The Terrifying but Exhilarating Pursuit of a PhD with Dr. Angela Swain

Dr. Angela L. Swain is a business psychologist, executive coach, researcher, and author. As an expert in organizational behavior she believes in creating positive workplace cultures through leadership development professionally and personally.

Dr. Swain served as a researcher and moderator for The Emotional Intelligence Leadership Institute in Chicago where she conducted training programs for managers to discuss team membership, meaning, and empowerment and a senior consultant with Open Door Advisors, Inc., an organizational development consulting firm serving social enterprise leaders and consultant, coach. Currently, she is an adjunct faculty member for Theological Reflection and a ministerial coach and faculty member for the Thriving Together program at Catholic Theological Union, a seminary for both lay and religious leaders. Recently she began her tenure as Director for the Office of Human Dignity and Solidarity with the Archdiocese of Chicago.

She is the author of “Kitchen Table Talks with Dad: 5 Simple Tools to Become a Transformative Leader,” a book aimed at helping business leaders and entrepreneurs cultivate emotional intelligence and improve communication with their employees.



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

  • Embarking on a terrifying but exciting journey of a doctoral degree
  • Looking back and acknowledging your progress
  • The authority of the first name “Doctor”
  • Being comfortable with the title you earned
  • Your dissertation doesn’t matter, getting it done does
  • A good dissertation is a done dissertation
  • No such thing as “too late” in finding opportunities
  • Opportunities come when you don’t hide

In this episode…

Making the choice of getting a doctoral degree can be as terrifying as it is exciting. In fact, only one percent of the population successfully navigates this unconventional path. What’s holding you back?

In this episode of An Unconventional Life, Dr. Angela Swain shares with Dr. Russell Strickland the story of the one thing she knows she was meant to pursue—her doctoral degree. She talks about transitioning from writing her dissertation to writing her book, “Kitchen Table Talks With Dad,” and her experience becoming a doctor, author, and coach. Dr. Swain highlights the challenges in getting comfortable with change and the opportunities that came her way after earning her PhD.

Taking the journey toward your doctoral degree will require plenty of courage and resilience. But the thing is, you are not alone. Dr. Swain will inspire you to get started and keep going.

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 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 and let me know that you’d like to talk about Expanding Your Authority.

Visit 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 percenters 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  [00:29]

Hello, and welcome to an unconventional life. I’m your host, Dr. Russell Strickland, the founder and CEO of Dissertation Done and I have with me today Dr. Angela L. Swain. She’s a business psychologist, executive coach, researcher and author, newly newly earned title. As an expert in organizational behavior, she believes in creating positive workplace cultures through leadership development, professionally, and personally. And I mentioned that the author title is newly earned. She’s got a book coming out, actually, within a couple of days. If you’re catching us right away a little bit later, it’ll already be out there. It’s called Kitchen Table Talks With Dad, and I can’t wait to talk to her about it. Welcome, Dr. Swain. Thanks for being here today.


Dr. Angela Swain  [01:09]

And thank you so much, Dr. Strickland, for having me.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [01:12]

You are so welcome. Now I want to let everybody know that today’s episode is being brought to you by Dissertation Done and here at Dissertation Done, we help adult doctoral students through the dissertation process. So if you feel like you’re maybe slowed, stalled, or just plain stuck, then reach out to us at And we’ll have a conversation and see if we might be a good fit to help you get your dissertation on the fast track to graduation. Now, if you’re functioning in the expert space, you’re a coach like Dr. Swain here, and you want to become an author like Dr. Swain here, that’s absolutely the best way to become the go-to expert in your field, not only to have the first name “Doctor” but to have literally written the book in your area of expertise. It’s just awesome. So if you’d like to do that, reach out to us at And we’ll have a conversation about that. So again, Dr. Swain, thank you so much for being here today. And welcome.


Dr. Angela Swain  [02:06]

Thank you so much.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [02:08]

So, as I mentioned to you before, oftentimes, we’d like to start off by just kind of asking folks, what made you take this, this crazy, wild ride on the dissertation train you in most of us, in the US, most people don’t do that, 99% of the population doesn’t have a doctoral degree. So we’re the crazy ones who do. What prompted you to make that decision?


Dr. Angela Swain  [02:30]

So great question. So I think I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was little. I was I was always in the doctor’s office for for whatever health reasons, so I thought I was going to be a medical doctor. Long story short, that wasn’t kind of the the plan at all. And so my husband and I bought his family’s business about 12 years ago. And so my background is in human development. And so he would ask me, like my thoughts about different things that were coming up for him in the business. And then I was in business school at the time. And so when I learned about employee engagement, I, this whole world opened up for me. I had no idea organizational psychology existed until I was in Business School, fell in love with the topic, researched, researched, researched and thought, if I could help him, right, for free. Right? How much more could I earn, after it was over? And so I was hooked from that point on.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [03:33]

Yeah, that’s one of the big ones that you know, when you want to get out, when you want to have your expertise out into the world, having that first name “Doctor,” really, really helps like, well, we’ll we’re gonna talk about that some more. But tell me so you made the choice. You jumped in with both feet. What was it like going through this doctoral program like was this you mentioned, you learn he thought about this for the first time while you’re in business school? Did you go straight from like an MBA to your doctoral program?


Dr. Angela Swain  [04:00]

I did. I graduated December 2013, with the MBA and then I entered the program at the Chicago School, January 2014. So I literally had Christmas break. And then I started, not to mention I had a newborn. My husband and I have been married 21 years and we have a 20 year old, 19 year old, and almost 12 year old. So I literally my youngest son was was born in December, and I’m graduating and then I jumped right into the PhD program. So that was a little insane.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [04:33]

That has got to be tough. I I actually that was part of the impetus for me to finish my doctoral degree program. I’ve mentioned folks who’ve been on the podcast know that my wife and I took a while for us to to have a pregnancy that stuck. She had a few miscarriages which was was really difficult. And she got pregnant while I was in my like, kind of last year of graduate school and unfortunately, we’ve been through this a while. I didn’t really believe it quite yet, but at one point, the doctor literally told us, okay, kids, this was going home with you. I started looking on the calendar and thinking okay, I better get my button gear.


Dr. Angela Swain  [05:11]

Yeah, exactly. I hear you.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [05:15]

What was that process? Like going through, the well, going through the class, as most people think that that’s relatively straightforward? Did you have problems with the classes at all? Or do you find that kind of similar to what you had been doing?


Dr. Angela Swain  [05:27]

Yeah, I think, for me, honestly, it was, I felt like so I have three master’s degrees. And then so for me to continue this experience. So this journey of being a learner, it was kind of like, my family was like, okay, enough already. You know, like, what are you gonna do with all of this? And I just really felt like I was supposed to do it. But I had no idea where this was going to land. So to answer your question, I was terrified. Having a sense that like, no, I think this is the next step. I really love this topic. I can really help our family business. But I have no clue why I’m doing this. Like, what what what was Dr. Angela Swain going to look like? Right. I had no idea. No idea.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [06:14]

I think that’s a fair point. I think most people, whether they realize it or not, they had no idea what Dr. state your name is going to look. Yeah, exactly. It’s, it’s so different for each person, the the opportunities and the experiences that you’re able to have. And we’ll get into that some a little bit later on. But there is just amazing. But, yeah, I I, I appreciate what you’re saying about just that was what felt real to me, because I truly believe that, you know, as long as you’re doing what feels right in the moment, and you have a sense of kind of ethics and morality, you’re going to end up in a good place. I went through a graduate degree program that I ended up walking away from, because my graduate advisor died kind of late in the in my, you know, part of that program. And, and so I decided, Well, I’m not starting over again, I’m gonna just go do something else in my life. Now, I eventually came back to another doctoral degree program, and that’s where I graduated. But even though I don’t use the things in the textbooks that they taught me in that program, being there really, really helped me in a lot of ways that I’ve used throughout my life sense. So I think that’s a really cool philosophy that this is what I feel like I need to be doing. So when I go there and get it done.


Dr. Angela Swain  [07:27]

Yeah, and I had a really great, I was a TA for the social psychology class. And Dr. Liz Schwab was was my mentor. And she she told us, you know, be open to the process of evolution. Right. And so that was helpful. I was still terrified, right. But at least I knew, like I’m on a journey. And it just kind of validated my feelings, which was so helpful. In retrospect,


Dr. Russell Strickland  [07:52]

Yeah, I tell our students all the time that you know, at a micro level of what you were just saying that they should, you know, every day that they work on their dissertation, save that all and make sure the file, the date is in the file name. So you’ve got a catalogue of what you’ve done. And then occasionally, don’t do it all the time. But occasionally go back three months, six months, and see what you were writing then. And you’ll be forever impressed with what an idiot you were three months ago, six months? Whatever the case may be. Because


Dr. Angela Swain  [08:23]

And I brought, I’m glad you brought that up, because, I’m sorry. I just want to say, I’m glad you brought that up. Because, you know, you don’t always know the progress that you are making. Right? And so for first, you know, the process is not linear at all, right? You know, it’s like, chapter one, chapter twenty, chapter two, back to one, you know, it’s so not linear. And then the second thing is, you know, when you say if you clean the kitchen, okay, you can see the before and after, when you’ve been working on your dissertation for a month, you can’t see progress. So to your point, I think that’s an excellent idea. To go back and look at your progress,


Dr. Russell Strickland  [09:03]

You guys, you’re working with it every day. It’s like, you know, those of you who are parents out there and you have kids that have been growing up, you know, you see them every day and occasionally you notice that they’re growing but when grandma season, you know when cousin see them like whoa, what happened is good. Because they see those those snapshots and and when you’re living with it every day, you’re very close to it and you don’t see what you’re doing. So that’s why I tell folks go back, look, look at what you were doing three months ago and six months ago. And I don’t say that you are going to be impressed with what an idiot you were that long ago to say that you’re an idiot but just because you you will look back and say really the kind of reactions I get from students are like, I can’t believe I was defending that writing three months ago or something like that. They were asking me to improve it and I was like, no, it’s good enough and I can’t believe I was saying that. But, but but yeah, it’s it’s really, really good to have that that perspective of you are going to be evolving. And I hope most folks out there embrace that throughout their lifetimes, because I think he should be evolving, you know, the whole way through this journey, not just as you’re in school, but the world to school and you should be learning from it every day.


Dr. Angela Swain  [10:18]

Yeah. Great point. Yeah.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [10:20]

Tell me then once you you kind of got through the dissertation, you finish this up. What did, what was the next step like for you? In terms of moving on from school? Realizing it’s going to be,


Dr. Angela Swain  [10:37]

So I had an unrealistic expectation. Okay. I thought I know I wanted a job before I graduated. My husband and I talked about me working in the family business, but I think our, our work collectively, you know, kind of stops at parenthood. Being in the family business, it was just too much of a stressor. Absolutely. And so I was I was really unsettled. I would say, when I graduated, and I graduated in July of 2019. And I was like, I should be making $400,000 as soon as I graduate. It’s this August. This is September, I’m not, I’m barely making whatever, you know. And so I had a realistic expectation. So I think, you know, managing those expectations is definitely helpful before graduation. I would kind of put out feelers to people. So like, I contacted my friends from high school, who I knew started businesses, and I’m like, hey, this is what I’m doing. You know, let’s have a conversation. And so that’s how I got one client. And then I went to a school and learned that they had a grant for coaching. And I’m like, I applied. And so then that became, yep. So I feel like, honestly, Russell, that these two years out of the dissertation, I mean, the PhD process, I consider this time residency. Right? It’s been a time for me to see, where do I really like, what do I want to land? But my expectation of myself because I consider myself like a high performer. I’m always ready to do the next task. I was like, okay, I should know. What, you know medical doctors can have a couple years of residency, why can’t I give myself that extension? Right. And so that’s what this process has been like, for me.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [12:34]

Yeah. Well, I would say that you know, you are a full-on doctor now, a completely able to practice but, but the fact that it’s going to take you a little while to decide on what those opportunities look like, what they mean for you. I think that’s important to make sure that folks know that you, you don’t have me. Don’t feel like you’re behind schedule somehow. Because there isn’t one. Right? You go out, you get this thing done. Now you’re out in the world, and as long as you’re not hiding from people, opportunities will kind of find you. Tell us a little bit about the book. How did that start? Like how did that come about?


Dr. Angela Swain  [13:12]

So the book has actually been living in my head since the dissertation. So one night, I had a dream that I was a published author, and I woke up with literally feeling it all all over. Right. I was like, I got to get it published. So when the dissertation was published, I was like, yes. And then I’m like, what? Nobody knows that I wrote this masterpiece, right? in quotes, right? And no, they don’t. So unless you’re studying what I studied, emotional intelligence, and no one will see it ever. And so I was talking to a few friends and they were really championing me like, you need to get this into a book for the masses. And so I said, I took that to heart. And my father in law, and I were very close, he unfortunately passed from cancer, October 2020. And, you know, he would always share these these business nuggets, you know, all this wisdom, and really relating these concepts to life in general, and what it meant for me to be a mother, what it meant for me to be a wife, you know. And so one day, we’re in the kitchen, and I said, dad, we should write a book. And he’s like, what do you want to call it? And I’m like, I just threw out some title with the kitchen in it, you know? And he was like, let’s do it. And so I spent at least a year interviewing him getting his story. He came from the south with literally $200 in his pocket in the 70s. And he was one of the foremost entrepreneurs on the south side of Chicago. So I said, I have to share his story. This is his story. And so we made a we made a deal kind of that I would I will share his story. So it’s been a, it’s been a fun ride ever since just getting to know him in a more meaningful way, and really being able to share these tools with other people.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [15:10]

Now, with this being his story he might have, it might have been a little bit easier. But did you find it hard making the transition from writing a dissertation and all of that means to writing a book that people will actually read? Because.


Dr. Angela Swain  [15:26]

Yes. So to your point earlier, you know, I’m the expert now, right. Like, in my first draft, I was like, well, I need to put that’s Daniel Goleman said this, in 19, whatever, or, and, you know, people don’t care about research, and I don’t have to synthesize it. And so I say that when I was doing the dissertation, that was like a hazing, academic hazing. Right. So, you know, and so, and, but instead of adopting, trying to take that and put it into now, I had to say that trained me for now, but I can let that stay there. And now move on. And so to your point, it was a very different process. For me, it was very difficult to transition out of that, because I don’t have to synthesize, you know, data from forever ago, right. It’s what’s happening now.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [16:21]

And you’re naturally doing it anyway, you, you know, some of these things, these ideas are coming from a variety of places. And you’re not saying necessarily these this is my original research, you’re just sharing things with other folks just like, you know, when your your dad was telling those stories, he probably wasn’t saying, and, you know, Whitney down at the factory, he told me this, or whatever it is, yeah, it was, you know, this is what I’ve learned. This is what I, I know, now, and I can share with you. And that’s important.


Dr. Angela Swain  [16:51]

And I think one of the most liberating things for me, once I, once I got a good grasp of this, this was life changing for me, is that because I’m now the expert, I can really start creating things. Right, I can create the tools. So in the book, I’ve created the tools, right. And so once I fully took hold of that, like, let’s have fun, right? So it became that like, oh my God, who is Dr. Swain? It became, wow, who is Dr. Swain? Right. Like, let’s explore that. And let’s tap into what that could look like and feel like so.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [17:26]

And the thing is that you already know, I mean, you just you just continue to be you. And that’s where there’s this real interesting thing that happens when folks get their doctoral degree. Everybody that knew you when you’re still Angelo, right. But the folks that meet you now, you’re Dr. Swain. And it’s kind of weird how those two different groups of people will treat you. Have you had any experience with that?


Dr. Angela Swain  [17:49]

I do. So my, my nickname in my family is Angie. Okay. Um, and so they’re like, oh, Angie, like they still think I’m 12 in many ways. You know, I’m still very young to them. And so they have this like, what you’re writing a book? Like you’re getting a PhD? Like why? You know, um, and so then yeah, yo Angie, like you don’t. I used to be called Little Angie like Little Angie, like oh you’re Little Angie. What do you mean? You’re, you’re a, obviously, they’re very proud of me and very supportive. But that that’s a different lens than now people as Dr. Swain. Yeah. Now, when I meet people as Dr. Swain, there’s this authority that comes with that title. Yeah. And that that authority gets me in various rooms.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [18:37]

So tell tell me about a time when you feel like you got into a room because of that.


Dr. Angela Swain  [18:44]

Um right now I work as a director of the human, the Office of Human Dignity and Solidarity. And that’s what the Archdiocese of Chicago. And so basically, all of the social justice components of the Archdiocese are housed in my office. And I know that there’s no way that I would have been a candidate had I not had this lens. And so with all the master’s degrees that I have, and then this PhD, they were looking for someone who could care for this office, and for all of the wonderful passionate people, you know, who are in this office. In fact, I asked him during the interview, I said, in six months, how will you know, you hired well? And they told me, somebody who can wrap their arms around this office and have people feel like they were heard. And that was part of my dissertation, employee voice, listening to people and I thought to myself, I can do that. And within one month, they hired me.


Dr. Russell Strickland  [19:49]

That’s amazing. That’s something that I keep trying to convince folks over and over again, is that you just do not you cannot fathom the opportunities that are going to come your way after you’ve earned In this degree, and you just don’t hide from people, that’s it. I mean, you don’t have to necessarily be out there be banging a drum, just, you know, kind of let folks know what you’re what you’re doing what you’re up to what you’re about. And those opportunities seem to sniff you out. Because, you know, like we were saying earlier, 99% of the population in the US does not have a doctoral degree. So, there is, there is a. People want to be around folks that have that, that level of accomplishment. You become about like a trophy, in a way for people, you get invited on to media appearances, because now I as the host, look at how great I am, I have a doctor on my show. Right? You get hired, look at you know, our director has her doctoral degree, you know, this, these are the sorts of things that that happen to folks, because you’ve been through that effort. And, and fair enough some of these things are a little bit, you know, superficial. But people do covet that degree, they want to be a part of it somehow. They’re generally not willing to do the work to get it themselves. But they definitely want to be around it. So yeah, that’s very cool. Yeah.

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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.