Providing Effective Dissertation Mentorship Experiences for Online Students

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Brief Abstract

Dissertation completion is a vital yet complex process for doctoral students. Online students encounter unique challenges of dissertation completion resulting in faculty needing to provide diverse mentorship approaches. This presentation explores online doctoral students’ experiences and effective mentorship strategies that faculty can implement to overcome challenges associated with student research.

Extended Abstract


               Online education has increased in popularity over the last several decades. The advent of the internet and communication technologies have afforded students the opportunity to complete their entire programs of study in a completely virtual format. Allen et al. (2016) reported that approximately 5.8 million students completed their degrees completely online in fall 2014. The National Center for Education Statistics further reported that in fall 2018 there were close to 7 million students enrolled in distance education programs. Although online student growth has continued in an upward trend, faculty are not always adequately trained to mentor doctoral students in this learning modality. Indeed, Kumar and Johnson (2019) shared that faculty who teach and mentor online students typically have limited experience in these learning environments. Kumar and Coe (2017) also expressed the importance of identifying the unique challenges experienced by online learners and the strategies that are implemented to overcome them. Because doctoral students’ attrition rates for many programs of study is 50% (Young et al., 2019), understanding how to best support students in their dissertation research is vital for program completion.

Online Doctoral Mentorship

               Doctoral faculty are referred to as advisors, supervisors, and mentors as they guide students through the research process. Researchers have found that the faculty to dissertation student relationship is vital to degree completion and that it encompasses professional and psychosocial development and academic growth (Creighton et al., 2010; Hayes & Koro-Ljungberg, 2011). However, dissertation mentoring for on-ground students often looks very different than how faculty guide online students through the dissertation process. Particularly, online mentoring differs from face-to-face approaches due to factors of time and distance (Kumar & Coe, 2017). For example, Kumar and Johnson (2019) postulated that on-ground faculty provided learners research instruction and opportunities to observe how their mentor conducts studies. Although online learners could receive similar experiences, faculty need to be intentional in how they offer students additional research experiences and flexible in their approach to integrating students into their research activities. Further, faculty need to implement scaffolding to guide students through the research process and consider how to structure learning into practical chucks of information through online mentorship approaches. By implementing effective mentorship approaches, students are able to feel supported in their research and confident in their abilities to complete their studies. Students who receive positive mentorship experiences may also be more likely to persevere when faced with challenges in degree completion. However, Ensher et al., (2003) indicated that online mentoring can result in miscommunications, technical issues, and difficulties in relationship building. To promote student satisfaction in online settings, faculty need to determine how to utilize technology to promote research skills and develop relationships that are conducive to academic success.  

Educational Technologies

               Online mentors are able to employ a diverse range of technological resources to better support students as they progress through their programs of studies. Kumar et al. (2013) found that “successful online mentoring includes the flexible and effective use of multiple technologies” in order to “structure a dissertation experience that facilitates doctoral students’ learning, growth, and autonomy” (p. 9). Emerging technologies help to leverage student learning and enhance instructional practices. By incorporating diverse technologies into dissertation mentorship approaches, faculty are able to better support students via real-time through platforms that provide options for time management and to track goal task completion. For example, mentors can provide students online feedback opportunities in which they provide students edits and suggestions on their dissertations through cloud-based platforms. These types of technologies can allow for faculty to have immediate access to revised documents and for students to easily identify the most recent feedback provided by their mentor. Additional technologies that can be powerful in promoting dissertation progress and program satisfaction include screen sharing platforms, task management programs, personalized learning experiences. Technologies can also offer faculty to student interactions that are more personable and promote continual dissertation progress. Platforms such as Zoom and GoToMeeting allow for faculty to share their screens in order to guide students in their document revisions and record directed feedback on how to modify dissertation components. However, faculty should offer multiple communication options that include videoconferencing, email, and telephone and provide flexibility in meeting times that range from day to evening hours and weekends.

Support Systems

               Students who are completing the dissertation process need to feel that their mentors are dedicated to their success in their research endeavors and program completion. Researchers have found that relationship building components for faculty mentors include an organic environment and personal transformation (Rasheem et al., 2018); trust that results from feedback, consistency, and the development of personal connections (Rademaker et al., 2016); an understanding of social, academic, and emotional life balances and provide reassurance (McConnell et al., 2019); and availability of support services (e.g., institutional) (Rockinson-Szapkiw et al., 2016). Breitenbach et al. (2019) also shared that family, friends, and coworkers levels of support to dissertation students can significantly impact retention in their doctoral studies. Peer support from classmates can further impact dissertation student progress and program satisfaction (Tompkins et al., 2016). Because support systems are identified as a crucial aspect of doctoral student retention, faculty need to encourage their students to identify external (e.g., family members, friends, colleagues) and internal (e.g., program faculty, classmates) support systems that they can contact for further guidance as they progress through their students. These support systems can be particularly important as students complete their content coursework and embark on their dissertation research, which may be perceived as being a lonely and isolating process. 

Concluding Thoughts

Online enrollment will most likely continue to increase due to current events (e.g., COVID) and the accessibility and benefits these programs offer working professionals. However, approximately half of doctoral students do not earn their degrees (Gardner & Gopaul, 2012). To better support online learners, particularly dissertation students, faculty must place emphasis on how to promote effective and positive virtual mentorship experiences. Faculty need to be cognizant of the purpose of their communications with students and which tools may be most effective in supporting their academic and research endeavors. As a result of these interactions, students and faculty are able to develop shared goals and a continued commitment to degree completion. Emerging and innovative technologies provide faculty the unique opportunity to develop learning environments that are conducive to effective mentorship, scaffolding, and relationship building that are essential components that positively impact doctoral students’ program satisfaction and completion. Particularly, there are a plethora of online tools and technological resources that promote collaborative opportunities and facilitate online relationship building experiences. Providing students opportunities to connect with their mentor is essential in the development of relationships that promote scaffolding and guidance. As a result, this presentation will provide an overview of online doctoral programs, mentorship approaches for dissertation students, suggestions for overcoming challenges experienced with virtual doctoral learning, reflections from faculty who supervisor doctor students, and student feedback on their experiences in conducting dissertations in an online program.

Learning outcomes of the workshop include:

  1. Session participants will be introduced to approaches to dissertation research conducted in online programs.
  2. Session participants will discover the possibility of new mentorship strategies to use with their online learners.
  3. Session participants will receive recommendations on technological tools that can promote successful mentorship experiences and promote research skill development.   
  4. Session participants will discuss potential opportunities for overcoming challenges found in mentoring online students.


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