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Sharing the Pain

Chris Golde will never forget the day her advisor "suggested" that she join a dissertation writing support group. Her first thought was "Yuck." But Golde also knew that graduate students ignore advisor's suggestions at their peril, so she agreed to give it a try. She liked it. "It was so great, I stayed in it for 4 years," Golde tells Next Wave.

What is a dissertation writing support group? Put simply, it is a bunch of people who gather to offer (and receive) support and information as they navigate the challenging process of completing a dissertation. Some groups work entirely on personal issues like motivation, procrastination, and the interpersonal conflicts created by the process; others concentrate solely on the mechanics of writing and critiques of the material. Most mix in a little of each, depending on the specific needs of the people in the group.

Regardless of the format and content, successful groups share two characteristics. First, the members must trust each other. "You have to feel free to tell each other: 'That was crap,' " says Golde, "So the level of trust must be pretty high." Second, the discussions should be led by an experienced support group facilitator. As Sally Jensen--a.k.a. Dr. Sally, the Dissertation Doctor--points out, the best groups don't happen by accident. "To be successful, a group needs a clear purpose and a structure that supports that purpose," says Jensen, "and individuals must make a clear commitment to the group." Without these ingredients, support groups can dissolve into unproductive "bitch sessions" or simply dissolve.

But it is worth the effort. "My clients are busy folks and many are skeptical of the benefits of joining a group," admits Jensen, "but once the group takes off, it is very powerful." Golde agrees and credits her group with keeping her focused and efficient throughout the grueling process of completing her dissertation.

That is the trick, isn't it? Writing a dissertation, after all, can take several months--or even years--out of a graduate student's life. And the process is never a smooth, linear one; writing a thesis is fraught with unexpected perils. Experiments fail, computers crash, advisors become neglectful or, even worse, dictatorial. And many students find that they don't know exactly what to leave out, what to include, or where to put it all.

The potential pitfalls aren't all external. Indeed, facing the transition from graduate school, where one is judged on potential, to the professional world, where production rules, can bring on bouts of self-doubt and trigger internal psychological conflicts. And writing a thesis can be an isolating experience. As Doug Culbert, a psychologist who has facilitated a dissertation support group at the University of Chicago for the last 10 years, points out, it is difficult to explain to a partner or friend that you can't go to the movies because you have a thesis due in 2 years! Simply put, writing a dissertation is a uniquely trying experience and anyone who hasn't done it just won't understand.

Dissertation support groups are designed to combat exactly that sense of isolation. And if their popularity is any indication, they are doing a good job. Just ask Rachel Sutz. As a graduate student in education and policy at Florida State University, Sutz formed an interdisciplinary dissertation support group for women in January 1999. By January 2000, rising membership, which now includes men, forced the main group to split into several subgroups. Sutz has a simple explanation: "Many people felt adrift. [In the group], they get a sense that others share their difficulties and they find people to talk to."

All of the people contacted by Next Wave agree that to be effective the group will need an experienced facilitator. Most campus counseling centers have qualified facilitators on staff, so if you're interested in forming a new group, you should inquire at your local center.

One of the facilitator's most important responsibilities is to encourage members to set weekly goals and then to help them understand what happened when particular goals aren't met. Splitting up the huge task of completing a dissertation into bite-sized pieces helps build momentum and morale. "Smaller goals are more effective," explains Culbert, because the mind tends to value 10 small accomplishments more than one big one, even if they add up to the same thing. And facilitators can also help identify the subtle temptations like spending 2 hours on e-mail or chat groups each day that can slow progress on the thesis.

But even goal setting and avoiding e-mail won't help a writer who doesn't know what to write or how to write it. To address these issues, many groups exchange newly written sections of their theses and critique them at subsequent meetings. This can be particularly important if your advisor is too busy to give your work a thorough reading. And it can help those students who are uncertain about how to compose a sentence, let alone a thesis. "Sometimes I will even do a session on commas," says Jan Hewitt, who advises thesis writers through Rice University's Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication, "but mostly we analyze what goes in an abstract, an introduction, and the literature review."

As the thesis nears completion and the defense date looms, the focus of the group often shifts to de-mystifying the more arcane requirements of the local dissertation bureaucracy. "You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get a Ph.D.," says University of Alabama psychologist Susan Cochran, "and the hoops get smaller and smaller and finally they set them on fire at the end." By sharing their experiences and drawing on the expertise of the facilitator, students learn how to select a committee, what paper type to use for the dissertation, which forms need to be submitted to which administrator, and, finally, where to deposit the final version of their thesis.

Although the primary goal of a dissertation support group is to help students finish their theses, many participants find that they also pick up skills that help them throughout their careers. Now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Golde thinks support groups are an excellent way of teaching colleague-ship, which is valuable in either industry or academia. "The group taught me habits of helping and conceptualizing other people's work," she says.

And sometimes students just need to complain. "Everyone goes through the frustration," says Cochran, "They need time to defuse so they don't take it home." As her thesis neared completion, Golde's group evolved into a walk in the Stanford hills. "We started at 'Very Pissed Off Hill' and whoever had the worst week would vent on the way up," she recalls, "By the time we reached the top, you would be breathless. It was very cathartic."

The following sites provide information about thesis writing support groups and/or thesis writing in general. Happy reading ...