We are delighted to share this contribution from Mary Jane Curry who is an associate professor in the Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester, New York. She is co-author or co-editor of six books, including Global academic publishing: Policies, perspectives and pedagogies (2018), Language, literacy, and learning in STEM education: Research methods and perspectives from applied linguistics (2014), A scholar’s guide to getting published in English: Critical choices and practical strategies (2013) and with six doctoral students is currently writing “An A-W of academic literacy: A reference for graduate students” (2021). With Theresa Lillis, Mary Jane co-edits the book series Studies in Knowledge Production and Participation (Multilingual Matters).
Like marathon runners, students at the end stages of writing the doctoral dissertation/thesis often struggle with exhaustion and motivation. While I have never run a marathon, 20 years ago I completed my dissertation, and have thought deeply about how to support doctoral students. Recently I asked some former advisees—now graduated—to identify the strategies and practices that helped them. Like many students in our school of education, all of them had children/families, many were part-time students, and most were working, even the full-time students. Some also cared for aging parents and other relatives. Two students had to move away from Rochester for family reasons before finishing.
The dissertation process evoked strong emotions in these students, resulting from the long amounts of time required to write and revise the dissertation, the feedback they got on their drafts, and, in some cases, imposter syndrome. It’s not surprising that finishing the dissertation took longer than everyone hoped (it usually does). But they all did it! The social supports and personal strategies former advisees reported align with other advice on finishing the dissertation (e.g., Allen, 2019). In this post, I focus particularly on how supports from the advisor/supervisor and institution can foster students’ use of productive strategies.
The social supports stemmed from me as their advisor, the institutional structures, and their peers (as well as family members and therapists). As an advisor, 15 years ago I set up a support structure called First Friday Group (FFG), a non-credit monthly meeting modelled after the weekly Friday Group convened by my own PhD advisor Michael Apple. I remembered how much I learned from him and from the Friday Group students who were ahead of me in their programs—as well as, over time, from those who came in after me. In our FFG, students and I share our work and provide feedback; rehearse conference presentations and defenses; share good news and bad; and offer broader academic and emotional support. We also hold social events like potluck dinners, (many) baby showers, and dissertation defense celebrations. This community has enabled students to develop sustaining peer relationships that straddle the professional and personal domains. It has also helped to decenter the common dynamic of the advisor-advisee dyad to incorporate lateral peer relationships. As one former student, Maryam Razvi Padela, summarizes: “Over the years, so many of my colleagues were useful sounding boards, readers, and encouraged me.”
Indeed, students’ supportive friendships are crucial to completion, as Alicia van Borssum highlights: “The key to finishing up when I was at the end of my rope was friends with endless cups of tea and lots of tissues. … I had a hard time remembering why the hell I was doing a doctorate in the first place.” Indeed, Linda Quinlan reflects, “I wish I had asked for their support sooner.” While doing their EdDs, both Alicia and Linda were working full time and supporting family members.
Adopting a strategy from my colleague Jayne Lammers, in the past few years I have also begun to hold weekly meetings with smaller cohort groups that are created when students begin the dissertation proposal and continue through the dissertation defense/viva. These smaller groups provide a space for students who are at the same stage to learn from each other as they work with me on producing the same genre. As Hee-Jeong Oh notes,
The most helpful part was when I spent time explaining my dissertation to my colleagues. It was a special kind of conversation that organized and revised my thoughts and writing.
Students in these relationships also discuss each other’s projects and peer review drafts before submitting them to me. As I see one of my core responsibilities as helping students develop their dissertation ideas and express them well, I give considerable amounts of feedback in a style that some students characterized as perfectionism. They see good and bad sides in this tendency. Hee-Jeong places it at the top of her list: “My advisor! Perfectionist, professional, wise. I have learned a ton from Dr. Curry.” Mahmoud Altalouli concurs, “I only remember the bright side of her being a perfectionist.” In contrast, other students often found it challenging: “Having a perfectionist advisor didn’t make it easy … but it taught me a lot,” writes Rabia Hos. To navigate emotional responses to feedback, Martha French advises students to:
acknowledg[e] and figure[e] out how to cope with judgment and criticism (feedback) that complicate feelings of inadequacy (part of the imposter syndrome); ideally you want feedback couched in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily add to feelings of inadequacy; but you also want your advisor and committee members to read and think deeply about your work (not all do) and offer insightful, fair, and expert advice on how to improve it.
(As an aside, feedback I received from these students earlier has encouraged me to shift away from my perfectionism to focus on the big picture.)
As director of our Writing Support Services (WSS), I also sponsor another structured support: week-long writing camps offered in January and June, designed to foster community and focused writing time. Students find these helpful in personal as well as academic ways, as Linda reports:
I thrived on the structure of the camp and found myself making real progress. I was also reassured that other attendees were just as blocked, discouraged, and stressed as I was. This gave me comfort, and I found I became less hard on myself.
The camps spawned small informal writing groups, whose members motivate each other to overcome the challenges of writing in isolation and share their experiences. Here Mahmoud “acknowledge[s] the colleagues who supported me academically and emotionally.”
Professional editors can also provide valuable support. For example, after following my suggestion that she hire a dissertation editor/consultant, Maryam reports:
I cannot overstate how beneficial this was. Not only was she able to look at the nitty gritty of my writing and give feedback quickly, … she had some academic interest/familiarity with the aims of my work and so our discussions were incredibly useful.
Thus by engaging with the structures and supports I outline here, these students pushed through to completion. Despite any structures I create, however, the most powerful support comes from peers—hearing that others are going through the same experiences and feelings buoys students through what Martha characterizes as “messy times.” As Mahmoud concludes: “I could not do it alone! I don’t think anyone could do it alone.”
Allen, J. (2019). The productive graduate student writer: How to manage your time, process, and energy to write your research proposal, thesis, and dissertation and get published. Stylus.