Advising the Struggling Dissertation Student

Brian Taylor

October 31, 2010

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