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Demystifying Dissertation Writing
A win-win. That is what I am proposing: a win-win. Far too many doctoral students leave graduate programs without completing their dissertations. Latest estimates put the number at just under 50%, with the humanities and the social sciences having higher attrition rates than the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Faculty members are juggling jobs already overflowing with teaching, scholarship, research, service, and advising. And at a time when doctoral students may be most in need of support from and access to dissertation advisers and when the camaraderie of courses has passed, newly graduated Ph.D.s reported that their advisers were least available to them during the dissertation preparation and dissertation defense phases. So what is the solution? Or at least a solution?
I propose that all doctoral programs offer structured writing seminars. I do not mean research seminars or pro-seminars, where faculty members present their research. Although these are great professional development activities, they do not directly help students write and finish a dissertation. Nor am I talking about seminars focused on research or methodology, where students can discuss and conduct their dissertation research as part of the seminar. I am talking about seminars that focus on the writing process. On how to take useful notes, to prepare functional outlines that include references, to sit down every day and put fingers to the keyboard, to overcome writer's block, to revise adequately, and to know when to stop. I am talking about seminars that teach habits of fluent writing.
When I was a graduate student, I excelled in my courses. I was required to take two years of grueling coursework on psychological theories, research methodologies, and statistical methods. Although I excelled in my courses, I was still at risk for being ABD (all-but-dissertation) because I had no idea how to write a 100+ page manuscript about a self-directed research project. I could pull off writing course-length papers, but the dissertation was a whole different matter.
I was fortunate in that I met Robert Boice, an expert on academic writing and faculty development, and he agreed to facilitate a writing seminar for me and a group of graduate students. He also agreed to advise one last doctoral student before he retired, and that last doctoral student was me. Through him, I learned how to take notes in a way where I kept the purpose in mind, that is, using and citing the research to support my argument; I learned how to write in what he called "brief daily sessions" and give up my practice of writing only when I had ridiculously large blocks of time (and often an impending deadline); I learned how to turn off my internal critic and overcome my penchant for procrastination. Had I not met him, I may have completed my dissertation, but I truly fear that I may not have.
Because of my experience, I have spent the past fifteen years offering writing workshops and seminars to doctoral students and new faculty members and provided writing coaching to quite a number of academics. While teaching a dissertation writing seminar at the University of Vermont, I tried various writing books as required reading. Many of them are very good. But none of them served my purpose for the course. I wanted a book that emphasized the importance of working within a group setting and of sharing outlines and drafts, encouragement and accountability. So, I wrote it. Or at least I wrote outlines for each class. Then, when I taught the seminar the next year, I expanded and revised the outlines, and revised them again the following year. Before I realized it, I had written a book that could serve as the central text for a dissertation writing or proposal writing seminar or could be used by a group of students who informally met to support each other as they wrote their dissertations.
My book, Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text is practical, motivational, and yes, even at times comical. I address the nuts-and-bolts of writing a dissertation. I write at length about the importance of prewriting and how prewriting is the best antidote for writer's block. I provide explicit guides on how to use bibliographic programs to take useful notes and then sort and play around with the notes as you organize your dissertation. The book is focused on students in the humanities and social sciences, not because doctoral students in the STEM fields couldn't find a book like this useful, but because the context of working on the dissertation is different. Often students in the STEM fields have ready-made social support in the forms of more advanced doctoral students and post-docs who work in their lab. Also, advisers may be more available as they have a vested interest in and an investment in (often in the form of grant support) the research their students are conducting since often the students are working on one aspect of a STEM adviser's program of research. While this situation does occur in the humanities and social sciences, it is far less common.
In Demystifying Dissertation Writing, not only do I teach writing techniques and habits of fluent writing, I also provide tips to doctoral students on how to work with their doctoral advisers. Among other suggestions, I coach them on how to prepare for meetings with advisers and how to use their advisers' time wisely. For instance, I suggest that when students submit either a chapter or their whole dissertation to their advisers for review, they also include an outline of their whole dissertation. I write:
By including the outline, you provide your adviser with a quick refresher on your project. It will also provide him or her with an efficient way to assess your progress. Remember that you are working on one dissertation while your dissertation adviser may be advising numerous students, along with working on his or her own writing projects, teaching courses, presenting at conferences, and serving on committees. Make it as easy as possible for your dissertation adviser to provide you with useful feedback and to think you are making great progress.
When I taught my seminar, the students got a "win." While I did not research this rigorously, I do know that the students who took my course tended to graduate six months to a year prior to the members of their cohort who did not take a structured writing course. Plus, I worked with many students who had been unengaged with their dissertations for a few years and they admitted they would have remained ABD had they not taken a structured writing seminar. Since I have been in graduate school, many more programs are offering writing seminars, and for this I am thrilled. And from exchanging anecdotal evidence, many of the faculty members in these programs state the same thing: The students finish quicker (that is, with reduced time-to-degrees) and more of them complete their degrees (that is, with reduced attrition rates).
Along with the students, the faculty members get a "win." As I mentioned earlier, faculty members have plenty on their plates. The demands of an academic job only seem to be increasing; especially during the current economic downturn, the external resources and supports seem to be decreasing. The many faculty members that I know really enjoy advising doctoral students. They find it stimulating and fun to interact with doctoral students on new projects and research. Although, many of them have confided in me that they just don't know what to do when they have a student who struggles with the writing process and misses writing deadlines, as many doctoral students do. So, when I started teaching my dissertation writing seminar at UVM, I was pleasantly surprised when the faculty members who were advising doctoral students made a point of contacting me to thank me for offering the seminar. They told me how much it was helping their students. They also shared that they were freed up to provide advice and direction on the dissertation topic and the methodology without also having to be a writing coach.
I would say that the faculty members who lead a writing seminar get an even bigger win. I wrote my book to help students with their writing and to facilitate the offering of such seminars. You can develop a seminar around the ten chapters in the book. Plus, if you decide to teach a dissertation writing seminar, I can assure you that it will be one of your favorite courses. The students are highly motivated to make progress on their dissertations. You get to learn from students passionate about their dissertation topics. They learn from one another and you will get to learn from them. The nature of the course seems to foster a spirit of collegiality and shared mission, with plenty of opportunities for good-natured ribbing and comic relief.
Ah yes, and the university benefits. Students are becoming increasingly savvy about choosing graduate programs. In addition, organizations are encouraging programs to publish time-to-degrees and attrition/completion rates. While I have never seen a research project addressing the outcomes associated with programs offering structured writing seminars (hum, a possible dissertation topic??), the anecdotal evidence weights heavily toward showing that students graduate more quickly and more of them graduate. So the university gains a "win" also. I am hoping that more doctoral programs will begin sponsoring dissertation writing seminars. Eventually, I am hoping that every program offers such a seminar. So, I guess I don't see it as a win-win after all. Rather I view it as a win-win-win for the students, the faculty members, and the university.
Gravois, J. (2007, July 27,). In humanities, 10 years may not be enough to get a Ph.D. The Chronicle of Higher Education, pp. A1 & A9-10,
Jaschik, S. (2007, July 13). Why and when Ph.D. students finish. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/07/17/phd.