By Noelle Sterne, Guest Blogger
Graduate students on the road to doctoral Oz often feel more isolated than a vegetarian at a barbecue. Especially if you have a laissez faire chair and committee, you may believe you’re abandoned and unloved. You’re not. In my work as editor and coach for struggling dissertation-writing students, I know well that many other people in the university community can comfort, calm, and care for you. Here I’ll remind you of eight types who can help ease your dissertation traumas.
Fellow Students as Mentors
As you may know, fellow students and recently finished doctors can be great supporters and sources of hope (“If he got through, I sure as hell can.”). Cohorts are among the only other long-sufferers who know what you’re going through. They can relate and commiserate, usually with their own horror stories. They can urge you not to give up and assure you it will get better (as one cynic remarked, after you graduate). They can be very generous too with time and support.
Fellow students, as well-meaning as they may be, can also give you misguided advice. Remember, cohorts or new doctors are not your current committee. Your peers likely have or had a different set of professors; even if some of the requirements were the same, these and eccentricities may well change over time. Professors may respond differently to different candidates (meaning you).
My client Edmund gratefully accepted help from a recent graduate who had completed his dissertation with the same chair. Edmund proceeded to copy his friend’s description of data collection procedures and sent it to his chair. I wasn’t surprised but Edmund was shocked when the chair slashed almost the entire section.
What about peer dissertation support groups? Many dissertation guides advocate them for “solace, support and motivation” (Axelrod & Windell, 2012, p. 101) and sharing of information and writing techniques/hints (Grant & Tomal, 2013; Joyne, Rouse, & Glattorn, 2012; Peters, 1997; Rockinson-Szapkiw & Spaulding, 2014). Groups can be a great source of consolation, camaraderie, and empathetic grousing.
But watch out for problems. Members may show off with constant one-upmanship, tear down everyone else’s work, burst into tears when their own work is critiqued, monopolize the sessions, pirate others’ ideas, complain incessantly, relate disastrous chair stories, or flirt inappropriately. The group may deteriorate into a gossip fest, a social event, or a passionate comparison of Netflix discoveries. Pleasant (and indulgent) as these activities may be, they are not why you should attend.
What Can You Learn From Learning Centers?
Learning centers, or writing centers, as they are often called, constitute one of those university auxiliary supports that sound good and espouse noble goals. Regrettably, though, as students have told me, the centers are generally inadequate. One staff member, usually a graduate student, is assigned to every 627 students writing their dissertations. Appointments must normally be made four weeks in advance, and then the “editing” covers only the first few pages, with polite and encouraging notes to continue on your own. This kind of editing will help you if you’re a very fast learner and want to or already have mastered the esoteric mysteries of APA, or if you know a good high school English teacher, or if you want to invest in English Grammar for Dummies (Woods, 2010).
Add to Your Team: Statisticians
If you don’t speak Statistese, private statisticians are worth considering for getting closer to your goal. Think of them like car mechanics: You wouldn’t go to vocational school to learn how to fix your car (unless you’re a Barrett-Jackson buff). You’d hire an expert.
Your university department may employ staff statisticians expressly for students or have a list of professional statisticians as technical associates for your data analysis. Some of my clients actually understand the concepts and look forward to doing the statistics themselves (I envy them). For others like me, I counsel them to hire statisticians, if they can afford it. Ask newly crowned “doctors” for personal recommendations and your departmental assistant.
My client Jules reported that the statistician he found not only analyzed his data in record time but also supplied a typed and comprehensible explanation of each hypothesis. The stat also offered to consult by phone for anything Jules didn’t understand. No wonder he praised the man to the Cloud, er, sky.
Librarians Love You, Secretaries Stand by You
Like statisticians, librarians and secretaries can help you enormously as you plow through the dissertation. Once you recognize the immense resources they have access to, you can enlist their aid to save yourself time, effort, and runarounds.
These days you can connect with the university librarians not only in person but also by email or phone. The librarians skate easily among and within the vast virtual databases, their own university holdings, and, if needed, other libraries’ through inter-library loans.
Librarians still love real books, journals, and people who wander in (The Writer magazine once published an article called “Who Loves You Like the Library?”). When I phoned one librarian to verify a reference, she confessed, “I love seeing that amazed and relieved look on the students’ faces when I locate what they need or refer them to a trove of research on their topic.”
Secretaries too can be great aids and, I believe, are secretly on the students’ side. Secretaries have superpowers: With one withering look, they can remind the chair that a doctoral student has been sitting in the waiting area for two days without food or drink, clutching the sweaty proposal draft. With apparent telekinesis, they can float your manuscript to the top of the pile. With the speed of an e-text, they can transmit to a student the incredulous news of an approval.
Paula, a client who was on her last extension and fighting a tight deadline, needed all the cooperation she could get from the departmental office. The chair’s secretary had been pleasant but distant. Paula noticed a muffin wrapper in the woman’s wastebasket. The next time she visited, she brought a batch of her homemade blueberry muffins (baking assuaged her dissertation anxieties). Delighted, the secretary thanked her, and they discovered a mutual love of old-fashioned bakeries and cookbooks. With the secretary’s invaluable help, Paula walked at graduation.
As Paula did, notice secretaries’ offices, their accessories and even garbage, and engage them in conversation. Maybe you spy their prized World Series baseball cap displayed on a file cabinet, a bobble-head of an action hero, or a photo on their desk of three kids at a lake. Ask about their families and show interest in their work and leisure activities. With both librarians and secretaries, invest in the time to “warm them up.” It pays off, and you may gain a friend.
Consider Coaches and Editors
Some universities positively ban dissertation coaches and editors, some graze the subject with tacit acceptance, some sanction certain types of editing and not others, and others absolutely require editing, especially at the post-defense stage. The coach or editor shouldn’t be expected to write the little beauty but to guide students in organizing their thoughts and managing their lives so they can write. And to be their cheerleader and ally.
A dissertation coach is very different from your university chair or advisor. Chairs are paid by the university to execute many duties and functions—teaching, publishing, committee memberships, enthusiastic-seeming appearances at the dean’s parties. It’s unlikely that your chair has much time for you. He or she is grossly overburdened with students (not to mention the rest of life) and can barely give you minimum attention.
Your coach, when you agree to work together, is paid by you and is (or should be) committed to giving you the full time and attention you need. Think of your coach as your academic personal trainer (with thanks to dissertation coach Rachna Jain; see Jain, 2011).
Your coach helps you choose an enticing topic, coaxes out your ideas, and prompts you to clarify them. Your coach asks you pointed questions (“Why do you want to do this study?” “What will it show/prove?” “How excited are you about the topic?” “How will you collect your data?”). Your coach listens empathically to your shrieks about your writing blocks and offers techniques to help.
Your coach should also continue to question you on all important aspects of the dissertation, assist you in planning your procedures, and consistently praise you for small and large triumphs (getting the library hours straight, obtaining IRB approval). Your coach should encourage you forward, see you through to the final draft, shore you up for the defense, applaud your final deposit, and even, at your invitation, sit in those uncomfortable seats watching you graduate.
Coaches may or may not include editing in their services. I include it because I see how many dissertation writers need it and because, as many have told me, they learn from studying my editorial changes and questions. Among faculty, it is a given, unfortunately, that few graduate students are prepared for scholarly writing (Van Aswegen, 2007).
To locate an editor, inquire of your departmental secretary for a list of recommended names. Look on university bulletin boards for flyers, click on websites provided, explore graduate student organizations’ directories, or search the Internet for “dissertation editors.” As with other specialists such as statisticians, get recommendations from colleagues.
Editors may be employees of large companies that promise instant turnaround, have 1,000 eagle eyes on call in all parts of the world, and get your hard-squeezed manuscript dumped in their inbox at random. Or editors may be part of a consortium or small organization which emphasize personal contact and service. Editors may also be part of an even smaller organization—one individual, like me and several colleagues—who prefer to render highly personalized services and take on only a few clients at a time so we can render the most in-depth help. Dissertation editors may also specialize in one or more levels of editing: copy editing or light editing, medium editing, or substantive editing. Decide what you want in terms of both level of editing and personal contact.
Remember too that engaging an editor of any type doesn’t at all guarantee that miracle of instant blessing by the chair and committee. As we know, they may still find plenty to comment on.
Old Course Professors Don’t Have to Fade Away
A great resource for dissertation troubles is former professors whom you’ve particularly liked, who’ve liked you, given you A’s, or you’ve even shared a few beers with. These professors don’t have your present committee’s vested (ego) interests and generally welcome contact from former students (I know I have warm spots for previous clients who get in touch). From your past professors’ combat experience in the academic trenches, they can offer you sane perspectives, suggest research materials and sources, and provide salving moral support.
When my client Reynold emailed a favorite former professor and told him about his dissertation and difficulties finding prior research, the prof answered immediately, congratulating Reynold for reaching the dissertation stage. The professor included too a citation of an important recent study close to Reynold’s that no one else had turned up.
A caution here. The professor may offer to “co-author” an article from your dissertation. At first you may be understandably flattered, but remember—it’s your dissertation. You did all the work. Not that I mean to malign a well-intentioned professor, but the deal is usually that in exchange for the professor’s name and (assumedly) prestigious affiliation, or personal acquaintance with the chosen journal’s editor, you will still be the one to condense those sweat-ringed 200 pages to 25 or 30 for the journal.
Of course, not all former professors are opportunistic. They can mightily support you, prod you on, and become friends during your entire dissertation journey.
Picture the Perfect University Friends You Need
For perfect previous professors and all other university friends I’ve discussed here, make a list of who you will really need, and when to contact them. And next to each add their ideal characteristics.
As you keep your mind on the perfect university friends in all these areas, you may find that sources, resources, and people spring up “magically.” You’ll stumble on a website with the information you’ve been searching for, you’ll bump into a former professor at the gas station, your aunt’s friend the PhD will offer special assistance, and even your chair will respond more promptly.
Recognize too that although you are asking for help from others, you are also giving them much: business, attention, respect for their expertise, appreciation of their knowledge and ability to help, need for them and their accomplishments. The people I’ve discussed here and others can aid you in following all the necessary steps to produce your dissertation. You’ll see how glad they are to help, and they will help you inch closer to the finish line.
Axelrod, B., & Windell, J. (2012). Dissertation solutions: A concise guide to planning, implementing, and surviving the dissertation process. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Grant, C., & Tomal, D. R. (2013). How to finish and defend your dissertation: Strategies to complete the professional practice doctorate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Jain, R. (2011). Get it done: A coach’s guide to dissertation success. Gaithersburg, MD:
Joyner, R. L., Rouse, W. A., & Glatthorn, A. A. (2012). Writing the winning thesis or dissertation: A step-by-step guide (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Peters, R. L. (1997). Getting what you came for: The smart student’s guide to earning a Master’s or Ph.D. (rev. ed.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J., & Spaulding, L. S. (Eds.) (2014). Navigating the doctoral journey: A handbook of strategies for success. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Van Aswegen, E. S. (2007). Postgraduate supervision: The role of the (language) editor:
Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Juvenal, Satire 6, 346-48) [Who will guard the guardians?]. South African Journal of Higher Education: Postgraduate Supervision 2007: Special Edition, 8, 21, 1142–54.
Woods, G. (2010). English Grammar for Dummies (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Excerpted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).
Noelle Sterne, Ph.D., for thirty years has assisted struggling doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations in her roles as coach, editor, motivator, cheerleader, professional friend, handholder, ego soother, thought facilitator, stressed student solution-supplier, and “academic nag.” To balance her scholarly pursuits, Dr. Sterne also regularly publishes writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and fiction in print and online periodicals and blog sites.