One is the Loneliest Number: Helping Doctoral Students Build Connections Online

The online learning environment, no matter how robust the platform, does not fully address the isolation many students feel. This environment can be especially isolating for doctoral students. In traditional programs, particularly those with cohort models, students engage with one another through their courses, and many form groups and lasting friendships. Groups might meet or communicate on a regular basis to share their progress; edit/proofread dissertation drafts; solicit ideas, strategies, and advice; and even to vent about their challenges, frustrations, and lack of sufficient progress. Students with shared research interests, albeit rare in small cohorts and interdisciplinary programs, are even more fortunate to form this bond.

For graduate students earning their degrees online, those opportunities for building connections don’t happen quite so organically, but there are ways to combat feelings of isolation. Here are a few approaches to consider.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous
In the asynchronous virtual environment, students may never know their peers. Even discussion threads that attempt to bring students together to share ideas have their limitations; while they include posts from students in the same course, the students may be in the course at very different times (even months apart). Synchronous virtual environments have the advantage of providing students with built-in opportunities to connect via chat, Skype, and other synchronous platforms.

Social Media
Social media platforms, namely Facebook and LinkedIn, provide a useful forum for connecting doctoral students, not just from a recruitment perspective, but for peer collaboration and support as well. Faculty, staff, students, and alums can connect with each other in established groups on these platforms, or create their own group for fellow students within a particular academic program (e.g. Doctor of Business Administration students or doctoral students with research interests related to criminal justice).

As an online instructor, I have joined groups that relate to the courses and academic programs within my scope of teaching. I regularly read student posts and comment when I am able to provide advice or answer questions. It’s a less formal environment than that in which I provide instruction and feedback to my current students and the scope and audience is broader.

Targeted Approach
A new strategy I have employed with my doctoral students is to log students’ research interests and contact information. I use a simple Excel spreadsheet to record student ID (unique identifier), name, program/degree, concentration, email address, and key words related to the student’s research interest(s). I regularly sort and search the spreadsheet for ways to connect students. For instance, I recently acquired a new doctoral student who is interested in women’s barriers to leadership positions. I recalled a former student had the same interest, albeit a very different take on it. I consulted my spreadsheet and made an email introduction for the two students. I suggested they share references from their concept papers to give them a talking point for an initial conversation and as a way to help them progress toward an exhaustive review of the related literature. Both students readily responded and were eager to connect.

This individual, targeted approach to connecting doctoral students has been well-received thus far. I believe it not only helps reduce isolation, but it enhances the faculty-student and student-university relationships as well. I am currently exploring ways to connect doctoral students who are struggling, but demonstrate promise of successful completion of their program, with more advanced students. The hope is to create a more peer-related mentor-mentee relationship. From personal experience, the connections doctoral students make in their programs can last indefinitely and serve to enhance their academic success and personal lives.

Kelly Grattan is a faculty member at Northcentral University.

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