Friday, August 14th, 2015...2:43 pm

Support Structures for Graduate Writing

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Guest blogger: Alice Hutton Sharp, PhD Graduate and Postdoctoral Fellow at McGill University

Late summer can be a time of frustration and anxiety for graduate students working on their dissertations. Those who have been teaching wish they had more time and energy to devote to their thesis, while those who haven’t feel pressure to produce a large body of work before the commitments of the fall term begin.

Having the proper supports in place can radically improve the way you approach the dissertation writing process. Last spring, the university’s Provost’s office hosted a working group on graduate student writing support, and many systems that students have used to successfully complete their dissertations were discussed:

* Many students have built a dissertation-writing community by meeting once a week or so with their peers, over coffee or lunch, to discuss how their work was going and set their goals for the coming week. At the next meeting, they would then report on how they would go. These can be arranged to include all the students from a given year in the program, or simply a group of friends; smaller groups do seem to work better, particularly if you will be reading one another’s writing, as some groups have done.

* The University of Toronto’s Academic Success Centre is organizing three Graduate Writing Groups to give students the time and space to focus on their writing; the sign up deadline is September 7th, and more information can be found here. After a short discussion of writing goals, students will then use the scheduled meeting time for wi-fi free writing “lock ins”— a strategy that many people, even accomplished writers, have found helpful.

* Other students have arranged groups according to their research interests, moving out of the writing-focused model to discussing readings and even, with departmental support, inviting speakers. This is a particularly useful model for pre-candidacy students, as it can give them an opportunity to meet frequently with other students to discuss the latest research in their field.

* Many of these models of accountability depend on the time and space availability, and not everyone has these to offer. My friends and I got around these constraints by arranging a daily series of accountability e-mails that helped keep us on track no matter what distractions were going on in our lives. I presented our model at the meeting, and written up my notes on the system here.

If you need more suggestions, there are many books written aimed at helping graduate students write their dissertations—I’ve put together an annotated bibliography, which can be found here.

However, as Michael Collins, a doctoral candidate in English, pointed out in his presentation, there is a general need for open and honest conversations about the writing process, not only between graduate students but also between graduate students and faculty. This can be a problem for scholars in the Humanities— since words and texts are our focus, it can be hard to admit that we need help writing. Developing a support system, however, is a crucial first step to expanding the conversation on writing methods and support.

I can’t promise that finding a support system will make you love writing; however, meeting your goals does offer an important sense of accomplishment that can be lost in the long process of writing a dissertation, and building a supportive community can be key to cutting through the anxiety and frustrations of writing and revising.

Alice Hutton Sharp defended her dissertation in January 2015.  She is now a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the History and Classical Studies Department at McGill University.

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