By the time graduate students begin to write the thesis, which involves crafting a cohesive story from all the research components, many have written numerous course papers and some have even published in peer- reviewed journals. They have written and defended a thesis proposal and some have passed extensive comprehensive exams. Why, then, do so many students fail to finish their programs? Virginia Wolfe famously wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This chapter takes up the question, “What does a graduate student need to write a thesis?” In addition to Wolfe notions of money and a space to write, graduate students need time, motivation, and supervisor support. This article offers strategies that help students make the most of their time and secure support and motivation from their supervisors.
Anne, a recent graduate, had worked on her thesis for a number of years and was near the time limit allowed by her university. Last summer, she focused all her energies on finishing her thesis. Oneday, her young daughter came to her, asking her to play. Anne explained that she was working and would play with her later. Her daughter looked at her and asked, “Mommy, when will you be fun again?”
Anne’s story echoes that of many graduate students who must choose between academia and their life, which must be placed on hold in order to finish the thesis. Byers et al (2014) examined the survival strategies of ten doctoral students and found, “They often felt guilt (i.e., feelings that their studies were taking time away that could be spent with family or friends) and worry (i.e., concern they might not be able to meet the challenges of the program)” (p. 123). Putting aside the thesis to take a walk in the forest, to have dinner with friends, or to take children to the park brings unbelievable joy. These fleeting positive moments are soon replaced by guilt and worry.
Students who were both lucky and unlucky to obtain faculty positions while ABD (all but dissertation) find the stress to be magnified. Many take offers before completing because they need themoney and fear another offer will not come along. This is the proverbial offer you can’t refuse. Students who take tenure track positions and try to write their thesis find themselves in a double bind ofattending to competing goals. They must publish and present to ensure tenure, and finish their thesis as a student. Similarly, students may need to work, some taking on one or more jobs, which diminishesmotivation to write considerably.
An abundance of self-help books on how to write a thesis line library bookshelves. Graduate students are the ideal audience for this literary genre. I surveyed a number of books available from my library and found most offered some valuable advice. Like diet books, they will yield positive results, provided readers follow the advice offered. I note, however, that most of books were still on the shelf leading me to believe they are not being used. While there is a great deal of research and advice being dispensed about and to graduate students, most do not have the time to locate the information when they need it. A colleague remarked to me that when he was preparing to write his thesis, his supervisor gave him a copy of Joan Bolker’s (1998) famed Writing Your Thesis in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing your Doctoral Thesis.
“Did it help?” I asked.
“I didn’t have time to read it. I had to write my dissertation” he replied. The most useful advice provided by self-help books, such as those by Bolker (1998) and Silva (2007), is that to be productive, students must set aside time to write. Time is finite and everyone has demands competing for their attention.
Silva, in How to Write a Lot: APractical Guide to Productive Academic Writing recommends that writing needs to be a daily habit by making a schedule and adhering to it. Students who devote a full day once per week will accomplish less than those who work consistently an hour a day, every day. Students lose momentum after a couple of days. Working consistently keeps the thesis always on the mind. When the thesis is out of sight, it is out of mind. Time is spent trying to get back to the place they left off in the last writing session. In some cases, this involves remembering and locating the resources that have been filed away.
Bolker and Silva suggest writers treat their writing schedule as they would an important appointment with a doctor. Unlike teaching a class or other appointments, writing time is flexible. No one cares if you skip a day of writing, but everyone is concerned if you miss an appointment. Importantly, they also stress that writing requires persistence and it is a waste of time to attempt writing the perfect first draft. It is easier to revise a poorly written text than craft a brilliant one. For Silva, “The cure for writer’s block—if you can cure a specious affliction—is writing” (p. 46).
Most supervisors do not know how to help students write, despite Paré’s (2011) assertion that, “In a very real sense, doctoral supervisors are writing teachers” (p. 59). Most supervisors are researchersand teachers of discipline knowledge and are not trained to teach writing skills. Delamont, Parry, and Atkinson (1998) interviewed nearly 100 supervisors and found that many struggled to find the balance between “intervention and non-intervention in the student’s writing” (p. 163). This involved deciding to either leave students to work through their writing problems on their own or “spoonfeeding”them (p. 160).
We learn language in situ and use it without reflection. McAlpine and Amundsen (2011) explain that academic language, like learning one’s mother tongue, is a gradual process and rarely theorized.Perhaps supervisors believe that students will acquire this language and writing culture by reading published papers and mimicking them. Kiley (2009) suggests supervisors also know when a student is faking it as evidenced in this quote from an experienced supervisor, “My supervisor used to say fake it until you make it” (p. 296). While a certain amount of mimicry is necessary, it is not a substitute formastery.
Students can find help from style guides specific to their discipline. A thesis in biology will have a different tone, style and format than will one in Art History. Academic culture is embedded in language and form. For example, in my field, we tend to write theses as narratives, which explain and describe. We do not formulate arguments. When a student writes, “I will argue that…” we aretaken aback. Students need to know if they should write in first person or in third. Does the discipline use passive voice or active voice? How do researchers position themselves in the research?
Many students use books about methodology to write their proposals, but stop at the data analysis chapter. These books hold valuable information on how to write in that specific methodology. For example, it is a mistake for those conducting action research and PAR to refer to themselves as “the researcher.” Herr and Anderson (2015) explain, “This typically is a sign that the action researcher (or his or her dissertation committee) lacks a fundamental understanding of the epistemology of the insider action research” (p. 43).
Spaulding and Rockinson-Szapkiw (2012) point out that motivation is a key factor in persistence to complete a degree, and working with a supportive supervisor is essential to motivation. Motivation from supervisors comes is many forms and it cannot be understated how important it is to receive feedback from a supervisor when writing the thesis. It is important to get feedback early in the writingstage and there are some ways to accomplish this. Graduate students often initiate the feedback cycle by sending the supervisor a draft. Frequently, they complain that they do not receive feedback or that supervisors are ignoring them. Many wonder if they should send reminders, and question how long they should wait for a response. The problem is twofold: the work was unsolicited and it is not the supervisor’s first priority to respond. Students should not send work in progress, without warning, with the request, “Can you take a look at this and tell me if I am going in the right direction?” Before sending work to a supervisor, the student needs to meet with their supervisor.
How to Meet with a Supervisor
Working with a supervisor is a professional, not a social, exchange. It does not mean students shouldn’t like their supervisor or socialize with them. It means that this is an academic relationship and to get the best advice and mentorship from a supervisor, the student should treat the supervisor’s time as one would any other busy professional. This section tells how to make the most of those meetings.
Be on time and never miss an appointment. Frequently, students email or call to tell their supervisor they will be “a few minutes late.” Although the reasons may be quite legitimate and unavoidable, the time missed will come out of the time set to discuss the thesis research. Being late means that a meeting scheduled for an hour is now 45 minutes, or less. If, on the other hand, the supervisor is late, wait at least 20 minutes. Although this is no excuse, committee meetings can run overtime. However, the meeting with the student should not be rushed to make up for lost time.
If the supervisor does not show up for the meeting, take note of the day and time of the scheduled meeting. Follow up with an email inquiring if you had made a mistake and scheduled the wrong time or day. Mistakes can happen, but the purpose of this email is to establish communication and to keep a record of missed meetings. The following chapter deals with unavailable or unresponsive supervisors and keeping a record will help in dealing with that kind of a situation.
At times, students need to meet their supervisor to obtain signatures on various forms. In these cases, ensure that the form is completed as much as possible before the meeting. The focus of the meeting is to keep the thesis moving forward and nothing should distract that goal.
Come to the meeting with a tentative agenda and specific questions pertaining to the research. Take careful notes of the discussion during the meeting. Supervisors dislike receiving a follow up email asking them to repeat the information and sources they provided during the meeting. They may ignore these emails or repeat one or two sources, grudgingly. Or they may forget what was suggested. However, it is acceptable and recommended to follow up with questions if the information given was not clear.
At the end of the meeting, determine what work will be completed for the next meeting, and agree on the date it will be sent to the supervisor. Supervisors who receive a lengthy rough draft hoursbefore a meeting should not be expected to comment on it during the meeting. In the beginning of the writing process, it is a good idea to take on smaller pieces of research for feedback. At first, students underestimate the amount of time needed to write, and it is better to commit to producing small amounts rather than to be overly ambitious and fail. Together, confirm a date for the next meeting. This should be a mutually agreed upon amount of time, but it should be, at a minimum, once per month. Take care to not get into a vicious cycle where students, believing they are not producing fast enough, avoid meeting with their supervisor. This is a mistake on the part of the student. Regularly scheduled meetings are key to keep students motivated.
No later than the day after the meeting, send an email, which includes a short memo of the important points discussed. This email should be carefully written and free of typos and grammatical errors. Here, the student can ask for clarity if, for example, a recommendation was confusing. This email should confirm the date of the next meeting and reiterate when the promised work will be sent to the supervisor. This email establishes a track record of meetings, and reminds you of your homework. It also provides a record of the supervisor’s availability. Should the supervisor’s unavailability cause delays that cost the student time and money, these email exchanges will support the case to change supervisors. Students with co-supervisors should copy all correspondence to both supervisors to ensure both are aware of the direction of the research and avoid inconsistent advice.
Setting clear deadlines for completing work eliminates the guesswork of when the student can expect feedback. Supervisors know when they can expect work and when they will meet to discuss it. If the supervisor knows when she or he will receive a hundred midterm exams, or an important grant is due, she or he can communicate that to the student. The student is not left in the dark as to when they will receive feedback. Some supervisors are relaxed and prefer meetings as needed, but I believe most will conform to the structure established by the student. If a supervisor is not willing to meet with students on a regular basis, then they need to consider if this is the right supervisor for them.
Once the deadline for work has been agreed upon, make it a priority to send the work in on time. Do not email to beg for extensions. If some event prevented the work from being completed, cancel the appointment and attempt to set new deadlines and meeting times. When sending the work, or in any correspondence, include the last email to remind the supervisor of what took place at the last the meeting. This serves as an aide memoire to help the supervisor place your work in a context. Popular supervisors may be working with several students and cannot recall the details of your research.
How to Ensure Good Feedback
Do not ask supervisors to read a rambling train of thought, run on sentences, or badly written first attempts. Submit a draft to the supervisor only after it is polished. First drafts are always tentative and noone except the writer should read them. The writer is establishing the tone and finding his or her voice. Self-doubt is part of the process, and knowing that no one will read what is written prevents writer’s block. Always proofread and rework the text. Supervisors want to deal with big questions. They do not want to copyedit and many resent having to do so.
Before asking for the supervisor’s help, return to the proposal and ask if what is written is in line with it. Does it address the research questions? If confirmation on the direction is still needed, provide the supervisor with a memo in outline or point form. Do not ask the supervisor to search for the meaning in pages of text. It is important that the student be clear about nature of the feedback needed. Ask specific questions about what to include, what to omit. “Is this OK?” will not yield informative answers. A vague question may receive an equally vague response. In most cases whensupervisors give vague advice, they are not being negligent. Supervisors intuitively know when something is not working, but they are unable to articulate the problem.
They resort to phrases such as “you need to strengthen your argument,” “more justification is needed,” and “unpack this concept.”
Communication breaks down when students are confused about what they think their supervisors want, or when supervisors believe they have given sound advice that students are ignoring. Usually, advice was given, but not understood. Additionally, the advice may be too general to be helpful. Students may wish to ask what constitutes a stronger argument, but are reluctant to do so. Starke-Meyerring (2011) writes, “With writing beneath the cloak of normalcy, questions about writing—about knowledge production— becomes risky business” (p. 86). Frequently students preface important questions with, “This may be a stupid question.” Starke-Meyerring adds, “Students experience a sense of being left in the dark, learning by trial and error, or by chance” (p. 85). Many assume theirpeers understand everything and they blame themselves for not being smart enough. They need help but do know the questions to ask to get it, and many are afraid to ask. There really are no stupid questions, and there is a good chance many peers have the same questions. Students need to ask, and ask again, to uncover tacit knowledge.
Students often complain that their supervisor gives inconsistent advice. During one meeting, she or he may suggest a theory, a source, or a direction, only to reverse the decision during next meeting.To keep this to a minimum, students can gently remind the supervisor of the requested changes by summarizing the proposed changes in a cover letter accompanying the revised draft. Explain how each point was addressed in the text. This is the same strategy one would use when submitting revisions for a paper that is accepted with modifications for publication. The author must tell the editor how the changes were made. If the student disagrees with the supervisor’s comments, he or she should give a good rationale for ignoring them.
When supervisors spend time correcting texts, pay close attention to the corrections. One supervisor I interviewed laughed and said he spends hours reading and commenting on papers. His students check “accept” to all comments and resubmit the paper ten minutes later. The supervisor’s comments not only correct the student’s research, but provide clues to the academic language of thediscipline.
After submitting a draft to the supervisor, do not, under any circumstances, continue to work on the same draft. One supervisor I interviewed recounted an instance where he spent hours reading and commenting on a draft. When he returned it to the student, the student said he reworked it and had taken another direction. The supervisor said this was “a horrible waste of my time.” One can surmise that the next time this student submits a draft far less investment will be made reading and commenting on it. Once a draft is submitted, work on another section of the thesis. Update the literature review.
Intelligence, skill, and innate talent helps, but persistence is needed to finish a thesis. Establishing a regular writing schedule with clear deadlines replicates coursework. It breaks the mammoth job of writing a thesis into manageable parts and helps to put the task of writing a thesis into perspective. At its most basic level, the thesis is an academic exercise that demonstrates the capacity to carry out research. It is a take home, open book exam. The thesis demonstrates the ability to systematically gather and analyze date. A completed thesis tells a cohesive story of that research.
Blair, L. (2016). Writing a Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation. Springer.