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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!