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!

Hunt Library Writer

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

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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

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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

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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.

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!

Need to finish your dissertation? Protect your time!

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With the start of school less than two weeks away here at N.C. State, I’m getting ready to kick off our new programming here at Thesis and Dissertation Support Services. Part of the services will include blog posts all about the global process of writing a thesis or dissertation, our events, and other graduate school-related issues. Today’s post is geared toward students writing their dissertation and a common obstacle for many doctoral students.

Protect your time

A few days ago, I tweeted: “An important lesson for #diss writers: Protect your time. Others don’t care if you finish. But it matters if you do!” The tweet quickly received some retweets/replies and seemed to resonate with folks, and rightly so. Time is one of the greatest challenges for doctoral students. There’s never enough of it with everything that competes for your time (lab work, more articles to read, extracurriculars, family, teaching, conferences–the list is long and different for everyone).

So how do you finish? Protect your time. Easy to say, but harder to do. Completing your degree is more important to you than anyone else. That is, others will ask you for your time, need you to do things, assume you have some availability, etc. They won’t first think: “Well, so-and-so needs to finish her dissertation.” That will NEVER happen.

People will always be asking you do things. You will always need to do many things. But you need to put your dissertation first. A dissertation requires many hours. One dissertation guide (Foss & Waters’ Destination Dissertation, 2007) estimates 1,078 hours. That’s nearly 7 months of working at it full time (40 hours/week). Not many doctoral students can dedicate that much time a week for a dissertation. At 10 hours/week, that means it would take over 2 years to complete the diss. Maybe you’re aiming somewhere in between? Then you need to find about 20 hours per week to work on your dissertation. Between lab time, teaching, department meetings, and job applications–20 hours can be hard to find.

Or can they? The key is not to have to FIND time. The key is to PROTECT your time so that you always have 20 hours per week (at least) available to work on your dissertation. Here are some strategies for doing this:

Schedule out your working hours for the week, including dissertation time. Twenty hours per week is 4 hours each weekday. One strategy would be to block off all your mornings each weekday for dissertation writing. 8am-12pm = dissertation time (or whatever chunk of time works best for you. Know when you work best!). Block it off in your Google Calendar. Close your email. Turn off Gchat. Be dressed, have coffee in hand, and ready to go at 8am. Work until noon (with bathroom, snack, stretch breaks, of course). Don’t commute to school during this time. Don’t meet a friend for coffee. Use all four hours. Do this every day you have it scheduled, and you will be incredibly productive! Having a habit means you’ll be ready to write when it’s time. No “waiting for inspiration.” No one has ever finished a dissertation using the working method of “waiting for inspiration.”

Dissertation time is for nothing else. Block off your calendar every weekday from 8am-noon from now until Christmas. And stick to it. Meetings, student conferences, fun time, anything else that you have to do must be scheduled outside of your dissertation working time. Do not give in! Don’t attend that job talk at 9:30 am in your department. That’s your dissertation time. Don’t meet with a student at 10am. That’s your dissertation time. This is what it means to protect your time. Other people will not know it is your dissertation time. You do. Ask for meetings in the afternoon. Schedule office hours in the afternoon. Whatever it takes!

People will understand when you tell them. They know it’s your job to finish your dissertation! But there’s no way for them to know your schedule. So when something comes up at 10am, just decline with a friendly note that you have a dissertation session that day and time. It is your right to do this. It is your job to finish your dissertation. Stick up for yourself! Protect your time. No one else will do this for you.

Occasionally things will come up. That’s OK. But making exceptions to your M-F, 8am-noon working schedule (or whatever hours you’ve chosen) should be an absolute exception and not the norm. You might have a Skype interview and the faculty can only do it in during your dissertation session. That’s OK. But then you need to make up for the time that’s lost: where can you get back the 2 hours that you were doing other things? Add it in somewhere else, even if that means turning something down in a generally open time. Dissertation time comes first.

Weekends will be nice rewards–or bonus working time. If you put in all your 20 hours during the week, weekends can be a restful, relaxing time without worrying about making progress on your dissertation, because you’ve done that all week! The end of your degree can be a stressful time as a graduate student: finishing a diss, applying to jobs, teaching, caring for family, etc. So it’s important to take care of yourself and give yourself a break, such as on the weekends (or even just on one weekend day). Alternatively, if you’ve gotten on a roll during the week and want to do more, then weekends become bonus time where you get additional work done (and possibly finish your dissertation sooner).

Now, I realize these suggestions (or at the very least, the example of 20 hours per week) probably work best for full time students. Part time students who work a different job full time may have fewer hours each week to work on their dissertations, but the concept of protecting your time still applies. Maybe even more so. The time that you do get for dissertation work, even if only 1 hour per night and a few hours on the weekend, becomes critical for you to use and to protect. Carve out that time on your Google calendar, and apply the same ideas: protect the time. Only very rarely allow exceptions. And make up for lost time when you do.

Protect your time and you will have the time to finish your dissertation. That’s your number one goal as a doctoral student, so why let other things derail that progress?

What strategies do you use for finding time–making time–to complete your dissertation? Share in the comments!

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.

Dissertation spreadsheet

Using a dissertation progress tracking spreadsheet

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In my last post, in which I talked about the different methods I am using to keep myself accountable in my dissertation writing, I briefly touched on the progress tracking spreadsheet that Ashley and I are collectively using.

What it is

Our tracking spreadsheet is a Google Docs spreadsheet that we created to share our progress and to help keep each other on track. Each of us has our own sheet to keep track of our individual efforts toward our dissertations. My spreadsheet is divided up into weeks and days. The rows represent all of the weeks between January 1 and August 31, and the first seven columns are one for each day of the week (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc.). At the end of each day, in the cell that corresponds with that day, I input the number of words I wrote toward my dissertation. I count only words that make it into the dissertation document and no brainstorming, outlining, or references. While these items all count toward dissertation progress — and indeed are important steps toward completing! — I want to keep honest track of much writing toward the final product I am doing. I can read, browse, and crunch data all week, but when it comes down to it, I also need to be putting words on paper (well, on the screen) if I am going to finish in a year. In the columns after the days of the week, I total the number of words I have written for that week in one column and have another that has the total number of words I set for my goal to write that week.

Dissertation spreadsheet
The first portion of my dissertation spreadsheet with rows for each week and columns for each day of the week. See the “Chapter 2 done” date? I’ve actually beat that deadline!

Thoughts so far

Overall: I love the spreadsheet. People who know me know that I am by nature highly-organized and goal-oriented. This spreadsheet allows me to be both in dissertation writing: it forces a daily attention to the spreadsheet, constant tracking of my progress, and allows me to celebrate little victories when I meet the weekly goal that I set. I am eternally grateful to my colleague Ashley for introducing this to me and for coming up with the idea for us to use this to track our progress and keep each other motivated.

I realize this might not be a good idea for everyone. This spreadsheet works particularly well for me and my working personality: I look forward to the end of the day (or my writing session) when I can eagerly input my total word count for the day and watch the numbers add up for the week. It’s like a little shot of confidence that I can do this big, HUGE project because I’m doing so one small chunk at a time.

Trouble spots: The spreadsheet has highlighted for me the days and/or times that I struggle to write. You’ll notice that I have a big fat “0” for three of the four Thursdays in January. Well, that’s because those days I teach and have meetings about the conference that are hosting this spring. These two things end up taking up most of my day, and by the end, I don’t have the brain energy to tackle my dissertation in any meaningful way. I’ve identified that. But I have an entire semester’s worth of Thursdays, and I can’t afford to not write at all on those days if I’m going to finish this year. So I have decided now to make Thursday my “clean up” days: Any new references that I need to put into my bibliography, I note them all week, and on Thursdays, I format them properly into that document. Bam – I can APA format articles in my sleep, so that’s perfect for Thursday. Most importantly, I’m not losing an entire day: I’m making it work for my schedule.

I also made an effort to insert comments into the spreadsheet when I had particular thoughts about the day that I wanted to remember, such as a day with a low total word count in my document but during which I had completed the entire IRB application for my dissertation — a big, important step. Perhaps by the end of the diss I’ll have enough data to write an article on dissertation writing, or to give a workshop to other grad students at this stage of their degree … who knows!

Timeline: After using this spreadsheet for the first month of the year, I have done a little thinking about the timeline that I am on for writing and how well I’ve been able to meet my daily and weekly writing goals. It has even given me the confidence to up my daily writing goal by 82 words, taking my weekly word count goal from 1946 to 2450. This will result in an entirely complete first draft of my dissertation by August and will give me the entire fall semester for revisions, which I think is a reasonable and achievable goal. I’ll write another update post (maybe end of next month?) to report back on how my new elevated word count goal is going.

Do other folks use a system for keeping track of progress on big projects, like a dissertation? If so, what do you use? How does that work for you?