Online doctoral student retention : a qualitative study exploring eight students' intrinsic motivation.


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Doctoral students completing their degrees is a vital part of success for their organizations, respective fields, and interdisciplinary collaborations. These professionals are often thought leaders, influence policy at varying levels, entrepreneurs, and educators among several other occupations. However, obtaining a doctoral degree is an arduous process for many that choose to pursue this academic pinnacle. The purpose of this qualitative instrumental case study was to explore how intrinsic motivation aided in retention among online doctoral students and to investigate the challenges that may impede their degree attainment. Intrinsic motivation is comprised of three psychological principles: relatedness, autonomy, and competence. When these principles work in conjunction within a supportive environment, they increase an individual’s self-determination and elevate one’s intrinsic motivation to accomplish their goals. Intrinsic motivation is a component within the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) Framework.

I explored eight online doctoral students’ lived experiences through written responses and semi-structured interviews. The most prominent theme that emerged was relatedness as all the participants had a community of support among their cohort members, peers, professors, faculty advisors, peer working groups, family, or colleagues and this aided in their retention. Contrarily, several participants encountered issues with at least one instructor, and this demotivated them at times. Regarding autonomy, students successfully experienced volition through making choices regarding different aspects of their dissertation, coursework, groupwork and choosing to view pressure positively. The challenges that participants experienced were problems with work, life, and school balance, program/class structure, and finances. Students successfully experienced competence through teacher/faculty reaffirmation, embracing a growth mindset, applying constructive feedback, and receiving writing center services that helped them grow in their scholarly writing proficiencies. Conversely, statistics emerged as the main challenge for ineptness and lack of competence that students experienced in their program. Implications and recommendations are provided for stakeholders such as prospective and current online doctoral students, program administrators, faculty, doctoral advisors, and staff to provide additional insights and strategies to help this population navigate their programs and obtain their degrees.