Doctoral Candidate Milestone Achievement: A Philosophy for Situated Dissertation Advising
Robin Throne, Ph.D., Northcentral University
Melanie Shaw, Ph.D., Northcentral University
C. Jerome Fore, Ph.D., Northcentral University
Jennifer Duffy, Ph.D., Northcentral University
Meena Clowes, Ph.D., Northcentral University
Paper presented at the Eighth International Conference on e-Learning and Innovative Pedagogies
University of California, Santa Cruz
In a primarily doctoral granting institution, it is critical to have provisions to ensure high rates of student
success to ensure institutional viability. In this paper, the authors present the challenges experienced by
doctoral candidates and propose a philosophy of dissertation advising to help students complete their
programs successfully and within a reasonable amount of time. This research includes a summarization
of strategies used by certain faculty to reduce student complaints, decrease time to completion rates,
and increase retention. The authors recommend a formal approach to situated dissertation research
advising to improve doctoral student persistence and completion especially for the dissertation research
phase of a doctoral program. The suggested model leads to chair efficacy, higher quality mentoring
skills, and more collaborative communication between the chair and candidate.
Keywords: Dissertation advising, Complaints, Dissertation chair, Student success, Doctoral student
persistence, Doctoral program completion
Doctoral Candidate Milestone Achievement: A Philosophy for Situated Dissertation Advising
U.S. for-profit institutions of higher education that offer doctoral programs have become a fast-
growing segment within the Carnegie doctoral classifications (and other levels) for good reason
(Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching [CFAT], 2011; Planty et al., 2008; U.S.
Department of Education [USDOE], 2011). The doctoral programs offered by these for-profit institutions
are often online or have low-residency requirements that allow industry professionals or executive
leaders to even consider the pursuit of a doctorate as an option (Offerman, 2011). Many professionals
entering these hybrid or online doctoral programs find along the dissertation journey that their world of
practice offers rich data within the professional setting that may help to solve the problems of the
profession or discipline within the locality of the problem, which often significantly aligns with their
initial desire and intention of seeking the degree (Adams & DeFleur, 2005; Coghlan, 2007; Flowers, 2007;
Flowers & Baltzer, 2006a, 2006b). These doctoral candidates often come to a doctoral program to solve
problems from where they stood in respect to their own vocation: not for someone else, not for another
setting, not for the credential (even though they often envision those letters following their name
throughout program), but from within the problems they face from where they live and work every day
(Evans, 2010; Pilkington, 2009). It is often through the accommodations of these programs and
accomplishment of the dissertation study that final degree attainment is achieved, which can change
individuals, organizations and communities of practice, and may benefit society overall. These doctoral
graduates rarely leave the institution without a changed perspective and ontology, a significant shift in
viewpoint that aids reflection as to why they may have even pursued the terminal degree in the field in
the first place (Evans, 2010; Sweitzer, 2009; Trafford & Leshem, 2009).
At Northcentral University, a for-profit university in California, online learning is about creating a
personalized learning experience for each student. The goal is to provide students with a rich, engaging,
professionally-relevant, and academically rigorous education. These goals are directly tied to the
University mission to educate professionals throughout the world and to provide an accessible
opportunity to earn a U.S. regionally accredited degree. Northcentral students are mentored one-to-one
by an all doctoral faculty via online delivery modalities including the dissertation research phase of the
doctoral program. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching revised the Basic
Classification categories of the Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education™ in 2005
(further refined in 2010) to distinguish three levels of research institutions: RU/VH (very high research
activity), RU/H (high research activity), and DRU (doctoral/research university) (CFAT, 2011; Planty et al.,
2008; USDOE, 2011). As a research institution, the Carnegie Foundation classifies NCU as a DRU and the
Graduate Instructional Program as “Doctoral, professional dominant” (DOC/Prof) (CFAT, 2011).
Northcentral commits to helping students excel academically and professionally, which may be
seen as an ideal outcome in the preparation of doctoral candidates as scholar-practitioners who are able
to concurrently live and work within their practice settings, and likely continue this work long after the
hooding ceremony. We, at NCU among many others, know well they are certainly not all teaching and
return to practice as doctoral-prepared practitioners and researchers. The individual’s return on
investment of a doctoral education can be significant for career advancement, including career change,
compensation, leadership development, and life quality intimations resulting from the attainment of the
doctoral degree (Boud & Tennant, 2006; Boud & Lee, 2009). Gains for society have been seen for the 1.7
million research (practitioner and traditional) doctorates awarded and measured since 1957 across all
sectors of higher education that have enhanced the personal and professional lives of executive
leadership across academic, governmental, institutional, employer and employee perspectives (National
Science Foundation, 2009). Were they measured collectively, the returns from a doctoral education to
the world have perhaps been even greater. The return to a knowledge-driven society from a prepared
doctoral-level scholar-practitioner continues to be in the use of formal inquiry to solve the real problems
and discover innovations that benefit the field (Offerman, 2011; Walker, Golde, Jones, Bueschel, &
As part of this commitment to students, a Graduate School was organized in 2011 to oversee all
dissertation research completed by doctoral candidates. The Graduate School was reorganized in 2012
around a fulltime faculty model to support the needs of students entering the dissertation stage of their
program, and to provide the university’s one-to-one learning model as a one-to-one dissertation
advising model. Northcentral University hired over 60 full-time, doctoral degree faculty members to
support student engagement, learning, and retention, which has seen mixed results in doctoral student
The Ombuds Intervention
Doctoral program attrition rates continue to be a problem across U.S. doctoral programs and
demographic considerations (Council of Graduate Schools, 2007, 2010, 2012a, 2012b, 2015), and yet, as
the U.S. has emerged from a challenged economy and the 2008 Great Recession, individuals with
doctoral degrees continued to hold the lowest unemployment rate (1.9%) of all degree levels and the
highest median weekly income (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010). While the Graduate School was hiring
full-time faculty, an Office of the Ombudsperson was established as an intervention to reduce
complaints by students to external agencies, including regional accreditors, the Better Business Bureau,
state agencies, and professional accreditors. This office was housed within the Office of the Provost to
provide autonomy and authority in decision-making and conflict resolution options.
The Office of the Ombudsperson collaborated closely with the Office of Legal Affairs to address
student concerns. Many students complained of their inability to complete the dissertation process. In
the spring of 2013, a cohort of 212 doctoral candidates were identified as being within a year to
allowable maximum time for completion of their doctoral program and at significant risk for not
completing. The identified students were given the opportunity to participate in a voluntary program
requiring the execution of a learning contract. As part of the learning contract agreement, the student
was given the opportunity to work directly with a dissertation chair for up to four hours per week over
the duration of a year. The 212 students enrolled in the Ombuds Pathway to Completion were tracked
throughout their enrollment in the program and their milestone completion timelines and rates of
completion were recorded.
Student milestone completion and degree completion were tracked for all 212 students from
April 2013 until February 25, 2015. A total of 97 students completed the concept paper milestone. The
mean completion time was 67 days. A total of 134 students completed a dissertation proposal
milestone. The mean completion time was 91 days. Finally, as of February, 25 2015, 132 students had
completed their dissertation manuscript. The mean completion time was 182 days. In addition, 80% of
these 212 students successfully completed their doctoral degrees. The other 20% either opted to
withdraw, were dismissed, or accepted an alternative degree or certificate (Master’s Degree or Post-
Graduate School Changes
In response to some of the early successes of the Ombuds Intervention, the Graduate School
was reorganized under the leadership of a new Dean, who had served as a reviewer in the Ombuds
Pathway to Completion. She restructured the review process for milestones, which had previously
required approval from a blind review board prior to student advancement. The new model afforded
more discretion of the dissertation chair to approve milestones. At each level (CP, DP, and DM) students
were to receive at least one review from a Subject Matter Expert and a Methodological Committee
Member, but the chair could opt to accept the recommended revisions or not, and to advance the
student to the next milestone.
Unfortunately, despite the investment in the full-time faculty model and the reorganization of
the graduate school, students have continued to experience low rates of completion, which increases
student dissatisfaction. Below is a table of students in the dissertation phase of their program (Table 1).
The milestones students must achieve as part of the dissertation process include the concept paper (CP),
dissertation proposal (DP), dissertation manuscript (DM), and once the student completes the oral
defense, he or she graduates from the program and earns a practitioner doctorate (EdD or DBA) or the
doctor of philosophy degree (PhD).
Table 1: Milestone Completion by Course Number
Students perceive the quality of interactions provided by University stakeholders as a key to
their success. When expectations are not met, students begin to question an institution’s integrity and
may develop an attitude which leads to formal complaints (Ang & Buttle, 2012). Complaint management
is a process that needs defining and operationalizing in today’s educational platforms. Professional skills
are critical to assist students in the resolution of complaints. Having the ability to successfully resolve
student complaints is driven by the complaint handling abilities of those interacting with the student
(Hill, 2012). In higher education institutions conflict can result in legal challenges to the institution and
negatively affect academic reputation and enrollment.
Student–faculty conflict is still a problem, with more than 1/3 of students reporting a conflict
with a faculty member (Reddy & Lindenfrost, 2009). Conflict between faculty and students can result in
an intense situation for both members of the dyad (Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2011). The most
common complaints against faculty usually involve student dissatisfaction with teaching, whereas
complaints against students often involve allegations of student cheating or plagiarism (Tucker, 2014).
Moreover, student complaints can result in major (and public) conflicts, especially if there is a
perception that the school’s due process was violated (Tucker, 2014). Managing the conflict correctly is
the key to a successful resolution. Three strategies enhance the probability for a successful outcome:
1. Shape the conflict so it can become a problem-solving process,
2. Understand the basic attitudes of all involved in the conflict and the stakes involved, and
3. Invite the disputing parties to assess if they believe they can come to some agreement or
compromise (Tucker, 2014).
During conflict, people may perceive a threat to their self-worth (Scudder, & La Croix, 2013).
Acknowledging each person’s feelings can help raise morale and reduce defensive and defiant attitudes.
Helping participants view their situation as an opportunity to come to an agreeable solution helps
everyone focus on the issues, not their emotions (Tucker, 2014). It is optimal for participants to take a
step back to understand why the problem exists and grasp the actual root cause of the issue. Once all
parties know the “why” behind the problem, resolution can begin. By focusing on the facts, assumptions
are eliminated and individuals are able to understand in the specific resolution required.
Kara and DeShields (2004) emphasized the importance of recognizing factors that contribute to
student satisfaction in for-profit, consumer-oriented educational institutions of higher learning. Gilliam
and Kristonis (2006) recommend institutions examine and identify problems related to doctoral student
attrition and retention. Helgesen and Nesset (2007) suggested student loyalty is linked positively to
student satisfaction. Tinto (2005) noted that integrative college experiences increase the likelihood of
student persistence to degree completion. Fike and Fike (2008) concluded it is essential to use data to
guide decisions supportive of retention and to provide insight into factors influencing student retention.
Researchers note that it is always more cost effective to retain students than replace students (Flegle,
Pavone, & Flegle, 2009).
Wang, Shannon, and Ross (2013) suggested courses be designed to promote self-regulated
learning behaviors in students. In the online course, student self-regulation is often accomplished
through the integration of faculty feedback provided on assignments, assessments, and discussions
(Hattie & Temperly, 2007). Feedback allows students to master content knowledge. Such mastery is
closely tied with degree completion and student retention (Scott, Bailey, & Kienzl, 2006). Effective
feedback also increases student satisfaction, which is linked to improved retention rates (Hattie &
Temperly, 2007). Students showed greater levels of satisfaction with the instructor and performed
better academically when they received personalized feedback from the instructor on assignments
(Gallien & Oomen-Early, 2008). Meyer and McNeal (2011) noted improvement in student learning
occurs when faculty provided effective feedback and thereby increased student access to course
content and expectations. The combination of intense focus (Anastasi, 2007) and interaction is
necessary in order to increase and to support motivation and achievement (Kucsera & Zimmaro, 2010;
Lee & Horsfall, 2010).
Situated Dissertation Advising
We recommend that a formal model be established to articulate a collective and consistent
approach to situated dissertation research advising (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and to continue the
development of a multi-faceted and technology-mediated doctoral community of practice to support a
situated dissertation advising model (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Salter-Dvorak, 2014). This approach would
involve dissertation chair training that would encompass the components of situated dissertation
research advising that would include an understanding of the essential components of effective
dissertation research supervision and mentoring within a technology-mediated doctoral community of
practice and self-directed doctoral learning as substantiated by the current research to improve doctoral
program persistence and completion:
The chair should develop agency and mentoring skill set (Bégin & Gérard, 2013; Salter-Dvorak,
2014; Willis & Carmichael, 2011).
A quality chair-candidate relationship and healthy communication should be fostered (Bitzer,
2011; Salter-Dvorak, 2014; Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2011; Stallone, 2011)
The chair should provide mentoring tailored to the needs of each candidate (Bitzer, 2011).
Chairs should encourage candidates to set due dates for milestone completion early in the
process (Hedge, 2013), and the chair should help supervise the meeting of those deadlines.
Candidates should be provided with regular feedback to help them polish drafts and refine
aspects of the dissertation that are not up to standards (Hedge, 2013).
Chairs should provide the candidate with support and advocacy when disagreements arise
among the committee (Hedge, 2013).
The chair should celebrate mini milestones with the candidate along the way to help encourage
continued motivation (Hedge, 2013).
Armed with these skills and mentoring ethos, it is highly likely that increases in student persistence,
retention, and completion will result.
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