"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined."
Henry David Thoreau (American essayist, poet and philosopher, 1817-1862 )
A Dissertation Learner:
"The dissertation process was grueling; it was mind-blowing, back-breaking, and anxiety driven. The dissertation process takes student dedication and a fair amount of intelligence to complete the dissertation, but most importantly what is needed is a focused, understanding, and dedicated mentor to pull you up the dissertation mountain. My dissertation mentor was the main dissertation student contact during my entire academic career and one who understands the dissertation process and aware that completing the dissertation is like climbing a mountain. My mentor was my dissertation mountain climbing guide, and when I stumbled or had aches and pains my mentor dragged me to get to the top."
Dr. Janon S. Berry, Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership, University of Phoenix Online
Blum and Muirhead (2005) have strived to address vital issues associated with mentoring online doctoral students in their e-book Conquering the mountain: Framework for successful chair advising of online dissertation students. The purpose of this book is to give online distance education faculty who are dissertation advisor s an explicit framework for enabling distance education doctoral student to complete a dissertation without ever coming face-to-face.Online doctoral programs are growing rapidly and distance educators and administrators are seeking relevant educational paradigms and instructional strategies for their degree programs. The authors share their experiences working with doctoral students in a virtual environment and the paper will highlight a small portion of the insights on mentoring strategies from the e-book.
The doctoral dissertation is one of the most intense academic experiences that individuals encounter in their lives. One of the tragic interpersonal moments in the academic community is when individuals share that they were not able to complete their dissertation. The initial ABD – All But Dissertation that signifies this academic state is a reminder of the difficult journey to earn the coveted doctoral degree. Curran-Downey (1998) related “being in graduate school and making it all the way through the classes, the exams and the defense of the dissertation is ---take your pick--- marathon, wasteland, jungle, rat race” (para 6). The high attrition rate for students in American doctoral programs is a dark aspect of doctoral education that continues to plague the higher education community. It reflects a degree of failure at the institutional level to assist talented individuals in what is often considered the ultimate academic challenge and represents a tremendous waste of human resources that often undermines career plans.
The entire dissertation process for many doctoral students appears similar to a mountain looming in the distance, inescapable, magnificent, but impossible to scale. Online doctoral students face additional challenges overcoming the barriers of distance education (Blum, 1999). Helms and Raiszadeh (2002) found that working in a distance education virtual medium requires more explicit objective setting than face-to-face teams. Dissertation chairs do not have an online explicit list to follow to help distance education students succeed at writing a dissertation despite argument that “ professors can learn advising skills by following some systematic advising processes” (Davis, 2004, para 2) ; previous attempts at successfully mentoring dissertation students are typically trail-and-error learned from past failures and successes (Davis).
Create a Timeline to Climb Mountain Milestones
Successful online doctoral advisors help learners establish as timeline to make milestones clear and doable for the learners. Many advisors use Excel to work with the student to create a timeline, working backwards with the date the student wants to graduate, dissertation due dates, proposal due dates, milestones of the problem, purpose, research questions, and hypotheses creation. The timeline should include Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 revisions, edits, and final dates of completion, and factor in revisions of student drafts, chair edits, committee suggestions, and formal approval time by the University. The timeline clearly shows the dissertation student that the mountain is climbable in small steps, one step at a time in a timeframe that meets deadlines and accounts for student work or family commitments is factored into the milestones, as well as any advisor vacations or times when he or she is unavailable. An example of a timeline Blum created with a student for a dissertation proposal is below. Chairs are called mentors at some universities.
Finally, chairs who are most successful at reducing online dissertation student fear simply pick up the phone and walk the student through the initial processes, mapping out what needs to be done and when. Advisor follow-through with encouraging emails keeps provide positive feedback that builds confidence and lowers unnecessary anxiety. One of the author’s of this article chair at Walden University used to send out postcards simply saying hello to the dissertation student, and this practice always reduced levels of anxiety, especially the postcard stating the mentor was alive and well after a Costa Rica rafting trip (the mentor was older than 60 at the time).
The Literature Review Process
Tremendous expansion of electronic information resources has exponentially increased research opportunities. This fact makes it important that students are properly prepared to use the new technologies. Hart (1998, p. 5) has identified two basic types of skills required for researchers:
Reviews vary greatly in the scope and depth of material examined. The selection of study topic is a key factor and students shouldavoid selecting topics that transcend the requirements of their degree programs. A primary reason for studying the literature is to demonstrate familiarity with research in the field and establish credibility for the individual's current investigation. The literature review should reflectively build upon the work conducted by other researchers who are part of a larger intellectual community (Neuman, 1997).
The dissertation committee expects students to produce literature reviews that uphold high academic standards. Neuman (1997, p. 89) described four major literature review objectives:
The literature review helps the student to understand the historical context of their subject while focusing on current research efforts (Hart, 1998). Literature reviews offers opportunities for students for learning how to identify areas of concern and it increases their awareness of any neglected issues.
Give Dissertation Students Direct Advice That Works
Marilyn Simon has assisted hundreds of online doctoral students in a successful completion of the doctoral dissertation. Simon shares some helpful hints that chairs should share with dissertation learners to climb the dissertation mountain: (Muirhead, Robinson & Simon 2005, pp. 15-16)
Teach Students to Slow Down
The mountain of fear of the dissertation process is a huge barrier for doctoral students. The mountain of the dissertation can cause an otherwise highly intelligent student who has earned full credit for all doctoral classes to run. Sometimes the student runs the other direction and quits the doctoral program becoming an all but dissertation for the rest of the student’s life. Another student reaction to the dissertation mountain is to attempt to complete the entire dissertation at a full-fledged run up the mountain. Similar to attempting to run up an entire mountain, attempting to write an entire dissertation in a short time frame results in failure.
Writing the proposal is the first step to succeeding at scaling the dissertation mountain, previous chapters in this book addressed how to write chapters 1, 2, and 3. The success subsequent chapter depends on the clarity and content of previous chapters, and the learner should work on each section at a time. For example, chapter 3 includes some of the exact statements found in chapter 1; so the development of chapter 1 is the first step. Chapter 4 will have many of the literature findings as supporting citations found in chapter 2. Writing successful proposals takes time and reflection. Students try to write the entire proposal quickly and tend to get frustrated when the proposal is not approved in a short time frame and no clear 1-10 plan of what to do next. The plan depends on the problem, access to data, and the design, and good chairs work hard to slow the students down to reflect on the steps needed for success.
Editing and Reflecting – Resting at Switchbacks
Similar to the manner a hiker rests while climbing, a dissertation learner should rest for short time periods when writing and editing the dissertation in order to reflect and make changes to increase clarity for the reader. The key is to rest for short time periods, because if the learner rests for a long time period, similar to cramps the hiker may experience when starting back up the mountain after too long of a rest, the dissertation student has trouble starting the dissertation climb again. Resting for short time periods and starting again refreshed often results in the student finding errors in content, grammar, formatting, and APA; errors in any error causes a rejected proposal. Non-stop writing causes student burnout, ABD’s, and an inability to see writing errors.
Using Committee Feedback – Talk to Climbers Coming Down the Mountain
By the time the chair has edited the proposal and has deemed that, the proposal meets the university’s checklist of proposal requirements; the average chair has the entire document memorized and finds it difficult to see any additional errors to edit. When the proposal is the stage where the mentor cannot find any more errors, the committee suggestions are invaluable. Similar to the climber who is trying to make his or her way up the mountain, gathering information from climbers who have already been to the top helps the learner keep going, gives time for reflection, and valuable inputs to make the dissertation better with more chances for success.
Chairs should help learners find good committee members that possess the skills needed to succeed the dissertation mountain climb. For example, if the chair has strong qualitative skills but does not have a great deal of leadership background, and the learner is working on a qualitative leadership subject dissertation, asking a committee member to join the committee with strong leadership knowledge would round out the skills needed for learner success. Another committee member with both leadership and qualitative experience would add considerable value to the team. Learners often select committee members based on nothing but exposure to meeting the faculty member in a class; directing students about how to select committee members results in the creation of a better team with skills needed by the learner to succeed. Teaching the learner about the reasons why committee selection is critical can overcome the selection of a team that does not have the skills needed by the learner.
A good committee member will check the content, design, APA, and transitions in the proposal. A committee member who returns the proposal with nothing more than a “good job” or “excellent work” has not helped the learner improve the dissertation nor has the committee member worked as a team to help the learner succeed. Some chairs recommend the student find new committee members at this early stage to avoid problems with failure to provide good suggestions with the final dissertation.
A good practice is to have a meeting on the phone or using emails and tell the committee what to expect from the learner; the chair should inform the committee what to expect from the learner and at what points in time. For example, the chair in this article sends an email to the selected committee members, informing the committee feedback is needed when the chair approves the problem, purpose, and research questions/hypotheses as ready for committee suggestions, chapter 1 is ready for comments and editing, chapter 1, 2, & 3 and a change chart incorporating all committee suggestions into chapter 1 and 3, and one more time for a final signature with additional committee suggestions on the entire dissertation proposal with a change chart reminding the committee of each suggestion. The final dissertation is sent to the committee for one more round of suggestions, and re-sent after revisions for final committee signatures and to schedule the learner’s Dissertation Orals.
Students who have conquered the mountain and completed their dissertation are initially exhausted. It is a natural response to a rigorous academic journey. The process of writing for academic publication is a unique professional challenge that requires being dedicated to creating professional writing goals. Individuals who have completed their dissertation would like to publish but are not quite sure how to get started. Chairs can offer advice on how to develop a practical writing plan that will increase student opportunities for academic publication.
Students who have just completed their dissertation have a tendency to neglect writing articles from their research project. Sadly, the dissertation and related notes are stored in files and boxes but not used for publication purposes. Chamberlin (1999) relates “… many others--relieved that the tome is finally behind them--let theirs collect dust on their desks or pack their notes and files into storage. One reason, say faculty, is that many recent graduates dread transforming their dissertations into journal articles” (para 3). It is wise to seek advice from people who have publishing experience such dissertation faculty members. Converting dissertation research into a journal article requires being selective about the material being used, having a writing plan to revise the information into a relevant format and highlight the most important findings. The article must be clear and readable which means avoiding a quick cut and past job which could undermine the potential for publication (Chamberlin, 1999).
The mountain metaphor highlights the enormous task of writing a successful doctoral dissertation. Students gain valuable experience climbing the dissertation mountain and overcoming a diversity of obstacles that can derail the most dedicated individuals. Chairs play a vital role in guiding and assisting online students to effectively complete their dissertation projects to become skilled researchers.
Online universities must provide the best support system for their doctoral dissertation students. The University of Phoenix and Walden University require faculty members to successful complete training before becoming mentors. The primary goal of the training is to help prepare individuals to be effective instructors who will have the skills, knowledge and confidence to independently guide their students. Mentor training programs or workshops should:
[This list of questions should not be considered an exclusive list of topics for this discussion.]
Blaxter, L. Hughes, C. & Tight, M. (Eds.). (2001). How to research (2 nd ed.). Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
Blum, K., & Muirhead, B. (Eds.) (2005). Conquering the mountain: Framework for successful chair advising of online dissertation students. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning.
Blum, K. (Oct, 1999). Asynchronous, computer-mediated-communication (CMC)-based higher education at a distance: Gender differences in preferred learning styles, participation barriers, and communication patterns: An interpretative grounded theory case study. Doctoral Dissertation, Walden University, Minneapolis, MN.
Chamberlin, J. (1999). Unpublished? Try your dissertation. APA Monitor Online, 30 (11). Available: http://www.apa.org/monitor/dec99/ed1.html
Curran-Downey, M. (2000). O doctorate! Many strive, few attain it. San Diego Union Tribune. Available at: http://www.dissertationdoctor.com/endorse/utribune.html
Davis, G. B. (2004). Advising and Supervising Doctoral Students: Lessons I Have
Learned , University of Minnesota, retrieved May 13, 2005 from http://misrc.umn.edu/workingpapers/fullpapers/2004/0412_052404.pdf
Hart, C. (1998). Doing a literature review. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Helms, M. M. & Raiszadeh, M. E. (2002). Virtual offices: Understanding and managing what you cannot see. Work Study, 51 (5), p. 240-247. Retrieved August 7, 2005, Emerald Database.
Muirhead, B. Robinson, G. & Simon, M. (2005).Working as the chair – tips to train online doctoral students for the mountain climb. In Blum, K., & Muirhead, B. (Eds.) (2005). Conquering the mountain: Framework for successful chair advising of online dissertation students (pp.10-17). International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning.
SchoolNet, SA (2000). Educator development for ICT Framework: Mentorship. Retrieved August 14, 2005. http://www.school.za/edict/edict/mentor.htm
Brent Muirhead D.Min., Ph. D.
Kimberly D. Blum, Ph.D. (Kim)