposed to I just need to try harder. I can make this happen.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:10:24] For me, it’s all about and I tell my students this, if you want to go to law school, if you want to go to graduate school, you need to come in with a mindset of I cannot not live without being an attorney or I cannot not live without my Ph.D.. You want to be that invested. And if you are not, to me, looking back, I would have told my younger self, you know, there’s a reason why you’re not invested, trust your instinct. But the Ph.D. Is very different, though. Sometimes you will feel like you’re failing. Before he assumed, especially in that dissertation, you have to just keep pushing.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:11:06] True. But but you do need to know why you’re doing it. I do believe that that’s very important. All of our students, that’s where we start our conversation. Why is it that you’re doing this? What is it that you want to accomplish? And that’s really because I’m looking for students whose goal is outside of the traditional notion of I’m going to be a professor or something like that. That’s not the type of goal that we’re aligned to help in terms of at Dissertation Done. We’re aligned to help people who want to graduate as soon as possible. And so if you were, why if the reason why you’re getting your degree is associated with finishing the degree and moving on and doing other things with it, then that’s important. That’s an important first step for you to realize an important things you understand, because then you’re going to approach your dissertation in a different way than if you want it to be in it for the rest of your life. But yeah, but if you’re why isn’t strong, if it’s not, you’ll have a really good reason why, then it becomes very easy to float away from the program, just not do the things that you think that you know that you need to do. You don’t most people don’t affirmatively quit. Like, I don’t see anybody who walks into the dean’s office and says, take this job and shove it kind of thing is just a receding it’s not doing the things that you need to do, doing them less and less, being less and less committed. And and that’s it’s insidious. It can happen without students knowing it. And so you have to be committed to your why and what you’re doing and how you’re going to get to the end in order to continue to persist, as you put it.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:12:48] Yeah, and that’s why, especially when you’re at the dissertation, you’ve got to have it down and I actually did not I had gone back to graduate school. Eventually I landed back in graduate school, you know, went through the master’s program, started the coursework and was getting through that quite quickly. And it was starting to dawn on me. I’ve got to figure out what I’m about my dissertation on. I’ve got to figure that out. And at that time, I didn’t know. I had no clue. And so I knew I had the wherewithal, OK, I need to step back and do something different for right now. And that’s what I did. I mean, it wasn’t. Gosh, it was. Six or seven years later that I finally found that why and that was that that was the combination of law and literature and looking at it both text in that in the kind of unique perspective. That’s how I found it. And I found it in a very. Surreptitious way, I guess you could say, but yeah, I mean, if you don’t have that why. Yeah, you eat the dissertation, my guess is you’re going to be really lucky if it happens.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:13:55] Yeah. Yeah. Well, and one of the things that I consider important that I talk to our students about quite a lot is that your wife does not have to inform your research necessarily your why, the you for a lot of folks, it’s I want to get this degree so that I can do other things and help other people with the degree it’s not staying in academia and doing more research. And if I’m not staying in academia and doing more research, quite honestly. Your dissertation is not very relevant to you. It’s huge, it’s a big project and you have to get it done, but it doesn’t have to be something that kind of gets you jumping out of bed in the morning. Getting the dissertation done could be the thing that’s getting you jumping out of bed in the morning. And you just have to make sure you’re focusing in getting through that project as quickly as possible. I know a lot of traditionalists will say that your dissertation has to be the thing is set your hair on fire. But we’ve had a lot of students where that’s not the case. They they got something done in their committee could approve. They can move on and they could do these things they really want it to do to help out in their community and help out in other places.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:14:59] Yeah, and I mean, as far as committee and I tell my students, yes, figure out what your professor what do you what what is your end game you want an A in the class? Figure out what your professors want and give it to them. Figure out what your committee wants. Give it to them. Even if you don’t agree with the revision that you ended up making in your dissertation, that’s fine. Your intent is to get that Ph.D.. And it’s not. If you want to fix it later, you can write a journal article later on that part, or you can do whatever you want with it.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:15:34] Or write your book.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:15:35] Yes, absolutely. But you know, if you want to make your life easy, do the best you can. Choose your battles very wisely. And you know, it’s a life lesson. What does your boss want? Give it to you can you can argue with them, but what’s the easiest way, you know, the path of least resistance.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:15:52] So, I mean, I would argue at some point you have to you have to stop that. If you if you spend your whole life grinning and bearing it, I don’t think that’s a really rewarding life. But in the dissertation phase, I certainly agree with you. I think that that is a it’s a moment. Time is a long moment. It’s a difficult moment. But it is something that you get past by design. We don’t want to say that we get past years of our life year after year after year by design. I want you to enjoy that and be fulfilled and all of those sorts of things. But, yeah, when you talked about give them what they want in the dissertation phase, I wholeheartedly agree with you there. I, I tell my students that your name is on the author page and they talk about it being your dissertation. It’s not. It’s your committee’s dissertation. Think about it. Oh, a suit of clothes or a custom home or something like that. And if it’s a suit of clothes, you you can build it. So that is perfect and it looks great on the rack, but you’ve got to put it on that committee. And if one committee members left arm is longer than their right arm will, then your suit better have a left arm this longer than the right arm. And that’s hanging on the rack. It is wrong. It fits your committee and that’s the bill in every way. Yeah. And know that your dissertation isn’t going to be finished when it’s right because there is no right or wrong. You can go to the library in your school, in your department, pull out a dissertation from last year, take that author’s name off, put your name on and give it to your committee. And I guarantee you that they will look over that dissertation and they will write you a list as long as your arm the things that are wrong with that dissertation.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:17:36] Very true.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:17:36] And then you stop and think about things like how what how could there be anything wrong with this dissertation? The guy graduated and. That’s right, that person did graduate because that dissertation was right for his committee or for her committee, not for yours.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:17:50] Yes. And at that time, too, it was it was at that moment, that’s what. Right. That was not good enough.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:17:57] Yeah, that’s a good point, too. Hopefully, if you if you find something that is recent, then then the moment in time thing won’t be as as relevant. But that is true to standards do change over time, what universities focus on and what they consider. And when I say standards change, that doesn’t mean that it gets harder to graduate or it’s easier to graduate, just that they focus on different things sometimes. And so, yeah, that’s true too.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:18:22] Absolutely. Yeah, so, yeah.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:18:24] You went through the the previous career, you got your your law degree, sounds like that’s the way that you would want to go, but then you figured out maybe that’s not the right thing for you to go back into to. The go for Ph.D. Now, because, you know, that’s that’s a that’s a reasonable decision, I think I’m having trouble passing the bar exam, so let me go get a Ph.D.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:18:52] I’m all right. Let’s do something 20 times harder. Why don’t we. Oh, OK. Great idea.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:19:00] But as you said, you found something that spoke to you and that’s what’s so important. How what was the dissertation process like for you? Once you once you kind of hit on that notion of this is what I’m interested in now.


Dr. Erin Kelley [00:19:13] It was difficult, I was working full time, what I had been doing and how I figured out that I needed to get my Ph.D. was because I had started finally through all these twists and turns, I had started adjuncting, being an adjunct professor, which is a contract professor, don’t get a lot of money. It’s horrible how much adjuncts get paid. But I had fallen in love so much with teaching that I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to get experience at the collegiate level because I was going to be applying for a full time job and for the for me. For quite a few years, I had had been an adjunct at several different institutions and kind of piecemealing everything. Contract the contract semester to semester. I’m getting my bills paid and I knew though, that I would get into these full time interviews and I would make it usually to the first level and then I would just phase out. And I figured out after about two years of that, I figured I got to get my Ph.D. I just I have in my field a Ph.D. is really almost necessary at, you know, whether at a community community college or at a university. You know, obviously the university is a requirement, but at the community college level, pretty much in my field as well. And sure enough, I mean, the minute I got the job, I got a job. So, yeah, but it was difficult because I was hustling. I was here in Dallas. I had been working in Nevada, but I moved back to Dallas to finish up the day that I had started at the University of Texas at Dallas. And I mean, I was hustling. Dallas has thankfully a lot of community colleges and universities in the Dallas Fort Worth area. So I was running around at one point. I was working at five different campuses. I mean, it was a hustle. And then I was in that program full time. So, I mean, it it was tough. It was really, really tough. And there were times when I just I didn’t think I had the mental or physical or emotional energy to do it, but. I just had I kept barreling through because it had taken me so long and I had finally figured out my purpose before I was away. I was not going to get that today. There was just no way.

1 2 3 Next

If you need extra support and guidance to make it to graduation, I may be able to help. If you'd like to find out whether you qualify for the support we offer throughout the dissertation process, then...

Let's Talk About Your Dissertation
Dr. Russell W. Strickland

RUSSELL STRICKLAND, Ph.D., has been referred to as a “rocket scientist turned management consultant.” In truth, he applies an eclectic body of work from astronomy and nuclear physics to dynamic inventory management to market research to each of his student engagements.