Getting Online Doctoral Students to the Finish Line: Can Familial Orientations Promote Persistence?

Concurrent Session 9

Brief Abstract

Online doctoral persistence is a problem. Universities can integrate families into the doctoral journey to promote persistence. The development, implementation, and evaluation of an online family orientation for doctoral students and their partners will be discussed. Discussion will ensue about the orientations further development, extensions to other populations, and future research.


Dr. Rockinson-Szapkiw has a B.A. in Elementary Education, M.A. in Counseling, Ed.D. in Distance Education with a focus on instructional design and technology in higher education and a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision. She is currently an Associate Professor within an instructional design and technology program at the University of Memphis and coordinates the EdD program. Dr. Rockinson-Szapkiw has authored and co-authored more than three dozen peer-reviewed journal articles and presented and co-presented over 50 professional presentations nationally and internationally, with scholarship primarily focusing on distance education and technology integration in the higher education classroom to improve national and international student success, namely persistence.

Extended Abstract

For many doctoral students, both residential and online, family has been documented as a contextual factor significantly influencing progress toward doctoral degree completion. For example, nine female Ph.D. students in Brown and Watson’s (2010) qualitative inquiry identified three primary stressors in their doctoral journeys: (a) the conflict between their roles as mothers and students, (b) the consistent balancing act of home and academic responsibilities, and (c) their time for academics being slighted by domestic demands and responsibilities. In other qualitative studies, doctoral students reported that they experience stress as the roles they play as mother or father and student often seem incompatible and in constant competition for the limited resource of time (Oswalt & Riddock, 2007; Smith et al., 2006). According to Ph.D. students at a Swedish university, their well-being is intimately tied to their performance of the balancing act required between their multiple roles and responsibilities (Schmidt & Umans, 2014). Many attribute online doctoral students attribute poor progression toward doctoral completion to the struggle of balancing roles and responsibilities as academics and families (Dabney & Tai, 2013; Rockinson-Szapkiw, Spaulding, & Lunde, 2017).The unsuccessful balancing of school on top of parental, spousal, family of origin, and financial duties often results in dissatisfaction and health issues leading students to depart from their doctoral programs (Bean, 1980; Mason et al., 2009).

Alternatively, especially for women, family can be an impetus for persistence.  In a grounded theory study, Rockinson-Szapkiw et al. (2017) explained that motherhood served as an impetus for online doctoral persistence. In examining female doctoral students in heterosexual married relationships engaged in a counseling program, Hyun (2009) found that a supportive spouse assisted women in balancing their personal and academic responsibilities. A supportive partner for both men and women is a salient theme that arises again and again in qualitative studies on doctoral persistence (Lott, Gardner, & Powers, 2009; Author & Author, 2012; Tinto, 1993).  In their qualitative study examining online doctoral students from backgrounds of poverty, Rockinson-Szpakiw et al. (2014) cited familial integration, “the degree to which the candidate’s sense of connectedness with family members is met while pursuing the doctorate” and “the ‘fit’ between the degree and family values” (p. 196), as vital to doctoral persistence. In a follow up study of 148 online doctoral candidates, they quantitatively confirmed their qualitative findings by identifying family integration as a useful predictor in distinguishing successful from unsuccessful dissertation students (Rockinson-Szapkiw, Spaulding & Spaulding,  2016). Dabney and Tia (2013) suggested that if online doctoral students are to persist, a greater focus on integrating the family into academic and discipline related activities is needed. 

Thus, an online familial orientation for online doctoral student and their partners is being developed, implemented, and evaluated. The goal of this orientation is to assist doctoral students and their families in 1) understanding the online doctoral process and 2) understanding the role or the family in supporting the doctoral students to ultimately improve the persistence in the program. The orientation is being implemented with 8-15 doctoral students and their partners via a web based format. The couples are completing a series of  instruction modules covering topics such as 1) What is a doctoral program and its components? 2) What are supportive and unsupportive partner behaviors? 3) What is differentiation and why should we be concerned? and 4) How do we develop time and space in the household for an online doctoral program? Topics and strategies will be derived from the literature. The couples also have the opportunity engage in a social community, hosted via Google communities, with doctoral faculty and the couples with whom they are taking the orientation with. 

To evaluate this family orientation, a multiphase mixed methods design is being used. The multiphase design is most appropriate for this project as it allows for examination of both quantitative and qualitative data over time to answer the research questions and assess the program objectives (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011).  This includes the following:

·       Measurable Objective 1: Doctoral Process Knowledge: To develop and examine the effectiveness of family orientation on doctoral student and partners’ understanding of the doctoral process. To examine knowledge, the participants (doctoral students and their partners) are being administered an electronic knowledge survey during the first, midterm (formative), and final (summative) weeks of the orientation. Interview data are being done and will be analyzed using case study analysis methods (Yin, 2000) to identify: 1) how students’ knowledge changed; and 2) to determine how the orientation elements facilitated this change. 

·       Measurable Objective 2: Familial Integration: To develop and examine the effectiveness of family orientation on doctoral student and partners’ familial integration. To examine familial integration, the participants (doctoral students and their partners) are being administered a researcher created instrument on familial integration  during the first, midterm (formative), and final (summative) weeks of the program. Interview data re being done and will be analyzed using case study analysis methods (Yin, 2000) to identify: 1) how students’ familial integration changed; and 2) to determine how the orientation elements facilitated this change. 

·       Measurable Objective 3: Intent to Persist: To develop and examine the effectiveness of the family orientation on doctoral students’ intent to persist in the doctoral program. To examine persistence, categorical variables are being  used to assess whether or not the students participating in the family orientation intend to persist in their degree program. In an electronic survey, students are being asked: “Do you intend to graduate from your doctoral program?”, and “Are you able to identify at least five strategies you and of your family can employ to promote this persistence?” “Did the family orientation help you see additional areas of challenges of obstacles that you and your family need to address to ensure your persistence?  Students will select “YES” or “NO” as a response. Descriptive statistics will then be calculated. Chi square analyses will also be conducted to examine the differences between means of the participants before and after participation in the program.

The preliminary results of this study will be presented. Discussion will then ensue about areas in which the orientation can be further developed as well as extended to other populations, such as online graduate and undergraduate students. Implications for future research will also be discussed.