Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Doctoral Students’ Thesis/Dissertation Progress

William J Donohue, Alice Shu-Ju Lee, Shelah Simpson, Kathleen Vacek
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 16  •  2021  •  pp. 533-552

The purpose of this study was to document the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for doctoral students who were proposing, conducting, or writing up their doctoral thesis, dissertation, or other culminating project.

For doctoral students, the process of designing, implementing, and writing a culminating project is a key part of the learning experience. These projects typically require students to direct their own learning and to manage setbacks, obstacles, and challenges as they arise. During the COVID-19 pandemic, doctoral students around the globe had to undertake this key learning experience in the context of a global crisis.

During August and September 2020, 235 doctoral students from around the world completed an online questionnaire consisting of demographic questions and three open-ended questions about their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Analysis involved several cycles of In Vivo Coding of the data, which yielded codes, categories, and eventually themes. At each stage, the researchers collaborated to generate the codes, and the categories and themes arose through several rounds of discussion.

Our study adds to the small body of knowledge on doctoral students’ experiences from around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic by identifying categories of experience through qualitative, open-ended survey questions. The study highlights doctoral students’ challenges and how these were either exacerbated or mitigated by pandemic-induced changes.

Our survey respondents described impacts on their culminating projects’ progress in five major categories: research design, access to resources, workload, mental health, and finances.

The five categories of impacts emerging from our participants’ responses may be useful for faculty and administrators of doctoral programs to consider in reviewing their programs’ responses to the pandemic and making future plans for providing academic continuity in crisis situations as well as re-evaluating the priorities and structures of doctoral program to better support students overall moving forward.

Further research is needed to better understand how the pandemic impacted individual students’ research and writing processes, including adaptive strategies.

Institutions need to be aware of systemic strain on doctoral students under the best of conditions and be especially aware of the impacts of a crisis and plan contingencies to assist students with a focus on the areas of finances, resource access, workload, research design, and mental health.

Future research should seek out additional perspectives of male doctoral students. Additionally, data capturing perspectives from students at other points in time are needed as the pandemic continued to unfold after this study’s data collection period.

doctoral education, COVID-19 pandemic, doctoral writing
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