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By Claire Aitchison

In this post I want to explore whose responsibility doctoral writing is. That is, who does what, when it comes to supporting and developing doctoral writing?

Of course doctoral students have some responsibility for developing their writing and moving it forward from that which was considered acceptable to or appropriate for undergraduate study. But not all commencing doctoral students have the same writing competencies for advanced academic work.  Increasing numbers of doctoral researchers enter research degree programs from diverse pathways  – perhaps having been away from university for years, coming from industry, being ‘end of career’ candidates, or coming from quite different cultural, linguistic or educational backgrounds into doctoral study. To mix metaphors: it isn’t a level playing field at the start line.

In Australia supervisors are responsible for making the initial judgement call that a thesis is ready to be submitted. But this does not necessarily mean the supervisor has responsibility for developing the writing to that point. Some studies have identified a reluctance by supervisors to carry the responsibility for developing their students’ writing (See for example Paré, 2011 and Catterall et al 2011  http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1212&context=jutlp    Some supervisors report a lack of skills, confidence or interest in writing, rather they see their job as building research skills or as disciplinary experts.  And with shorter completion times and additional bureaucratic and auditing burdens on supervisors, some find they simply do not have time to oversee their students’ writing.

When we look beyond the student supervisor dyad, the picture gets even more muddled.

Institutions themselves are not always clear about whose job ‘writing’ is.  Murray and Cunningham (2011) in their article on supporting academic publishing, argue that institutions are responsible for developing writing where those institutions benefit from research publications (and equally, one may argue, from doctoral publications and completions).

In the North American tradition, freshman rhetoric and composition courses inform undergraduate writing, but there doesn’t seem to be parallels at the postgraduate level. (Please correct me if I’m wrong!)

In Australia and New Zealand, doctoral writing is frequently attended to by centralised units such as Graduate Schools, Learning Centres, Academic Development Units, or Schools of Education. Support may include face-to-face or online workshops, programs, intensives, writing retreats and so on, mostly not-for-credit and not compulsory. (Our blog colleague, Susan Carter, is co-authoring a book with more on such ‘generic writing supports’–Watch this space for the release date.) Typically these courses focus on writing skills, processes or genres, covering things like writing literature reviews or conference abstracts, writing for scholarly journals, structure, editing, and so on. Course provision may involve in-house writing specialists, linguists or literacy lecturers, as well as visiting experts, or disciplinary experts with an interest or track record in writing and publishing. Individual disciplinary groups or Research Centres may also offer a range of writing support directly to their students.

There is also another, less well acknowledged source of doctoral writing ‘help’. I am talking about what appears to be a rapidly growing, sometimes hidden, market of non-institutional writing support mostly accessed via the Internet. In my own work with doctoral students over the last two decades, I have been aware of the increasing uptake of such services by students. I am aware too of a growing industry of retired or under-employed academics who offer services as writing consultants, mentors, editors and coaches. As far as I know, this burgeoning industry is little documented and much of it unregulated. I believe too, that many institutions and/or supervisors are unaware of the extent, or nature, of uptake of these services by their doctoral students.

It seems to me that as long as institutions don’t recognise the centrality of writing to the doctoral project, and as long as we fail to provide systematic and integrated writing support into/ within degree programs, then students will seek help with their writing where ever they can find it. And as a consequence, their experiences will be uneven, and even unhelpful or inappropriate.

Perhaps you would be prepared to share your experiences of the different kinds and formulations of doctoral writing support that you are aware of.

We’d also be interested to hear of any institutional policies that identify responsibilities around doctoral writing.

(If you wish to remain anonymous please indicate as much when you hit the ‘comments’ button, which sends your comments to us before we publish it on the blog.)


Some references:

Catterall, J., Ross, P., Aitchison, C., & Burgin, S. (2011). Pedagogical Approaches that Facilitate Writing in Postgraduate Research Candidature in Science and Technology. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 8(2).

Paré, A. (2011). Speaking of writing: supervisory feedback and the dissertation. In L. McAlpine & C. Amundsen (Eds.), Doctoral education: research-based strategies for doctoral students, supervisors and administrators (pp. 59 – 74). New York: Springer.

Murray, R., & Cunningham, E. (2011). Managing researcher development: ‘drastic transition’? Studies in higher education, 36(7), 831 – 845.