Coaching doctoral students as they develop their Personal Learning Networks

Coaching doctoral students as they develop their Personal Learning Networks

Doctoral students and faculty in online programs often feel as though they are working in isolation with little communication with peers or supervisors.  According to Inman and Silverson (2003), a common complaint of doctoral students and faculty is the loneliness that goes along with doctoral work, particularly in the researching and writing during the dissertation stages. The nature of doctoral research has two inherent characteristics: (a) the doctoral student works alone for long stretches of time with few people who understand the mental, emotional, and sometimes physical stress that accompany the doctoral pursuit (Autry & Carter, 2015), and (b) doctoral students have little access to networks of other doctoral students pursuing similar courses of study or find them too large and open to meet their needs.

This feeling of isolation and insufficient support is widely evident in social media.  Literally hundreds of groups and thousands of posts can be found on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and InstaGram demonstrating this unmet need of our online doctoral students. A quick search for doctoral students’ support groups on Facebook shows that many universities have sanctioned Facebook groups and students themselves have created hundreds more, including those that are private so they don’t show up in a search. 

Similarly, on Twitter, I follow at least a dozen of the hundreds of groups that provide support for doctoral students as they struggle to write the dissertation.  Some are run by dissertation consultants looking for clients, others are groups of students who have come together to share their frustrations and successes, as well as tips for success and support when things go wrong. There is something in my Twitter feed every day about either getting or giving support in the dissertation process.

University of Phoenix has its own social media platform, Phoenix Connect, which has several groups for doctoral students and faculty, as well as the University of Phoenix College of Doctoral Studies Facebook group. However, not all students are comfortable participating in social media platforms that are open to larger groups who may read and respond to their posts often with little understanding of what a doctoral student experiences in this arduous journey.  Harding-Dekum, Hamilton, & Loyd (2012) point to the constructivist view that suggests that this lack of collegial conversations is obstructing the doctoral student’s attempts to navigate through the zone of proximal development, and causes learning delays.

For most of the 13 years I have taught at the doctoral level and mentored doctoral students I have had online support groups for my students. Before Facebook, one of my students created a Yahoo Group for us.  There were only 10 of us for a while: my mentee students, one of my students who had graduated, and me.  When the student who created the group and served as its administrator graduated and chose not to stay on, I took over the administration of the group and we continued to find it a great place to share resources, documents, links, and a great deal of support and celebration.

The group became larger over time as graduates typically stayed active in the group, and Yahoo groups were hard to keep private.  So, when Facebook became available, we moved to that platform and I created what was first a Private Group for us there and named it without much creativity, Dr. J’s Students.  The Private Group gave us the security we were seeking, but we received no notices when others posted.  I changed the status to Closed, which means that anyone can see that the group exists but can’t see posts. Now when anyone posts in the group, the message pops up only in the members’ feeds.  Others can ask to be added to the group or the members and I can invite them.  There are currently 50 members in the group, mostly students for whom I have served as chairs, plus a few students from residency or other classes that I thought could benefit from the comradery and support there.

When I become the chair for a student, there are often many documents and links that I want to share with them.  Invariably, I forget something they should have, but it works out because they also know they can go to the files in our private group and review what’s there, as well. It saves me a lot of time to have resources in one accessible place…at least that’s my goal, and students have told me they like not feeling as though they had to come to me or take up my time each time they have a basic question.  The students who have completed or who are farther along are very supportive of new students, give them great advice, and often answer their questions in the group before I get a chance to answer them.

I’m currently thinking about ways to expand the group and/or its functionality. I will be sharing more about how graduate and doctoral students create and develop their Personal Learning Networks in upcoming blog posts.  I’m also eager to hear how other chairs and faculty support their online students through social media.  Feel free to reach out to me at

(adapted in part from What educational leaders should know about social media, collaboration and learning.)


Autry, M.K., & Carter, M. (2015). Unblocking occluded genres in graduate writing: Thesis and dissertation support services at North Carolina State University. Composition Forum, 31. 

Harding-DeKam, J., Hamilton, B., & Loyd, S. (2012). The hidden curriculum of doctoral advising. NACADA Journal, 32(2), 5-16. 

Inman, A. G., & Silverstein, M. E. (2003). Dissertation support group: To dissertate or not is the question. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 17(3), 59.  

Johnson, K., Roberts, J. M., Stout, M. W., Susberry Hill, M., & Wells, L. (2017, online 2018). What educational leaders should know about social media, collaboration and doctoral learning. Research on Education and Media, 10(2), 32-39. doi:10.1515/rem-2017-0012



Karen Johnson's picture Karen Johnson | April 10, 2019 2:40 pm MST

Please feel free to post questions or comments!



Elizabeth Johnston's picture Elizabeth Johnston | April 10, 2019 2:00 pm MST

Great conversation Karen,

Thanks for sharing. 


Elizabeth Johnston

About the Author




Journal of Leadership Studies-Symposium Piece-Relational Leadership: Perspectives of Key Constructs on Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Equity in Higher Education

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