Challenges and Opportunities for Online Doctoral Students During COVID-19: Perspectives of Dissertation Chairs

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Brief Abstract

COVID-19 has impacted teaching and learning at all levels.  This presentation synthesizes research on challenges and opportunities faced by today’s online doctoral students and discusses how experiences during COVID-19 may impact online doctoral learning.  Results of a qualitative study utilizing open-ended interviews with online Dissertation Chairs are presented.

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Dr. Maggie Broderick is an Associate Professor at Northcentral University, with roles in Curriculum and Assessment. She currently serves as the Program Lead for the ELL Specialization and as a Dissertation Chair. Dr. Broderick received her Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education at the University of Pittsburgh and her BS (Music Education) and MS (Education) degrees at Duquesne University. She has over 20 years of experience in the field of Education, including 8 years of teaching experience in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Dr. Broderick lives in Pittsburgh, PA with her family and is passionate about teaching and learning at all levels.
Brandy Kamm, Ph.D. Professor, Northcentral University I am a Professor and Educational Leadership Program Lead at Northcentral University. I have taught and served as Professor and doctoral dissertation chair in doctoral programs for the last 15 years, and I have been working in the educational field for the last 24 years. I began as an 8th grade history teacher, then moved on to be a Dean of students, Assistant Principal and Principal of a large middle school. I have worked as a State level accountability consultant working with all administrators in regards to compliance and development of accountability standards. I also spent several years working as an educational consultant for schools and school districts regarding high stakes testing, accountability, and gifted education. I received my Bachelor of Arts degree from Stetson University in Secondary Education. I attained my Masters of Education from the University of Central Florida in Educational Administration. I have a Specialist of Education degree from the University of Florida in Educational Law. I completed my Doctor of Philosophy degree in Educational Leadership, from the University of Florida, I live in Central Florida with my husband and three children.
Cary Gillenwater is a full professor at Northcentral University. He has worked as an educator since 2001. He began his career as a middle school English/language arts (ELA) teacher. Cary graduated with his doctorate in Education from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2012. Following graduation he joined Northcentral University in 2013 as a subject matter expert, then as a part time dissertation chair before becoming full time. Cary's areas of specialization are Media Literacy/Education, Visual Literacy, Teacher Education, and Curriculum & Development. His preferred research methodology is qualitative. Cary has published articles on the use of graphic novels as a vehicle for teaching visual literacy with advanced ELA students.

Extended Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted teaching and learning in almost every context and at all levels of instruction.  Most K-12 and higher education institutions in the United States were forced to provide emergency remote learning in place of traditional on-ground instruction beginning in March of 2020.  Fairly early statistics in the United States’ pandemic timeline established that more than 4,000 U.S. colleges and universities were seriously impacted by COVID-19, with greater than 25 million students already affected at that time (Kelly, 2020).  That number has grown over the ongoing pandemic, with the bulk of university students’ coursework being completed online during the fall of 2020. Supiano (2020) provided a current and timely look into these new realities for instructors and students in higher education.  This abrupt and massive change toward online instruction will likely remain in some form as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and perhaps beyond. 

Some institutions, such as K-12 cyber schools and fully online universities, were already providing instruction entirely online before COVID-19, but still needed to make emergency modifications and adjustments for learners who were experiencing various personal, medical, and other life-related issues (COVID-19: Higher Education Resource Center, 2020).  These challenges have required significant expertise in the three presences for online teaching, particularly the social presence (Rapanta et al., 2020).  One group of students in this particular category is the sizable and growing number of doctoral degree-seeking students who attend programs that are designed to be entirely online.  Being a doctoral student, and especially an online doctoral student, involves its own unique set of stressors and experiences.  Exploring online doctoral students’ unique experiences during COVID-19 can enhance understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by this unique group of students at this specific time of worldwide crisis. 

One lens through which to view the challenges and opportunities of online doctoral students during COVID-19 is the perceptions and experiences of the Dissertation Chair, who plays a pivotal role in the life of a doctoral student.  Dissertation Chairs have the specific role of guiding the doctoral student’s progress longitudinally, not only regarding academic outcomes, but also often in terms of social and emotional issues and outcomes. Simply put, the ongoing relationship between the doctoral student and the Chair is crucial. On the general topic of online learner-instructor interaction and engagement, Baker’s (2010) findings strongly suggested a positive relationship between instructor presence and the degree of instructor immediacy. Further, Baker found a linear relationship between both of these instructor qualities and students’ affective learning, cognition, and motivation, making them clear predictors of these desired outcomes.  Furthermore, “Students perceive a sense of belonging when they can interact with instructors and perceive that they are at least accessible through multiple means” (Bolliger & Martin, 2018, p. 569).  Research and recommendations from Peacock and Cowan (2019) and Meyer (2014) echoed these sentiments, with specific strategies and tips for online instruction.

The presenters for this session synthesize research on the unique challenges and opportunities that today’s online doctoral students typically face, along with a discussion of how the COVID-19 pandemic may impact the online doctoral learning experience.  Qualitative analysis of open-ended interviews with 12 online Dissertation Chairs will be presented.  The research methodology for this qualitative case study entailed recruiting volunteers from a fully-online, accredited, doctoral degree-granting institution.  Twelve Dissertation Chairs participated in live, open-ended interviews via Zoom.  Interviews followed a 13-question protocol of open-ended questions developed by the researchers/presenters.  Regarding the use of Zoom as a data collection method, Gray, Wong-Wylie, Rempel, and Cook (2020) specified the current relevance of utilizing Zoom for one-on-one interviews for qualitative research when in-person interviews are not feasible.  Interviews of the 12 Dissertation Chairs were divided between the three presenters for this session using a random order for who would conduct each interview.  This design helped to ensure trustworthiness and dependability of data, while reducing any potential bias.  The presenters for this session will discuss several themes that emerged from the qualitative inquiry and will explore how these emerging themes relate to the current research literature on doctoral student experiences, online learning, mentoring, social-emotional learning, student engagement, and persistence.

This presentation will be interactive, with opportunities for ongoing participant chat within the chat box.  The presenters will engage the audience in a whole-group activity in which participants can relate the session material to their own specific contexts.  For example, attendees who have switched abruptly to online teaching and learning from a more traditional modality could reflect on the specific challenges and opportunities that have been faced by doctoral candidates at those institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The presentation exemplifies effective practice by illustrating both the challenges and opportunities faced by online doctoral students during COVID-19.  The use of a research site that is a fully-online, accredited, doctoral degree-granted institution helps to inform best practices in doctoral level education, especially with regard to serving all students’ social and emotional needs during the pandemic.


Baker, C. (2010). The impact of instructor immediacy and presence for online student affective learning, cognition, and motivation. Journal of Educators Online, 7(1), 1–30. Retrieved from

Bolliger, D. U., & Martin, F. (2018). Instructor and student perceptions of online student engagement strategies. Distance Education39(4), 568-583.

COVID-19: Higher Education Resource Center. (2020). Retrieved September 22, 2020, from

Gray, L. M., Wong-Wylie, G., Rempel, G. R., & Cook, K. (2020). Expanding Qualitative Research Interviewing Strategies: Zoom Video Communications. The Qualitative Report25(5), 1292-1301.

Kelly, R. (2020, April 16). 4,000 plus U.S. higher ed institutions impacted by COVID-19; more than 25 million students affected. Campus Technology.

Meyer, K. A. (2014). Student engagement in online learning: What works and why. ASHE Higher Education Report, 40(6), 1–114.

Peacock, S. & Cowan, J. (2019). Promoting sense of belonging in online learning communities of inquiry at accredited courses. Online Learning, 23(2), 67-81.

Rapanta, C., Botturi, L., Goodyear, P. et al. (2020). Online University Teaching During and After the Covid-19 Crisis: Refocusing Teacher Presence and Learning Activity. Postdigit Sci Educ.

Supiano, B. (2020, April 07). 'On a Desert Island with Your Students': Professors Compare Notes on Teaching Remotely in a Pandemic. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from