Surviving the Transition to Fully Online Masters and Doctoral Programs

The Road to Adaptation

Candidate Loads

There was a time when a faculty member would have only a few doctoral students at a time and so could meet with each candidate weekly, if not more often.  That has changed, even for the most traditional programs.  Candidate load has increased at most traditional universities, and has always been high at the for-profit and non-traditional universities.  As a result, you need to actively vie for your adviser’s time and attention.  With the flood of email that faculty members receive daily, it can be hard to get noticed and harder to get a timely response.

Some suggestions that may help:

1. When you pick your topic, make sure that it is of interest to both you and your adviser.  If your dissertation or thesis will further your professor’s line of research, you are more likely to get the attention you need to move quickly through the process.

2. Send short emails containing only a single question that can be answered briefly.  We all look for the emails that can be dealt with quickly so that we can move on.  Long and complicated emails with multiple questions are likely to get set aside to be answered “when there’s time,” which there never is.

3. You will be doing multiple revisions of everything you write.  When you receive feedback in the form of marginal notes, leave the notes there and respond, indicating how you have addressed them.  Highlight the changes to your original text so that your adviser can focus on the changes.  Your adviser may ignore your response to the comment, but will read the highlighted changes. 

4. The worst thing you can do is just send a new version without making it clear what you have changed.  No one has the time to read the full paper multiple times.  You’re lucky if it gets one careful read through and a few follow-ups on problem areas.

5. Avoid long email threads, particularly threads that change topic mid-stream. Your initial email in a string should include a clear subject line and a new string should be started if the conversation shifts topics.   An ideal string will contain a question and an answer, or a comment from your adviser and your reply and revision.

6. And, finally, consider running your responses and revisions past a dissertation and thesis consultant before sending them to your adviser.  A consultant may be able to see more clearly what your adviser is concerned about, and their advice may help you avoid multiple iterations of dealing with the same problem.  This is particularly important if there is a typically a long lag time between your emails and your adviser’s responses.

We’re not there … yet

Having been recently pushed online due to the covid-19 virus, many universities do not have the necessary infrastructure for managing online instruction.  Some are managing with only email for communication with graduate students.  One of my colleagues at a research university periodically complains about how many unread emails she has in her account, and it is rarely under 100.  And that was before her classes all went fully online.

Being Productive while Waiting for Feedback

Even at universities that have invested heavily in online infrastructure in the past several months, training for faculty unfamiliar with online education lags.  This is made worse by the fact that their student load, in some cases, doubled or tripled in recent years. Feedback on your thesis or dissertation has always been frustratingly slow, but now the lag time from submission to response is likely doubled or tripled, and there’s not much you can do to speed it back up. But you can be productive while you wait.

Just starting …

  • It you’re in the early stages and are waiting for feedback on your introductory chapter, use the time to build an annotated bibliography in your area of study.  This will be useful for the literature review chapter and future publications.

Multitasking …

  • If your literature review is languishing in the web, work on your methods chapter, researching data analysis techniques or content analysis tools.  Start designing the data file for quantitative projects or the category structure for qualitative.

Dealing with data

  • If you’re in the data collection stage, you should have plenty to keep you busy building your data set, but start thinking ahead to how you would handle unexpected outcomes.  Most students are counting on significant results in the predicted direction.  But real progress often comes from unexpected results.  Start figuring out how you could leverage the unexpected before you start the analysis.

Be your own interrogator, or hire a pro

  • For both the results and conclusions chapters, try to anticipate the concerns of your adviser and readers.  Be your own critic; if you’ve hired a consultant, ask them to read the draft chapter and to suggest issues that the committee may see as problems.

The most important thing is to keep moving 

Deadlines may be extended due to the changing circumstances of lock downs and layoffs, but it’s always to your advantage to finish on time.  If you’re at a for-profit university that requires continuous enrollment, delays come not only with lost opportunity costs for applying your future degree to new positions, but with very real financial costs to delayed completion.

Richard Pollard