Writing and communication researcher

I currently serve as the Director of Thesis and Dissertation Support Services in the Graduate School at NC State University. My research focuses on genre theory, science writing and communication, and open culture. I teach courses at both the graduate and undergraduate level on scholarly writing, environmental communication, and science, technology, & society.

Why it’s dangerous to hate ALL administrators

In the last year or so, we have seen a high number of articles or blog posts with a scathing attitude toward the 1) increasing number of administrators at universities, and 2) high salaries they make, relative to other employees of universities. According to the American Institutes for Research, higher ed institutions added an average of 87 administrators or professional employees every work day between 1987-2012. Most recently, people have been responding to a study that showed student debt grows faster at the universities whose leaders are paid the most. There’s a lot more out there if you just do a quick Google search, but suffice to say: there’s merit to this conversation, and I think it’s good that it is happening.

However, I’m increasingly dismayed by the vitriol and often (but not always) highly simplistic attitudes toward the discussion. As academics, we learn that the world is not black and white (eg. “Get rid of administrators completely!” “They are paid Himalayan salaries!”) but instead has many, many facets that require deep thought, much conversation, and serious consideration of all the elements in play. Above all, we as academics are taught to ask why. Why do we have so many administrators at universities?

I can’t answer that question in just a blog post, nor even as just one person at one school. But let’s consider some issues that could contribute to understanding the situation. Universities have become really complex working operations. Faculty play a key role, and ideally, universities could have a large majority (or even all!) of their faculty in tenure-track positions. Faculty contribute to the research, teaching, and service requirements at an institution, and the faculty I know do a great job at this. They are one of the reasons that NC State is a top school.

So who are the administrators? Yes, there are the standard President/Chancellor, Provost, and Deans whose jobs provide leadership for units on campus. There’s the grayer area of Vice Provosts, Vice Chancellors, and so on, who provide leadership within those large units or across several. Very often these are former faculty who have risen up the ranks. Some of these roles are the new ones that have been created over the last couple of decades and contribute to the statistics from the study mentioned above.

Then there are other administrators and professional employees at the university, like Head of the Libraries, Director of Information Technology, Director of Distance Education, Head of Human Resources — these are all people whose titles and roles at the university get them lumped into this category that people attack when they use the term “administrative bloat” or to assign as the cause of increasing college costs. These people also supervise other employees in this category as well, like Instructional Technologists, Librarians, or Human Resource Officers. These people almost always need advanced degrees for their jobs (or at least, at my own public institution in NC, that’s the case). Does anyone want to argue we don’t need librarians?

All of these titles I’ve mentioned, and there are many, many more, reflect the complex nature of a university. Yes, faculty play a key role in conducting research and making important contributions to knowledge with what they do. And yes, emphatically yes, students are here primarily to attend the courses taught by our faculty and earn degrees. But even those acts require other processes that necessitate people who serve other roles around the institution. Here’s a basic example: Let’s say a faculty member earns a multi-million dollar grant to run a research lab and uses some of the funds to hire some grad students, postdocs, and research assistants. Does that particular faculty member know how the minimum salary she can offer her postdocs is calculated? Whether dental coverage is a required part of a postdoc’s healthcare benefits? Does she know how many hours per week her graduate students can work if they are international students? And perhaps the most complex example: does she know how many hours a research assistant could work before certain Affordable Care Act regulations kick in, and how much of her grant monies she would have to set aside to account for the ACA changes that will take effect in years to come? (This last one is perhaps the best example, because the ACA has changed a lot since first enacted and will continue to change as different elements come into effect over the next few years. All of these examples include important legal requirements that are critical to get right.)

Generally, the answer is no, faculty don’t always know the answers to these questions. Did you get that kind of training in your PhD program? I didn’t. Certainly many PhDs do not get that formally, perhaps slightly informally if you worked in lab and your PI was open about these kinds of things. The point here is that higher education is subject to many different practices, regulations, and requirements, many of the same ones that other workplaces are subject to–because a university is a workplace, too! Is it practical for faculty to be primarily responsible for knowing all of these? Along with their research, teaching, and service responsibilities? Or is it more practical to have some administrators who are responsible for these things? Often, people in administrative roles bring knowledge, experience, and skills that are valuable for the university.

Here’s another example, one I thought of after reading Rebecca Schuman’s June 16 column for Slate in which she discusses the situation of 56 Canadian academics applying in groups of 4 for the University of Alberta’s opening for its next President. She includes in her discussion the example of a highly-paid former Ohio State President who received a retirement package worth nearly $6 million. She writes,

“If Gee had selflessly capped his buyout at, say, a meager $1 million, the university could have offered $10,000 scholarships to 500 additional students (or hired 100 new faculty at $50,000 each, give or take).”

I totally get her point — that’s a ton of money!! — and I agree with her in principle to critique that kind of retirement buyout. But this isn’t quite how it works to fund scholarships or faculty lines. Let me explain. In her piece, she’s suggesting Gee take $5 million less for the buyout and saying what universities could otherwise do with the money. Yes, you could have 500 $10,000 scholarships, or 100 faculty paid $50,000 (but no benefits! and who would pay the EI tax?) — but they would all just be for ONE YEAR. And then the money would be gone. More accurately, $1 million dollars for financial aid could get you just THREE $15,000 scholarships for students for one year, but they would last over many, many years. That’s because you don’t just immediately spend all of the money you’re given, but you invest the $1 million and then use the annual returns to pay for the scholarships. (My calculation assumes a conservative 4.5% rate of return on a $1 million investment.) Then, you can maintain the scholarships every year.

Funding graduate students is even more expensive — the rule of thumb around here is that a $1 million dollar donation can get you ONE annual fellowship for a graduate student. Just one!! Schuman’s commentary reminded me of this good example of why universities need an administrator who serves in development. These people understand how much money you really need to fund student scholarships AND how to make them last a long time.

My point with these two examples is that the situation of having many administrators at universities is really complex, and it’s because the university is a highly complex organism. We need some of these people to coordinate the complexities, and having some of these people leave faculty to more freely to pursue their research and teaching. Is the system perfect? Of course not. But I’d love to see articles that reflect these issues and interrogate the complexities. Don’t just hate all of the administrators. (And don’t assume they are all overpaid.) Is our university changing? Seems to be. What’s changing about higher education to have more professional staff? I think it’s important to have these conversations, which help to shape the future of our universities as we are tackling important issues like contingent labor, student-athlete unions, and the globalization of higher ed. But let’s do it with the nuance and strong research that we as academics have been taught to do.

 

Keeping perspective while writing

Finishing your thesis or dissertation, or being a faculty member with publishing responsibilities, requires a lot of time and energy spent writing (among many other things). Indeed, it is a big part of being in the academy, and it can also be a difficult process. The plethora of “how to be more productive” blog posts out there just goes to show how much we fixate on writing, as that’s a key indicator of productivity for graduate students and faculty alike. And hearing the phrase “how to be more productive” can just make you feel like a paper mill whose main goal is to churn out final projects, taking the joy out of the process.

What’s often lost is some perspective on why writing matters and why we write in the academy. I would argue that remembering why, and also being a bit more reflective by thinking about your writing, would help many people have a better relationship with the process and help them to actually finish those writing projects they are doing. Stick with me:

Why do academics write?

To paraphrase Garvey (1972), communication is the essence of academia (and grad school). Yes, you are engaged in research, hopefully research that you really enjoy doing. But, you don’t just work in the lab or do textual analysis — you write about what happened during your research and what you discovered for an external audience beyond yourself. To adapt a common phrase: “If you don’t publish it (or defend it), it didn’t happen.” But you don’t write because you have to write up the results of your research. We write theses, dissertations, and journal articles because we have learned important things and made critical connections that are valuable for other people to know about. (Who, or how many, can be debatable, but at the very least, if you’re doing it, then it should be something worth knowing for other people.) We don’t write for the recognition, to prove how smart we are, or to churn out work not worth anything. We write for an audience who relies on what we are doing; we write to help build an informed citizenry; we write so that others may build on our work. All of these things means that we must be writing about what we are doing as academics.

Keeping Perspective

So, then, do you think about this when you sit down to write your thesis, dissertation, or journal article? Or do you sit down and write and instead think of how difficult it can be to type the right words and finish the project? Next time you have a writing session, start by thinking about why you are writing what you are writing. You don’t have to dwell on it for a long time, but acknowledge your purpose. For example, if you are a doctoral student, keep some perspective on the process. Yes, it is a required document, and when you finish, you will earn a PhD or EdD. But you are really writing for a couple of key reasons that aren’t just about finishing. One, you are earning an entry ticket into a research profession. This means that your goals in writing are to demonstrate to a small group of people with strong research credentials who are tasked with determining that you have what it takes to find research problems, design methods for solving it, conduct research, and see a large project through to completion. As such, your dissertation reflects this — you write chapter summaries in your introduction, you use transition paragraphs to explicitly link one chapter with the next, or one section of literature with your choice of methods, and so on.

The other thing you are doing in writing a dissertation is you are contributing to a field of research. So, you are writing about how the things you’ve been doing for the last year (or two or four) are things that other people who are interested in your topic should know about. Information they could use in future research. Information that builds on a long line of studies on a topic. Information that has determined the best method for approaching a problem. And so on. You have valuable things to say to a community of people interested in your area, and without finishing a dissertation, they can’t know what you’ve done.

How can you do this?

I think keeping perspective in your writing can easily be done with a little knowledge of your genre. Why are people interested in the kind of writing that you are doing? Keep them in mind while writing. Don’t think about how you have to churn out five more pages and your chapter or article will be done. Instead, think about how you can best tell your readers what you have done and found. If you are writing a research article, then one of your goals is to communicate what you’ve done in a way that clearly connects to work already accomplished in the field. Your readers are going to be other researchers and graduate students, but you might also be surprised at the broader audience you might have — the rise of science communication, for example, means that well-educated writers may adapt your article for broader publics and in a variety of venues. So, when you are writing, think about how you can best share what you know with the people who want to know it. Keep the perspective. Don’t “churn out pages” or have a “binge-writing” session. Be thoughtful and purposeful, and I bet things will go more smoothly.

Questions to ask to help you keep perspective:

  • What is the main purpose for writing this piece?
  • Who is interested in the information I have to share?
  • What organization and ideas will best communicate this to them?
  • What am I contributing to the field by writing?

Event recap: Dissertation Institute

The week of May 12-16, Thesis and Dissertation Support Services held our first-ever Dissertation Institute for NC State’s doctoral candidates. We had a total of fourteen students participate, and they came from a variety of disciplines: electrical engineering, sociology, economics, physics, and biomedical engineering, to name just a few. They all came together for a week-long intensive “bootcamp” for their dissertations that I spent this spring developing. Here’s a short summary of  the events and program elements in case you are interested in implementing this for your own doctoral program or university:

Day 1

The first day began with a brief orientation where we reviewed policies for the week and all of the awesome spaces available to us at our primary site, NC State’s award-winning Hunt Library. We then began the official program with the first activity: visually mapping their dissertations. For this activity, we used the whiteboard walls of Hunt’s Creativity Studio.

Dissertation Mapping

Dissertation mapping 2

When students were finished mapping their dissertations, we had group introductions where they described their projects and their current status. We wrapped up the first session with the students writing down their goal for the week of the Institute.

Institute goals

They then began their first writing block of the Institute. We followed a similar schedule each day: Day begins at 9 with a group session; first writing block begins at 9:30; lunch break from 12-1 (although many students wrote through this!); second group session at 1pm; writing block from 1:30-3:30; and final recap session as a group at 3:30. Students often stayed from 4-6pm to continue to work on their projects — we had a really hard-working group! Today’s afternoon group session had students talking about their biggest challenges in dissertation writing. After the afternoon writing block, we ended with a group recap. Students shared what they accomplished on the first day and what their goals were for the following day.

Day 2

The second day began with a group session on using transitions in their writing to improve their argument. We covered key reasons why writers need transitions and practical examples of how they work in the genre of the dissertation. After this opening group session, we began a key part of the week: one-on-one meetings with dissertation writing consultants! Each student had a 30 minute appointment with a consultant to talk about any element of their dissertation writing they wanted to. These appointments were throughout the day during the morning and afternoon writing blocks.

A student in a one-on-one session with a consultant

Today’s after lunch group session was a presentation by NC State’s ETD Editor, Erica Cutchins. She covered all the critical things students need to know: deadlines, policies, and procedures. This session was a hit!  After an afternoon writing block, students gathered at 3:30 to share what they got out of their first consultant session. Everyone was in agreement: working with the consultants was immensely helpful.

Day 3

Day 3 took place in Hunt Library’s Teaching and Visualization Lab. We began with a group instructional session by one of our writing consultants, Dr. Margy Horton. She covered the dissertation writing challenge of using sources, and helpfully posted her materials on her website for all.

Margy Horton - Using Sources

After the opening group session, students again had their morning writing blocks. Day 3 and Day 4′s writing blocks included “open hours” with the writing consultants, where students could drop in at any time and work with them again. The consultants stayed busy! This was truly the most helpful part of the week for many. In the afternoon instructional session, I covered writing research article introductions and Swales’ CARS model for doing so effectively. Like the previous days, this was then followed by a two hour writing block and a final group session where students shared their progress today and their goals for tomorrow.

Writing Introductions

Day 4

Day 4 looked much the same as Day 3. Today’s morning session was on project management, led by yours truly. We covered reasons why the dissertation feels so overwhelming and how effective project management helps it feel at least a little less so. The session ended with a discussion of effective tools dissertation writers use to manage all of their materials. The morning writing block again had open hours for working with writing consultants. Today’s afternoon session was led by our other dissertation writing consultant, Dr. Ashley Kelly. She talked about how to manage dissertation writing while on the job market and tips for keeping all of your application materials organized. Students again had an afternoon writing session and ended with a group session recapping their accomplishments today and goals for tomorrow–the final day of the program!

Dissertation writing in Hunt Library

Day 5

The final day of the program was packed with activities to help students continue to make progress throughout the summer. We didn’t have an opening instructional session this morning; instead, we dove right into a final writing block. During this final writing block, students had appointment times with the writing consultants, which we called an “Exit Interview.” In this exit interview, students set goals for the next 30-90 days and made a plan for contacting their advisors and sharing the progress they made during the week.

Exit interview with Dr. Ashley Kelly

At noon, students packed up their things and we headed off to a Celebration Lunch! The UGSA generously provided them with lunch on the final day to celebrate the progress they made on their dissertations during the week. We also had a special guest speaker, Dr. Nick Taylor from the Communication Department, who came and talked to the students about how to finish their dissertations and maintain a good relationship with writing once they have headed off into their profession. We had a great conversation at lunch, and it was a highly positive note to wrap up the Institute on.

Dr. Nick Taylor

Takeaways from the Dissertation Institute

All in all, our participants found the week to be highly worth their while. The combination of writing blocks, mini-instructional sessions on a variety of topics, consultant appointments, and group discussions helped them in myriad ways and gave them tools to continue to make progress. In their evaluations of the Institute, students raved about the time they had working with the consultants, finding it immensely helpful to talk through their projects with someone. Many thanks to our excellent consultants, Dr. Margy Horton and Dr. Ashley Kelly. Finally, when asked if students would recommend the Institute to other students in their program on a scale of 1-5, 5 being, “Absolutely!” — every student said they would “Absolutely!” recommend it!

Recent honors

The annual Canadian Association for Studies of Discourse and Writing conference was held this past weekend, May 24-26, and I’m very honored to say that some of my work has been recognized by the CASDW Association.

The article that I co-authored with Ashley Kelly and Bill Kinsella, “Risk, Regulation, and Rhetorical Boundaries: Claims and Challenges Surrounding a Purported Nuclear Renaissance,” was named Best Research Article for 2013. This piece, publishing in Communication Monographs, is from my larger research program on nuclear energy discourse in the Carolinas.

From their blog post by CASDW President, Doug Brent:

“I am pleased to announce the recipients of the CASDW Award for Best Article or Book Chapter in Rhetoric, Writing Studies, or Discourse Studies in 2013.

WINNER — BEST ARTICLE PRIZE
Kinsella, W. J., Kelly, A. R., & Autry, M. K. (2013). Risk, regulation, and rhetorical boundaries: claims and challenges surrounding a purported nuclear renaissance. Communication monographs, 80.3, 278-301.” 

Secondly, my dissertation was nominated for the Best Dissertation Award, and was awarded the Honorable Mention. Again, from a blog post by Dr. Brent:

“For the Best Dissertation in Rhetoric, Writing Studies or Discourse Studies in 2013, the winner is Ghada Chehade. Honourable mention goes to Meagan Kittle Autry and Daniel Richards. The committee had this to say:

“As a committee, we reviewed five dissertations that together projected a very bright future for the the field of writing and rhetorical studies. The dissertations differed widely in subject matter and methodology but were uniformly strong. It was a difficult decision—the words “dead heat” were used several times— but in the end we have awarded the CASDW 2014 Dissertation Award to Dr. Ghada Chehade for her thesis, “Anti-Terrorism Discourse and the War on Dissent: A Critical Analysis.”

Dr. Chehade analyzed official documents surrounding terrorism in Canada using Critical Discourse Analysis, and ultimately argues that these anti-terrorism texts discursively criminalize dissent. Her challenging and important topic, sweeping scope, rigorous use of CDA and contemporary critical theory, and her sophisticated but very cogent prose, won the day.

We would also like to award honorable mentions to Dr. Daniel Richards and Dr. Meagan Kittle Autry, in recognition of their excellent work.

Dr. Richards’ thesis, “Dead Man’s Switch: Disaster Rhetorics in a Posthuman Age,” brought a complex rhetorical philosophical frame to the rhetoric of risk and disaster around the Gulf Oil Spill, suggesting new paradigms for critically engaging with technical social discourses of environmental risk and disaster.

Dr. Kittle Autry’s thesis, “Genre Change Online: Open Access and the Scientific Research Article Genre” offered a synthesis of past frameworks, as well as an extensive analysis of the historical development of the genre of the scientific research article, building toward its current iterations within a dynamic genre eco system in Open Access venues. The thesis develops a qualitative framework that includes survey questionnaires of the authors and editors of 50 top published OA articles. This work, just like that of Chehade and Richards, is an excellent model for future studies.

In these three dissertations we saw three very unique and very different approaches to our shared field: In Chehades’ work we saw critical discourse analysis meeting critical theory, imbricated within the social mediation of texts. In Richards’ thesis we saw an applied conceptual rhetorical study of social texts. In Kittle Autry’s dissertation we saw very solid rhetorical genre studies theory used to reveal the disciplinary writing of a scientific genre, and we saw an empirical test of a traditional canonical frame in a new media situation. Together, these works bear evidence of the richness of writing and rhetorical studies, Canada’s future role in the discipline, and the strength and inter animation of diverse schools and strands of Writing Studies in North America.”

Thank you, CASDW, for the honors and the kind words about my work! And congratulations to the other winners!

How to land an #altac job at a university

This past Saturday, I was a panelist at the “Beyond the Professoriate” web conference hosted by Jennifer Polk and Maren Wood. I participated in their higher education panel, where four of us talked about our experiences working in #altac positions still within the university. (Other panels focused on corporate jobs, non-profit or government jobs, and more for PhDs.) My fellow panelists offered some great advice, and there was an active Twitter backchannel throughout the day. If you’re interested in the conversation, you can search for the conference hashtag, #beyondprof, or check out the Storify feed that Jennifer put together after Saturday’s discussion.

I promised to blog about my talk. We only spoke briefly, about 10 minutes total, describing both our current positions and then offering advice from experience. I narrowed my time down to three main points for PhDs or EdDs who are interested in applying to alt-ac jobs within universities or colleges:

1. Work Your Network

Searches for these professional positions work quite differently than tenure track jobs. So, work your network just like you might have to for an industry position — both in order to hear about new postings and in applying and interviewing for them. Search job boards at schools all year round, not just during hiring season. Contact people you know within units to ask them about positions potentially opening up, or to find out more about the job once it has been posted. Ask them to put in a good word for you if you’ve applied, or ask faculty or others you might know at the university to put in a good word for you with the person in charge of the search. The hiring also works on a much shorter timeline than tenure track positions, so do your research early in the process and keep yourself fresh on the job and unit if you are called for an interview.

2. Show Them Your Vision

So, what kind of research should you be doing for these jobs? This is where the leg work for the position comes in. You may know that many alt-ac jobs are relatively new within universities, at least in the long history of higher education. This means that for many of the institutions you would be applying to, a particular position could be brand new, like mine was, or at least have a short history. You want to understand where the position fits into the structure of the unit (a specific college, the Graduate School, extension education, and so on). Who is the supervisor? What are the goals of the job, and how does that fit with the mission of the unit? Who has been in the job previously (f you can find out)? Search that person to find their expertise.

When you know the basics of the unit and the position, you are primed to do the most critical work in applying: show them your vision. In my case, the position of Director and Thesis and Dissertation Support Services was a brand new role. The Deans in the Graduate School knew they wanted to hire an expert in writing across the disciplines and genre theory who could offer writing instruction and support to graduate students across the university. They wrote the position and had it approved by the Provost, touting their vision for improving graduate degree completion for NC State.

However, they had very little insight into exactly how this mission could be executed. This is where I swung for the fences in my application and interview. In my cover letters, I wrote briefly about a vision for this brand new office and how I would use my research from my PhD to develop genre-based services for graduate students. This got my application noticed. For my interviews (I had three total), I assembled a complete package of my vision for Thesis and Dissertation Support Services: I mocked up a one year plan, complete with a list of seminars and workshops, each with their own learning outcomes; I included strategic planning such as meeting with Directors of Graduate Programs and college deans to learn about graduate student needs across the university; I developed a plan for a week-long Dissertation Institute for doctoral candidates (which I will actually be running next week!).

It was risky to spend so much time mocking up what the office would look like, but in the end, this showed the hiring committee that they could have confidence in hiring me because I had a vision for the building an office of graduate student support from scratch — something they didn’t know how to do but knew they needed to hire. I also demonstrated that I would need very little supervision to get the office off of the ground. This is key for many alt-ac positions at universities, as they tend to have very little day-to-day supervision (of course, depending on the unit). But overall you are expected to work independently, make sound decisions, and do work that overall contributes to the success of the unit without relying on approval from others.

The key with showing them your vision is that you make yourself valuable to the institution. Many deans or faculty in charge of hiring alt-ac positions have a hard time visualizing the jobs because they are much more familiar with the tenure track and adjunct faculty models. So, show them you can do the job by showing up with a plan.

Of course, if the job has previously existed, your research and visioning will look a little different. You may want to be a bit more conservative in your planning, as you’ll have an existing structure to work into. Learn as much as you can about the program or office; if you can’t answer basic questions about it in the interview, you’ve blown your changes. Know what you like about the job or programming, and know what might be some things you could advocate to do differently or add as new. Overall, your goal is to show you understand the role, fit into it, and can help them grow and be successful. Which brings me to my third point:

3. Understand the University

If you land an interview, and as well if you are offered the job, you have to understand what role your position plays in the larger university picture. You also have to understand how to manage the daily operations of your job. This requires research and a good bit of knowledge with certain processes within the university (some that you won’t discover until you start). For your interview, you should absolutely know the strategic plan and mission of the university, as this guides the work the units do on campus. How does your work contribute to that? Be able to speak to this in your interview. Don’t brag about your knowledge, but know for instance that your university is focusing on internationalization, so part of your job as Career Center Director might be increasing the university’s international internships (and put that in your visioning documents!).

You’ll also need to know things like where funding comes from and how it can be spend. For example, in North Carolina, state-funded institutions like NC State cannot spend state monies on food or beverages. In my case, the likelihood of my office getting a budget AT ALL was slim to none (and indeed, my budget this year was $0), so I talked about how I could build services that could help graduate more students while using no funds at all.

Don’t fret though: This is where your time spent doing a doctorate comes in. You’ve probably served on committees, attended functions across campus, and had other experiences where you’ve gleaned insight into the university. Especially if you are applying where you got your degree, put this information to good use! And if you’re still early in the process, know that taking on some of the opportunities that come your way are an important element of professional development if you are interested in pursuing alt-ac jobs.

Of course, these are just the three key points I focused on this past Saturday. There are plenty of great sites with alt-ac advice out there — perhaps that’s a good idea for a future aggregated links post! What other advice do you have for folks pursuing alt-ac opportunities in higher education? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Great links: All the best advice on dissertation writing in one post!

Most of the search hits to my blog are related to finishing thesis and/or dissertation writing. There are many great authors and bloggers out there sharing great advice for dissertation writing (along with other graduate student issues, too). I thought it would be useful to aggregate what I think are some of the best pieces of advice out there, so that it could all be easily accessible in one place!

*Note: all links to external sites will open in a new tab or window.

Understanding the dissertation genre

Demystifying the Dissertation” blog post series from Inside Higher Education, written by Peg Boyle Single who has an excellent book by the same title

On the different types of literature reviews: “Not all literature reviews are the same,” via Pat Thomson, doctoral writing expert and book author

Six steps to writing a literature review by Tanya Golash-Boza

Writing your dissertation conclusion, Part 1 and Part 2, via Pat Thomson (two excellent posts on this difficult part of your dissertation!)

How long is the average dissertation? by Marcus Beck — scroll to the bottom of the post to see the average length in your field!

Writing tips and strategies

Using a spreadsheet to keep track of your writing progress via yours truly

How to deliberately practice your academic writing with some great advice on how focusing on verbs can help you improve your academic writing via The Thesis Whisperer blog

How I wrote my PhD thesis in 3 months by James Hayton

Top 10 Tips for Fast Thesis/Dissertation Writing by James Hayton

10 Ways You Can Write Every Day by Tanya Golash-Boza

A faculty member’s advice for finishing your dissertation via Claremont Graduate University’s Dissertation Bootcamp blog

Five time management ideas for part-time students, by part-time students via The Thesis Whisperer blog

Dissertations and baseball: You’ve got to “live to fight another day” from Jim Brown

Dealing with your committee

Are you on the same page as your supervisor? Some advice about how to talk to your chair and committee members about the type of writer you are and the feedback you need to success via The Thesis Whisperer blog

How to communicate effectively with your thesis supervisor by Dora Farkas

Dealing with negative face-to-face feedback from your committee – great tips for handling a difficult situation, via Pat Thomson

blogs dedicated to graduate student writing

The archives of these blogs are a treasure trove of information and advice for thesis and dissertation writers. Bookmark these and search them when you need to!

The Thesis Whisperer by Inger Mewbern

Patter by Pat Thomson (She’s currently [as of March 2014] writing about her book writing process – this is a fascinating series for anyone who is thinking of writing a book from their dissertation or after the diss process)

James Hayton (Formerly “The Three Month Thesis”) by James Hayton

Finish Your Thesis by Dora Farkas

Explorations of Style – A Blog about Academic Writing by Rachael Cayley

What’s missing?

Of course, this is just a selection of great posts and blogs that I have been saving over the past few months of developing Thesis and Dissertation Support Services. What other blogs or specific blog posts deserve to be listed here? Leave a comment, and I’ll update the list! In future posts, I’ll share my list of academic publications that are the most helpful for dissertation writers, graduate student job searching blog posts, and emerging resources for #alt-ac job seekers.

How to handle dissertation revisions from your committee

In my last post, I talked about a key reason why dissertation writing is difficult for doctoral students. In this post, I’m going to address another challenging element to finishing your dissertation: handling committee revisions.

You never receive instruction in revising such a high-stakes document

One of the major elements of the dissertation that many students do not remain conscious of (or perhaps never fully think about) is that a dissertation is a highly negotiated document. From the very beginning of the project, its shape is determined by multiple players — you, the student, your chair, and your fellow committee members. Remember your proposal stage? Most likely, your initial idea for the project wasn’t the one that was approved, but instead, a revised version that you all collectively decided was the path to pursue. All along the way, you are writing and have this work reviewed by your chair, and potentially other committee members, and of course, you have the final revisions that come either right before or immediately following the defense, this time certainly coming from every member of your committee.

However, you never receive instruction in how to handle, negotiate, and complete revisions for your dissertation. Even if you took a writing course, this most likely wasn’t an element. And no part of your curriculum prepares you for this. Think about it — did you ever have to revise a final project for a graduate seminar based on feedback from four faculty members? Or in your undergraduate degree, did you ever even have to revise a paper at all? Probably not. But now, you are expected to tackle hundreds of comments and changes, from the most major revisions down to the deletion of an extra comma, and do so in a timely manner to graduate on time.

Tips for handling committee revision

So you are down to the wire before your dissertation defense (or maybe afterward, facing the final deadline for submitting your ETD) and you have to handle revisions from four committee members in your 150 page document. How do you do it? Here are my three key steps:

  1. Read ALL of the comments. Before you make a single change, read and understand what each committee member is saying. Don’t start with Committee Member #2′s comments and then move to the next one. What if do that, only to find that your chair has given you different advice than Committee Member #2? Assess ALL feedback first, looking for patterns and similarities between members. Write down the common comments (“The labels on your tables are unclear” or “Your discussion should include the connection between your data and current methods of practice”) and see if you can identify the big issues you should start with .
  2. Decide how to approach revisions that need you to make a choice. Sometimes, you will receive conflicting advice from committee members, or you may disagree with a committee member’s suggestion and want to keep something as you originally had it. These revisions require you to make an active decision about what you will do and how you will justify it. This is your work, so you get to make the decision — but you must be able to support it to your committee members. For example, you may choose to go with your chair’s advice for reordering your Results section instead of how another committee member has suggested. You must offer your committee an explanation of this choice. For example, you might say, “I’ve re-ordered with the temperature data reported first because this order is parallel to how I discuss the implications in the discussion section.” It does not have to be long (and shouldn’t be!) but it should be a justifiable explanation for why you have chosen it. This is a part of the intellectual work of a dissertation.
  3. Write out a prioritized task list for each and every revision you have to do. Always, always start with the “big picture” revisions, such as requests for more data, re-organizing a chapter, including additional literature, and so on. Make each item a separate task, things you can break down into 5-10 minute working chunks. Then, when you have 1 hour to tackle your revisions, you can accomplish up to 12 different tasks on your list! You could also enter your revisions into a spreadsheet if you find that easier than a written out list (and it might help you be more organized). Always end with minor details such as spelling, punctuation, labeling, and so on. These may be impacted by your “big picture” revisions (for example, if you have to delete a table, why did you bother correcting the label first?). You may be tempted to do the “easy” spell checking first, but it will save you more time in the end if you start with the big items.

When you are done, you can use your list or spreadsheet to tell your committee what revisions you made and include the justifications that you need to. This could easily be in an email body, with your dissertation as an attachment, or you could insert comments into your document as you go along.

Follow these steps to keep better track of your revisions and to help you accomplish them on time! What advice do you have for finalizing your dissertation revisions?

MacPhail’s “No-fail secret” to finishing your dissertation

Yesterday, Chronicle Vitae published a quite good article on dissertation writing by Theresa MacPhail, titled, “The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation.” The secret:

Just sit down and write.

Now, to a certain point, she is entirely correct. I see many students who run analyses upon analyses of their data, read articles upon articles, and overall do many different tasks on their dissertation BUT write it. So yes, there comes a point (and it’s sooner rather than later) where you just have to sit down and write.

More specifically, she advocates writing every day, and for very good reason. MacPhail asserts,

“Writing is thinking. It takes time and it’s supposed to be challenging. The biggest mistake I’ve seen most graduate students make is to mythologize what I call ‘the moment of genius.’ Because writing is thinking, brilliant thoughts do not just appear on the page after long hours of arduous musing on a subject. In my experience, the best ideas almost always come about through the act of writing itself.”

Her article is very good, and I’d recommend that graduate students read it in its entirety for an important perspective on the hard work of writing and the importance of keeping your dissertation work “in your head” everyday, as I say it, because the ideas will come more easily when you make a daily date with your writing.

The only caveat I want to add to this is that there are very real obstacles for students undertaking a dissertation. A dissertation is an occluded genre for doctoral students–there is rarely any formal instruction for writing it, and they only take part in it once they are required to do so to graduate–which makes the idea of “sitting down and writing” difficult for those who do not know what they are sitting down to write. Much of this is disciplinary, as different fields tend toward different types of dissertations, and much of this is more local–doctoral advisors’ requirements for their students can widely differ, even within the same program at an institution.

This is a key reason why my office, Thesis and Dissertation Support Services, exists. There can be scholarly writing instruction for a dissertation, and this type of writing instruction can empower graduate students beyond the completion of a dissertation. If they can learn to recognize the patterns of argument and key features of work in their fields, they are also equipped to do the writing required of them in their research careers after they finish their doctoral degrees. A great example of this is John Swales’ “Create a Research Space” model for writing scientific research article introductions. At NC State, many of the dissertations in the sciences, and increasingly in other disciplines, are comprised of three or more stand alone research articles. While students can intuit some of the elements of a research article introduction from years of reading and perhaps a bit of writing, there is a lot of value in having a workshop and discussion about the CARS model, why the three moves exist, and how students can do them to fit into their own disciplinary conventions.

As a writing across the disciplines scholar whose research focuses on those in the sciences and engineering, I know that our work has value to graduate students and faculty across the institution. For example, I find that advisors intuitively know what makes for a good introduction, but they generally cannot articulate why. They tend to show students an article they feel does a good job and suggest that they emulate this, a strategy that is limited in its success because students are not learning why introductions are structured as they are (and they can get highly frustrated writing as novices trying to emulate seasoned experts). By just trying to emulate writers, students are not learning how to situate their work within a field and articulate its significance. But by providing instruction in this model, students in our workshops learn the how and the why–and now they can export this knowledge to their dissertations and research genres beyond, like grant proposals, conference presentations, and more.

We are making the implicit explicit for our doctoral students. And why not? It might be the only scholarly writing instructions students ever receive in graduate school.

So yes, to finish your dissertation, you must sit down and write. But when you have a stronger understanding of the genre expectations, history, and context, then you are more likely to be successful when you do. Seek out resources as you are developing your dissertation proposals to better understand the genre and the expectations. If you’re at NC State, come to our Thesis and Dissertation Support Services events. If you’re at another institution, follow me on Twitter: @makautry, and ask your faculty where you might find resources like this on your own campus.