Doctoral Student Progress and the Use of the Doctoral Degree Coach™ Tool: Preliminary Findings

Concurrent Session 2
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Brief Abstract

The Doctoral Degree Coach™(the “Coach”) is a digital planning tool with several features designed to support student progress and successful completion of the doctoral capstone. The focus of this session will be a demonstration of the tool and preliminary findings relevant to student progress and their connection to its use.


Dr. Karen Milheim’s formal training is in adult education, instructional design, and training and development; she has served in various roles in these areas over the span of her career. She has extensive experience consulting for online and traditional higher education institutions in areas such as needs assessment, course design and development, media conceptualization/development, competency mapping, and evaluation. Dr. Milheim has presented and published extensive research in areas related to adult education, online teaching and learning, and related. She has also taught at several universities in these areas as well. Dr. Milheim began her career at Walden University in the Center for Undergraduate Studies. Since then, she's held teaching and leadership roles in the Center for Student Success and Riley College of Education and Leadership. In her current role within Walden University's Commercial Operations area, she directs the training and development initiatives for all Enrollment teams.

Extended Abstract

The Doctoral Degree Coach™ is a digital planning tool with several features designed to support student progress and successful completion of their doctoral capstones. The tool helps students stay on track by guiding them step-by-step through the doctoral capstone process with resources and help contacts for every step along the way. 

The Doctoral Degree Coach was introduced as a pilot to a small group of students in the Doctor of Education program during 2018, and following the pilot, the tool was further developed to its current form. Preliminary, qualitative feedback from the pilot showed promise—the tool was well-received, and many students indicated that it was a timely, critical resource to support the self-management of the steps required to complete their doctoral capstones. In June through December 2019, all doctoral students at the university who were in the capstone or project study stages of their programs were given access to the updated version of the tool. Qualitative feedback received thus far aligns with the feedback from the pilot phase, in that students are finding the tool to be a valuable, timely asset and resource as part of their doctoral programs. 

The main features of the Doctoral Degree Coach include: 

  • a detailed checklist of the major steps and sub-steps of the doctoral capstone or project process; 
  • goal dates for completion of each of the steps and sub-steps required in the doctoral capstone or project process, determined by students’ self-designated goal completion dates of when they plan to graduate;  
  • curated, just-in-time resources and points-of-contact within the university to support completion of those steps; and 
  • a progress-tracking indicator to help students stay the course as they move through their doctoral journey to completion. 

When students first sign up for the Coach, they are prompted to set a goal for graduation (the “goal completion date”). The Coach automatically calculates goal dates for each step and to-do in the process vis-à-vis the entered goal date. These calculations are based on three years of doctoral capstone/project completion data, so that each to-do has a proportion of total capstone/project completion time. Goal dates for individual steps will expand and contract proportionally whenever students move their goal completion dates forward or back. The students and doctoral committee members will always have a view of their progress in the tool, and whether they are on track for their goals. This built-in progress tracking is critical, as it allows students to set clearer expectations for themselves and manage their time more effectively. As students complete steps and sub-steps in the doctoral capstone or project process, they check off each to-do aligned to each step.  

From a faculty standpoint, the Coach tool is a valuable resource in helping to monitor progress and support the mentoring process at the doctoral capstone or project stage. Used in tandem with the capstone course, the Coach can support goal-setting each semester and elicit conversations if a student is falling behind. All faculty who serve on a doctoral committee have view access into their students’ Coach tools and are currently using the tool as they mentor students.  

Presentation Format and Learning Objectives

The design, development, and implementation of the Doctoral Degree Coach™ tool was a collaborative effort among members of the Center for Research Quality, Doctoral Business Group, Academic Leaders, and other stakeholders. The presentation will be led and conducted by individuals representing these groups. In this one-hour session, presenters will: 

  • Provide a context and background information related to the Coach as described above, including a review of supportive research relevant to doctoral student completion in online environments; 
  • Demonstrate the Coach to show session participants what the Coach tool is, how it is structured, and how it is used by students and faculty at the university; 
  • Discuss the development process behind the Coach, from original pilot to the current version; 
  • Present challenges and successes relevant to users of the tool in its early stages;
  • Discuss short and long-term data collection and research strategies tied to the tool; and
  • Share preliminary findings focused on doctoral student progress in the doctoral capstone or study stage of their programs.

Presenters plan to engage participants through guided discussion and a question-and-answer session focused on ways a similar capstone planning tool might benefit students at their respective institutions. Also, presenters plan to foster conversation tailored to sharing of best practices, with focus on technology tools and resources, that foster online student success and completion.  At the end of this presentation, learners will be able to: 

  • Describe experiences with supporting online doctoral students in making progress and completing the capstone; 
  • Identify needs of online doctoral students in transitioning from coursework to capstone; and
  • Analyze usefulness of a digital planning and tracking tool to support doctoral student progress on the capstone. 

Throughout the Doctoral Degree Coach, students and faculty experience the alignment of the content to the university mission. Doctoral students at the university, most of whom are working professionals, are faced with the challenges of balancing work, school, family, and other responsibilities. To have a tool like the Doctoral Degree Coach™ – that organizes, supports, and tracks their success and progress – has the potential to make a difference in their ability to finish their doctoral programs and achieve their educational goals.