Supporting Online Doctoral Students

Following on from my previous post about Doctoral Identities in Networked Learning, this post continues with my reflections after a workshop with Dr Marguerite Koole from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. It focuses on student readiness for online doctoral students and supporting students already in the doctoral programme. Another area of interest, not discussed in this post, is the support for students once they have completed the degree.

Readiness for Online Doctoral Studies

Dr Koole has created a self-assessment survey (shared under a Creative Commons license) to help students check if they are prepared for doing an online PhD. Below are some of the key issues to consider for students:

  • Academic Preparation
    • Qualification alignment with the departmental doctoral degree requirements
    • Similarity of doctoral field to masters field
    • Alignment of research paradigm with the dominant epistemological and/or ontological positions of the department
    • Knowledge and experience of faculty members in your area of research
    • Awareness of completion statistics in the department
    • Opportunities for teaching or being involved in research projects within the department
    • Flexible structure of the doctoral programme
    • Availability of orientation sessions for new doctoral students
  • Personal Preparation
    • Availability of friends or family to openly discuss  your doctoral studies
    • Impact of any health issues or family responsibilities
    • Impact of any major life events e.g. lifestyle or work
    • Awareness of your reasons for doing a doctorate
  • Professional Preparation
    • Support of your employer or possibility of career changes
    • Connection of research interests with workplace responsibilities
    • Availability of co-workers who have gone through doctoral studies
    • Future job prospects in your area of research after completing the degree
  • Financial Preparation
    • Savings specifically made for studies and a contingency fund for emergencies
    • Preparation of a budget (tuition, books, conferences, loss of wages, cost of living) and tracking of financial activities
    • Possible reduction in working hours and income
    • Sources of funding (internal and external to the university)
    • Financial support responsibilities e.g. family
  • Technological preparation
    • Access to a computer and internet access
    • Comfort in using basic tools (Word, browser, email, Skype) and other software e.g. research analysis software

Support for Online Doctoral Studies

In the workshop, we worked in groups to come up with a support system for online doctoral students. Here are some of the elements our group discussed:

  • Cohort Support
    • An online community to share relevant information (upcoming conferences, workshops, relevant journals) and a forum for Q&A. This could be as simple as a WhatsApp group or as detailed as dedicated community space.
  • Supervisor Support
    • A supervisory contract to share expectations and e.g. timetables for meetings.
  • Mentor Support
    • This could be an academic or a recently qualified PhD holder to provide emotional support and counselling services.
  • Department Support
    • A list of “How tos” to share important information e.g. how to submit a proposal, obtain ethical approval, follow grievance processes, apply for funding.
  • Technological Support
    • Training or information on how to use various research tools e.g. SPSS
  • Research / Academic Support
    • Training or information on academic writing, publishing, time management, proofreading, peer review, reference management, designing questionnaires etc.
  • Network / Dissemination Support
    • Financial resources for attending conferences and summer schools.

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