6 Models and Variations of Dissertations and Supervision Practice: Where Should We Be Going?

Debra Hoven

The professional doctorate (EdD) at Athabasca University was Canada’s first fully online doctoral program, now in its 14th year. The Carnegie Project on the EdD (CPED; Golde, Walker, & Associates, 2006) and our own research have shown that increasing numbers of grad students are looking for doctoral programs that are more workplace or professionally oriented, moving away from the “traditional” perception of doctoral programs as preparation for a career in academia.

While many online programs struggle with motivation and retention (Ivankova & Stick, 2007; Hart, 2012; DeClou, 2016), our cohort-based program has managed to maintain high completion rates – above 70%. According to our research, two of the main reasons for our high completion rate derive from the cohort model used in our program and the in-person orientation (in pre-COVID times) in the first year of the program.

For the purposes of this program, the cohort model refers to the requirement for students to enrol in the program at the same time, work to a time-sensitive deadline, and subsequently complete the same prescribed courses together throughout the program. This version of the cohort model includes initial online preparation of a small-group project before students know each other or have met each other in-person. The students then normally attend a week-long in-person Orientation, which includes presenting their group projects, and subsequently work entirely online for the remainder of their program. This approach is supported by research elsewhere recommending that this kind of initiation activity focus on learner-learner interactions to build trust and understanding for potential mutual support (Pemberton & Akkary, 2010; Hoven et al. 2020). The positive effects of this building of trust has been evident in our program in the organically-formed cohort sub-groups that continue beyond the coursework components into data collection and analysis, as well as the final dissertation writing.

In light of the fact that we offer a professional doctorate, in recent years we have moved away from the more academic dissertation and academic preparation path to offering flexible paths for professional students in government, the corporate world, and self-employed businesses and consultancies. This includes a manuscript-style dissertation, also known as dissertation-by- publication, and workplace- or consultancy-based projects of a pragmatic or experimental nature. In addition, the needs of our Indigenous students also necessitate flexibility in committee structure, examiners, research projects, shape of the dissertation document(s), and re-usability or community applicability of the research project outcomes.

A recent mixed methods research study investigated two groups of Doctorate in Education students and forms part of an ongoing endeavor to improve the student experience of and success in the program. The first group, Cohort 1 (2008 intake) completers, were identified based upon ongoing communication with the (then) Program Director, also a faculty instructor in the program. A collaborative self-study approach was concurrently undertaken by students from the Cohort 11 (2018) intake of the program. The self-study components were conducted by the self-identified (volunteer) sub-group of Cohort 11 participant-researchers, under my mentorship.

Main results of these two studies include the pre-eminence of supervisors and supervisor qualities as well as the importance of the whole-group orientation to establish trust and understanding of who among the cohort have particular qualities and experience in certain areas. Among supervisor qualities, features mentioned included openness, flexibility, reflexivity, understanding & empathy, as well as genuine interest in students and their topics, having their own research agenda, and currency of their research. Also of critical importance were the establishment of clear expectations on both sides, collaborative and negotiated selection of committee members and external examiners, compatibility of personality, clear and regular communication, and avenues and strategies for maintaining mental health and wellness.

Finally, more research and discussion are needed in areas such as collaborative, inter-institutional data-keeping and analysis, student persistence, timeliness, deferral, and program abandonment. The black box of supervision needs to be put under several lenses: how are supervisors mentored, what professional development and guidance is available, and how can we cultivate more collaborative openness on supervisory practices.


DeClou, L. (2016). Who stays and for how long: Examining attrition in Canadian graduate programs. Canadian Journal of Higher Education. Revue canadienne d’enseignement supérieur. 46(4), 174–198.

Golde, C. M. & Walker, G. E., & Associates (Eds.) (2006). Envisioning the future of doctoral education: Preparing stewards of the discipline. Carnegie essays on the doctorate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hart, C. (2012). Factors associated with student persistence in an online program of study: A review of the literature. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11(1), 19-42.

Hoven, D., Al Tawil, R., Johnson, K., Pawlitschek, N., & Wilton, D. (2020). The Impact of a Cohort Model for Online Doctoral Student Retention and Success. In D. Glick, A. Cohen, & C. Chang (Eds.). Early Warning Systems and Targeted Interventions for Student Success in Online Courses. IGI Global., pp. 113-139.

Ivankova, N. & Stick, S. (2007). Students’ persistence in a distributed doctoral program in educational leadership in higher education. Research in Higher Education, 48(1), 93-135.

Pemberton, C. & Akkary, R. (2010). A cohort, is a cohort, is a cohort…or is it? Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 5(5), 179-208.


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