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Tough love for dissertation drafts

As a dissertation editor and coach, I have much empathy for beleaguered doctoral graduate students wrestling with their tomes. Many candidates seem to get little support from their chairs in guidance, writing, or cheering on. However, a student recently brought to my attention an impressive exception.

At this university, the doctoral students were advised to maintain associations and seek dissertation feedback from their cohort members with regular group meetings. In addition, this chair, unlike many others, held bimonthly meetings (probably uncompensated) with his struggling dissertation students.

After several meetings, the chair—I’ll call him Professor Bellows—sent a lengthy communication to all the members of the dissertation group. I was struck by his candor and caring as he insisted that his students measure up. He shared several important “gripes” that all doctoral students (and their professors) can learn from. I reproduce his admonitions below with my comments.

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.

I’ve found too that scholarly language notoriously trips up students. 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 chair’s level of pedantry; no euphemisms (“After ingesting licorice-flavored cyanide, the rat gave up the ghost.”); no anthropomorphisms (“This book instructs you.”).

Colloquialisms especially seem to be rampant. Of course, in a first draft, it’s easier to write in colloquial or conversational language. For example: “Emotional intelligence is a tired topic.” “The study used tons of variables.” “The subjects found the survey pretty tough.” But this style is not acceptable in a dissertation.

More conventions: future tenses are expected for proposals, past tenses are needed and expected for literature review summaries and DADC—Dissertation After Data Collection. And too, of course, proper grammar should be used throughout.

Professor Bellows continued his dogged training and sincere desire to teach and train his students with handouts. They contained examples of words and phrases to steer clear of, such as the above. He also circulated sheets with illustrations of wordiness and recommended corrections:

“There were five attempts to” > ”Five attempts were made to”
“was contacting” > ”contacted”
“advance planning” > “planning”

He urged his wayward students to attend to such matters outside of the group meetings:

In our last meeting, much of the feedback 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, a student disregarding the per group critique:

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 also is a waste of all our time!
Many doctoral students are working professionals and very aware of their time, its limits, and wasting it, especially semester after semester. Professor Bellows appealed to their sense of time efficiency, as in heeding the critiques of their group and doctoral committees and correcting their manuscripts.

Follow the Guidelines

Professor Bellows also addressed guidelines he had distributed for organization of the dissertation, specifically of Chapter 3, which in most dissertations constitutes the methods chapter. Apparently, his students thought the guidelines applied only to a certain type of dissertation:

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 the process.

The students apparently were attempting to slide over or through the process. Every university, school, and/or departmental set of guidelines (or outlines or rubrics) have been created for several purposes: thoroughness, preciseness, and consistency with dissertation conventions.

In my coaching, when I hear students’ laments about how they attempted to short-circuit the outline, they eventually find that this disregard never works. Sooner or later, their doctoral committees unmask the lapses. Especially when the students are perilously 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 their dissertations. 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.

In general, my clients are considerate of my time, especially when we have agreed on a schedule of draft exchanges. But sometimes they have requested ridiculous turnarounds—email on Sunday for return on Tuesday—because of either emergencies or, more often, their own procrastination.
On procrastination and inattention, I well understood Professor Bellow’s passion and irritation at student half-heartedness:

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 stop editing heavily for flow and organization because the author couldn’t be bothered either to listen or take responsibility for the work.

I especially empathized with Professor B.’s comments here. Occasionally with current clients, I’ve found in rereviewing their drafts that they’ve neglected my questions, suggestions, and requests for improving the work. Their revisions and insertions are wholly perfunctory, as if they’ve been watching TV with their laptop opened to a dissertation page. 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 gets down to revision.

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. Effort, concentration, regularity, and actual writing cannot be minimized. As many of my students have attested, paradoxically when they finally do get to writing, they often enjoy it and even get excited about it. And they get better.

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 after we got reprimanded for whispering to our best friend in class:

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. Then, likely as not, because you “missed it,” 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—only 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.

* * * * * *

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, finally voicing faith in his errant charges, implored them to do better.

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

If you’ve squirmingly recognized any of Professor Bellows’ observations and the faults he describes in relation to your own dissertation process, good. Instead of stewing and resenting, you may want to take his critiques to heart. His advice and guidance will pay off. You too will tackle your work with greater courage and commitment and create a dissertation you can be proud of.

© 2022 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 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. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at