Interview with Ray Bandlow Ph.D. - Director of Doctoral Studies in Education at Gwynedd Mercy University

About Ray Bandlow Ph.D.: Ray Bandlow is the Director of Doctoral Studies in Education at Gwynedd Mercy University, where he also serves as a Full Professor of Educational Policy. As Director, Dr. Bandlow oversaw the design of the Online Executive Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and the Ed.D. in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. He continues to focus on student success through the coordination of faculty, student advising, curriculum development, and recruitment and admissions services.

Prior to his role at Gwynedd Mercy University, Dr. Bandlow devoted three decades to school leadership and administration in New Jersey, Michigan, New York, and Illinois as a Superintendent of Schools for urban and suburban school districts. He was also Senior Project Manager for a National Academy of Sciences’ National Science Foundation Initiative for four years, and also worked with Kean University in New Jersey to build its doctoral program in urban education.

Dr. Bandlow earned his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from the University of Michigan, where he studied at the Institute for Social Research, one of the country’s foremost research institutions. He also completed post-doctoral education at both Harvard University’s Center for Law and Education and Teachers College of Columbia University.

Interview Questions

[] May we have an overview of the Online Executive Doctorate in Education at Gwynedd Mercy University? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students optimally for a wide variety of roles in educational leadership and instruction?

[Dr. Bandlow] Gwynedd Mercy University is in the Philadelphia region, where there are about 100 institutions of higher education. Philadelphia and Boston house the highest concentrations of colleges and universities in the country.

You see there are a huge number of doctoral programs in education around us. When Gwynedd Mercy University decided to create an Ed.D. program, we thought, “We have to build a program that’s different from others. There has to be a reason why students would want to come to us rather than go somewhere else.” And so we began the development of our program by doing a great deal of research, which included consulting with the Carnegie Project for the Education Doctorate. The Carnegie Project has been around for at least a decade, if not more, and one of the things that we learned when we were working with them was that there is a persistent problem of students not finishing their doctoral degree.

In fact, across the nation we have seen dropout rates of 40 to 50 percent in doctoral programs. And when you dig down a little deeper, you see why. It is not about coursework. It is about students who finish all the coursework but never finish the dissertation, and thus become ABD (which is short for “all but dissertation”). The dissertation is the major barrier for the vast majority of doctoral students who do not end up getting their degree. And the research also showed us that the people who don’t finish their degree are just as capable as those who did finish their degree. So it is not about the students. It is actually the structure of the programs that is failing students.

In most doctoral programs, you take three years of coursework, and in the third year, you start on your dissertation. In traditional programs, when students start the dissertation, they are not as directly connected to the university and its resources. This is where we found many students start to struggle. The dissertation in many programs can be very much a sink or swim proposition. Much of the process of completion can fall victim to external circumstances. For example, your advisor quits, retires, or moves to another university. Things can happen in your personal and/or professional life, such as your taking a new job, starting a family, or helping a loved one through illness or hardship. And the way most dissertations are structured, they are not designed to give students the flexibility and support to make steady progress on their dissertation in the face of these challenges.

This ABD phenomenon informed our design of Gwynedd Mercy University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. We felt that that if we’re going to have a program, it’s going to be one where a very high percentage of students graduate in a reasonable period of time, which we defined as four years or less. And so we built a program that would enable students to achieve just that. Our program is really different in some very critical ways from many other programs you will find out there.

How is it different? From the very beginning of the program, we focus on the dissertation, on giving students the support that they need to engage in dissertation research. For example, each student has a dissertation advisor who does not have more than five students to advise, which is very different from a lot of universities that have 20 or 30 students assigned to each faculty dissertation advisor. Not only do our advisors have the bandwidth to devote their full attention to each of their student advisees, but these faculty are assigned to students from the beginning of the program, and stay with them as they are taking the coursework throughout those three years. Thus they can really develop a strong working relationship.

In our program we aim to have students finish their coursework and their dissertation at the same time, or at most within a few months of each other (as some students want to work on their dissertation for a few months after they complete their final class, which is also fine). We are graduating about 80 percent of our students in less than four years, which is an exceptional graduation rate within a very reasonable period of time.

What really separates us from others is the degree of support we provide our students for their dissertation. In addition to faculty support, students also have access to an academic writing specialist who is a part of our program and who is available full-time to help students with academic writing, which is very different from other kinds of writing students might be used to. We also have a research methodologist who is a key member of our full-time faculty. Our methodologist consults with all of our students, as well as our dissertation advisors to give direction, guidance, and support regarding students’ research questions and methodologies. These supports are really critical, and I believe they are part of the reason why we have such a high graduation rate.

Our model for our dissertation program is different–it is highly focused on students. As such, we are able to adapt and tailor our program to each student’s needs. For example, if a student is feeling they’re not getting the support they need from their dissertation advisor for any reason, or they do not connect as well as they’d like with their advisor, all they have to do is ask me to assign a different dissertation advisor, and my team and I do so right away. Not weeks later–right away. We never have a student go more than a week without a dissertation advisor. I’ve talked to people from other programs, and many tell me that sometimes they’ve gone a year waiting for another dissertation advisor. That is unacceptable.

The dissertation is a cornerstone of the Ed.D. experience and just because it is an independent research study doesn’t mean that students should lose the support they received when they were in classes. In this education space, the term “student-centered” is used frequently, but it can mean different things to different people. To us, it means being there for the student every step of the way, and being tailored and flexible enough to accommodate each student’s interests and academic needs.

Our program has been so successful in helping students complete their dissertations on time that recently we started offering an option for ABD students at other institutions to come to us to finish their dissertation and therefore earn their degree. To be eligible for this option, you must be ABD at another institution and have recently finished the coursework for your Ed.D. degree, as that ensures that your training in the field is current. To determine whether students are eligible for this program, we complete a rubric that measures currency in the field through career experience and accomplishments.

Once we’ve determined that an applicant is eligible, we conduct a prior learning assessment to look at the coursework they’ve had and their professional experiences to determine which of our course objectives they have met and which they have not. We then develop a schedule of courses for them, typically 27 credit hours, whereby they would be able to enroll with us and complete their degree in about a year and a half. That has proved to be very successful, and we’ve had a couple of imitators who have sprung up since we started this degree completion option, which is fine with me. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

Our option for the ABD provides an opportunity for those who have been subjected to “sink or swim” experiences. We’ve heard the horror stories that people bring to us about their experiences in other programs, including programs that are highly-regarded at some top universities. They have felt they have not had a lot of support. With our model, we’re able to help them complete the degree and graduate. That’s really what we’re all about.

[] May we have more information on the areas of interest in PK-12 Schools and School Districts, Special Education, and Higher Education? How does the curriculum for this program combine instructional assessment, curriculum development, education research, education policy, and community relations to optimally prepare students to improve education systems across a variety of contexts?

[Dr. Bandlow] Our program is comprised of 18 courses, 13 of which are the same for all of our concentrations in education leadership. The other five courses that students take are unique to their chosen concentration. Our students across the different concentrations are mixed in for 13 of their courses. But once they embark on their concentration coursework, students take classes with students who chose the same concentration. For example when they take just the K to 12 or the higher ed. leadership, they would only be in courses with other students who were in those same concentrations.

Our concentrations can be divided into two categories: those for higher education professionals, and those for professionals in the PK-12 education space.

We have two higher ed concentrations. One is Leadership in Higher Education, intended for people who are interested in the administrative services, such as enrollment management, law, and governance. The other, Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed, is new, and is geared towards students who are not interested in the administrative side, but instead are more focused on instruction and program development or assessment. This is a unique program, one that emphasizes higher ed classroom instruction.

We also have two concentrations for education professionals who work in primary and secondary education: Leadership in P-12 Schools and School Districts, and Leadership in Special Education.

The curriculum for all doctoral students kicks off with an on-campus residency/orientation, which is part of the first class. Students attend a banquet in the evening and sit at the banquet table with their dissertation advisor, where they also meet two to four other students who have the same advisor. The most important objective of this banquet is for students to get acquainted with their advisor and to talk about what they are interested in. The second class in the program is the first Dissertation Advisement class, where their dissertation advisor takes them through this class. This class has four deliverables: the selection of a dissertation topic, a literature review on their chosen topic, an annotated bibliography of 10-20 sources, and a list of research guiding questions. Research guiding questions help students narrow down and define their final dissertation inquiry. A dissertation, at its essence, is really nothing more than an answer to a question or answer to a couple questions. So the questions have to be well-formed.

The goal of this class is to give students a sense of what is known about this topic already, what we don’t know, and what areas within their topic of interest they would like to explore further. During this class, students’ advisors will also help them assemble their full dissertation committee. They will get their full committee in place as they conduct their preliminary research and form their guiding questions. By the end of this class, our students are further ahead on their dissertation after three months than students in traditional programs are in three years. And from there, students continue working on their dissertation with the support of their advisor. Ideally, they are working efficiently by applying the concepts, skills, and research methodologies they use in their courses to their work on their dissertation with their faculty advisor and committee.

At the beginning of students’ second year, they take Dissertation Advisement II, wherein students meet weekly with their faculty advisor and actually write the first two chapters of their dissertation, as well as either a draft or at least a summary of their third chapter–the methodology chapter. These three chapters are important because they are the required components for an application to the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Students don’t actually have to submit an IRB application if their research does not involve human subjects, but we require them to nevertheless draft an IRB application and the draft dissertation chapters so that they know how to do it.

Over the next two years, students take the third and fourth dissertation classes. In Dissertation Advisement III, students develop a comprehensive research approach, select their subjects of research, and write their third chapter in full. In Dissertation Advisement IV, students compile the data of their results, analyze these findings, and form their conclusions. During this class they also discuss their results’ implications for further research. As you can see, our curriculum is designed so that students are finishing their dissertation even as they are finishing their last content courses. And for students who need a little extra time to work on their dissertation, we do not leave them hanging. We offer a one-credit, Dissertation V course designed for students who have yet to complete or defend their dissertation.

Another benefit of students taking their content courses concurrently with their work on their dissertation is that it gives them an excellent opportunity to immediately apply the concepts, skills, research methodologies, and issues in education they learn about to their work on their dissertation. As students are working on their dissertation, they are also learning about leadership and/or higher ed instruction, and its challenges in the political, social, financial, and other realms. When course content intersects with what students are directly working on for their dissertation, it is an opportunity for them to integrate their independent and class work in a way that is highly beneficial. The structure of our program allows the coursework to be more purposeful, and more directly useful to students in their own independent work.

In an Ed.D. program, a student’s dissertation research is intended to inform practice. Most of our students are practitioners–teachers, principals, and university instructors. Some of the topics I see most often relate to student success, and particularly student success amongst minority populations. I have seen several dissertations that address persistence and success of minorities at the college level, as well as the secondary school level. I’ve seen research related to instructional improvement, behavior modification, and positive behavior supports and their effect on student success.

[] Gwynedd Mercy University’s Online Executive EdD Program in Education requires students to attend two residencies and one international study experience during their enrollment. May we have more information about these requirements, what they entail, and how they enhance students’ learning outcomes?

[Dr. Bandlow] We have three residencies as part of our online program. There is the one I mentioned previously–the weekend residency at the beginning of the program. Then there is a full week in the summer where we bring students on campus and put them up in dorms. Our students have told us that this second residency feels like a retreat–Gwynedd Mercy University has a beautiful campus, with 300 acres of woods near Philadelphia. Then the following year, we take them to Ireland for an international residency, where we attend a conference on international research methods.

These residencies are critical because they allow us to really get to know our students, to meet them face-to-face, and for them to form stronger relationships with us and with each other.

Another important and unique part of our program is that the international residency is all-inclusive. That means that nearly all costs for the international residency are included in tuition. We cover their airfare, hotels, educational/cultural tours, and conference fees. This is critical because there are a lot of programs that have an international component, but in many cases students are responsible for their travel costs and any conference attendance costs. Thus other programs tend to make an international experience optional. However, this can create a disconnect because some students do it and some don’t. This doesn’t create a cohesive community. We believe that all of our students need to understand what’s going on in education in the rest of the world. We built this into the program so that all of our students can participate in it, at no extra charge.

[] For students interested in Gwynedd Mercy University’s Online Executive EdD Program in Education, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Bandlow] We are looking for applicants who are purposeful and who have a good sense of what they want to do. We ask applicants to provide a sample of their writing, because we want to be sure that they are capable of academic writing at a graduate level. We want recommendations that show the applicant is capable of leadership and professionalism, and has the ability to work proactively and independently. Sure, we provide a great deal of support, but a student must be self-motivated as well in order to succeed. They are ultimately responsible for pushing their dissertation forward within the context of our support systems and mentorship.

One of the most important elements of the application is a statement that students must write about their philosophy on education. We look for something that shows the applicant understands and is committed to student success. Sometimes it’s a matter of challenges that they overcame in their own lives, which tells us a lot about them and their perspective on education. And sometimes it is just a clear and eloquent explanation of their personal mission to improve education at the individual or systemic level. We are looking for something that shows the candidate has a commitment to others that is consistent with our mission.

As a Catholic university, we have a very clear mission. We have our Critical Concerns of the Sisters of Mercy. And we are looking for people who share our critical concerns. Sometimes it just comes down to us asking, “Tell us something about yourself that shows that you’re a person of character.” That’s a hard question to answer, but it tells us so much about the potential of an individual and whether he or she is a good fit for our program.

Once students have completed the application and we have reviewed it and approved it, the final stage of the application process is a personal interview, which will be held with me or another senior faculty member. The goal of the interview is to learn more about them as a person. This interview is not a test to pass, but rather a conversation where we talk with them to get a sense of where they want to go, what draws them to Gwynedd Mercy University, and whether we are a good match. We know that our students invest a lot of time and money into a doctoral program, and we are a non-profit, so we invest a lot of time and money in them too. It has to be a good match for both parties.

[] What makes Gwynedd Mercy University’s Online Executive EdD Program in Education unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students for advanced careers in education and organizational leadership and education systems improvement?

[Dr. Bandlow] The way we handle the dissertation in our program is the most distinguishing factor. Whereas most doctoral programs have students complete their courses first and then embark on their dissertation afterwards, we have students meet their advisors, form their committees, and start their work on their dissertation from the moment they are first enrolled. This creates a much more productive, positive, and personalized experience for each graduate.

Moreover, as mentioned, we have designed this program to be as beneficial for students as possible, which has meant that each of our three residencies is rich with experiences and discussions that enhance students’ understanding of how to improve education on a local, state, national, and global scale. This is incredibly empowering. The fact that international residency costs are included in the tuition of the program is also an exceptional part of our program, and is reflective of our commitment to our students’ success. On a similar note, we also cover all of students’ textbooks, so that they do not have to pay a dime outside of tuition for their course readings.

My Ph.D. experience at the University of Michigan and its Institute for Social Research was wonderful and I treasure those experiences so much because they set me on the trajectory for a varied and fulfilling career. But having said that, this program is the kind of program I wish mine had been.

Thank you, Dr. Bandlow, for your excellent insight into Gwynedd Mercy University’s Online Executive Ed.D. in Education.