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Supporting Graduate Writing 
in a Thesis or Dissertation

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50% of students in a thesis or dissertation program fail to complete because of difficulties with the writing process. This slideshare identifies the issues and provides strategies supervisors can use to assist students to finish. The main problem is the lack of recognition that graduates need to UNlearn successful term paper strategies to learn the new skills required to undertake a sustained piece of writing.

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Supporting Graduate Writing 
in a Thesis or Dissertation

  1. 1. Supporting Graduate Writing in a Thesis or Dissertation Robert Runté, PhD University of Lethbridge, 2018
  2. 2. Robert Runté, PhD • Senior Editor, EssentialEdits.ca (Lethbridge editing co-op) • Senior Editor, Five Rivers Publishing (small Canadian press, based in Ontario) • Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, University of Lethbridge (retd) Presenter: Robert Runté, PhD
  3. 3. Background: What’s the Issue? 50% of thesis-route students do not complete • figures basically same for Masters & PhDs • rate has not changed in over 50 years • graduation rates may have improved in some programs by moving to non- thesis Masters and ‘sandwich’ dissertations for PhDs
  4. 4. Background: What’s the Issue? 50% non-completion rate is appalling Either • graduate program recruitment/selection process is failing to identify appropriate candidates or • there is a structural problem with supervision
  5. 5. Background: What’s the Issue? 85% of those who fail to complete • dropout after having already successfully completing course work, proposal acceptance, data collection, and analysis • fail to complete after 8-9 semesters; often after 8 or 9 years in the program
  6. 6. Background: What’s the Issue? leaving empty-handed after years in the program is devastating to students’ • careers • finances (tuition/foregone earnings) • self-image
  7. 7. Background: Most Cited Causes • running out of money after multiple years in the program • running out of energy (burnout) after multiple years in program • life events (new baby, new job) prevent completion
  8. 8. S.K. Gardner 2008 Students blame faculty; faculty blame students
  9. 9. The problem is writing the thesis • 85% of those who do not complete stumble at writing stage • none of the research on failure to complete looks at writing as the problem • students and supervisors both ASSUME writing is not an issue • Writing IS the issue because sustained writing is new and different
  10. 10. What’s the issue? Why do students struggle with writing their thesis/dissertation?
  11. 11. Why graduate students need support for writing • “writing” at graduate level is not about literacy, but about writing strategies • Graduate students have to unlearn successful undergraduate writing strategies to become successful thesis writers
  12. 12. Sustained Writing Different Than Undergraduate Writing Undergraduate Term Paper Sustained Writing Short length and short duration • short enough to rehearse, draft, and manage in head • short enough to first draft in one or two nights Sustained • too long and complicated to be kept in head • too long and complicated to be complete in single session; requires minimum of months, perhaps years
  13. 13. Sustained Writing Different Than Undergraduate Writing Undergraduate Term Paper Sustained Writing Low Stakes • topics assigned by prof; student commitment to topic remains low • only one of several assignments for a course; course just one of several courses • marker only audience; little likelihood of public embarrassment High Stakes • grads choose research topics that matters a great deal to them • entire degree program at stake; a one shot deal • not just advisor and committee; manuscript to be publically distributed for everyone to read
  14. 14. Sustained Writing Different Than Undergraduate Writing Undergraduate Term Paper Sustained Writing Structure rewards those who are: • best first draft writers • capable of churning out multitude of mindless, superficial papers • detached and cynical enough to give prof what s/he wants Structure rewards those who are: • best at rewriting • capable of methodical planning and execution of single thoughtful project • obsessed
  15. 15. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong Sits down to write just like any other paper . . . . . .but scale is overwhelming • too big to know where to start, how all the pieces fit together • too big to hold it all in their brain at once – feel stupid when forget this or that bit that slips out of consciousness
  16. 16. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong students seldom see others writing, so assume (incorrectly) writing just flows easily for everyone else • they don’t understand it’s torture for everyone • they don’t understand everyone’s first draft sucks
  17. 17. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong compare their first draft with published work of others (i.e., draft #15) and feel inadequate
  18. 18. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong often believe first draft is their thesis • first draft feels inadequate, so afraid to hand into supervisor • stall, delay, miss deadlines because know it is still too rough • Undergraduate experience sets them up to view supervisor as one-shot marker • don’t understand that supervisor is there to help with next draft
  19. 19. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong OR first draft is done, so they believe they are done • receive constructive feedback from supervisor as rejection • feel inadequate, failure, give up, stall out – “I tried, supervisor rejected” • they don’t understand first draft always first of many • reject any feedback because they have finished the thesis • undergraduate experience has not prepared them for multiple drafts • they’ve finished a complete draft, so why aren’t they done yet?
  20. 20. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong first draft is done, so they believe thesis is done • reject feedback from supervisor as too demanding, unreasonable standards (jerk!) • undergraduate experience has not prepared them for revision as a step • asking for a re-do of undergrad assignment = complete rejection of paper (it was so bad, letting you try over), or insane professor – graduate students don’t understand that thesis is inherently different process
  21. 21. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong do not understand that first drafts are supposed to be rough • that one produces rough drafts to seek input/feedback from supervisor (and committee) • supervisor is not a marker, but an advisor—there to help, not judge • that supervisor’s advice can save hundreds of hours of false starts and dead ends; the earlier the intervention, the more helpful
  22. 22. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong do not understand that first drafts are supposed to be rough •that one explores, goes deeper, makes discoveries by writing
  23. 23. student experience of thesis is often. . .wrong Thesis-writing is a sustained process, requires several iterations
  24. 24. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong having finished first draft, are often extremely resistant to making suggested changes • make more work for themselves trying to save current wording rather than revising or starting over from scratch • resist any change to their argument, ideas – see suggestions as supervisor interference rather than helpful advice
  25. 25. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong Don’t understand that re-writing is more than re-wording student confuses rewording for rewriting • supervisors advice often requires student to re-conceptualize, not just reword
  26. 26. Rewriting is more than just rewording
  27. 27. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong re-writing is more than re-wording •student frustration increases as repeatedly resubmits reworded chapters, which supervisor repeatedly rejects • student concludes supervisor is impossible to satisfy
  28. 28. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong re-writing is more than re-wording • supervisor frustration increases as repeatedly has to re-read resubmitted but essentially unchanged chapters • concludes student not capable of making required changes • concludes will have to fail student (or let student run out of time)
  29. 29. student experience of thesis writing is often. . .wrong when a colleague says a student is incapable (even though they have successfully gotten to thesis stage) or a student says a colleague is impossible to satisfy usually reflects missing metacognition that
  30. 30. Writing problems can be avoided Supervisors can •avoid negative evaluations from students •avoid failing or having students drop out by simply educating students on the re-writing process before they start
  31. 31. Solving the problem What supervisors can do
  32. 32. Writing problems can be avoided Before they start writing, explain that sustained writing is • different than undergraduate writing – that they have to unlearn old strategies • an iterative process • that rewriting often requires reconceptualization and structural change, not just rewording • that they are not alone—you are there to support their writing as much as you supported their research
  33. 33. Writing problems can be avoided Start by having them read: “Writing Strategies for Theses and Dissertations” that explains all these points. Free 32-page Guide from EssentialEdits.ca/thesisStrategies.pdf
  34. 34. Recognize that there is more to writing process than writing angst is a natural part of the process
  35. 35. The Nature of Research Writing A long and difficult enquiry has the character of a venture which comprehensively engages the self of the enquirer. Anxiety is frequently the prevailing mood, and confusion, dead ends, disappointments, lack of inspiration, and lack of energy combine to generate wretchedness.
  36. 36. The Nature of Research Writing On the other hand, insights occur unexpectedly, ways open up where there had seemed to be no way, things which had seemed disparate fall together, and so on.
  37. 37. The Nature of Research Writing Disagreeable experiences probably occupy more of the total time of the enquiry than agreeable experiences, and on reflection, it is often hard to believe that their intensity was less. • R. K. Elliot "Education and Justification", Proceedings of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain Vol. XI (July, 1977).
  38. 38. Dealing with student angst supervisor has to support student through writing process • sustained writing NOT a skill students come with; something we have to consciously & explicitly teach • each discipline / paradigm has different style / culture of writing; our responsibility to socialize grad students into that specific writing culture
  39. 39. Dealing with student angst supervisor has to support student throughout writing process • colleagues who complain about “hand-holding” miss that there is more to writing process than writing • learning to manage angst /sustained writing is arguably key life-skill that writing a thesis teaches • coaching writing skills is key responsibility of thesis supervisors (and/or committee members)
  40. 40. Dealing with student angst organize students into support groups fellow grad students • going through same process: a shared misery • going through same process: tips, shared learning • reading similar literature – can share insights • critique groups – can peer-review before advisor/- committee see; can help interpret advisor advice
  41. 41. Dealing with student angst if supervisor not comfortable coaching writing process / time management skills, etc.: •appoint a writing coach to thesis committee (just as one would a stats person, or any other subject expert, etc.)
  42. 42. Dealing with student angst if supervisor not comfortable coaching writing / time management skills, etc., send student to • university writing centre for free tutoring • support group for critiques swaps • private tutors/coaches/editors (e.g., Editors Association of Canada has Ethical Guidelines for thesis editing)
  43. 43. Student strategies for dealing with angst Have students identify their individual issues, then post motivational sayings above their work stations corny, but we are addressing subconscious here (works for about 50% of students)
  44. 44. If their issue is keeping to deadlines: • post the deadline DUE 3:30 PM FRIDAY NO Extensions! No Alternative! (okay to make up fake deadlines for procrastinators)
  45. 45. Slogans for coping with deadline panic / perfectionism SOMETHING IS BETTER THAN NOTHING (Better to make a few major points than fail everything)
  46. 46. Slogans for coping with deadline panic IT IS A MANAGEABLE TASK Just need enough for next meeting to keep going.
  47. 47. Slogans to stop perfectionism / obsessive rewriting DOES NOT HAVE TO BE PERFECT Think of typical [rival paradigm]* thesis. *(insert own prejudices about rival programs here) ================================================================================== Much of the thesis is really good, so occasional weaker bit is okay.
  48. 48. Slogans to stop obsessive rewriting / perfectionism Give the committee something to tell you to fix = ================================================================================= Doesn't even have to be good. Get degree, then publish good stuff later.
  49. 49. Slogans for when a student is stuck/indecisive on wording: WHAT AM I TRYING TO SAY? If I can tell [spouse/parent/friend] in an hour, I can type it up in four hours. If I can’t decide which of two approaches is best, it is because either will do.
  50. 50. Slogans to keep thesis within practical limits KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid = ===================================================================================== KEEP IT BRIEF! Think minimalist. ===================================================================================== Start with MOST important points, add others later as time permits. ===================================================================================== Leave something for rest of your career!
  51. 51. Addressing writing process Recognize that blank-page syndrome writer’s block, and procrastination, are universal Staring at the screen so long it stares back
  52. 52. Addressing writing process Students seldom see others writing, so assume everyone else’s writing proceeds fluently, smoothly, efficiently Students’ undergraduate experiences may have been that writing process was relatively straight forward. Students therefore experience blank-page syndrome, writer’s block, and procrastination as • new • personal failure: not applying themselves enough • personal failure: now reached the limits of their ability • terrifying
  53. 53. Addressing blank-page syndrome Natalie Goldberg style warm-up exercises Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Helps about 30% of thesis writers)
  54. 54. Addressing blank-page syndrome • students input data, quotations, references as they go, using Word’s outline function (on view menu) • when starting a new section, dump raw material into Word file: suddenly page no longer blank—now requires ‘editing’ rather than ‘writing’ • use John Morley’s Academic Phrasebank to write transitions between points in outline (http://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/) • Microsoft Word practically writes the paper for them
  55. 55. Addressing writer’s block stop on the clock. . . . . .not on a block
  56. 56. Addressing writer’s block Can’t expect output without input •read in field (but not obsessively! )  •bounce ideas off grad support group The simple way to avoid the stomach-churning agony of having to finishing your thesis: read another book—repeat as necessary. —Matt Groening
  57. 57. Addressing procrastination have them view NFB short: Getting Started • know when to force themselves to grind away at problem areas • and know when to recharge themselves
  58. 58. Most important thing. . . • validate that writing is hard • validate that writing a thesis/dissertation is different • will require time to master these new skills • validate that the purpose of doing a thesis is to learn new skills -the process of doing a thesis is more important than the product -learning to undertake and complete sustained piece of writing is as challenging and rewarding as mastering research techniques, and a useful life-long skill • validate that they can be successful if they understand the need for new skills, and put the effort into mastering them -
  59. 59. forewarned is forearmed Free 32 page Guide for Graduate Students EssentialEdits.ca/ThesisStrategies.pdf
  60. 60. EssentialEdits.ca Dr.Runte@gmail.com • Available to speak to your grad class or grad student support group • Available for consultations with or about students who are stalled writing their thesis or dissertation • Available for coaching faculty writing

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