Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Michelle Collay, Ed.D. Program

Dr. Michelle Collay is a faculty member and advisor for our top online Ed.D. program at the College of Graduate and Professional Studies here at the University of New England.

A photo of Dr. Michelle Collay, who explains how a top online Ed.D. program works

Dr. Michelle Collay

In this post, she talks about how she advises dissertators, the variety of professional backgrounds her Ed.D. students come from, and how she fosters a sense of community among her online students.

Can you tell me a little about your background and what drew you to UNE?

I came to UNE in academic year ‘12-’13 to set up the Education doctoral program. The curriculum had already been designed, and UNE brought me in to set it up and get it going. I came directly from seven years of experience in a face-to-face Ed.D. program in the California State University system, CSU.

I also had experience in a face-to-face doctoral program at Hamline University in St.Paul, Minnesota, which has a practitioner-focused format similar to the design of the UNE curriculum – so I was able to use a great deal of that experience to inform my work when I moved to Maine.

Can you give us an overview of the online Ed.D. process?

The Ed.D. at UNE Online is a three-year program. In their first two years, a student will work through the exact same courses in the same order, along with the other students who began the program at the same time. This is called cohorting: the same group of students moves through each eight-week term together, from EDU 801 to 802 to 803 and so on through 813 at the beginning of year three.

Within their courses, students have a chance to explore a research topic and learn about research methodology. One of the assignments involves conducting a site study of their own workplace. They may or may not choose to continue to study their own workplace for their dissertation research, so those first two years are really structured to help them improve their research skills, hone in on their research topic, and expand their leadership activities.

We work with the concepts of ‘how do you lead’ through the study of organizations, organizational theory, and policy – among other leadership-oriented subjects. At the end of the second year, when they are done with all of their courses, students move into their third year and begin their research. They work with their dissertation teams through the third year.

Learn more with our online Ed.D. Program Guide

So, in a student’s third year, they transition from a cohort to a smaller team format. How does a cohort team function?

In years one and two, each cohort consists of anywhere from 16-25 students. In the third year, the cohorts are divided into smaller 4-6 member student teams grouped by similar topics, and sometimes similar methodologies. Once formed, each small group is paired with an advising team of three. We assign a primary advisor and a secondary advisor, and each student chooses a mentor of their own to be the third member of their advising team.

Michelle Collay at CGPS Hooding

Dr. Michelle Collay hooding a newly-minted Ed.D. graduate

What is the faculty ratio in the Ed.D. program?

There are generally no more than 25 students in each class. And then of course in the third year the model switches, and they work in the smaller teams, with three advisors.

As a full-time faculty member, I advise a team of students two terms out of every three. In this college we have a three-semester year, Spring, Summer, and Fall, and each semester we have a new cohort that needs faculty advising. I have 12 students at this moment that I’m working with one-on-one. In addition, I work with the students who have had to step out of the program for any reason: personal situations, family medical problems, change of jobs, a new baby – all of the life events that inevitably happen to people over the course of a three-year graduate program.

In addition to advising, do you also teach?

I do teach in the program. I’m teaching the introductory course right now, EDU 801: Preparation for Transformative Leadership. It’s the first class that each cohort takes as they enter the Ed.D. program.

My specialty is advising and dissertation writing, so I primarily work with students in their third and final year. This involves collaborating a great deal with the Program Director for Education. I set up the dissertation committees and oversee the advising, work with third-year student groups to help them determine what methodologies they should use to conduct their studies, and I help them parse through any problems they might encounter with their research site. I also help them with their Institutional Review Board (IRB) application to obtain permission to conduct research. There are a lot of moving pieces that all need to align in year three, and I am very hands-on in the process with our students.

Read more: What Can You Do with an Ed.D.? (with videos)

In your teaching, how do you foster a sense of community among your online students?

That’s a really important question in the online world. I actually see and hear and interact with my students more in this online format than I did teaching face-to-face at my previous job! The very nature of the program and the kind of reading, review, and correspondence that we do in the online setting is very high-touch. So we may not physically sit in a room with our students, but we have a lot of contact.

In my experience, and the research backs me up here, is that reaching out and showing up is half of what people need. They need to know that someone is there for them – and then they follow-up or call if they need more support.

I reach out to my third-year students via phone and email on a regular basis, and I also check with their advisors to make sure they are keeping up with their work. If I find that they’re beginning to fall behind, I reach out to them, and their Student Support Specialist does as well.

While most of the contact that I have with students is online, I do have a handful of students who live in Maine, so I am able to meet up with them once in a while face-to-face. A lot of the time though, virtual meetings via video chat or phone are more convenient for everyone involved and just as effective.

What kinds of backgrounds do your doctoral candidates have?

Looking at our current cohorts, about half of them are K-12 practitioners. They range from mid-career to practicing teachers to superintendents. The next group of our student population is higher ed practitioners. They range from student affairs people to admissions professionals, and we have a lot of community college people who work in student services.

We also have a small number of online Ed.D. program students who come from other settings. There are usually a few military people who come in as they are leaving the military and are planning a transition – and often they’re considering a teaching career. We also have people from various governmental agencies, as well as social workers and medical educators who coordinate professional development for medical staff. They’re not necessarily traditionally considered higher ed, but they are working as trainers.

You mentioned that most Ed.D. students are practitioners. Can you talk more about what it means to be a practitioner?

A doctorate is considered a terminal degree, which means it’s the last one most people earn. The reason we have so many higher ed practitioners in our program is that our Ed.D., or Education Doctorate, is a practitioner degree. It’s not considered a research degree. Most traditional faculty in a higher ed environment have a Ph.D. or an Ed.D. that is research-based. Our students are mostly practitioners.

Many of the people who earn the Ed.D. will remain in their day job and continue to work. Take, for example, a superintendent of schools. They don’t necessarily need an Ed.D. to get hired for the job, but in some areas, it’s considered optimal or preferred or expected. The preparation for the Ed.D. has people using what they do in their day job for their research. Essentially, these Ed.D. candidates are studying the question ‘How can I do my day job better?’ Other graduates need the degree to advance within their organization or use the degree to teach in higher education while remaining in their current role.

Read more: Career-Enhancing Aspects of Earning your Ed.D.

Can you talk a bit about the Institutional Review Board (IRB) here at UNE?

We also have a really great Institutional Review Board (IRB) here at UNE. I’ve worked at six institutions, three private and three public, and IRBs can be a significant challenge for students – and faculty for that matter. Our people here at UNE are very good. Their job is to make sure that the students and faculty who conduct studies are acting in an ethical manner, and that they’re following the guidelines put forth by the Belmont Report.

Every university has its own board, but the protocols are very consistent. What changes from institution to institution is how well-staffed they are and how efficient they are. Sometimes philosophically there are differences, but every place that I have worked people have been very professional.

We also have a very proactive and responsive IRB. At some institutions, it can take up to six weeks to receive feedback from the IRB, but here at UNE, the turnaround time is five working days. It’s really great. There’s a lot of high-touch with students in terms of planning, so it’s great that our IRB is so responsive. It’s one fewer obstacle to deal with.

What do you feel sets the UNE Online Ed.D. program apart from other Ed.D. programs?

We recently surveyed our graduates to see what they said on that very subject. Their answers fell into three major categories. First and foremost, they told us that they felt generally more knowledgeable about their field. Second, they felt that they were considered more credible as leaders, and people in their workplace took them more seriously. Third, many of them needed either a Ph.D. or an Ed.D. credential in order to apply for a specific job.

What also sets us apart is our retention, which is excellent. From when they start their first class, though the beginning of their research, we have a really high retention rate. Staff support is really good, it’s very student-centered. Our students tell us that they feel cared for.

UNE’s Ed.D. program has a phenomenal retention rate. What’s your secret?

We work pretty diligently to let our students know right up front that we will work hard to support them through every bit of their program. We also make sure that students entering the program know that we understand that there will be things that come up while they’re in the program.

We say, “we try to work with you to try to support you through things that might come up that you don’t anticipate.” As you can imagine, some people experience a life-altering event in their personal life, but quickly recover and they’re right back in it. But sometimes we’ll get an email from a student letting us know that something difficult happened, and they’ll end up taking a term off. We work really hard to get those students back in if we can.

We do have excellent retention rates in this program, and we don’t want people going ABD – which stands for “All But Dissertation.” If they can do the work and they are willing and able, we try hard to reach out to them, keep them in the fold, make sure that they feel heard and seen, and have the support they need to earn their doctorate.

Our goal is to prepare leaders who are future-focused and capable of fostering innovation and change. And we do everything in our power to provide each candidate with the opportunity to make that happen.

Interested in learning more about our online Doctor of Education? Download the guide!

Get the Ed.D. Program Guide

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