PhD candidate Allison Shelton admits she’s a procrastinator who suffers from writing anxiety. That could be a problem as she prepares to write her dissertation. She’s not alone.
The transition from conducting research to writing the dissertation can be an isolating experience for students. Graduate students who don’t know how to navigate the dissertation-writing process are reluctant to admit they feel lost.
To address this, the Graduate School held the first four-day dissertation writing workshop earlier this summer. Shelton found the workshop format helpful in turning what can be a crushing task into an attainable goal.
Now in her sixth year working on a PhD in English literature, Shelton has begun writing her dissertation on environmental representation in Indian literature. Her research looks at how some Indian authors are depicting the environment and the environmental struggle of India.
“Up until the point when you start writing, you have had class structure and exam structure,” Shelton said. “Then you’re let loose into a structureless world and told to go off and start writing. Once you hit the dissertation stage, it can be overwhelming to try to figure out how to begin and how specific you need to be.”
Topics covered at the workshop included developing good writing habits and research practices. Time was set aside for writing and individual critiques with writing consultants. Speakers presented a variety of techniques: using broad approaches to writing versus delving into the nitty gritty of the activity; task-based writing versus time-based writing.
“Understanding how I work and the kinds of anxiety I have was quite helpful,” Shelton said. “We all work in different ways, so it’s valuable to know what kind of writer you are. Approaching the computer and a blank screen is less daunting now.”
Leslie Blood is lead consultant in the Graduate Writing Support Program and conducts the Graduate Student Writing Seminar. Through the seminar, she offers students writing feedback, helps them edit and format their work, and recommends writing tips.
Since the dissertation workshop, Blood’s writing seminar has tripled in size and she’s booked through August for one-on-one editing sessions with students. Due to high demand, twice as many mini retreats are being planned for the summer.
“We didn’t know how desperate some of these grad students were,” Blood said. “They feel like they’re writing in a vacuum. Having the accountability when they schedule one-on-one edits changes that feeling of being rudderless. Students told us that having somebody waiting for them who is interested in their work helps hold them to a deadline. It gives them a feeling of structure. They feel less isolated.”
Shelton agrees and strongly recommends that students participate in upcoming dissertation workshops.
“It’s easy to think about a dissertation as an abstract thing,” Shelton said. “The reality is that it’s a day-to-day job with certain tasks. The dissertation workshop helped me learn my own approach. At the end of the four days I felt ready to start writing.”