Retaining students and supporting them to the completion of their degree is an ongoing task for all colleges and universities. This is no less so for doctoral-level programs. This research identified the barriers and support structures for doctoral students at UAGC and explored how the tenets of a Culture of Care were received. Culture of Care is an institutional focus on compassion, inclusivity, and continuous effort to ensure all community members feel safe and supported. These practices practically may appear as instructors providing flexibility with deadlines, extending care and compassion, and individualizing the learning experience for students.
The current persistence rate for doctoral students at UAGC is between 42% and 50%. With institutional goals around student retention, completion of programs, high-value credentials with marketable skills, and enhanced student economic return, identifying the structures, strategies, and resources that doctoral students perceive as enhancing their ability to persist and the barriers that are challenging them will serve to improve the overall persistence and completion rates for doctoral students. This is collectively unknown or captured by the doctoral programs; therefore, these insights are not utilized in curriculum development decisions or considerations for additional doctoral support.
1,871 students were contacted, including actively enrolled, graduated, and those who stopped before completing. Of that number, 167 responded to the questionnaire, with just over an 11% response rate. Of the responses, 101 indicated that they were currently enrolled, 13 had graduated, and 30 had dropped out before completing their degree. Sixty-six respondents were from the program in education, 52 from psychology, 22 from organizational leadership and development, and 4 from health and human services.
A qualitative analysis of the survey data was performed, looking for themes noted by the participants. The themes informed a discussion of doctoral students' barriers and the supports that may help them overcome them. The open-ended responses from the surveys were analyzed using a thematic analysis process. This process identified themes or patterns that arose in the response data. This analysis gave the researchers an understanding of the perceptions of the participants. The analysis denoted themes contributing to understanding the students’ experiences who completed the survey.
Respondents were asked which entities were found to be most helpful during their time as doctoral students. The most mentioned items, selected from a list, were: academic advisors, instructors, library (tutorials, resources, staff), curriculum (text, readings, videos), classmates, and in-residence learning opportunities. Respondents noted how important their academic advisors were to them as they navigated the program. Students mentioned how inconsistent their instructor experience could be as they varied vastly between program courses and research courses. The least helpful noted by students chosen from the list were: student clubs and CHAMPS mentoring, a UAGC student-led mentoring organization.
In another question, respondents were asked to identify all the factors that supported them as students, and that enhanced their progress. The most highly selected from the list were: specific feedback on assignments, engaged instructors, evidence that instructors cared, flexibility with deadlines, and supportive comments in communication. Students valued their relationships with instructors and the genuine care they noted from this group. They additionally appreciated specific tips, strategies, and stories their instructors shared. They value the use of video and phone opportunities to connect as well. Students specifically have noted how much their classmates enhance their experience. Additionally, students noted the importance of specific, robust, and clear instructor feedback in their learning activities, along with clear course directions and examples.
When asked what prevented students from progressing toward the degree, the most common responses, chosen from a list, were: lack of time, family situations, finances, too much work from their employment, challenges with writing skills, and feelings of insecurity. Students referenced the isolation they experienced with a fully online program and missed connecting with classmates more regularly in-person or via Zoom. Students also noted that they struggled with selecting their topics for their dissertation or applied doctoral project (ADP) and wished they had been able to work on that much earlier in their programs. The challenge of navigating between their specific program and research courses as the course’s organization, tone, and design was radically varied. They also shared the struggle of inconsistency with their instructors. Some instructors were flexible, caring, and communicative, whereas others seemed vastly different in their expectations and communication. These instructors also provided significantly less feedback than the regarded ones, frustrating the students.
Students who completed the survey were generous in their responses to open-ended opportunities where they could highlight the supports they found most meaningful. These can be divided into the following themes: People, Resources, and Content. Under People, specific roles were noted as being supportive. These included advisors, Program Leads, Chairs and Committee Members, instructors, and classmates. The resources noted as most helpful were curriculum resources, the UAGC Library, and Writing Center, along with Paper Review and the In-Residences.
Additional factors that enhanced doctoral students’ progress included evidence that instructors genuinely cared for them, flexibility with deadlines and extended time, active instructors in the courses who provided specific feedback, and supportive texts and emails.
Overall, students found that what helped them the most was the people at UAGC; the technology enhanced their experience with relevant courses, and the Culture of Care was specifically noted. Students recognized that most of their instructors provided extraordinary care and flexibility, and built genuine relationships with them. Students noted how helpful engaging with instructors and classmates in the In-Residence was, though they complained about the Zoom format and length of these sessions. Additionally, students shared how important robust feedback in their online classrooms was to their overall success.
The challenges that students honed in on were those that were not in our locus of control, including personal finances, life situations (deaths, illness, job loss), and lack of time.
The challenges that UAGC could explore to help students in the doctoral program better include needing support around time management strategies, isolation from an online program, determining a topic for their ADP or dissertation sooner, academic writing challenges, design of the courses, and lack of consistency with instructors in research courses and their program courses, as well as instructors who are not demonstrating genuine care with robust feedback.
The implication or call to action that this survey provides can create a road map of considerations across all the doctoral programs at UAGC. Though this survey was not as well responded to as the researchers had hoped, relevant and consistent insights emerged from this group of students.
One of the ideas that were repeated in the qualitative comments was students’ frustration of not identifying a topic for their ADP or dissertation sooner. This caused students to linger in their Dissertation Planning I and II courses, fail these courses, or delay in their dissertation writing. Though students do attend three virtual In-Residences where they are asked after their fifth class to identify a topic to present to their classmates, there is no connection between this and their programs or an expectation to utilize this identified topic in their program coursework. PhD Education program has revised their curriculum to address this issue. However, it is important to note that students are not through their coursework yet to capture if this change has assisted in this issue and allowed students to move through dissertation writing faster. Ideally, it could address this issue if students could identify their topic and begin working on their research and writing in conjunction with their program coursework, along with utilizing the In-Residence as a writing and resource support session.
Another consideration is the inconsistency of the quality of feedback and engagement by faculty in the research courses compared to the program courses and within some of the programs. Associate Faculty teach 90% of doctoral courses. This factor makes training, communication, and support exceptionally important. Students denoted the differences in the care, communication, and engagement of Associate Faculty compared to the Fulltime Faculty. This consistency is a critical need across all the programs and in the research courses as well. Ongoing and systematic training could be a way to address some of the nuances, as well as regular oversight of these courses through observation, feedback, and evaluations. In doctoral writing, feedback on critical thinking, academic writing, and research skills is essential. Additional training with Associate Faculty is needed to ensure that students receive the highest quality feedback in every course.
An additional area that emerged as a need is around the isolation often felt in online programs and the desire from students to be connected and supported by faculty and classmates. The in-person In-Residence generated a bonding of students in these shared experiences and getting to know faculty and staff personally and professionally. With the shift in 2020 to all virtual In-Residences, generating this same level of bonding, organic conversation, hands-on writing support, and a cohort feel is more challenging. An overhaul of the structure of the In-Residence could remedy some of these challenges and perhaps mini workshops with the same cohorts could offer ongoing writing and research support. These could help provide a collegial experience and additional contact opportunities to reduce the feelings of isolation. Some social gatherings could also be added around the country in various locations to connect with staff and students in those areas each year. Another option could be the addition of a student doctoral club that meets regularly and provides a supportive atmosphere for students to connect and share their progress, and challenges, and encourage one another.
The importance of relationships in the doctoral program and journey cannot be overstated. The bond that students expressed with the Doctoral Student Advisors, as well as their Chairs and Committee Members, Program Chairs, and instructors, was a significant factor in the student’s success. The intentionality of care, flexibility, empathy, and generosity evident to the students from the staff and instructors they engaged with was noteworthy. The Culture of Care at UAGC is clear to students in the doctoral program. It is important to note that these traits were noted in the doctoral program even before the university’s roll-out of this program. The intentional building of relationships, and care for students as people with full working lives and families was recognized even before it had a label or title.
The curriculum is another highlight that students noted, and this includes resources to enhance the online experience, including the Library and Writing Center. Students did express frustration with some of the redundancy in the research courses and the lack of connection to their program courses. This could be a call to action to develop some vertical and horizontal curriculum alignment to ensure that key ideas, concepts, and strategies are threaded throughout the program courses and utilized in both. This would help to avoid students feeling like their research courses sit in silos without connection or application to the content courses. Additionally, if students identified their topics earlier and could begin their first three chapters earlier, it is more likely they could utilize the expertise of research faculty to shore up more robust and heartier dissertations and ADPs with greater understandings of theory and methodologies.
Kelly Olson Stewart, Ed.D., Program Chair Ph.D. Education, Associate Professor in the Department of Education & Liberal Arts, The University of Arizona Global Campus
Dr. Kelly Stewart is an Associate Professor and Program Chair for the Ph.D. in Education program in the Department of Education and Liberal Arts within the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arizona Global Campus. She earned a Doctorate of Education in Educational Leadership and Innovation with a specialization in Curriculum and Policy from Arizona State University, a Master of Education with a specialization in Educational Technology from Arizona State University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education with an endorsement in K-12 Reading from Indiana University.
Dr. Stewart started in Indiana as a middle school teacher. Upon moving to Arizona, Kelly worked as a technology and curriculum specialist, a staff developer, a coach, an adjunct professor, and a district administrator. Her passion and focus have been working with beginning teachers, developing sustainable systems for support, and mentoring programs. Her area of research has been around the recruitment and retention of K-12 teachers. Dr. Stewart’s most recent research is around developing virtual professional learning communities and support systems for online associate faculty. Currently, she is conducting a research study on the impact of anti-transgender legislation on transgender and non-binary teens.
Dr. Stewart currently resides in Goodyear, Arizona, with her husband, two kids, two dogs, and two turtles. Teaching and the kids’ activities consume most of Dr. Stewart’s time; however, she loves traveling to faraway lands, returning to the Midwest to visit friends and family, cheering for Notre Dame, reading, craft, and exploring vintage markets. She is a member of the Stewardship Council at her church and the Gender Proud Family Advisory Council through Phoenix Children's Hospital.
Alan Belcher, Ph.D., Professor (Retired), Department of Education & Liberal Arts, The University of Arizona Global Campus
Dr. Alan Belcher is a retired Professor of Education and the Academic Engagement Center within the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arizona Global Campus. He earned a Doctorate of Education in Professional Studies with an emphasis in Instructional Design from Capella University, a Master of Education in School Administration from Marshall University, a Master of Science in Computer Information Systems from the West Virginia College of Graduate Studies, and a Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education with an endorsement in French and Spanish from Marshall University.
Dr. Belcher spent 11 years as a teacher in a junior high school in West Virginia. He then moved to teach computer information systems at the University of Charleston, in West Virginia. During 23 years there, he also served as a Program Chair, Director of Assessment, Director of Academic Technology, Director of Institutional Research, Registrar, and Assistant Provost. His last position at that institution was as a grant-funded leader of professional development and technology integration. After two years as Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs at Pfeiffer University, he switched to online education at Ashford University, now the University of Arizona Global Campus. In research, he has focused on student achievement and success, along with a heavy interest in institutional change and faculty development.
Dr. Belcher lives in South Carolina, with his wife. They have two grown children with five grandchildren. They spend time traveling to visit family and friends around the eastern United States.