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Dissertation support groups (part 1): Watch out!

This is the first of two posts on dissertation support groups. In this post, I acknowledge some of the advantages and alert you to some of the dangers of a group. In the next post, I describe a successful group in the words of its members.

In the seemingly endless struggles with your dissertation, you may think about joining a dissertation support group. A group can be excellent for “solace, support and motivation” (Axelrod & Windell, 2012, p. 101) and sharing of information and writing techniques (Grant & Tomal, 2013; Joyner, Rouse, & Glatthorn, 2012; Rockinson-Szapkiw & Spaulding, 2014). The group can also be a great source of consolation and camaraderie, a welcome environment in which everyone speaks the dissertationese dialect, and a welcome spot for empathetic grousing.

When in the group you report on your work and progress, you have to describe it. Your description enables you to hone what you’re writing about and clarify it for yourself and others. In the group too, you learn from members, hear their critiques and (hopefully) accept them gracefully, exchange much information about work habits and university procedures, and often gain a cheering section.

But dissertation support groups can produce problems you may not have foreseen. In addition to advantages, Bolker (1998) points out many drawbacks of groups, especially if they’re leaderless. You, or other members, may whine incessantly about the difficulties, trot out personal problems, or expect other members to edit or even write the thing. Members may also show off with constant oneupmanship, tear down everyone else’s work, burst into tears when their own work is critiqued, monopolize the sessions, relate disastrous chair stories, or flirt inappropriately. Or they may actually steal others’ ideas. Before you join a group, make sure you trust the members.

You may prefer a same-sex or mixed group, and each has its pros and cons. In a same-sex group, members may have similar problems about the dissertation and feel comfortable talking about them (in women’s groups, for example, juggling child care and Chapter 2). And too, a mixed group will reflect more accurately your later professional world.

Yet competition and consequent jabs may take over. In mixed groups, some members may feel overshadowed by more dominant ones—Bowker noted that women can “feel silenced by men in groups” (p. 108). I recall being intimidated, and muted, by a male group member who constantly spouted his usually esoteric, very impressive knowledge (not that a woman couldn’t also).

Whether the group composition is same sex or mixed, different members may be at different stages of dissertation production, with different problems surfacing. In my academic editing and coaching practice, my client Rachel said she was “swearing off the group.” Why? I asked. “They’re all talking about data analysis this, data analysis that, and spouting all kinds of statistical jargon. What the heck is the Goodman-Kruskal? Sounds like a wedding announcement.”

Not only may the group focus almost exclusively on one aspect of the dissertation, but it may veer off completely from its declared or implicit purpose. Clients have told me of deterioration into gossip fests, especially about professors’ alleged infidelities. Trevor vividly described how his group became a party, with too many Twinkies and too much sugary punch. Marguerite related that her members almost came to blows over a night-long passionate comparison of Netflix discoveries. Pleasant or steam-releasing as these activities may be, they are not why you joined the group.

My dissertation support group took shape informally around chance meetings for morning coffee in the university student lounge. The gathering functioned primarily as a “gripe group” as we all vented about the system and our nemesis chairs. We tried to outdo each other on which chair made the snidest comments and entertained each other with tales of fruitless searches for that pivotal article that would prove the incontrovertible need for our study.

Entertaining and immediately vindicating, yes, but I eventually dropped out because the general negativity obstructed my writing. I made more progress alone holed up in the library and got my coffee at a nearby convenience store.

After a few sessions, you too may feel you’ve exhausted the group’s value. If you’ve been in a group with negative issues, announce your decision to leave, thank everyone, and save the time and commute.

More positively, you may realize that you’ve already gained what you need from the group in support, direction, and confidence. Keep in contact if you wish with one or two members for mutual encouragement, but you now know you can work better solo. Congratulations—you’ve just become your own support group!


Axelrod, B., & Windell, J. (2012). Dissertation solutions: A concise guide to planning, implementing, and surviving the dissertation process. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Bolker, J. (1998). Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day: A guide to starting, revising, and finishing your doctoral thesis. New York, NY: Owl/Henry Holt.

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.

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.

Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J., & Spaulding, L. S. (Eds.) (2014). Navigating the doctoral journey: A handbook of strategies for success. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

© 2016 Noelle Sterne

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

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

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.