The Magic of a Local Academic Community for Online Adult Learners in Completing the Doctoral Journey

The Magic of a Local Academic Community for Online Adult Learners in Completing the Doctoral Journey

Miriam L. Frolow, Anna Copeland Wheatley
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6762-3.ch012
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The dissertation journey from student to scholar is filled with hurdles that can be difficult to navigate alone, especially as online students. Many adult students who have stepped foot onto the path to earning a doctoral degree did so in a non-traditional environment that included a mix of work and family obligations, and the need to prove that they have earned the right to be called “doctor.” In 2017, the Jersey City Campus of University of Phoenix launched the Research Club, a monthly gathering of doctoral students, faculty, and alumni in the New York-New Jersey area. The initiative was designed to bring together a team to help doctoral students succeed through an in-person informal structure of conversation and peer-to-peer support to supplement the work of the dissertation committee. This chapter chronicles the first three years and affirms the need for innovative in-person strategies for providing doctoral support through informal communities of practice.
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“To engender empathy and create a world using only words is the closest thing we have to magic.” ― Lin-Manuel Miranda



Everyone who has ever worked on a dissertation agrees that the journey from student to scholar is filled with hurdles, detours, traffic signals, and institutional silos difficult to navigate. Doctoral candidates are required to chart their own path, rather than rely on someone else to tell them what to do. Even with all the dissertation self-help books, templates, and classes, doctoral candidates often find themselves questioning their ability to succeed. Many adult students who have stepped foot onto the path to earning a doctoral degree did so in a non-traditional environment that included a mix of careers, family and community obligations, technological challenges, and the need to prove to themselves and others that they have earned the right to be called “doctor.”

This chapter is based on what started as an informal pilot program at the Jersey City Campus of the University of Phoenix to create a platform for reaching out to the doctoral students in the New York-New Jersey area to support them on their journey to graduation. In 2016-2017, University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies (now called the College of Doctoral Studies) conducted a series of campus-based summits called Knowledge Without Boundaries Academy (KWBA) in order to support doctoral scholarship throughout the university. The leadership of the Jersey City Campus, including the authors, saw an opportunity to reach out to approximately 200 doctoral students who lived in the tri-state area. These doctoral students were not affiliated with a specific local campus but were online graduate students in need of a local in-person structure to supplement the virtual support they received from their dissertation committees. At the time, there was a ground-based residency requirement that was limited in time and scope. All other work was based online.

The goal of the Research Club was to create an engaging community of scholars by inviting not only local doctoral students, but area alumni and faculty to a monthly gathering at the campus. By widening the scope of the Research Club to include faculty and alumni, leadership aimed to break down the silos among scholars at different stages of their journey. Seasoned researchers provided invaluable insights and guidance. Practitioner faculty, who might not be engaged in scholarship, found the Research Club as a way to reconnect to the intellectual rigor of research. The doctoral students saw not only a path forward, but role models to inspire their own persistence to graduation, and then continue with their scholarship pursuits.

The doctoral students that participated in the Research Club fit the profile of working professionals who want to pursue their doctoral degrees while balancing their competing work and family obligations (Holder, 2007; Williams et al., 2019). They needed the support of their family, friends, and colleagues, who also relied on these adult learners to be engaged in their non-academic activities and priorities. Even if professional advancement is a primary reason for pursuing a doctoral degree at this stage in their lives, adult learners often report feeling insecure and isolated in their role as an online student (Howell et al., 2003). Holder (2003) found that a cohort of peers providing emotional support contributed to adult students feeling that they were not alone, which in turn has a positive effect on persistence and retention of this student population. The testimonials of Research Club participants found in this chapter validate the value of engaging in this type of academic community.

A challenge for higher education leaders designing online doctoral programs is determining how to address the different experiences that their student population will encounter (Terrell et al., 2016). Terrell et al. (2016) found that the dissertation process, including identifying a valid research topic, the time between classes, and uncertainty about next steps, became an area of concern for the online doctoral students in their study. The recommendation for faculty to have “regularly scheduled synchronous meetings, be it by phone, online, or face-to-face” (Terrell et al., 2016, p. 158) to provide guidance on the dissertation process speaks to the value of the Research Club model discussed in this chapter.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Theory of Hope: Cognitive model developed by Snyder (1995) to describe the ability to achieve desired goals using pathways and agency thinking.

Social Integration: Concept developed by Tinto (1975) to describe the need for college students to interact with their peers in a campus setting in order to achieve their own long and short-term goals.

Academic Community: A group of people in higher educational institutions who continuously engage in core intellectual activities such as teaching, learning and research.

Scholar-Practitioner: Academic researcher whose purpose is to create practical knowledge, skills and tools that can impact real-world problems and issues.

Grit: Theory developed by Duckworth (2016) to describe the role of passion and perseverance in order to obtain long-term goals.

Growth Mindset: Theory developed by Dweck (2006) to describe the belief that talent can be developed through hard work and appropriate strategies rather than the belief that talent is native or innate in individuals.

Collegial Environment: A space or place where academic participants congregate to share ideas, experiences, and challenges in order to offer group support.

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