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What are “Thesis and Dissertation Support Services?”

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My new role in the Graduate School at N.C. State is as Director of Thesis and Dissertation Support Services. What exactly does that mean? In this post, I will explain the university’s reasoning for developing such a position and the general direction of the work that I’m starting to do.

The idea of thesis and dissertation support professionals is not new in higher education, but these positions are more common in Europe and Australia than they are in the United States. In doing research for my application, I found many Writing Centers that incorporated support for students writing their theses and dissertations, but I had a hard time finding people who were solely dedicated to these two genres. The University of Michigan’s Louis Ciccarelli runs their Dissertation Writing Institute, which he talked about at this year’s CCCC. But otherwise, what I mostly found are Writing Center professionals who run similar concepts of a dissertation retreat or “bootcamp” and sometimes other workshops targeting doctoral students.

At N.C. State and other research institutions around the country, we are gearing up our focus on graduate education, and particularly doctoral education. This is a multi-pronged effort for graduate student success, and my new position plays a key role in this focus. In proposing the position, they envisioned a writing scholar specializing in writing across the disciplines who could “make explicit the implicit expectations of theses and dissertations” (Lovitts, 2007). Since our institution specializes in the sciences and engineering fields, they were looking in particular for someone who understands writing in the empirical sciences and the key genre, the scientific research article, as an increasing number of dissertations in the sciences are now composed of several publishable (or already published) journal articles.

Their argument is pretty simple: in graduate education, especially doctoral education, there is a great need for the complementary services of a writing professional to help students better understand writing in the academy, and especially writing a dissertation. There is a lot of research that shows how the expectations of the genre can be unclear to graduate students (and even to the faculty directing the dissertations) (Paltridge, 2002; Lovitts, 2007; Gustavii, 2012). Additionally, rarely do graduate students get extensive writing training in their coursework, and advisors increasingly lament the quality of graduate student writing (Lovitts, 2007), but not all faculty feel well-equipped to provide the support they see their students needing. With the hectic schedules of faculty at doctoral-granting institutions, even if they wanted to spend more time helping their graduate students understand academic writing, it’s just not feasible.

This is where my new position steps in to complement the advisory and mentoring roles of faculty members at N.C. State. My services are cross-disciplinary, helping students in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and engineering to understand the genre of the dissertation and to make clear to them the support structures that are in place for graduate students here at the university. I am spending this summer developing the ideas for a variety of workshops that will help advance students’ work on completing their theses and dissertations and developing partnerships with appropriate departments and centers across campus.

Of course, I am by no means reinventing the wheel: writings center, individual programs, departments, and other university units across the country offer a variety of graduate student support for dissertation writing. But what is new about my position is the goal to serve as a central resource for all of the services that are offered across campus. So, in addition to doing research on graduate student writing, dissertations, and doctoral education in general, I’m also spending a lot of time learning the campus and what individual programs are doing to support their students.

Did I miss anyone in my research for this position? If you are a fellow “dissertation support professional,” I would love to hear about your position and the kind of work that you do. And if you’re a graduate student, I’d be interested to hear about the support available to you as a dissertating student, or what support you think would be helpful to you in the process. And especially if you’re at N.C. State, I’d love to hear from you and meet you some time! Drop me a line at: makittle [at] ncsu [dot] edu.

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