The Nuts and Bolts of Collaboration: Bridging the Gap Between Faculty Advisors and Student Support Staff to Help Online Doctoral Students Thrive throughout the Dissertation Process

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Brief Abstract

Join us to learn how we reimagined the relationship between student support staff and dissertation advisors to maximize student success throughout the dissertation process in a 500+ student online doctoral program. This collaborative system integrates writing center staff into dissertation writing courses and the defense process to support student writers.

Extended Abstract

Without a doubt, the faculty advisor remains the single most important influence in a doctoral student’s journey through the process of writing a dissertation (Baird, 1995; Barnes, 2005; Barnes et al., 2010; Cockrell & Shelley, 2011; Creighton et al., 2010; Lunsford, 2012; Lyons et al., 1990; Nettles & Millett, 2006, pp. 95–101, 191; Pritchard, 2018; West et al., 2011). Students who have positive experiences in their doctoral program frequently speak of the valuable writing mentoring and iterative feedback that they received from their advisor. Traditionally, the dissertation writing process takes place in the “master-apprentice” model of doctoral work, in which a single expert “master” mentors a single (or small number of) “apprentice” doctoral students. This system allows for the faculty advisor to invest substantive, personalized time into the research and writing development of emerging doctoral students as they write their dissertations. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that regular, iterative, and highly personalized feedback from the faculty advisor is one of the most commonly recognized factors in online doctoral student completion rates (e.g., Litalien & Guay, 2015; Nettles & Millett, 2006).

One of the emerging challenges in the field of doctoral student writing research, however, remains considering how best to provide supplementary writing support to doctoral students within this highly individualized, and at times siloed, expert-apprentice relationship. The emergence of writing development manuals for doctoral students reveals both the need and market for such support (e.g., Aliotta, 2018; Bell et al., 2019; Bolker, 2009; Evans et al., 2014). One area of emerging interest is the potential value of graduate writing center support (Lawrence & Zawacki, 2018; Simpson et al., 2016; Summers, 2016; Waring, 2005), particularly for online doctoral students who are physically separated by their geographical distance from other more established support structures at the university (Blevins et al., 2021; Werse et al., 2020, 2022). While often identified as valuable for graduate student writing development, navigating the relationship between the faculty advisors’ feedback and the feedback from an outside writing development specialist can be complicated. This complexity is seen with Gruba and Zoebel’s (2017) warning to graduate student writers about seeking writing center support under the heading “Plagiarism and Research Integrity.” Such “warnings” contribute to the recognized uncertainty among many writing center professionals about their institutional place within the university (e.g., Behm, 1989; Clark, 1988; Healy, 1993), especially when it comes to mentoring graduate student writers who have formal mentors in their advisors—each of whom may have widely different expectations and assumptions about writing development.

In this session, a collaborative team of faculty advisors and writing center professionals will present on how they went about reimagining the relationship between the faculty advisor and writing center support throughout the dissertation writing process, specifically to support online doctoral students in an effort to maintain high completion rates within the target time-to-completion timeline for the program. We launched a department-specific EdD Writing Center to support our 500+ online doctoral students throughout the dissertation writing process. We recognized that many students felt “out of practice” or unfamiliar with academic writing. At the same time, writing a dissertation at an aspiring-R1 institution required meeting high standards and expectations. To empower our students to succeed throughout this writing process, we built a robust team of seven full-time and four graduate assistant writing development specialists who work closely with faculty advisors across the curriculum sequence to support student writing. The EdD Writing Center offers nearly 500 writing consultations per trimester and works closely with faculty advisors to craft individualized writing development plans that are uniquely tailored to students’ different learning styles and language proficiencies.

The EdD Writing Center team is integrated into the methodology and Problem of Practice Dissertation writing course sequence to facilitate students’ writing growth across terms. The EdD Writing Center contributed materials to the construction of these courses, visits courses to offer workshops, and works with students across terms as they write their dissertations, publications, and more. Additionally, a member of the EdD Writing Center team meets with faculty advisors weekly to discuss their students’ progress. When students submit their dissertation documents for review to their faculty advisors, the EdD Writing Center team first runs a report and then provides preliminary feedback on the writing style, APA, and formatting before the advisor comments. This process allows them to carefully track statistics concerning student progress, such as the time spent with students, topics addressed, engagement with feedback, writing support needs, and research focus to inform program-level strategic planning.

A member of the EdD Writing Center team also serves on every dissertation defense committee. Because the EdD Writing Center team reads every Problem of Practice Dissertation across advisors, cohorts, and courses, they have a broad perspective from which to advise both students and faculty advisors throughout the writing process. The EdD Writing Center team can flag documents of concern for advisors, share with advisors how previous cohorts and advising teams handled certain situations in the advising experience, and can help an adviser determine when a document is ready to move forward to the next stage in the writing process. The results of this highly integrated student support system into the course sequence have been highly successful. Not only has the three-year completion rate far surpassed industry trends among EdD programs (83%, 74%, and 70% among the first three cohorts respectively; n=167) but the presentation of scholarly-practitioner Problem of Practice dissertations has impressed university stakeholders.