Online Mentoring in doctoral programs: Strategies and Challenges

Concurrent Session 5

Brief Abstract

We present insights from semi-structured interviews with 17 program graduates and five faculty members about the online mentoring of dissertations in an online doctoral program.


Dr. Swapna Kumar is a Clinical Associate Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Teaching and Learning, College of Education, University of Florida. She directs the online doctorate in Educational Technology and studies online and blended learning in higher education. Her current research is focused on quality assurance in online programs and online mentoring in graduate education. Details of her publications can be found at

Extended Abstract


Supervisor-student communication and the mentoring relationship are vital to doctoral students’ success (Lee, 2008). When doctoral programs are offered partly or completely online, and mentors and mentees are geographically dispersed, the development of research designs, implementation of dissertation research and generally, the mentoring of dissertations becomes more complex and challenging. At the same time, the online environment, emerging and current communication technologies, and social media offer new possibilities for mentoring in different and new ways from traditional on-campus environments. Based on the experiences of faculty and students during the dissertation stage of an online doctoral program, we offer insight into how online mentoring experiences can be structured for individuals and groups when developing research proposals, communicating and implementing feedback, and implementing research at sites at a distance from the university. We will engage the audience with initial questions and present online mentoring strategies based on our data.


An online professional doctorate in Educational Technology was begun in 2008 and is offered online except for a yearly one-week on-campus summer seminar. Students complete two years of coursework and qualifying exams as a cohort, and then work on their dissertation under the guidance of a faculty. Seventeen of the first 23 students who had successfully completed their dissertation volunteered for interviews. Five of six full-time faculty members who mentored these students at a distance using asynchronous and synchronous communication tools and different mentoring strategies were also interviewed. While acknowledging that graduate mentoring is very individualized and there is no uniform answer for successful graduate mentoring of all students (Gaffney, 1995) either face-to-face or at a distance, the purpose of this research was to explore the experiences of both students and faculty during the online mentoring of dissertations in this program. Our purpose was threefold – a) to identify what worked well so that those strategies could be used by all future faculty and students based on their needs b) to identify challenges that could be resolved with future faculty and students and c) to identify best practices in online mentoring that could be shared with others involved in online graduate programs and mentoring at a distance.


Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 17 of 23 initial graduates and five of six mentors. Interview questions addressed students’ experiences during the dissertation process, challenges faced and the strategies that worked well for them while working on their dissertations. Five faculty members from the online program were interviewed about their experiences specific to challenges they faced and the strategies that worked to mentor dissertations in the online program. Data from each set of interviews (faculty and students) were first open coded for common themes separately by two researchers, compared, and discussed. Finally, data from both sources were compared for common themes and themes that were specific to faculty or students.


Group Mentoring: Students were organized into smaller “inquiry” groups of 3-5 students with similar research interests. Each inquiry group worked with a mentor during the dissertation but also supported each other through the process by reading each others’ drafts and providing feedback. Mentors structured both communication and collaboration within these groups using multiple synchronous and asynchronous media for different purposes such as group meetings, feedback on writing and peer discussions. Given their family and work commitments, students found set deadlines and deliverables for the group and the mentor’s structuring of peer interaction extremely useful. During interviews mentors highlighted best practices or challenges, and students also reflected on what worked best for the, making it possible to identify strategies that contributed to these small group structures becoming invaluable for dissertation completion.

Individual mentoring: Students preferred synchronous communication to asynchronous communication for discussions and immediate feedback from their advisors. Clear feedback, structure, and timelines set by their mentors were greatly appreciated as the students were working full-time and had to plan for both their submissions and their turnaround of advisor feedback.

Online Feedback: Students provided examples of the types of feedback that they found valuable or not so useful in the online environment, not only from faculty, but also from their peers in the small groups. They preferred timely and candid feedback that pointed out strengths and weaknesses in their research design and writing to “cheerleading”.

Challenges with Online Mentoring: The five faculty members described challenges specific to the online environment with guiding students to identify research topics and implement research, providing feedback, and improving the quality of student writing. Students struggled with staying motivated when faced with multiple commitments and candid feedback. Both faculty and students reflected on administrative challenges such as students’ navigation of IRB submissions at a distance and highlighted the strategies and technologies that had worked well for them in such situations.

Discussion and Implications

The increase in online graduate programs in the United States in the last few years has seen an increase in the online mentoring of graduate students and the need for faculty to mentor students who work on research projects at a distance. Our discussion of online technologies and online mentoring strategies that worked in this online doctoral program, especially those that program graduates perceived as useful, will be valuable to other faculty mentoring online doctoral students.


Gaffney, N. (Ed.). (1995). A Conversation about Mentoring: Trends and Models. Council of Graduate Schools, Washington, D.C.

Lee, A. (2008). How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts of doctoral research supervision. Studies in Higher Education, 33(3), 267–281.