Surviving (and Succeeding!) in an Online Doctoral Program

Dr. Punita RiceAcademia

How to Succeed in an Online Doctoral Program

Summer session is soon ending, and as the 2015-2016 academic year draws nearer, a new cohort for our Ed.D program is beginning. Like me at the beginning of my first semester in our program, one new cohort member reached out to old vets (I’m one of those now!) for advice on succeeding. Jennifer Hlavka, teacher development specialist and new cohort member for the 2015 group, requested advice on tools, resources, note-taking, and long-term organization strategies for success in our almost entirely online doctoral program.

While there already plenty of resources online for succeeding in doctoral programs — Dr. Alex Hope offered some great tips and advice on surviving a PhD, over at The Thesis Whisperer — most of those resources aren’t directed toward surviving or succeeding in online doctoral programs. So a few 2013 and 2014 cohort folks answered Jennifer’s call for guidance with some of the advice I’m condensing and sharing below.

Surviving an Online Doctoral Program


“Invest in a reliable coffee maker.” – Nick Sproull

My thoughts on this: He’s not kidding. You’ll need the extra support to make it through lengthy readings and papers. I use this Nespresso (the Nespresso U). I also love the Aeroccino frother it usually comes bundled with for making cappuccinos (but now I’m just being fancy).

Build a community for yourself.

“Build relationships with your cohort (and others). No one – even doc students from other schools – can relate to what it’s like to do an EdD online in three years.” – Nick Sproull

“Develop a method of communication between your cohort and maybe even your specialization so you can connect with your classmates for general chatter and discussion. For us, we opted to use a Facebook group but also use the forums online at JHU.

The Facebook group to us is like the student lounge where you’d normally see classmates and catch up. Since we’re spread all out, it helps us get together and talk. You can discuss assignments and ask questions, and you’ll often find that where you think you are alone on a topic most of your classmates felt the same way or had the same questions! I could go on and on but I suppose I should put that effort into my dissertation!”
Kelly Galanis

My thoughts on this: Working through doctoral level coursework is a very independent experience. You’re not in a physical classroom, you don’t always have groupwork or teamwork, and even if you’re incredibly lucky and have a great support system, it’s possible that nobody around you will really get what you’re experiencing. So you have to reach out to others in your program or in your position occasionally (shoutout to @Reagan31 and @natt444) for your sense of community and camaraderie.

Remember why you’re doing this.

“Enjoy it. It’s hard work, but you opted into this… so you might as well embrace the challenges and the joys.”
Nick Sproull

My thoughts on this: Don’t get into the habit of complaining about your work or program, even socially. Like Nick pointed out, you chose this ‘lifestyle’ so embrace the good and the bad. The challenges you’ll face will make you a stronger student and academic and you will find yourself feeling a lot smarter and capable as time goes on. Or as my grandfather likes to put it, your stamina for the workload will increase, and it won’t seem so hard. Also, you’ll just have to accept that this is going to be hard. Doctoral level coursework is a whole new world, and the initial shock of that is one of the biggest hurdles you’ll probably face. But then, you’ll adjust.

“Your stamina for the workload will increase, and it won’t seem so hard.” (paraphrased advice from my Grandfather)

It’s also important to remind yourself that you’re doing something awesome, and not just because you’ll get Dr. in front of your name when you’re done. You’re going to learn to think in new ways, you’re going to become smarter, and you’re going to contribute something of great value to the existing literature in your field. You might even change lives!

Succeeding in an Online Doctoral Program

How to Succeed in an Online Doctoral Program

Master APA.

“Become excellent at APA citations. If you can nail them down early on, you will have less to manage later. Tools like EndNote and RefWorks are helpful for managing these citations over the long term.”
Kelly Galanis

Do things your way.

“You will quickly learn about yourself and your habits in a program such as this. Don’t try to change your style, just learn to develop habits that work with your style. I’m a natural procrastinator and tend to wait to the last minute to do things, mostly because I am super involved with a TON of things.

I tried to adapt different styles and get things done early, but it never worked and led me to be more stressed out. So, I just plan to work on the assignments closer to the due dates and the work gets done. Just know your strengths and weaknesses and you will succeed.”
Kelly Galanis

Find your rhythm.

“Find a rhythm and routine as quickly in the semester as possible… not only the time/place you want to study, but also how you want to organize yourself.”
Nick Sproull

Find your Rhythm and be Disciplined with your Time to Succeed in an Online Doctorate

My thoughts on this: I would add once you make a plan, be disciplined either with your schedule, or with the priorities on your to-do list. You’ll need to teach yourself self-discipline and time-management skills to succeed.

Develop a strategy for note-taking.

My thoughts on this: Consider making an individual capture sheet for each session for each class (for instance — a document called DAE / Disciplinary Approaches to Education SESSION 1) and have it contain all your notes from the readings/presentations and maybe even copy paste your discussions from that session into the document. I personally use Google Drive (and have the entire drive backed up onto my computer) and love the live editing capability from any computer.

Decide how to keep track of your readings.

“I printed out all the readings we were ever assigned in the program. After a while, I realized that I wanted to keep a record of my annotations, so I put them into an excel document with key words attached. This made it a bit easier to keep track of ideas.”
Natalie Duvall

My thoughts on this: Some people prefer to read physical documents, and others prefer to read online. I thought I was in the first camp, so my first semester, I printed out about 1,000 pages of readings… all of which I ended up discarding (recycling!) because I realized I prefer to read online. Oops.

Build relationships with your advisors.

“Work with your adviser and professors and don’t be afraid to ask questions – that’s what they are there for! My adviser actually passed away this year and I had to choose a new adviser. Luckily, I had been working with another committee member whom I felt comfortable asking to take me on thanks to the conversations we had. So, it’s ok to get connected to these awesome individuals.”
Kelly Galanis

Don’t think too far ahead.

“Focus on your problem, not your solution. The sooner you beat that into your head, the easier your first year will be.

The better you get at understanding factors associated with your POP, the easier it will be to (a) identify and (b) defend your proposed intervention.”
Nick Sproull

“Focus on your coursework you currently are taking, and look at things one day at a time. It is nice to think big picture (I’m a huge culprit of seeing big picture), but breaking it down makes it manageable and reasonable.”
Kelly Galanis

Final Thoughts

It’s important to remember that no matter how good any of the advice shared here (or elsewhere) is, and will require a lot of trial and error to find your groove. This is doubly true if your program is predominantly online, because much of the advice you’ll find for surviving or thriving in a doctorate program might not pertain to you much. This means you’ll really have to figure out what works for you, and you’ll have to figure it out as you go.

My colleagues and I are being pushed to our limits, but we’re also doing some pretty cool things: we’re watching ourselves get smarter as we complete the coursework through a rigorous program at the #1 school of education in the country (!), we’re getting to collaborate with classmates from all over the world, we’re learning from some of the brightest and most respected minds in education, and most importantly, we’re getting the opportunity to address some unique and significant problems in our field. And some of us are doing this while raising families. And most of us are doing this while working full time jobs. And all of us are doing this while simultaneously working on our dissertations. This all means it’s that much more important to reach out to one another. We online doctoral candidates really have to connect with people in the same boat as us. Since we’re in little-discussed territory, we’ll need one another’s support as we chart a new course.

About the contributors

Natalie Duvall is an eleventh grade English teacher and writer, and is in the 2013 cohort of our program. Connect with her on twitter at @natt444.

Kelly Galanis is a higher education professional, a social media specialist, and speaker, and is in the 2013 cohort of our program. Connect with her on twitter @readheadeddivak and visit her website

Nick Sproull works in the “intersection of sports and academics by day” and is in the 2013 cohort of our program. Connect him on twitter at @nsproull.

If you have any good advice for surviving (or succeeding) in an online doctorate, please consider adding your tips by commenting below!