• September 3, 2015

Advising the Struggling Dissertation Student

Writing Dissertation Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Last month I wrote in these pages about how to help students decide to leave graduate school. Not all of them, of course—I meant the dissertation writers who just can't get it done. I was concerned that readers might see that article as an academic remake of the movie Throw Momma From the Train, but its reception proved quite different. It unstoppered many readers' high-proof memories of stalled dissertations, some eventually finished and some not.

Besides helping those who will never finish to make a clean break from academe, we as advisers can also do more to guide stalled A.B.D.'s who do have the potential to finish.

There's already a lot of literature out there on how to get Ph.D. students through their dissertations. Books with titles like Authoring a Ph.D. Thesis: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Dissertation amount to coaching. They command the student to "teach thyself," and convey the implicit assumption that the dissertation adviser will offer no help.

Advisers can—and should—do plenty. But we don't talk enough about how to teach graduate students, in general, let alone at the dissertation stage. Perhaps the first item on the discussion agenda should be a re-examination of the dissertation task itself. This seems a particularly propitious moment to do so. We are, after all, entering a time when new media and new economic realities are reshaping our own information business. Sidonie Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, has lately called for "expanding the forms of the dissertation" to encompass digital and public scholarship, among other possibilities. Louis Menand even suggests in The Marketplace of Ideas that graduate students could publish one peer-reviewed article in place of a dissertation.

We may be contributing to our students' difficulties in finishing by taking the parameters of the dissertation for granted. Judging by the reader comments on my article last month, graduate students question the shape of the dissertation—a lot. Rather than hewing to old-fashioned models of what a dissertation has been—models that have been distorted by the demands of a shrinking job market—we might cut down on our students' struggles if we reflect on their tasks together with our own.

These are teaching issues, not just administrative ones. This is not only about completion rates or time to degree, nor is it only a matter of redesigning student goals. A widely scoped conversation about how to teach advanced graduate students needs to begin.

With that larger brief in mind, let me return to the work on the ground and describe a few common problems that slow—and sometimes stop—dissertation writers, along with some possible solutions. Consider this as advice to advisers.

Create a collaborative environment. Life for advanced graduate students is inherently isolating—and that isolation can easily stall a dissertation. Consider that a graduate student goes from taking courses (where everyone reads and talks about the same texts) to studying for comprehensive exams (where candidates often work together in reading groups). Then it's time for something completely different: writing a dissertation that's supposed to be creative and original, that takes each student into a specialized world uniquely his or her own.

That's a jarring transition, and teachers haven't paid sufficient attention to it. It requires a new set of survival skills.

What can dissertation advisers do? Encourage dissertation writers to expand their worlds, not only at conferences but at home. In particular, A.B.D. students need different audiences for their work in progress, not just their faculty advisers.

We can encourage these writers to form peer groups within the discipline (yes, an apprentice American historian can be a good audience for a specialist in the British early modern period; after all, they originally trained alongside each other). Or we can promote the formation of dissertation groups in various subfields. I convene my own dissertation writers in a group each month. There are lots of possibilities—and some departments are experimenting with new ones. The larger point is this: Dissertation students should not feel that they're working all alone.

What is your student really interested in? Good scholarship is usually autobiographical in some way: It tells the story of the writer's interests, refracted through the work of others. But a dissertation is a work of discovery as well as a demonstration of mastery. The writer's passions and commitments may change over the course of the writing, sometimes leaving the student in the middle of a dissertation whose topic no longer stirs his or her passion. That can turn the thesis into a long slog, and a student may get bogged down.

It's useful to sit down with struggling graduate students to see if they still care about what they're writing about. Such students may need your encouragement to follow their own interests, for most fear the disapproval of their advisers. A low-key conversation may be all it takes to begin the process of reconfiguring a research plan and rethinking a topic to turn it into one that the student is eager to return to (and since new topics are often contiguous with old ones, it's usually possible to redraw them to preserve already-completed work).

The trigger can be an ordinary observation: I recently had a student point to an offhand comment that I made years earlier as the key to her reconception of her now-completed dissertation. I would never have remembered what I said to her if she hadn't repeated it.

Steer them away from the beginning. Too many students enter the dissertation phase with rigid rules of composition. Left to their own devices, many start at the beginning of a paper and doggedly work their way through it—as though the writer were an artist who decides to start a picture at one end of the canvas and work his way to the other. But that kind of writing process requires you to envision the whole paper before you begin, for how else can you write the introduction to something that does not yet exist?

It goes without saying that that method won't work for a chapter, let alone a whole dissertation. Students quickly become paralyzed before an empty page or a repeatedly rewritten opening paragraph. An adviser can snap students out of it by getting them to start writing at any point in the middle where they know what they want to say. After writing that part, they can turn to another. The missing chunks will find their places later. In the meanwhile, the student is actually writing, employing an organic writing process that makes for a much less stressful experience.

Perfect is the enemy of done. Graduate students often think of their dissertations as polished displays of learning. That's not exactly a fallacy, but it's a dangerous habit of mind. The dissertation is part of a graduate education, and students need to see it that way. Not simply product, the thesis also displays a process of learning—and teaching.

So, yes, a dissertation has to be good, especially if its writer wants to compete for an academic job. But a thesis has to reach that level, not start there. The thesis—and its writer—needs time and space to evolve in a scholarly environment. If everyone involved understands that, then the writer can proceed with less stress.

We also need to remind our students that even a finished dissertation (one that may already have yielded publications) need not be camera-ready. We need to leave them with something to do after they graduate, after all.

A time to read, a time to type. Too much research is one of procrastination's most elegant disguises. There's always another book or article to read, and then another two after that. Students who are nervous about beginning a chapter (or a dissertation, period), or are stuck in the middle of one, can easily be seduced by the siren's song that calls them to additional learning.

When is the right time for students to write? When they know enough to put fingers to keyboard.

What's the adviser's job here? When you see students doing research instead of writing, give them writing exercises that break up the job they're shying away from. Few graduate-student writers, no matter how anxious, find themselves unable to take notes, for example. I thought I was taking notes for my own dissertation until I realized after a few weeks, to my delight, that I was writing it. Sometimes it's that simple.

This list can go on—and I invite others to add to it, for there's more that I need to learn about this topic myself. Perhaps the reason why so little has been written about how to teach advanced graduate students is that the process is so individual, with each doctoral student's path as distinctive as a fingerprint. A practice that helps one dissertation student over a bump might only irritate another.

But some general principles still emerge. The most important one is that dissertation writers are still students, and students need thoughtful teaching.

Dissertation advisers usually behave like gardeners, training our plants to grow upward, bending them a bit here or there, always along the established lines of their growth. But if they stop growing, we need to turn arborist and try to figure out the reason.

Sometimes the problem may be one for a professional counselor—and knowing when to refer someone to that office is a skill in itself. Sometimes students who stop are showing that they no longer want to write a dissertation. That situation takes us back to last month's article about helping nonfinishers leave gracefully, but we should arrive at that conclusion only after we've tried to help the student get over, around, or through the obstacles.

The goal, to paraphrase the proverb, is not just to guide students through today's dissertation-writing problems but to teach them to write for a lifetime.

Leonard Cassuto teaches at Fordham University, where he twice served as the English department's director of graduate studies. He will be writing regularly about graduate education and welcomes suggestions at lcassuto@erols.com.


1. blarkin - November 01, 2010 at 08:20 am

As an A.B.D. student, Cassuto's article certainly speaks to my current situation. I had opened his previous article in hopes of finding inspiration to continue, but alas, that was not the article I needed. There are already great programs out there doing much of what he suggests. I have to say that the faculty of the program I am in, as well as my own advisor, have been more than supportive and are very aware of the hazards of the transition from class to dissertation. In fact, they crafted courses that moved our cohort along incrementally in the dissertation process. My advisor consistently points out what she calls my "sophisticated task avoidance" and presses me forward to the end.

Now, if I can just get my boss at work to understand, I could get back to the paper.

2. jtonks - November 01, 2010 at 09:21 am

This is very helpful! Can you recommend any other great "coaching" books for advisors of struggling dissertation writers? I've also been looking for dissertation-writing software that will help my students feel the sense of deadlines and accountability that propelled them during their classroom days--do you know of any?

3. janesdaughter - November 01, 2010 at 10:06 am

You might have the core of one or two chapters already done if you had to write a proposal for the research itself. At my university, to be admitted to Ph.D. candidacy required submitting (and defending orally) a 20 page "prospectus" that outlined the research questions, methodology for data collection, expectations of what might emerge, and a succinct literature review (or least a good indication of which literatures would be important to survey). I certainly read plenty more books and articles before it was all done but it was a big leg up when that defense was over to look at the outline of my chapters knowing that in some cases a nice chunk was already in hand.

4. dotdidit2010 - November 01, 2010 at 10:39 am

One book that made all the difference for me when I became stuck in my dissertation was by Linda Bloomberg and Marie Volpe (2008) called: Completing your qualitative dissertation: A roadmap from beginning to end." Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers.

Also you can do a search on the library of your college and/or university under dissertation, dissertation advisement and/or coaching. Your school's library may have some great books for you to borrow. You can also ask the librarian for help on finding great articles online in educational journals, or of course, you can go to Google Advanced Scholar and check there. I am really sorry that I did not do that before I began my dissertation journey, because learning about the journey before hand would have prepared me in some ways for the long difficult and lonely haul.

5. cmsmw - November 01, 2010 at 10:41 am

I concur with janesdaughter. I finished up and graduated last year from a Ph.D. program in the humanities, and I honestly couldn't tell you when I actually began to write my dissertation, because by the time I was finished with my comps I already had chunks of it written out. My advisor and committee did an excellent job of helping me integrate a lot of my work from my courses and exam prep into my nascent dissertation. A lot of that ended up being revised, of course, but it helped prime the pump.

6. garlandwilliams - November 01, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Good article. One of the best things that I learned early on from one of my graduate professors at Duke was to approach each paper as if it were a puzzle. Take the time to draw the word picture to fit all the pieces of the puzzle and the result is a strong outline from which to craft your paper. I used this method both on my dissertation and on my book and it works wonders.

Once your have the outlined puzzle, you then can take specific "chunks" at each sitting and write allowing you to fully spell out each thought. The paper then becomes much less daunting as you are taking pieces of the elephant rather than the whole elephant at one time. Additionally, set a writing and research deadline. In my past career in the Army, we called it the "good idea cutoff point". You can always do additional research, but at some point you must stop gathering facts and put your thoughts to paper. For my dissertation, I set an outline of a year for research and proposal and then certain amount of time for each chapter (usually spelled in one or two months or specific days). This would force me to write. It works.

7. dvacchi - November 01, 2010 at 12:20 pm

I'm a new Doc student and I cannot wait to get to the dissertation phase. As an older student, I understand the importance of the coursework, but those are just foundational precursors to the real reason I began this PhD program: my passion.
I wonder if any of the experts out there can offer feedback on the notion that a reluctance to move forward from coursework to dissertation may be due to the possibility that the student was not ready for the entire doc program and should have waited to even begin coursework? Earlier in my 20s, I had nothing I was passionate about enough to even consider looking into a doctoral program - would have been a waste of time and money. But now, after a full career and still in my mid-40s, I have numerous areas I'm passionate about and already have my broader area for dissertation. Now I see some elements of coursework as only delaying the ability to pursue my passion.

My opinion is that there are too many folks out there that roll from undergrad to grad to doc student and have no "real world" perspective to drive their passions. Sorry folks, even though I'm in it, it is glaringly obvious that academia is not the real world.

8. phdeviate - November 01, 2010 at 01:31 pm

I read several dissertation books and I cannot stress enough how much better this one is than all the rest: Destination Dissertation: The Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation. Though its paradigmatic reader is a social scientist, I think it adapts relatively easily to the humanities (me) and to the sciences (I just handed it to a psychologist who is finding it very helpful!). Best. Help. Ever.

9. abrow01 - November 01, 2010 at 02:22 pm

Thanks Leonard--I'm going to share this advice with some graduate students I'm talking to about publishing later this week.---Amy B. Brown

10. more_cowbell - November 01, 2010 at 02:31 pm

A few things really helped me finish - they were lessons I learned on the way, not things anyone told me. You can't really trust your advisor to tell you everything you should or need to know since most will have a personal and professional interest in seeing you finish.

One - it's a dissertation, not a magnum opus. Treat it as such. Know that your work's main audience is your committee so write it specifically for them. This isn't a book nor will it ever get that kind of readership. The fact is only a handful of people will likely have the time or interest in reading your dissertation.

Two - If a particular chapter or section is giving you trouble, consider cutting it. Yeah, I know it's painful but I've never heard anyone complain about a dissertation being too concise. Conversely, long, overly-drawn out dissertations are far too common and a drag for committees to slog through. Know that any chapters you cut can be published later on their own, and they will count as new research not already published in your doctorate.

Three - Have a financial plan. I know it sounds obvious but students need to be made aware of what it's like after funding runs out and one has to finish while working. If they know how hard it is, they might be inclined to work harder while they have funding, choose a manageable project size from the start, or drop out earlier on. I've seen way too many students end up in the cycle of working while ABD but unable to finish. This is the result of poor planning and ignorance. Too many students think that they'll be able to manage (or even be able to find work) later on while ABD. Profs should tell students just how hard it can be to find work, let alone the difficulty of doing that work while finishing a diss.

11. alundcha - November 01, 2010 at 03:16 pm

I was really ready to move on with my life and went from proposal defense to dissertation defense in under five months. With the drive to finish and other circumstances I took control of the process and told my committee very specifically what I needed from them, but otherwise kept to myself and focused exclusively on my work. Where I have seen some of my colleagues struggle is when their committee has control of the process, either by the will of the student who is waiting for direction and approval, or by the committee that knows just what the student needs - as if there is one right way to approach a research and writing project of that magnitude simply because it worked for the faculty. Sometimes a student does not know how to articulate what he or she needs from the committee, in which case it should be the job of the chair to help the student figure it out, not step in and tell the student what to do or establish artificial deadlines to increase the already-intense pressure.

If faculty really want to help students finish they should listen to their students and ask questions so that students can figure out for themselves what their obstacles are and can do their own problem solving in working around them.

12. mougin - November 01, 2010 at 03:20 pm

One easy thing that helped me finally finish a stalled dissertation was obtaining a copy of a friend's (excellent) finished dissertation and placing it where I could refer to it often. It was helpful in concrete ways--what does the table of contents look like, how are tables formatted etc.--but also helpful in reducing my perfectionism by giving me a real and finite dissertation to look at as a model. Putting it out there in case it's helpful for someone else.

13. crankycat - November 01, 2010 at 03:56 pm

"Too much research is one of procrastination's most elegant disguises."
Wonderful turn of phrase - and true, to boot.

14. rambo - November 02, 2010 at 12:31 am

also search at:
www.pennyhill.com for CRS reports and google for free reports

15. rambo - November 02, 2010 at 12:32 am

also search at:
www.pennyhill.com for CRS reports and google for free reports

16. anonscribe - November 02, 2010 at 04:55 pm

I agree with the article and all the comments. Good stuff. For me, it took three months of decompression/procrastination to sit down and begin planning the dissertation. The book _Authoring the Dissertation_ mentioned in the article was a LIFESAVER for me. It helped me begin a program of writing that was methodical and purposeful. After three months of procrastinating, I'm almost done with my first chapter (after just two months of writing/planning). I agree w/ previous posters also: mostly, I needed to remind myself of what I already knew and had done in my quals.

I like the idea of this 'puzzle picture' approach to. My own planning became too linear and oversimplistic, so I started organizing things by problem/question as opposed to "section" - per se. I think they're similar.

"Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good."

17. harmonb1 - November 03, 2010 at 07:41 am

I could not agree more with this article - I think I might use it as an icebreaker with my advisor. She's a junior faculty member who has just been brought on to replace my advisor of 2 years (who, unfortunately, had to step down) and she and I are having an EXCEEDINGLY tough time building a rapport and my project has stalled.

She seems hell-bent on having me start over from the beginning, and I can't seem to make her understand that my brain has never worked in a linear way. Maybe this article will help me explain my point-of-view!

18. hnsawyer - November 04, 2010 at 10:01 pm

For me, as a Ph.D student, (more_cowbell & alundcha) said it best. In my experience, I have replaced my committee chair once and been through 2 committee members. Since faculty are not paid to advise/serve on our committees (again my experience) their interest in helping you finish is on their dime - not yours.

more_cowbell => Thank you! From the bottom of my heart because these are things we have to go to forums to learn as no one is willing to share. Why do other Ph.D keep helpful tips away from those that are coming behind them? This should also be addressed. I am so displeased with the amount of resources there are for us that are trying to be Ph.D's.

An advisor? Yea, right! I do not have one.

"One - The fact is only a handful of people will likely have the time or interest in reading your dissertation."
=> You really put things into perspective for me.

"Two - If a particular chapter or section is giving you trouble, consider cutting it."
=> I agree and have no problems because at this phase, I am really ready to finish and move on with my life. I am not sure which is more stressful, the research or lack of support.

"Three - Have a financial plan."
=> This should have been #1 :) I am going to school through financial aid and am so close to receiving no more money. Nothing against, ABD but I am not going in debt to be an ABD. No matter how much you stress this to your committee and chair - no one cares but you in completing this paper before the money runs out. Sure, grants would help but where are they?

@ alundcha Congrats on your progress! I wish I could tell my committee what I need from them and take control. Majority of us are "waiting for direction and approval, or by the committee that knows just what the student needs - as if there is one right way to approach a research and writing project of that magnitude simply because it worked for the faculty."

It's frustrating to say the least! I am so tired of artificial deadlines. It's more of me asking questions that are often not answered versus faculty listening and asking questions.

Thank you both!

19. robtdengler - November 05, 2010 at 04:37 pm

to jtonks,

20. activescholar - November 05, 2010 at 05:20 pm

to jtonks,

21. activescholar - November 05, 2010 at 05:24 pm

to jtonks, "I've also been looking for dissertation-writing software...--do you know of any?"

ResearchWriterTM will debut at the Decision Sciences Institute Conference/Exhibit later this month. Perfect for dissertations, journal articles and books, it is the first program to integrate all aspects of writing research. Designed by academics for academics, ResearchWriter offers:
- fast learning curve
- ability to manage one or multiple projects
- a dynamic outliner that grows as the project grows
- SnipIt capture, that captures and organizes relevent research text and scholar's ideas. A SnipIt is any text/graphic that one would ordinarily copy, highlight, underline, or cut-and-paste. Type, cut-and-paste, scanner and voice-recognition entry. Searchable.
- Biblio capture, Source document biblio information linked to each SnipIt. Searchable.
- Anchor SnipIts to the project outline, to produce a WritingScript that shows all collected research and ideas in outline order, and appears alongside the draft document as a guide to writing.
- MSWord document creation,formatted for APA (other formats to follow); prepopulated with 5 levels of the project outline as formatted headers, which appears onscreen next to the WritingScript, with automatic drag&drop citations that automatically builds the reference list.

An add-in is being developed to manage the dissertation project with recommended schedule deadlines and an optional report generator to inform committee chair of progress.

Email DrBob@ActiveScholar.com if you wish more information.

22. leefull - November 10, 2010 at 12:18 pm

I undertook studies for a PhD in the UK and sadly did not end up with a doctorate. I completed all the requirements, struggled to write my dissertation with very little supervision (in fact, my supervisor told me that her supervisor had passed away a few months into her own doctoral studies, so I should be able to supervise myself, just as she did, and for the next few years I got very little guidance and when she did meet with me to go over a chapter, she would just be skimming it as I walked in and then would ask me to wait while she finished reading it over). Thus, it should come as no big surprise that when I had my viva, the thesis was referred and I had to take another two years to rewrite it. At this point, I had already decided that I did not want to finish, the program I chose was a mistake, and that I wanted to leave ABD. Since the university I went to had no ABD equivalent, I had to go through all the rewriting motions and resubmit, only to be given what amounts to an MPhil out of departmental pity. I never, however, lost the passion for my topic--even though I lost my passion for academia in the process. I plan on turning my research into a book--not an academic monograph--but a series of essays or short stories based on my topic.

23. papa_ron - November 14, 2010 at 03:22 pm


24. shadowman - November 17, 2010 at 04:02 pm

I coach ABD students to finish their dissertations, and the most common challenge they face is that 1> they are trained as sprinters, to write 20 page papers in a weekend, where a dissertation is a marathon; 2> making progress in an unfamiliar process proves difficult; 3> they feel fear and/or shame as a result of their self-perceived "failure" and turn to procrastination to manage these difficult feelings, which exacerbates the problems.

Thre are two solutions to this: 1> learn new skills and habits that work for you, like time management, pacing, planning, and creating a work schedule and environment that feels right; and 2> accept that you feel fear and/or shame, fight the temptation to procrastinate or read one more article, and start writing. Can be hard at first, but seeing progress creates momentum that keeps you going.

25. papa_ron - November 21, 2010 at 08:48 pm

I'm indebted to - dvacchi(in this blog) - November 01, 2010 at 12:20 pm for expressing many of the same opinions that I was feeling. Major difference is he or she as the case may be is my oldest son's age which puts me past the midpoint of my 60s.

Like dvacchi, I'm a new student proceeding VFR direct from my undergraduate, which I received in August at the University of North Texas, directly to my PhD in Sociology, a marked departure from my career as an engineering consultant. Also, I cannot wait to get to the dissertation phase and in the process of my undergrad research projects and my first semester Grad projects have collected 1 1/2 large binders of potential dissertation material. And, finally, we are alike in our pursuit of PASSION.

I'm in agreement with many of the remaining remarks, in particular those that stem from a readiness or maturity to move on to a terminal degree. And, full agreement with the concept that LIFE presents you with passions to pursue in later life.

As I move from Systems Engineering/Program Management toward the Social Sciences, I do it with the passion of "Building My Better Brick To Leave On The Wall Of Social Civilization" and to give back some of what has been granted to me along the journey. Yes, I know what I'm going to engage in and the PhD will provide additional credibility to my years of career work prior to retirement.

I think the closing statement that academia is not the real world is an exaggeration that may apply to some people but it doesn't resonate with me. My 4XXX level classes of my undergrad and certainly the ones that I'm engaging in as a PhD student are providing me with some new and extraordinary insights that in my career[s] were functions without definition. "I once was blind, but ..."

The one thing that dvacchi didn't say and that I'll add; mid 40s are just about the right time to engage in a terminal degree program. Gee wouldn't that be a great topic for research; success and completion stats for those who enter terminal degree programs by age at entry. Maybe it's been done, I'll have to look it up!


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