Dissertation support groups (part 2): Success!

SupportPreface: This is the second of two posts on dissertation support groups. In the previous piece, “Dissertation support groups (part 1): Watch out!”, I described several benefits and cautioned readers about drawbacks of a group. In this piece, I report on a successful group in the words of its founders and members. The philosophies and methods may help graduate students seeking support groups and faculty desiring to start them.

“I couldn’t write. I’d be in the library, staring at the portrait of the bearded benefactor, and the time would just tick by. That’s when I decided to join the group.”

This member of a dissertation support group was not alone in her dilemma.

Dissertation writers may join groups because they are having trouble with something—writing, thinking, research, time management, chair and committee, significant others, feeling alone, and many other difficulties.

Genesis of a Woman’s Group

Dissertation support group

L to R: Paige Miller, Dr. Mary Givens, Elle Shaaban- Magaña

Universities that sponsor dissertation groups recognize their value in graduate students’ arduous journeys (e.g., University of Minnesota, 2015). One group with a long history is the Women’s Dissertation and Thesis Support Group at the University of Alabama (permission given for identification). Auspiciously called “Momentum,” the group functions under the auspices of the Women and Gender Resource Center (WGRC) of the Office of Student Affairs.

The group was initiated by the director of the WGRC, Elle Shaaban-Magana, because of her own experience completing her master’s thesis. She realized that most services were focused on serving traditional undergraduate students rather than graduate students. So she recruited two therapists of the Counseling Center, who also recognized the need. The group has been meeting weekly on campus since 2009.

Cofounder, cofacilitator, and coordinator Paige Miller pointed out that the group is open to women only because the WGRC is committed to gender equity. A women’s group gives members opportunities to discuss major women’s issues, such as balance between graduate school and family/marriage, women’s many (too many?) responsibilities, working in fields dominated by men, and facing the “impostor syndrome” (feelings that one is a fraud, despite accomplishments, and especially prevalent in high-achieving women [Richards, 2015; see also Weir, 2013]). The group is cofacilitated by Dr. Mary Burke Givens, a former counselor, Ph.D. from Alabama University, and professor of education at the university. Dr. Givens observed, “I believe there are unique barriers for women. If men were in the group, I think the climate would be entirely different. “

Ms. Shabaan-Magana added, “Navigation through academia is gendered across disciplines, where faculty members are predominantly male, except for the ‘pink collar’ [nursing, elementary education] disciplines. We wanted a group that honors women’s issues—our discomfort in asking for help, our socialization not to ask or prioritize our own needs, admitting our shortcomings. And all this especially for marginalized women, who may have components not only of gender but also of race and disabilities.”

The group is open—not limited to a certain number of weeks or closed to new members after a certain number have joined. Women from any discipline in their graduate school process may attend any meeting at any stage for as long as they find the group beneficial, although most are working on their dissertations. Ms. Shaaban-Magana said, “I am glad the group is open, because the women students have questions and anxieties at many stages, like narrowing a topic, choosing a committee, breaking through stalled writing.” Ms. Miller noted that members at various stages and in different disciplines help others see and understand better the many phases of the odyssey.

The weekly meetings generally take place for one hour, with from four to twelve members and a core group of four to five. Regularity of attendance depends on the season, number of graduates each academic year, and members’ commitments and situations; some are full-time graduate students, others are full-time professionals, and many have families.

Purpose

The official website announcement reads as follows:

Women’s Dissertation and Thesis Support group is a weekly informational and supportive group to answer questions and provide feedback during this challenging process. Group members increase skills, decrease a sense of isolation, and hold each other accountable for establishing and accomplishing goals. Offered year round.

Dr. Givens emphasized that the group’s purpose is “to be supportive.” Sometimes guest speakers address the members, discussing a range of topics, such as roles of the committee, the intricacies of the Institutional Review Board process, or emotional issues students may face. Other times the members share specific issues that threaten to block them.

Topics may be any that plague graduate students, both practical and emotional.  In addition to those mentioned above, others include stress management, time management, goal setting, procrastination (a very big one, according to Dr. Givens), dealing with chair and committee, and navigating the academic culture. Although the group is not a writing group as such, members borrow “brainpower” and “share insecurities” (Wegener, Meier, & Ingerslev, 2016, p. 1092).

Why Join?

For the three members I interviewed, the main reason for joining was accountability. Patricia said succinctly, “Accountability.” J. P. commented, “The group holds me accountable for completing tasks. It’s like having a workout partner to go to the gym with. You are much more likely to set goals and meet them. The accountability challenges me to have something new to report each week.”

Similarly, Janet said, “I joined for accountability in my writing. I know the other women are cheering me on and that they understand the obstacles I face.”

For these members, combating a sense of isolation was the second most important reason they joined. Professor Miles T. Bryant (2004) labeled the graduate student’s plight as “solo scholarship . . . [a] reality that doesn’t always lead to the best of outcomes” (p. 27, quoted by Reis, n.d.). J. P. echoed this observation: “My graduate program is very independent, like many, with isolated study. Advisors and administrators can be unresponsive and cold. Students feel embarrassed and like they don’t belong in graduate school.  The group has made me realize that my challenges are very common, and the other women are genuinely supportive.”

Patricia appreciated the camaraderie and common problems. “When members report similar setbacks and disappointments to mine, I don’t get discouraged.”

Typical Meetings

At the start of each meeting, members “check in,” reporting what they have accomplished since the previous one. “This could be the number of pages written,” said Janet, “correspondence with committee members, locating new research. Even returning overdue library books counts!” Patricia related that members discuss issues that interfere with their completion of necessary steps, and they sometimes hear lectures or tutorials about specific skills. All three members mentioned that at the end of the meetings, each student decides on and shares her goals for the following week (see also Lee & Golde, n.d., for excellent tools on self-management and group activities).

Members’ Testimonies

Members enthusiastically attested the group’s success, and all felt the group fulfills their major purposes for joining—gaining accountability and a sense of community.  And more.

For Janet, the group “serves as a reminder to make some progress each week, even when things get crazy at work or at home.” Patricia reiterated that she felt encouraged hearing other members’ “similar stories” of obstacles. J. P. admitted the group has increased her self-confidence and expanded her awareness of available resources. “Now I don’t feel as intimidated or discouraged speaking with professors, administrators, and other graduate students.” She added, “The group has been imperative to my success in graduate school. The sense of isolation, lack of guidance, and sometimes unprofessionalism that graduate students must deal with in their coursework and dissertations are all unnecessary and even unethical. This group has allowed me to find my way successfully at each point.”

Founders and facilitators also confirmed the group’s successes. Ms. Shaaban-Magana referred to the group’s current seventh year—“ample testimony.” Members recruit other members and many graduate—the group celebrates all the graduations. And in the acknowledgments sections of the thesis or dissertation, many thank the group and members. Reporting on the 2015-2016 member survey, Ms. Miller said that 100% indicated their participation had made an enormous difference in their thesis or dissertation progress. Dr. Givens, though, felt the group has had “mixed success . . . many women cannot attend because of childcare and work responsibilities in addition to their studies, competing meetings, class conflicts, and a host of other things.”

Changes and Improvements?

Founders and members would change several things. Ms. Shaaban-Magana is planning more electronic resources to aid members with practical and supportive information.  Ms. Miller is intent on increasing publicity for the group. “Sometimes women don’t find out about this resource—and so many need it.” Dr. Givens wants “to see how we can ease the women’s conflicts and many responsibilities to help them attend.  Despite all of women’s progress in the home and workplace, I believe many feel the same sense of duty and guilt when they’re not performing the ‘traditional’ activities as did women of previous generations.”

Dr. Givens also suggested that the group meetings become more structured, such as with an orientation at the start of the fall semester, scheduled activities and presentations, and more emphasis on information. “In a group like this, it is often too easy to exchange moans and sighs. When students are given concrete information, they become focused, forget about the emotional turmoils, and plunge ahead to actual research and writing.”

With the acknowledged plans for improvement, perhaps the most eloquent testimony of the current value of Momentum: Women’s Dissertation and Thesis Support Group was that of J. P.:

Since the group is collaborative and supportive, ideas and problem solving techniques are frequently generated. The group has helped my emotional and mental health and has increased my self-confidence. I know that the skills I have learned in this group will benefit me after graduate school—throughout life.

J.P.’s words may strike home for thesis and dissertation writers suffering through the “solo” dissertation experience. They may seek out a group like this one that can help decrease their personal and academic stumbling blocks and increase their success—and even enjoyment–in the dissertation process.

References

Bryant, M. T. (2004). The portable dissertation advisor. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Lee, S., & Golde, C. (n.d.). Starting an effective dissertation writing group. Retrieved from http://unmgrc.unm.edu/writing-groups/documents/starting-an-effective-group.pdf

Reis, R. M. (n.d.).  Tomorrow’s professor postings, message 1441. Retrieved from            https://tomprof.stanford.edu/posting/1441

Richards, C. (2015, October 26). Learning to deal with the impostor syndrome. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/26/your-money/learning-to-deal-with-the-impostor-syndrome.html?_r=0

University of Minnesota. (2015). Stage 8: Creating a dissertation support network. Dissertation calculator. Retrieved from https://www.lib.umn.edu/help/disscalc/stage8.phtml

Wegener, C., Meier, N., & Ingerslev, K. (2016). Borrowing brainpower–Sharing insecurities: Lessons learned from a doctoral peer writing group. Studies in Higher Education, 41(6), 1092-1105. doi:10.1080/03075079.2014.966671

Weir, K. (2013). Feel like a fraud? GradPSYCH [American Psychological Association publication], 11(4). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/index.aspx

Author’s note: Thank you to all the women who agreed to interviews for this article!

© 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


The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.