From the other side of the draft

draftI generally empathize with beleaguered graduate students who are wrestling with their dissertations. Most doctoral candidates seem to get little support from their chairs in guidance, writing, or cheering on. However, exceptions exist . . . .

A student recently sent me a heartfelt communication from a chair to his dissertation group. This chair, unlike many others, held bimonthly meetings with his students in the throes of their dissertations or gingerly approaching them. I was impressed by the forthrightness of this professor and the caring he showed in insisting that his students measure up. The chair—I’ll name him Professor Bellows—shared several important “gripes” we can all learn from.

Scholarly Language

Sounding exasperated, Professor Bellows called out his students’ inattention to scholarly language and wordiness:

Even though I have addressed the issues of appropriate diction and wordiness, providing specifics to you over our many meetings, most of you have not taken this to heart. And worse, for some bizarre reason you thought that feedback given to one student didn’t apply to your own work.

In my academic coaching of dissertation writers, I have found that scholarly language notoriously trips them up. The genre of scholarly writing demands certain standards, expectations, and conventions. A few: no contractions, no colloquialisms, little passive voice, no “emotional” words (completely, extremely, very, utterly, fantastically), no redundancy (period of time), no jargon (with exceptions, depending on your field, topic, and pedantry of your chair), no euphemisms (“After ingesting licorice-flavored cyanide, the rat gave up the ghost.”), no anthropomorphisms (“This book instructs you.”), past tense for literature review summaries, future tense for proposals. And of course, proper grammar throughout. See the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2010, pp. 65-71) for a roundup.

Sincerely desiring to teach and train his students, Professor Bellows distributed handouts (several times) with examples of words and phrases not to use, such as the above. He also circulated sheets with examples of wordiness and recommended corrections (“There were five attempts to”>”Five attempts were made to”; “was contacting”>”contacted”; “A new method is needed by the university” > “The university requires a new method”). On the heels of these handouts, he exhorted his wayward students to attend to such matters outside of the group meetings:

Much of the feedback provided in our last meeting on a student’s chapter should never have been given time. It was a waste. All of these issues should be taken care of in the peer group or by the author.

Professor Bellows revealed too the source of his annoyance:

It was brought to my attention that last month in her peer group an author had been told about all the problems, like these, with her chapter. She ignored them, only to be given the same feedback by the larger group. This is a waste of all our time!

Follow the Guidelines

Professor Bellows addressed guidelines for organization he had disseminated, specifically of Chapter 3, in most dissertations the methods chapter. Apparently, his students thought the guidelines applied only to a certain type of dissertation and, therefore, not to theirs:

This guide is not for qualitative dissertations only. It is a basic guide for ALL dissertations. To bring to the group any chapter not organized according to the outlines provided is disrespectful of my time, the group’s time, and of the process.

The professor’s students did not take the guidelines seriously and were attempting to slide over or through the process. In my academic coaching, when I hear students’ laments about how they attempted to short-circuit the process, they always confirm these never work. Sooner or later, the lapses are always unmasked. Especially when it’s later (close to expected graduation), the penalties of extensive revision and delay can be steep.

Consideration and Responsibility

Showing his sensitivity to the students’ lack of consideration of others, Professor Bellows exhorted them to develop a sense of responsibility and ownership of the dissertation. He seemed exasperated at his students’ careless, apathetic, and lackadaisical attitudes:

No chapter should be sent out a week before our meeting with a hurried request to provide feedback just a couple of days prior to the group meeting. This means the author is not taking care with the product or taking responsibility for it.

His passion and irritation shone through:

Listen to all the critiques! Most of what we say to one author at one meeting we have said to others the meeting before. This lack of attention and application to your own work is tiresome! It’s one thing to try to help another craft a good purpose statement. But it’s quite another to avoid editing heavily for flow and organization because the author couldn’t be bothered either to listen or take responsibility for the work.

I especially empathize with Professor B.’s comments here. Occasionally with clients, I’ve found that their revisions and inserts after my questions and comments are wholly perfunctory, as if they’ve been watching TV with their laptop opened to a dissertation page for show. Once in a while, when I see a student’s production (or lack of it) like this, I feel bound to voice similar words to Professor Bellow’s. Usually, the student apologizes and literally and figuratively turns off the TV and buckles down.

The Benefits of Writing

As any writer knows, and even though we may object violently at times, writing begets better writing. Professor Bellows reminded his students of this principle:

No one in this group is exempt from writing other papers. The reason is—and this is by far not the first time I have said this—that those who write and receive feedback from peer reviewers at conferences and journals improve their writing skills and are focused on the task at hand.

Again, he pinpointed the slough-off factor of his (and other) students. The effort, concentration, consistency, and actual writing cannot be minimized. As many of my students have attested, paradoxically when we finally do get down to writing, we often enjoy it and even get excited about it.

Respect Respect Respect

In his wrap-up, Professor Bellows returned to a major gripe. Following from his other examples of students’ disrespect—ignoring guidelines, not revising, submitting a “new” draft at the last minute—he brought up a habit all of us should have jettisoned in high school:

I am extremely tired of another aspect of general disrespect. At our next meeting, if you have something to say, address the group. Many of you feel your side conversations are about an issue we are dealing with. But while the larger group is addressing the issue, you carry on your private discussion, interrupting the conversation, and forcing us to stop to listen to you. Then, likely as not, you pull us back to a topic we have already addressed. Another waste of time!

A Great Leader

Finally, like a good academic coach, Professor Bellows reaffirmed his faith in his students:

Take these remarks in the spirit intended—to help you. Let’s work together to improve the group process and your writing. I know you can do it, and my goal is for your dissertations to be the best they can be.

In all these comments, Professor Bellows impressed me with his insights, courage, and forthrightness. He nailed students’ lack of respect for themselves, their work, the group, the process, and himself. He insisted on adherence to the guidelines, conventions, and accepted standards. He shared his feelings of frustration and weariness and implored his errant charges, with reiterated faith in them, to step up and do better.

Several months after I received these materials, the student who had forwarded them to me reported, I am glad to say, that the group had indeed improved. The students were respecting the group process and making decent strides in their work.

If you’ve squirmed reading any of Professor Bellows’ observations, good. Like his students, it’s time to take your all-important dissertation to heart, give it your all, and accept the help you are offered. With your renewed commitment and attention, you too will make real progress and, as Professor Bellows desired for his students, you will have a work you can be proud of.

© 2016 Noelle Sterne


Noelle SterneDissertation coach, editor, scholarly and mainstream writing consultant, author, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com


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