The transition from structured classroom work and research to writing a dissertation can cause graduate students to feel isolated, like they’re writing in a vacuum.
To help them feel more grounded, the Graduate School is hosting writing accountability seminars.
Leslie Blood, director of Graduate Community and Program Development at CU Boulder’s Graduate School, developed the accountability seminars for graduate students. Blood, whose research focuses on the psychology of habits, productivity and happiness, designed personality assessments that students use to create plans that leverage their strengths and core values to help them as they write their dissertations.
Success in graduate school depends on a variety of factors, but with good time management skills and habit structures, students can learn to control important aspects of their educational experience. Once students hit the dissertation stage, trying to figure out how to begin and how to set a writing schedule can be overwhelming.
When students transition from student to scholar, many discover the change in accountability structure proves challenging. As undergraduates, students had little control over their academic schedules. Professors provided them with clear expectations and deadlines. When students begin their graduate degrees, they experience an open, unstructured approach since their work is self-directed.
The seminars help students transition into their graduate studies and provide support throughout the academic process. Weekly seminars include:
- Four-hour productivity blocks
- Habit structures, triggers and pairings
- Accountability and motivations
- Resistance and resilience
- Time management skills
Using a system of two personality assessments designed by Blood, students discover what kind of accountability system would benefit them the most. The assessments also reveal motivations for creating a tailored approach to their graduate school experience.
The critical part of creating meaningful support structures is for the students to be as clear as possible about their values as they build goals that align with what is truly important in their lives.
“In these accountability seminars, we take students and turn them into scholars,” Blood said. “You’re closely monitored when you’re an undergrad; you’re somewhat monitored when you’re working on a master’s degree. Then you go on to your PhD and you’re set free. All that freedom without time management skills and accountability can lead to a lot of stress. When students are stressed, that leads to depression. What we try to do is provide some structure so they don’t feel like they’re working in a black hole.”
“The accountability seminar gives me a point of reference, both to be able to measure the progress I’m making and being able to interact with other grad students who are in the same point in their careers and struggles.” – Erin Connor, doctoral candidate
Students often tell Blood they’re not motivated, not excited and don’t know why they’re not doing what they should be. By building goals that frame students’ values and creating habit structures to support those goals, students find it’s easier to accomplish the things they want to get done. When students are clear on their values, it’s easier to embrace the tough short-term work to get what they want long term.
There are a variety of accountability styles. Some need external motivation to get things done. And some resist all structure. Blood’s most challenging students are those who are constantly in an internal debate about what they feel like doing in the moment.
Blood says it’s about breaking down resistance and increasing resilience, or what she calls “embracing the suck.” Sitting down and writing for four hours may be hard, but if it helps them meet their long-term goals, that’s growth.
“When we increase resilience to doing things that we really don’t feel like doing, we decrease our resistance to doing it,” Blood said. “So, resilience goes up and resistance goes down. In the moment, we have to make short-term sacrifices for what we want in the long term. Is it uncomfortable? Yes. Is it stressful? Yes. But, if it gets you what you want for long-term gain, you’ll sit down and write every day.”
While she’s been collecting data for just two years, Blood’s accountability seminars are drawing wider interest among administrators, faculty, staff and students. The Western Association for Graduate Schools recently invited Blood to present her work at Chapman University, where they are interested in adopting the program she created.
“There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing than running these workshops,” Blood said.
In addition to Blood’s accountability seminars, the Graduate School hosts a write-in on Thursdays at the University Memorial Center. Students writing at the same time and in the same place provides extra peer support and a feeling of community.
A personal strategy for motivation
Working on a doctorate in civil, environmental and architectural engineering, Erin Connor has finished taking classes and has passed her comprehensive exam. She still has research to finish in the lab and is immersed in writing her dissertation. While she enjoys the freedom of not having classes, she has struggled with the unstructured time.
“It can be very isolating,” she said, “and it can feel like you’re told to go in a dark room and come out months later with a thesis written. The accountability seminar gives me a point of reference, both to be able to measure the progress I’m making and being able to interact with other grad students who are in the same point in their careers and struggles.”
Taking the personal assessments at the beginning of the seminar and being able to personalize the strategies that Blood presents at the seminars taught Connor what tactics are likely to work for her. Using timers and productivity windows and going weekly to the seminars has been helpful for setting and meeting her goals. Connor is encouraged by other seminar participants who understand what she’s going through.
“The seminars have made a big difference for me,” she said. “I feel like I’m growing as an academic in my capacity to do this work, and not just in the work itself. My advisor is helping me become a better scientist and researcher, and is mentoring me a lot of ways. The seminars have really helped me have a better work balance and time management. When I’m struggling to stay motivated, coming back to some of the deeper values we’ve discussed in the seminars helps me remember why I’m persevering. There’s something really powerful about that.”
A community of writers
The seminars gave Shirley Huang a community during a difficult time when it got lonely writing while writing a manuscript for a journal publication and her comprehensive exam. Huang is a doctoral student in speech, language and hearing sciences.
“Leslie has been excellent in providing that community and helping us graduate students with our writing and making progress,” Huang said. “I am fortunate to have a research advisor who is highly supportive of me and provides ongoing feedback for my writing.”
Learning her personality type has helped Huang understand her writing style. Huang now knows one of her tendencies is being a questioner, which means she tends to question everything, which results in decision-making fatigue. Knowing this, she becomes more aware of when she’s experiencing decision-making fatigue. Using the skills she has acquired to remove the obstacles that cause the fatigue, she doesn’t feel burned out by the end of the day.
“For so long, I’ve held onto the belief that with writing, you either have it or you don’t,” Huang said. “Going to these writing seminars has debunked that myth for me and helped me realize I’m not alone. It’s been helpful knowing there are other doctoral students that are struggling as much as I have been with writing. That was a huge relief for me.”
Huang’s advice about the accountability seminars is, “Go to it! The tools you learn to write can also be used in your careers.”