Dear Kerry Ann: Why Won’t My Students Finish Their Dissertations?
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
Posted by: Allison Van Buren
Originally posted on Inside Higher Ed.
Dear Kerry Ann,
Do you have any suggestions for motivating graduate students to meet their dissertation-writing deadlines? I'm working with several bright and energetic students, but they all have difficulty meeting writing deadlines. I want them to finish their dissertations, but now another semester has gone by with missed deadlines and no concrete progress. And that means that May graduations look increasingly unrealistic.
Why aren’t they meeting deadlines or moving forward? Are there any structures or tools I can put in place to help them move toward completion?
I understand how difficult it can be to want your graduate students to succeed but not know how to support their productivity. Having just spent the past 12 weeks working with 150 dissertation writers, I know one thing for sure: there’s often a large, unspoken disconnect between faculty advisers and graduate students when it comes to writing a dissertation.
Advisers imagine that delays are due to the content of the project, while graduate students are most often struggling withwriting and resistance. Because of that disconnect, advisers’ efforts don’t meet students where they are stuck, and the students’ impostor syndrome can be so intense (and the power differential so great) that it keeps them from asking for the type of help they need.
For a wide range of reasons, the hardest thing for doctoral students to do is the one thing that will actually lead to a completed dissertation: sit their butt down and write! Instead, procrastination, perfectionism and isolation drive students to spend their time doing everything but writing. And unlike seminar papers, a dissertation cannot be binge written in a few days.
That is important to understand and take seriously, because the conversations you are likely having with your students (about the content of the work) are not getting to the core problem: the fact they are not actively writing their dissertation.
Let me suggest that you gather together your doctoral students for an explicit conversation. It is important that you non-judgmentally communicate three things. You should:
- acknowledge there is a common problem of missing deadlines,
- express your commitment to supporting them in completing their dissertation and
- clarify that the point of your meeting is to strategize about how to change their productivity habits in order for them to meet their goals.
Then I suggest using the following questions to get real with them about breaking their cycle of dissertation avoidance.
#1. What Is a Dissertation?
That may seem like a simple question, but I can assure you that the perfectionist-fueled expectations of many graduate students often differ significantly from the actual expectations of their committee members. When I ask graduate students what a dissertation is and if they have ever read one (particularly one that has recently passed in their department), the response is often complete confusion.
Your students (no matter how smart they are, how sophisticated their research skills are or how excellent their course work is) have never written a dissertation. And let’s be honest, a dissertation is unlike any of the genres of research that they have been reading.
What that means is that they do not know how to write a dissertation, and they may have unrealistic expectations about its required scope and quality -- expectations that are keeping them from moving forward. Keep in mind that your students have spent several years in classes learning how to criticize the best work in your discipline. Then when it’s time to write, their critical gaze is so well developed that it’s often difficult to get a single line of text on paper.
If your students have unrealistic expectations or just don’t know what they are doing, be ready to give them specific support. The most effective form of direct guidance is a dissertation rubric. If you or your department don’t have something that specific, try sharing your favorite book on dissertation writing. (My favorite is Sonja Foss and William Waters’s Destination Dissertation.) And I recommend that you have references to a few well-written dissertations in your recent departmental history that they can read as examples of a finished product.
#2. Do You Have a Daily Writing Habit?
It’s well documented that the most productive academics write every day -- Monday through Friday -- in short periods of time. (And by “writing” I mean anything that moves a manuscript out the door.)
However, that’s the opposite of how most graduate students write, or imagine they should write, their dissertations. This emerges from a combination of past binge-and-bust writing habits, the flawed assumption that nothing can get done in 30 minutes a day, and the idea that they must have everything figured out before they start writing.
If any of these ideas come up as reasons why your students aren’t spending at least 30 minutes per day on their dissertation, that’s great! You can simply point out that their current strategy isn’t working and invite them to experiment with a new habit (daily writing) for the next two weeks.
In addition to a judgment-free discussion of their writing habits, you may also want to speak directly to the topics of perfectionism and procrastination. I’m guessing that you have dealt with those factors in your own writing, and it would be a generous gift to your students to acknowledge your experience and share some strategies that you’ve used to manage them. Graduate students appreciate knowing that even academics who are well published continue to experience perfectionism and procrastination. If you have never procrastinated and don’t wrestle with perfectionism, you can still normalize their occurrence and provide some brief resources.
#3. What Support Do You Need to Produce a Written Draft?
What I’ve learned in working with dissertation writers on a daily basis is that they thrive in a supportive community of active daily writers. Why? Because the natural isolation that graduate students experience is exacerbated when they get to the dissertation-writing stage. This is when they need more, not less, support. But the type of support that is most useful is that which holds them accountable for writing every day and producing drafts.
I am not recommending that you become their accountability buddy. I am suggesting that if they are not meeting deadlines, producing written work and making concrete progress, it’s often because dissertation writing has no built-in daily accountability.
Many graduate students I’ve worked with have made a common error. They have prioritized all of the work that had built-in accountability -- teaching, service, research tasks for their adviser and job applications -- to the exclusion of the one activity that will lead to their completion of the dissertation: writing. They have done this because all those other activities had external deadlines that day, while their dissertation could be pushed off until tomorrow, Thanksgiving break, Christmas break, summer, next year …. This is a great time to ask what type of accountability structure would help your students to prioritize at least 30 minutes of daily dissertation writing above all the other things clamoring for their attention.
There’s one more reason why it’s important to ask what support graduate students need: they often are not aware of, or taking advantage of, existing support services on the campus. Colleges and universities are increasingly offering writing space for dissertation writers, writing retreats, dissertation coaching and writing workshops. And even if your campus does not offer such services, plenty of online dissertation-writing communities can provide supportive accountability for your students to write every day.
Ultimately, I want you, as an adviser, to be able to get your students producing work so that you can have the substantive conversations about their dissertation research that you would like to have, and are distinctly positioned to have, with them. But before any of that can occur, they have to put words on a page. Figuring out what’s keeping them from doing so is your first point of intervention.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity
P.S. I love your questions, so keep posting them on my Facebook page.