Dissertations at a Distance: Students’ Perceptions of Online Mentoring in a Doctoral Program

Swapna Kumar, Melissa Johnson and Truly Hardemon

VOL. 27, No. 1


The purpose of this research was to identify online mentoring strategies used to mentor doctoral students through their dissertation in an online doctoral program. During semi-structured interviews, students (n = 9) reflected on the challenges faced when communicating with their mentors using online technologies, the usefulness of online mentoring strategies, and their own approaches that were instrumental in the successful completion of their dissertations. Themes in the findings specific to the online mentoring of dissertations that were uncovered are discussed in the context of prior research on best practices for dissertation supervision.


Le but de cette étude était d’identifier des stratégies de mentorat en ligne utilisées pour conseiller les étudiants au doctorat par le biais de leur thèse dans un programme de doctorat en ligne. Lors d’entrevues semi-structurées, les étudiants (n = 9) se sont exprimés sur les défis auxquels ils ont fait face en communiquant avec leurs mentors en utilisant des technologies en ligne, l’utilité des stratégies de mentorat en ligne, et leurs propres approches qui ont été déterminantes dans la réussite de leur thèse. On discute des thèmes découverts dans les résultats qui sont spécifiques au mentorat en ligne des thèses, et ce, dans le contexte de la recherche antérieure concernant les meilleures pratiques pour la supervision des thèses. 


A successful doctoral supervisor in higher education assumes multiple roles and functions during a doctoral student’s journey from coursework to research proposal to a dissertation, with the aim of preparing the student for a professional career in academia (Burnett, 1999; Gaffney, 1995; Lyons, Scroggins & Rule, 1990; Rose, 2003). Supervisor-student communication and the mentoring relationship developed between a student and his/her graduate advisor are vital to the student’s success in doctoral studies (Ives & Rowley, 2005; Lee, 2008; Maher, Ford & Thompson, 2004). This is especially the case in the dissertation stage of a doctoral program where supervisors guide doctoral students in defining their research topics, managing and implementing research, and disseminating findings (Burnett, 1999). Through supervision, the graduate student is expected to develop into a credentialed scholar who can “pursue research unsupervised, autonomously” (Johnson, Lee, & Green, 2000, p. 136).

This research explored how a supervisor-student mentoring relationship can be successfully created and how doctoral students can be successfully supported in an online environment. Given the increase in online graduate programs in the United States in the last few years, online mentoring of graduate students is on the rise. Mentoring at a distance using online communication technologies is also often the case with professional programs where graduate students work full-time and pursue a doctoral degree. However, the research on online mentoring in doctoral education is scant, with the research on e-mentoring in other contexts (Bierema & Merriam, 2002; Loureiro-Koechlin & Allan, 2010; Schichtel, 2010) providing best practice guidelines. When considering doctoral education in online contexts, it is increasingly important to identify the strategies used by graduate supervisors or mentors to guide doctoral students toward degree completion. This research focused on the lived online dissertation mentoring experiences of nine graduate students who recently graduated from an online doctoral program. Strategies used by the online mentors as well as the students, especially those that were perceived by the students as valuable to dissertation completion are presented in this paper. The results are useful to all faculty engaged in doctoral education as well as all students who use online communication tools to work with their graduate supervisors or mentors during the dissertation stage of their doctoral studies.

Literature Review

Graduate Student Supervision or Mentoring

Researchers use the terms ‘supervision’ or ‘advising’ and ‘mentoring’ interchangeably across the literature to encompass an expanse of faculty-student relationships (Lyons, Scroggins & Rule, 1990). Such relationships play a “critical role in facilitating students’ completion of their degrees and impacting their professional, cognitive, and emotional development” (Bell-Ellison & Dedrick, 2008, p. 555). Academic mentoring by faculty incorporates genuine interest in both the academic and professional goals of the protégé and the protégé’s development from student to colleague (Bell-Ellison & Dedrick, 2008; Lechuga, 2011; Lyons, Scroggins & Rule, 1990; Rose, 2003; Welch, 1996). In this context, academic mentoring shapes graduate students’ research skills, professional identity, and career and guides them through “the rite of passage from novice to professional in all its aspects" (Lyons, Scroggins & Rule, 1990, p. 278).

Mentoring in higher education is described as diverse, complicated and idiosyncratic despite inherent commonalities (Hayes & Koro-Ljungberg, 2011; Welch, 1996). Models of mentoring in higher education coalesce around educational development, professional development, and psychosocial development. Educational development factors include structured, institution-specific and general advice on academic program planning; formal and informal teaching/learning moments; and opportunities to develop academically. Professional development refers to the provision of structured, institution-specific and general advice on the nuances of the discipline and behavior expected in the academy; opportunities to develop professionally; and access to resources for research and professional development. The psychosocial aspect of mentoring provides the mentee with the emotional and social support necessary to persist through the demands of academic and professional development, and reflect on personal strengths and weaknesses as he/she develops academically, professionally, and personally (Burnett, 1999; Crisp & Cruz, 2009; Hayes & Koro-Ljungberg, 2011; Lechuga, 2011; Paglis, Green, & Bauer, 2006; Welch, 1996).

Online Mentoring

Online mentoring differs from traditional mentoring because it is independent of time and distance and because the online medium contributes to the egalitarian nature of communication (Griffiths & Miller, 2005; Mueller, 2004). Bierema and Merriam (2002) described online mentoring or “e-mentoring” as a computer-mediated, mutually beneficial relationship between a mentor and a mentee, which includes several aspects of learning, advising, encouraging, and modeling. Research on online mentoring remains scant in higher education, particularly in the context of academic mentoring relationships among faculty and doctoral students. Mentoring programs in project- or field-based experiences for students or for those seeking professional development are more common (Bierema & Merriam, 2002; Loureiro-Koechlin & Allan, 2010; Schichtel, 2010). After an extensive review of the mentoring literature, Schichtel (2010) identified seven competencies required for positive e-mentoring experiences:

  1. Online developmental competence, to facilitate online learning in the context of educational development, professional development, and psychosocial development.
  2. Social competence, to (a) facilitate social presence and community in the on-line environment, and (b) overcome challenges related to distance, time and lack of social signals.
  3. Cognitive competence, to foster an intellectual environment of critical analysis and reflective practice.
  4. Teaching competence to facilitate reflective learning and educational and professional development.
  5. Communication competence to decrease distance online by choosing and communicating in various formats and media.
  6. Managerial competence to set and meet expectations related to the administration and organization of activities.
  7. Online technical competence to use relevant virtual environments to mentor.

Other strategies in the literature on e-mentoring identified were the provision of “constructive, timely, clear and comprehensive feedback to mentee’s questions and work” online (Schichtel, 2010, p. 254); being flexible and combining text, audio and video technology such as telephone, e-mail, videoconferencing, and Skype; developing mutual trust in the form of shared expectations and goals; and maintaining a sense of commitment in the form of timing and frequency of contact (Bierema & Merriam, 2002; Loureiro-Koechlin & Allan, 2010; Schichtel, 2010).

While the literature on faculty-graduate student relationships is fairly expansive (Burnett, 1999; Crisp & Cruz, 2009; Hayes & Koro-Ljungberg, 2011; Lechuga, 2011; Paglis, Green, & Bauer, 2006; Welch, 1996), and the research on e-mentoring continues to grow (Bierema & Merriam, 2002; Loureiro-Koechlin & Allan, 2010, Schichtel, 2010), there is little information on the intersection of the two areas, namely online mentoring in doctoral education. This study explored e-mentoring strategies utilized in an online doctoral program in order to further develop e-mentoring best practices. Qualitative data was used to identify and evaluate the strategies used by a) faculty that were perceived as valuable by graduate students and, b) graduate students to successfully work with their faculty mentors to complete their dissertations from a distance.

Theoretical Framework

This study was guided by a phenomenological framework that focused on capturing the lived experiences of the participants (van Manen, 1990). In this case, the lived experiences focused on the students working on a doctoral dissertation from a distance and the strategies that emerged from that experience. Cilesiz (2011) notes that phenomenology is an ideal framework for qualitative study within the field of educational technology, as experiences with technology are an important area of inquiry. It is important to note that there are limitations inherent in conducting qualitative research, namely that applicability to other populations beyond the one studied may be limited. While the findings may be of interest to other educators, readers will need to determine those connections.



This research was conducted in a doctoral program at a South Eastern university in the United States. The doctoral program in Education is offered in an online format with the exception of an annual one-week campus-based session. Students in the first group that enrolled in the online program were working professionals in educational environments (higher education, corporate training, K-12 and virtual schools) located in the South Eastern United States. Students took online courses as a cohort for the first two years, at the end of which they completed qualifying exams. Students then worked on their dissertation at a distance under the guidance of one of four faculty members whose professional experience or research interests matched their own.

Semi-structured Interviews

Once ethics approval was obtained, the first group of 12 students was contacted for interviews after they graduated from the program in 2011 and 2012. Individual, semi-structured interviews were conducted with nine students who volunteered information regarding their experience with online mentoring and communication during their dissertation, strategies used by their faculty mentor that worked well for them, and challenges they experienced with the online mentoring process. Seven of the nine interviews were conducted by telephone due to the physical distance between the participant and the researcher. Two of the interviews were conducted in person. Interviews ranged from 14:09 to 37:01 minutes, with an average time of 23:17 minutes. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim.

Interview questions related to this study included the following: Describe the dissertation process. How did you work with your faculty advisor? Based on your experience, what are some of the things that you and your advisor did that were valuable in managing this process? What were some of the challenges you faced? Were there others (e.g., faculty, peers) who helped you with this process? What role did the online environment play in this process? Did it help or hinder you in any way? What can be done to support students in future cohorts through this process? Followup questions and probes were utilized as needed to obtain additional insights from the students.

Data Analysis

The interview data was analyzed using an inductive analysis method, where the researchers move from “specific to the general” (Hatch, 2002, p. 161). After transcribing the interviews, two of the authors coded the data independently and then compared codes with 89% percentage agreement. Codes were comprised of semantic units found within the data (Hatch, 2002). A constant comparative analysis was utilized to compare data across interviews, looking for similarities and differences (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The authors created taxonomies for the codes which led to the development of overarching themes by looking within and across the taxonomies to discover themes and relationships (Hatch, 2002).


The results of the semi-structured interviews (n = 9) are briefly presented here according to four main themes that emerged: a) the online environment and mentoring b) strategies used by mentors that assisted the doctoral students c) challenges faced by doctoral students, and d) strategies used by students that they termed best practice.

The Online Environment and Mentoring

All nine students that were interviewed highlighted the value of using multiple technologies and media e.g. e-mail and telephone, web-based synchronous communication, or even attempting to hold face-to-face meetings depending on where they lived and worked as useful mentoring strategies. Almost all feedback from the faculty and committee members on students’ work was communicated by email and using track changes in Microsoft Word. Additionally, feedback clarifications, discussions, presentations and conversations between mentors and students often took place on the telephone, Skype, and within Elluminate, a virtual classroom software used at the university. Six of nine students met with their mentor at least once in person in order to discuss their research at certain stages in the dissertation process because they felt a face-to-face discussion would be more useful. One student reflected on the value of meeting her advisor in person:

“Well, obviously the emails went back and forth, but then I did come to campus and met with my advisor once to kind of talk about the actual finished document…I think that very easily could have been achieved through a Skype conversation or Elluminate or something like that. But the face-to-face meetings really lowered my anxiety, helped my advisor know that I really was ready”.

Eight of nine students who were interviewed expressed a preference for online synchronous communication: Students communicated and presented to each other within Elluminate, two students worked through their quantitative data analysis with their chair or a committee member by using screen-sharing, and one student even completed her proposal hearing in the virtual classroom, as indicated in the following comments:

“At one point, we connected through CrossLoop so he (the mentor) could look at my data on my computer, and so that he could show me the process of how to do data analysis…if I opened CrossLoop and he opened CrossLoop, I could dial into his computer. And so his screen would appear on my computer screen, and I could watch what he was doing. I had a pretty complicated data analysis, and actually struggled with that. And so he was showing me on his screen how to use the software to do it”.

“I was able to get all the professors on my committee to log in too …then they separated out the room... they put me in a different room, and then they were able to have their discussion there through Elluminate while I waited. So I think Elluminate is a really good use of technology, because, you know, I mean I know some of the research now is saying that synchronous applications are not always the best learning tool. But I think it’s a better communication tool than the asynchronous applications”.

Despite their preference for synchronous communication online, students also appreciated the ability to reflect and ask clarifications from their mentors by e-mail. One student summarized, “Email was kind of the thread around all of it. So it was just really a variety of communication factors that worked.”

Successful Strategies Used by Online Mentors

Provision of structure: Doctoral students appreciated the provision of structure by their mentors – they found mentor-initiated contact, established deadlines and deliverables, clear expectations, and the mentor’s structuring of peer interaction extremely useful. Students in the online program were full-time employees with families and stated that the structure provided by mentors enabled them to better manage their time, remain on track, and work with peers to support each other. Of the four mentors who worked with the nine graduate students, one mentor had students work as a group to contact each other, exchange proposal chapters, request written feedback and then present their research design verbally. One student from that mentor’s group stated,

“I thought it was really helpful to get that - it was a little nudge, you know, that she challenged us to try to have an early deadline, you know, not wait and just mosey along, but…as soon as possible be ready to share with your group your three chapters and to be able to present to the group what your plan was and to receive feedback”.

Another student also expressed satisfaction with the strategies by stating,

“I thought the way that she set it up was very well done in terms of functioning. She placed us in a group with three other people who had like-minded topics… and we had to get together at set nights on Elluminate [software] and share our chapters as they were coming along with each other and do mini presentations. And then we'd critique each other. And then at the end, she would provide some further feedback and then kind of send us back to the drawing board and do it again...And I had already known the people in my group anyway from a couple of years of coursework. I felt very comfortable emailing them offline for suggestions. We'd read each other's papers. So the small group cohort was really, really effective in terms of helping to get the work moving”.

The students who worked with this mentor were among the first group to graduate in the online program, validating the strategies that she used to provide structure to the students that included small groups and regular online synchronous meetings. Students appreciated the opportunity to share, partner and maintain the same timeframe as peers, to practice “and get feedback before it counted for real.”

Timeliness and timelines for feedback: All the students who were interviewed appreciated receiving timely feedback. Additionally they found it useful when mentors established timelines for students to submit their work and to expect feedback in the absence of face-to-face contact. Students appreciated timelines for submission and feedback from the mentor because it helped them plan and schedule their academic work within the context of their professional and personal schedules. One student commented on her mentor’s establishment of timelines based on her schedule:

“(She) communicated personal deadlines to reply within two weeks. So when I turned in a draft to her, I knew that within about two weeks, I was going to receive some feedback. And so that allowed me to set personal goals; like I could say, okay, I'm going to turn this part in right here, but while I'm waiting for her feedback, I can go ahead and be working on this next section. So that helped me to schedule what I was doing also”.

The other three mentors also responded to student work very quickly, or at the least let students know when to expect a response. One student mentioned that she often got immediate but very brief feedback from one mentor.  The student stated that she “would have had preferred a delay in feedback to have gotten more quality-level feedback … specific and direct feedback on specific points.”

Types of feedback valued by students: Eight of nine students asserted that they received very helpful feedback from their mentors and elaborated on the types of feedback that they found valuable. All the students appreciated specific and candid feedback that pointed out strengths and weaknesses or redundancies in their research design and writing. One student stated that her committee “culled out nuggets to work with.” All the students emphasized the importance of clarity of feedback provided by faculty in the online environment due to their inability to take notes and interact with faculty in a face-to-face environment. Three students appreciated encouragement and positive reinforcement or gentle criticism from their mentors because they were working at a distance and found it motivating. Three students praised their mentor who challenged them to think critically about the material and asked them questions instead of telling them what to do.

“She structured certain environments to help us, and then she structured her feedback to our writing in a way that promoted rigor… so I had to take her questions and think very critically about what she was trying to ask me, and I had to, you know, think about different solutions to the problems that maybe she was presenting through her questions”.

Students also appreciated their mentors’ provision of additional resources and research to consider as part of their dissertation. One student explained, “One of the most helpful things that I got was a lot of different resources and links to help me kind of narrow things down or funnel things down a little bit. So it was a real guiding kind of process.” Another student appreciated that her mentor challenged her to be creative, while one student claimed it was valuable when the mentor was an expert in the research topic or area,

“So there were specific people and specific studies that my chair was aware of because of her expertise. So she was able to even say, you know, look at X’s study or Y just completed a study on this, and then in several cases, she was able to put me in contact with experts in a certain area, and I was able to get even unpublished studies, you know, things that people were working on, which was really helpful”.

Student Challenges in the Online Environment

When questioned about challenges related to the online environment, students mentioned the following:

Handling and acting on feedback from their mentor: Students sometimes did not understand the written feedback provided by their online mentor and sought clarifications by e-mail or telephone conversations. One student reflected that she did “not always know exactly what was meant by [her committee’s] comment within the documents… since it’s not like a back and forth conversation.” Often, students struggled to act on the mentor’s feedback and proceed with their writing. Learning to handle their mentor’s critique of their writing, getting a “tough skin,” “taking it constructively” and not getting demotivated were also challenges for some students. One student explained,

“It’s really the first time that large chunks of writing are exposed to that kind of critique…and the candidates need to be aware of that and have self-awareness enough to be able to function like that and to have somebody make all these comments on something and almost rip it apart but know that it’s constructive and it’s for a purpose and not to get offended or anything like that”.

Finding time to write: All the students worked full-time and found it “very challenging to carve out the time” to consistently work on their proposals and dissertations. They mentioned challenges including time management, handling family and work commitments, and the motivation to continue in the absence of a face-to-face academic environment where they interacted with peers and faculty.

Low peer support: Except for a group of three students for whom the mentor structured and facilitated small group online support, other students who graduated initially did not necessarily support each other online during the dissertation process. They found it challenging to stay motivated and to work on their research at a distance in the absence of peers or colleagues who understood their work in their daily environment. Six of the nine students interviewed graduated before the others. The three students who graduated later reached out to their peers  who had completed their dissertations during the previous semester and found the peer support and peer feedback extremely helpful.

Implementing research at a distance from the university: Students felt that the implementation of research without face-to-face support from faculty, administration, and peers was a challenge, during the dissertation phase of the online program. They not only experienced research implementation problems such as institutional research board (IRB) permissions or withdrawal of participants, but sometimes also lacked the research knowledge and confidence to work independently at a distance. At later stages of the dissertation process, they struggled to format their work according to dissertation guidelines and made several suggestions for improving online support for graduate students attempting to submit dissertations from a distance.

Successful Strategies used by Online Doctoral Students

Reflecting on their experiences with online mentoring during the research process, students articulated strategies that they termed best practice and useful for online graduate students during their doctoral studies. These strategies fell into three large thematic areas: Communication, Take Initiative, and Stay Motivated.

Communication: All nine students interviewed emphasized the importance of open and regular communication with dissertation mentors using multiple strategies. They suggested that online students should:

Take Initiative: Students highlighted the importance of a doctoral student taking ownership for communication, deadlines, and feedback during the dissertation process, by making the following suggestions:

Stay Motivated: Students reflected that it was easy to become demotivated or feel disconnected from academic work as an online student. They communicated with peers, adhered to firm deadlines, and read the work of other scholars to stay motivated.


This study reports on the experiences of nine students who were mentored online by four faculty members in an online doctoral program in Education at a research-intensive university. This was a small sample and these findings are specific to the context and culture of the online program and the institution. Nevertheless, our discussion of challenges faced and the strategies termed best practice by the online doctoral students are useful to other online graduate students and educators. In this section we first discuss themes in our research that mirror the challenges and expectations of doctoral students during the dissertation process in face-to-face environments, and then focus on those findings that deal specifically with the mentoring of students in online environments.

Themes Common to all Doctoral Programs

Findings from our study revealed that the expectations, challenges, and experiences of doctoral students in face-to-face and online doctoral programs during the dissertation stage are quite similar. Students in this study appreciated timely feedback from their mentors, especially if that feedback was clear and specific, and appreciated encouragement or constructive criticism of their work. Clear communication and honest feedback are likewise strong factors in students’ perceptions of the ideal mentor in prior research (Rose, 2003; Schichtel, 2010). Students in our study found it difficult to stay motivated, to write, and to consistently work on their dissertations when working full-time and dealing with family commitments. This indicates that certain challenges faced by doctoral students transcend the format of the program in which they are enrolled. In other words, the very nature of individual doctoral study at the dissertation stage, the process of conducting a research study, and the writing of a large document such as a dissertation that has to be approved by the mentor and the committee, are consistent among all students. These similarities also suggest that online students’ experiences in the online doctoral program in Education were similar to traditional doctoral experiences in face-to-face environments, where the institution and faculty were engaged (or not) to the same extent as in the face-to-face environment.

Students in our study suggested that such issues can be alleviated by creating a strong peer network that fosters peer support and feedback, by communicating regularly with faculty members, by setting and adhering to firm deadlines, and by setting aside time to write regularly. Some of these suggestions correspond to those in prior literature on best practices in doctoral education that include regular and structured check-ins with students, the creation of peer networks or communities for support, and a clear setting of expectations in terms of feedback for students (Bell-Ellison & Dedrick, 2008; Burnett, 1999; Rose, 2003). Online doctoral programs thus need to adopt best practices and evidence-based strategies from the literature on doctoral education and doctoral mentoring in order to be successful in providing support for doctoral students who struggle to complete their dissertations.

Mentoring in the Online Environment

Schichtel (2010) listed seven competencies of online mentors, of which mentors in this study demonstrated six - social, cognitive, teaching, communication, managerial and online technical competence - according to the students interviewed. Online developmental competence, where mentors facilitate online learning in the form of educational development, professional development and psychosocial development, can be partially inferred from students’ comments. According to the students, their online mentors definitely contributed to their educational development and provided support and guidance on other matters when needed.

Strategies for online mentoring that emerged in this research fall in three areas - The use of multiple modes of communication, structure provided by the mentor, and student initiative.

The use of multiple modes of communication: The multiple modes of communication used by mentors, a competence according to Schichtel (2010), were greatly appreciated during online mentoring by students who participated in this study. On the one hand, students found written feedback by email and using comments in MS Word useful. Due to the challenges of understanding, handling, and integrating written feedback in the online environment, students in our study sought telephone communications or face-to-face meetings to engage in a dialogue with their faculty mentors. Students found it valuable to use screen-sharing to share their data with their mentors and to discuss qualitative or quantitative analysis and results as part of the dissertation development process. Students generally preferred asynchronous feedback that was followed by synchronous conversations.

These findings indicate that a variety of mentoring modalities are useful to guide students through the dissertation process in the online environment. Written feedback on student work and summaries or guidelines by email allow both faculty and students to reflect and communicate, while synchronous communication such as telephone conversations, VOIP (voice over internet protocol) conversations and virtual classrooms (e.g., Elluminate, Adobe Connect) facilitate synchronous discussion. Findings from this study reiterate the importance of technical competence on the part of online mentors (Schichtel, 2010), and their ability to teach effectively and flexibly communicate in the online environment. Schichtel argues that the facilitation of mentee technical competence is also a responsibility of the mentor. However, the authors of this research posit that online technical competence is also a responsibility of online doctoral students who should be able to learn and utilize various technologies, choose multiple avenues of communication with their mentors, and use them for different purposes in their learning process. In choosing to pursue further studies online they should be open to exploring multiple modes of communication and identifying those that work best for the mentor and mentee. Moreover, effective communication on the part of the mentor and mentee in the online environment does not just pertain to technical competence but also to social competence (Schichtel, 2010), where participants are able to project their ideas, feedback, and personality online in the absence of visual cues.

Structure provided by the mentor: Transactional distance between instructors and students (Moore, 1973) in distance education can be reduced by both dialog and structure. The previous section discussed the types of dialog that can reduce transactional distance between online mentors and students. Additionally, the provision of structure in online mentoring was a best practice according to students in this research. The initiation of contact, provision of timelines and deliverables, and setting of clear expectations by mentors are best practices in the online environment where students hesitate more than usual to contact their assigned mentors. In the absence of regular face-to-face contact with mentors, with peers who have completed dissertations, and with peers who are also writing dissertations, the structure provided by mentors is vital for student success. These strategies reinforce Schichtel’s (2010) description of online mentoring as the “management of the interface between people, their learning and developmental process, and the supporting technology” (p. 251) and the importance of managerial competence that also includes teaching and cognitive competence. Students in this study greatly appreciated a mentor who challenged them to think critically by posing questions as feedback in the online environment.

Not only did the students appreciate mentors’ provision of structure for individual work, but also their structuring of peer interactions amongst the mentees. Three students who had the same mentor believed they finished their dissertations ahead of others in their program because their mentor scheduled regular check-in sessions as a group, and also encouraged them to read each others work, provide each other feedback, and to take ownership of not only their own work but that of their peers.

Student Initiative: While structure provided by the mentor can be successful in reducing online distance, students in this study believed that dialog initiated and consistently maintained by mentees is as important for a successful online mentoring experience. They emphasized that the mentee should take ownership of his/her learning in the online environment, reach out to the mentor in case of problems, negotiate deadlines, and solicit clarifications on any feedback that was unclear. Likewise, mentees should also ensure that they build a peer network by reaching out to peers and engaging in mutually beneficial discussions and peer feedback because this can contribute to motivation and their completion of the doctoral degree.


Based on findings from this study, the authors conclude that a supervisor-student mentoring relationship can be successfully created whereby doctoral students are successfully supported in an online environment. Successful online mentoring includes the flexible and effective use of multiple technologies to purposefully structure a dissertation experience that facilitates doctoral students’ learning, growth, and autonomy. Findings revealed that online mentoring relationships, as part of the dissertation process, are quite similar to teaching and learning relationships in online courses. Increased dialogue using multiple modes of communication and the structure provided by e-mentors contribute to the reduction of transactional distance (Moore, 1973) thereby enhancing the dissertation experience for online students. In this case, increased learner autonomy also contributed to the reduction of transactional distance if learners took ownership of their learning by communicating consistently with mentors and negotiating deadlines.


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Swapna Kumar is a Clinical Assistant Professor, Educational Technology Program, School of Teaching and Learning at the University of Florida. E-mail: swapnakumar@coe.ufl.edu

Melissa Johnson is the Assistant Director, University of Florida Honors Program, University of Florida. E-mail: mjohnson@honors.ufl.edu

Truly Hardemon completed her Master of Education at the University of Florida. E-mail: trulymcclellanhardemon@gmail.com