IASSW AIETS logo Social Dialogue Magazine
article 5 image
image: Meruyert Gonullu
06 author

Natalie R. Beltrano,
University of Windsor, School of Social Work, PhD Student

06 author

Diane I. N. Trudgill,
University of Windsor, School of Social Work, PhD Student

Navigating doctoral studies during a pandemic: Our experience as a ‘bubble’ of two

To become part of the 1.1% of the global population who earn a doctorate degree (Hutt, 2019), students require quality supervision, support from family and friends, and internal motivation (Sverdlik et al., 2018). In the Fall of 2019, we took our first step toward being in the 1% and started our respective journeys in the doctoral program in the School of Social Work. We entered an already precarious situation in the high stress environment of doctorate education, which was followed by exponentially more uncertainty when Covid-19 required us to shift to remote learning. Under typical circumstances, doctorate students are at-risk of experiencing higher levels of perceived stress than the general population (Barry et al., 2018), but nothing about our experience was found to be typical. As a bubble of two, we transitioned to an online platform to finalize our coursework. Amid the shift, we were required to maintain our motivation to complete our comprehensive exams and begin our dissertation proposals while being socially distant from the school, our extended circles of support, and each other.

These unfamiliar times necessitated finding new forms of support in reimagined ways, specifically through the application of technology, including Zoom or Teams meetings, FaceTime, and collaborative platforms, such as Google Documents. Despite the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were able to enhance our peer relationship by scheduling formal and informal check-ins, providing mutual encouragement in both our personal and academic lives over our shared passion for education, research and the love of our dogs.

A Cohort of Two

Cohort models of doctoral education have been found to benefit students in completing their degree (e.g., Berry, 2017; Bista & Cox, 2014; Lake et al., 2018). We were introduced as a 3-person cohort for the first time at our orientation; it was not long before we realized how much support we required from each other. By the end of the first month, we were reduced to two. Losing a peer through attrition was unexpected and shifted the dynamics; we were forced to rely only on each other. What is the likelihood of success for a bubble of two?

'I felt connected as a trio immediately. When Anya withdrew, I was surprised and a bit unsettled. I hadn't considered that one of us would not complete the program, but our professors didn't seem surprised. I had no idea how common it is for PhD students to withdraw. Suddenly, quitting was an option I hadn't otherwise considered. I am so thankful for Natalie; I could not do this without her.'

In our literature review, we did not find peer-reviewed examinations of 2-person doctoral cohorts; we appeared to be on a journey on 'the road less travelled' (Frost, 1915)

Graduate Students and Online Learning

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, when universities worldwide were required to shift to online platforms, there was little research on the effectiveness of online or hybrid doctoral education (Woo et al., 2021). Social work PhD programs offered in an entirely online format made up less than 5% of the programs in the United States in 2019, and only 12% were hybrid; the remainder were entirely in-person (Bradshaw et al., 2020). By the Spring of 2021, 70% of traditionally in-person social work PhD programs had moved entirely online, with only 13% remaining in-person (Bradshaw, 2021).

'The distance due to Covid-19 made engaging in school difficult; I prefer in-person learning, which was a significant challenge for me. I felt a disconnect from the school and the learning process and only had Diane to rely on. Thankfully, she was readily available to engage in personal, professional, and academic dialogue despite our physical separation.'

Students have identified that some courses are more appropriate for online learning than others (Woo et al., 2021). Although online education was widely accepted as effective during the pandemic, students have expressed a desire to return to in-person learning to make or maintain connections with student-peers (Rizun & Strzelecki, 2020), as the online environment can make it more difficult to build meaningful relationships (Woo et al. 2021). Without trusting connections, the depth of conversation and learning may be negatively impacted (Myers et al., 2019).

'We were lucky to have finished most of our courses before the pandemic, and we already had a solid friendship. When we eventually did have online classes together, we felt comfortable engaging in conversation and challenging each other's thinking as a result of our pre-existing relationship. Although there is a level of convenience with online learning, I prefer the intimateness of the in-person classes; I am thankful we had as much in-person time as we did. We frequently made an effort to FaceTime each other to feel more connected in the time of 'social distancing'.

Motivation and Perseverance in Doctoral Studies

Four sources of support for doctoral students have been identified as imperative for motivation and perseverance in doctoral studies: faculty, institutional or departmental, family and friends, and student peers (Motte, 2020). Each of these distinct sources of support influenced our ability to cope as a bubble of two throughout the pandemic.

Faculty Support

Faculty supervision has been identified as one of the primary factors for achievement and endurance when engaging in doctoral education (Sverdlik et al., 2018), as it normalizes the challenges faced by most students (Posselt, 2018). Wang and Delaquil (2020) have recommended the formalization of mentorships between faculty and student, promoting student-faculty research collaborations to enhance student support.

'Prior to remote learning, my doctoral supervisor provided me opportunities to engage in academic activities with researchers who had similar interests to my dissertation topic. When we were separated due to the pandemic, she was readily available for Zoom meetings whenever I required guidance or support, often without much notice. I believe the rapport we developed through face-to-face meetings enabled our relationship when this option was no longer available.'

Faculty supervision as mentorship where students receive a balance of support and autonomy is key for success (Makhamreh & Stockley, 2019), and is highly correlated with program satisfaction (Tompkins et al., 2016). Faculty relationships require a strong connection (Motte, 2020) which includes both academic and non-academic support (Gisemba Bagaka et al., 2015).

'I feel so fortunate to have found a supervisor who really 'gets' me; he has been incredibly supportive and always celebrates the progress I am making, no matter how small. When I was experiencing some health issues, I felt comfortable talking to him about how it was impacting me, and by extension, my academic progress. He is always available to meet and to support me however I need, but also gives me the space and opportunity to work as independently as I can.'

Institutional Support

When entering doctorate education, students must face the numerous pressures that include time for completion, uncertainty about the doctoral process (Cornwall et al., 2019), adapting to the workload, and understanding of the curriculum (Motte, 2020). These pressures may be exemplified when students are unaware of supportive services available within institutions (Greene, 2015), such as opportunities for financial aid (Motte, 2020) or well-being programs, including counseling or yoga (Barry et al., 2018).

'I think the school did what they could to offer virtual support when everyone was forced to work/study remotely, but it has been really difficult to be so disconnected from everyone in the department. I miss running into people in the hallways and having impromptu conversations. I wish more had been done to keep us all connected as a department.

When online learning is a requirement, institutions need to diversify communication strategies. The diversification of strategies includes using multiple platforms, live-streaming or text messaging to update students regularly on the organization's goals and plans moving forward' (Fernandez & Shaw, 2020).

'I wish there was enhanced communication and connection to the department and institution. I regularly receive emails with updates, but these often get lost in the vast number of emails I receive daily. I believe live stream events or group meetings would reduce my anxiety towards the uncertainty and enhance my connection to the institution.'

Student-Peer and Family Support

Cohorts have been identified as key to persistence in completion of doctorate education (Posselt, 2018). There have been identified risks of social isolation when engaging in doctorate studies both physically and holistically (Cornwall et al., 2019). Gisemba Bagaka et al. (2015) found "PhD Couples" within cohorts may develop; these are defined as peer-to-peer support. Having a "go-to" person promotes motivation (Sverdlik et al., 2018) and is imperative to maintaining persistence and achieving milestones (Greene, 2015). Additionally, family support has been noted to enhance students' socio-emotional well-being while pursuing graduate education (Tompkins et al., 2016).

'My family and friends are extremely supportive of me, but they don't "get it"; having Natalie to talk (and cry) with has been immeasurably important. When the pandemic hit and we were connecting remotely, Natalie was truly the only person I had who understood what it was like. We shared in each other's struggles and we celebrated each other's successes. In some ways it has been a challenge because there are only two of us; but in other ways, I wonder if we would have this close of a relationship if there were more of us in our cohort.'

Recommendations to enhance online learning for doctoral students have included team-based support systems, such as group supervision (Fenge, 2012) or peer-learning networks (Miller et al., 2016). These networks can create support for students' successes and maintain motivation (Wang & DeLaquil, 2020).

'Despite our strong connection, I think we would have benefitted from networking with other doctorate students. Diane and I are in the same position - exploring the unknown together. Developing formal connections with other doctoral students who have successfully achieved milestones would be beneficial.'


Through our experiences we have identified several key areas that require enhancement specific to a doctoral journey. Our student-peer relationship developed at the beginning of our adventure has been key to our motivation and perseverance in continuing our doctoral studies. Yet we have considered the question: what if we did not connect? What supports would we have utilized? Peer-support networks, where we could have connected with other students at various stages of the doctoral process, would have been beneficial prior to the need for social distancing. These networks may have enhanced our experiences when we shifted to remote learning. Should the responsibility to develop student-peer networks fall to students, the faculty, or the institution? This is an area that requires further exploration to enhance doctoral students' experiences.

The solid and trusting relationships we found with our faculty supervisors were enhanced by our ability to connect face-to-face prior to the social distancing required by Covid-19. We are grateful for our experience that allowed us to shift to online learning with little duress. How these relationships will be purposefully developed for incoming students as remote learning continues is unknown. Additional or enhanced supportive services may have been available from the institution. Still, these messages may have been lost due to the overwhelming number of emails and a lack of connection to social media or alternative forms of communication. Further understanding of the role of institutional support with doctoral students is required (Greene, 2015), mainly because it seems that the challenges presented by the global pandemic may remain for some time.


Meaningful relationships with peers are a key factor for graduate students' program satisfaction (Tompkins et al., 2016). As a bubble of two, we have begun our long journeys toward doctoral degrees, over half of the time during a global pandemic. We have identified areas where further development and research is required, specific to institutional support and the development of peer networking. Though we found support from our faculty, friends and family, we recognize the unique strength we found in our bubble with each other.


Berry, S. (2017). ‘Student support networks in online doctoral programs: Exploring nested communities’. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 12, 13-48. informingscience.org
Bista, K., & Cox, D. (2014). ‘Cohort-based doctoral programs: What we have learned over the last 18 years’. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 9, 1-20. ijds.org
Bradshaw, R. (2021). ‘CSWE member pulse survey results: Impact on social work education for spring 2021’. Council on Social Work Education. cswe.org
Bradshaw, R., Rhoads, J., Lee, M. Y., Lightfoot, E., LaSala, M., Franklin, C., & Eads, R. (2020). ‘Report on the current landscape of doctoral education in social work’. Council on Social Work Education & Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work. cswe.org
Cornwall, J., Mayland, E. C., van der Meer, J., Spronken-Smith, R. A., Tustin, C., & Blyth, P. (2019). ‘Stressors in early-stage doctoral students’. Studies in Continuing Education, 41(3), 363-380. doi.org
Fenge, L. A. (2012). ‘Enhancing the doctoral journey: The role of group supervision in support collaborative learning and creativity’. Studies in Higher Education, 37(4), 401-414. doi.org
Fernandez, A. A., & Shaw, G. P. (2020). ‘Academic leadership in a time of crisis: The Coronavirus and COVID-19’. Journal of Leadership Studies, 14(1), 39-45. doi.org Frost, R. (1915). A group of poems: The road not taken. Atlantic Monthly, 116(2), 223.
Gisemba Bagaka, J., Badillo, N., & Bransteter, I. (2015). ‘Exploring student success in a doctoral program: The power of mentorship and research engagement’. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 10, 323-342. ijds.org
Greene, M. (2015). ‘Come hell or high water: Doctoral students’ perceptions on support services and persistence.’ International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 10, 501-518. ijds.org
Hutt, R. (2019, October 15). ‘Which countries have the most doctoral graduates?’ World Economic Forum. weforum.org
Lake, E. D., Koper, J., Balyan, A., & Lynch, L. (2018). ’Cohorts and connections: Doctoral retention at a mid-Atlantic comprehensive institution’. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 20(2), 197-214. DOI: 10.1177/1521025116656386
Miller, J. J., Duron, J. F., Bosk, E. A., Finno-Velasquez, M., & Abner, K. S. (2016). ‘Peer-learning networks in social work doctoral education: An interdisciplinary model’. Journal of Social Work Education, 52(3), 360-371. doi.org
Rizun, M., & Strzelecki, A. (2020). ‘Students’ acceptance of the COVID-19 impact on shifting higher education to distance learning in Poland’. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(18), 6468. doi.org
Sverdlik, A., & Hall, N. C. (2020). ’Not just a phase: Exploring the role of program stage on well-being and motivation in doctoral students’. Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 26(1), 97-124. doi.org
Sverdlik, A., Hall, N. C., McAlpine, L., & Hubbard, K. (2018). ‘The PhD experience: A review of the factors influencing doctoral students’ completion, achievement, and well-being’. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 13, 361-388. doi.org
Tompkins, K. A., Brecht, K., Tucker, B., Neander, L. L., & Swift, J. K. (2016). ‘Who matters most? The contribution of faculty, student-peers, and outside support in predicting graduate student satisfaction’. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 10(2), 102-108. doi.org
Wang, L., & DeLaquil, T. (2020). ‘The isolation of doctoral education in the times of COVID-19: Recommendations for building relationships within person-environment theory’. Higher Education Research & Development, 39(7), 1346-1350. doi.org