Dissertation writing in Hunt Library

Event recap: Dissertation Institute

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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!

Are you using all of the resources available to you, like the fabulous Hunt Library?

Resources for Graduate Students at N.C. State

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Are you using all of the resources available to you, like the fabulous Hunt Library?
Are you using all of the resources available to you, like the fabulous Hunt Library Graduate Student Commons?

This post is intended to aggregate and summarize the many resources available to graduate students at N.C. State. Often these units are spread across the university, and it can be hard to find them all. If I have missed something, leave a comment, and I’ll be sure to add it.

Academic & Professional Preparation

Thesis & Dissertation Support Services (TDSS)

Of course, I have to start with my own services. We offer scholarly writing instruction and best practices for graduate school to help students better understand the global process of writing a thesis or dissertation. We offer many seminars, workshops, and other resources for students, primarily focused on writing. These services are brand new for Fall 2013 and are constantly expanding. TDSS: We put the creation of scholarship within reach of students.

Preparing Future Leaders (PFL)

PFL offers evidence-based programs, support, and coaching that guide students through the best practices of leadership. This premier community exemplifies creative engagement, reflective practice, and multi-disciplinary collaboration through workshops, seminars, and longer certificate and fellowship programs for graduate students. Their offerings cover teaching, job applications, and planning for being a future faculty member. These are you go-to people for professional development!

Graduate Writing Center

The new (in fall 2013) Graduate Writing Center is open for all graduate students to bring non-exam related writing materials that they would like feedback on. Writing consultants are trained tutors who can help students in any discipline with writing at any stage, whether it’s an outline, first draft, or final draft. Make your appointment online today!

Library Research Workshops

The amazing folks at the NCSU Libraries offer a wide variety of research-related workshops for graduate students, including Writing Research Article Introductions, Searching Scholarly Databases, Publishing Smartly, and more! These are great particularly for newer graduate students to help you get acclimated to the expectations of a research career and the processes you will be doing constantly.

Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR)

While technically a component of Preparing Future Leaders (above), RCR deserves its own mention for the importance of the programming that it runs. Their programming covers all elements of academic and research integrity, including data management, ethics, and more. If your assistantship or work is funded by an NSF or NIH grant, you will have to take the short course they developed in order to meet those funding agencies’ requirements.

Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD)

The Graduate School’s IMSD grant program helps to support and fund diversity in graduate school, specifically for students in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. Through this program, students can apply for additional need-based funding for their degree and other retention programs for diverse students in these fields.

University Graduate Student Association (UGSA)

The UGSA is an important resource for graduate students at N.C. State. Part of your student fees go toward supporting this organization, which in turns provides programming and opportunities. They offer competitive travel awards to help fund conference attendance and co-sponsor the annual Research Symposium where you can try your hand at presenting your research at a local conference. Follow them on Twitter, Like them on Facebook, and watch for their newsletter, PawPrints, to keep you up to date on the opportunities they have for you.

Health & Well Being

Counseling Center

Life in grad school can be overwhelming at times. NCSU has a great Counseling Center that is open to all graduate students (for free!) to talk about any issues you would like to discuss. They also frequently offer group sessions, some of which are highly relevant to graduate students, such as “The Perfection Trap.”

Carmichael Gym

Your student fees include membership to the gym! Now that I’m no longer a student, I regret not taking advantage of this more than a few swim sessions and tennis matches. They offers tons of group classes and have great facilities. There’s nothing like a good workout to help mitigate the stress of grad school!


In my opinion, getting a graduate education isn’t just about the coursework and research, but it’s also about culture. ARTS NC State has a wide variety of events and shows both on campus and throughout Raleigh. Whatever your preference — music, fashion, theater, art — there are events for you!

As you can see, there is a wide variety of resources available to graduate students here at N.C. State. I hope you can take advantage of many of them while you are here!

TDSS Timeline

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.

NC State Copper Wolves

New job!

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I’ve been quiet on my blog lately, but that has been somewhat on purpose: I spent much of the spring applying for, interviewing for, and now starting my new job! I am the first-ever Director of Thesis and Dissertation Support Services in the Graduate School here at N.C. State. I started on May 15, and have been working full steam ahead on developing the programming and planning for the first year of the position. I’m really excited about the job, fully believe in the mission of the position, and love the people that I work with here in the Graduate School. I feel like I won the academic employment lottery, so to speak.

In the coming weeks, I plan to blog about the position itself — why the university created it, what I’ll be doing, etc. — and also about the job application process. Some people would probably label this an “alt-ac” job, though I do not see anything alternative about it — it is an academic position, requiring research and instruction, plain and simple. (And the labeling of these kinds of positions is probably a discussion for another post right there.) But, I found that as I was applying for the position, there were very few resources designed for academics not looking specifically for a tenure-track position, so I’d like to share what I did to add to the few resources that are out there.

In the meantime, I am also in the home stretch for finishing my dissertation. I decided earlier this year to chase an aggressive completion timeline, which paid off in making me a candidate for and ultimately landing this position. Now, I’m finding it’s very meta to think all day about helping students finish their dissertations, and then go home to have to finish my own. But soon that will not be the case, and I’ll have to find new ways to fill my evenings and weekends!

Hope your summer is off to a great start!