Back to Blog
Getting into graduate school is one happy moment. Then it dawns on you one day: navigating the system and getting out is an entirely different matter. The doctoral student attrition rate is high. Fifty-six percent of those who pursue a social science doctoral degree never finish over a 10 year period (not just at my university – but at any university) (Single, 2009). And, due to the 58% of doctoral students taking more than five years to complete the degree (Single, 2009) – you begin to realize early on in the journey -- a lot is going to transpire in five years of doctoral education.
After I was accepted into a doctoral program, I realized I was inside a massive tangle of often conflicting standards. Each department within my college for a PhD set their own rules and standards within the umbrella of the university’s graduate school program. Sounds simple, yet I also soon found out few faculty members were unfamiliar with the department rules or the respective degree student handbook. Some of the faculty improvised when they did not know the factual process of the student handbook. Additionally, there was a mixture of new, mid-career, and advanced faculty at the college. Although some faculty had worked together, most were conducting research or teaching in their own separate silos of academia. Maybe they had served on a graduate student or dissertation committee, and maybe they had not. As I progressed deeper into the program, inevitably, the faculty, regardless of experience level, were frequently either emotionally or intellectually “wedded” to what happened during their personal graduate student experience. In some way, it was presented to me that if they had challenge “X” with their dissertation committee, then so should I. If they had challenge “Y” with their proposal defense, oral exam, or dissertation writing, then I was to be blessed with the same experience. It appeared the degree revolved around some sort of “right-of-passage” education process about faculty members and graduate school nightmares, rather than an intellectual pursuit of my research and higher learning endeavors. For the cost of graduate school today (versus 25 years ago), you would think the process would have evolved to be more student centric and less faculty centric. Yet, the academic system was driving my graduate school experience toward an internal focus, isolation, and loneliness.
In some way, it was presented to me that if they had challenge “X” with their dissertation committee, then so should I. If they had challenge “Y” with their proposal defense, oral exam, or dissertation writing, then I was to be blessed with the same experience.
To break away from the college’s myopic point of view, it was necessary to develop a network of peers and resources outside my program. I needed to find out if what I was being told was normal or abnormal, and if there were any alternative approaches I could suggest to my advisor and/or committee members to bring some fresh air to my academic experience. Over the course of a five year period, I found four things to become a life-line to the outside world shaping the course of my dissertation process – 1) network of PhD peers, 2) online writing cohort, 3) self-help books, and 4) a course on leveraging university library resources.
Creating a Network of PhD Peers: Prior to my doctorate, I had a career that relied upon industry experts to guide problem-solving and critical decision making. So I thought – well there must be experts about obtaining a PhD. However, on a limited budget I didn’t have large funds for industry experts, so I opted for trusted friends and family to be part of my consultant team. I reached out for three PhD advisors who had nothing to do with my degree, college, or university. I wanted three people who only had my best interests in mind (not their faculty careers at stake) and would be truthful to me with their answers. First, I selected a family relative with a PhD in statistics at a major university and who was a department chair. Statistical analysis is critical to any PhD and I had a limited background. Second, a longtime family friend with a PhD in social work – it was similar to my degree in health and well-being but slightly different. Third, a good friend with a PhD in organizational management who understood me as a business professional, but also knew the perils of higher education. All three of my PhD peer network were in higher education and could explain the hierarchal system to me if I needed any political advice along the way. They knew where I should build bridges, what and who to stay away from, and how not to create unintended negative consequences that might impact my ability to ascertain the degree.
Developing a Writing Cohort: I came from business and had developed skills to work in small increments on major tasks over a long period of time. However, when I came back to graduate school I allowed myself to fall back into what is called “binge” patterns of work during group course work assignments, since that is what all the other students seemed to be doing. Binge work patterns involve putting things off assignments thinking you have to have large blocks of time to accomplish a writing goal – like a semester long research paper being done over a long weekend. Or, the ridiculous idea that something like that is done in one long evening with a lot of caffeine. I thought being a student somehow meant abandoning all of my quality work skill habits. Yet, being older I couldn’t do “binge” all-nighters anymore and I found the work quality really was not that great either. Simultaneous to this after the first year in my doctorate, some of my colleagues in my cohort started to drop out. There were only five students in this cohort and even though we had made friends in the cohort one year in front of us, the group was shifting and changing as the demands of graduate school impacted not just us personally, but our spouses, children, and extended families. Needless to say as the course structure diminished after the first 18 months and we started into the dissertation exams, proposal, and research we were each on our own pathways with minimal interaction. I became particularly isolated since my research ended up being conducted remotely from the university in another state. I felt I needed more structure. My attitude was to perform writing for the doctorate more like having a job, and less like I was in school. I searched around and found an online writing club that did have a monthly fee, but it allowed me to connect with other doctoral students worldwide (Hiatt, 2009). The writing club taught us the Pomodoro (pom) technique and how to work in small increments each day (25 minutes) and take a brief 5 minute break (Aitchison & Guerin, 2014). Then continue with the next 25 minute pom. Rather than having an overwhelming manuscript to focus on, we were asked to break large blocks of writing and dissertation activities (proposal, human subjects review applications, or dissertation chapter writing) into smaller steps and define our work time in these 25 minute pom increments. We would find a writing partner and work as a team online. Having a writing partner made me accountable to show up each day and get something done. After one week in the program, I felt better about my progress and had made several new friends.
I felt I needed more structure. My attitude was to perform writing for the doctorate more like having a job, and less like I was in school. I searched around and found an online writing club that did have a monthly fee, but it allowed me to connect with other doctoral students worldwide (Hiatt, 2009).
The writing club focused on other healthy writing habits for academics. We had a writing group blog area to post daily goals, set milestones, and report honest feelings on our progress. We commented on other folk’s progress, thereby strengthening our commitment to each other. There was zero obligation to read someone’s actual work, but hearing about other graduate students trying to get a doctoral degree was enlightening and supportive to ask sensitive questions, or just laugh about the experience. Overtime, my attitude turned from frustration into feeling I had made significant progress. For my process the writing club was instrumental in finishing my dissertation proposal and writing the three manuscripts for the dissertation document. In the end, my university cohort essentially fell apart and was okay for friendships, but not the rock bed of support I had hoped (Maher, 2005; Schulte, 2002). In contrast, my online writing club became a group of close colleagues I am still in contact with today. We became so close that we set up our own blog space on the internet to maintain contact as we begin our academic careers post-dissertation.
Reading Self-Help Books: When I started, my doctoral program was new (less than 5 years old) and I was in the second cohort ever enrolled. Every time I mentioned the age of my degree program (especially to my PhD peer network), I would see disheartened faces or it would evoke muttering sounds like: hmmmmm or ugh….. or some other unpleasant tone. When I inquired about what those sounds meant, my PhD peer network would say things like: the faculty has no experience working together; the course structure is not well developed; most likely no one knows the rules or student handbook; or the worst there is going to be a lot of instability and dysfunction. Basically, getting a dissertation at any university is hard enough, but a new program with only a few students made it more challenging. To succeed, I needed to be on top of my own process, take ownership, and guide it forward without expecting the faculty to know the intricacies of an infant program. First, I placed my student handbook on my hard drive for constant reference. In the transition between my proposal exam and approval of my institutional review board (IRB) application, my committee chair was resigning from the university to take a government position. This required a committee structure adjustment in my mind, however I was told from one committee member to hold the group together until I finished the dissertation. That didn’t feel instinctively right to me. A PhD peer network advisor asked to see my copy of the student handbook. We read through it diligently and realized that I was now at the only time committee member changes could be made and if not now, then never without having to possibly take several steps backward in the process. I felt politically challenged by committee members to just work with everyone, as is, even though they were outside the university vs. making changes now and eliminating some members while substituting others. The PhD peer network said: “make the change and use the student handbook as your prerogative to do so -- just do it.” I did and it was a dissertation saving moment. The revised committee structure with a new chair evolved into more productive meetings, and a team approach which was much more supportive of my research.
Second, I decided to read some self-help books on how to complete a dissertation. First, I read Roberts (2010) The Dissertation Journey: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Writing, and Defending Your Dissertation. This book was a great overall process guide about each step I was going to take in climbing the dissertation mountain. I was able to compare what my student handbook said to this book and find alignments and differences to know what was unique about my journey. It also suggested alternatives so that if I ran into a roadblock I felt like I could suggest something to my advisor or committee members that was “acceptable” in academia and not just a wild idea on my part. Second, I was a business writer and not necessarily familiar with scholarly writing. The key to making the shift was Single (2009) Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A streamlined process from choice of topic to final text. Get this book early and read it cover to cover – it will be dog-eared and worn out by the time you are atop the dissertation mountain. This book focuses on alignment with topic and committee members, how to write the proposal, but most importantly how to break writing a chapter or manuscript down into parts rather than getting overwhelmed with the whole process. It reinforced many of the techniques I was learning in my online writing club as well. I didn’t read this book until I was struggling in the proposal stage of my dissertation, but please don’t wait that long to seek out advice. Single (2009) improved my writing by developing my skills involving citable note taking techniques, writing focus statements, and constructing a long outline with references to create constructive writing habits.
Library Resources: The University’s library is the best graduate student resource, yet frequently underutilized. Getting a graduate degree is all about leveraging information to shape your research agenda and add your voice to the scholarly literature. Yet, coming from the business world, I didn’t know much about finding or using appropriate scholarly literature properly, what a quality literature review was, or how to narrow a topic for my research proposal. I needed to know how to access library materials quickly in the digital age with everything at my fingertips. Yes, I could continue to use Google Scholar, but that wasn’t effective, efficient, or even giving me what I needed. I asked at orientation as to how to connect with the university library system. I was sent to the college librarians, who were extremely helpful, but they could only spend a short period of time with me. Frankly, I needed a course. Finally I contacted the main library and they had developed a 10-week course on how to leverage the library system and digital resources on line. It was 1 credit and I signed up. Magic happened. I learned how to: use search engines, properly write a Boolean search phrase (if you don’t know what that is then you need the course); find topic specific databases; overcome copyright challenges; contact a journal in the peer-review process; conduct a systematic literature review; and manage my unending list of articles I was pulling into a web-based library reference system like Endnote. Now, maybe a lot of graduate students know all this already, but the 25 students in my library “how-to” class were immensely grateful to discuss these topics with the lead university librarian who was teaching the course. It was the difference between stumbling in the dark to find an article by myself, and having a supportive smart librarian shed light on the subject. Additionally, we learned about all the physical resources the library had specifically dedicated to graduate students like study spaces, offices that could be reserved while cramming for oral examinations, dissertation writing offices, and much more. Further, the university library purchased books I needed for my coursework and I was allowed to rent the book for the semester and return it. Every university is different, but it’s worth going online to your library portal and seeing what they have as dedicated resources for graduate students. No one will mention these to you on your committee and most other students didn’t venture far enough from their college to find out. A faculty member asked me to give a presentation to the graduate students in our department on the library course and available resources; the students (and faculty) were amazed at being two years into the process and were just hearing about these valuable resources. Soon everyone was signing up to get into the library’s treasure chest of resources. Currently, the course is online on the library’s web site (http://new.library.arizona.edu/ research/tutorials) for anyone to access for free. Also, your local public library may have additional resources. I had to travel for my research and my local library was very willing to conduct interlibrary material loans at no charge to me. That was also true for scholarly articles at the university library – your access fees paid with your tuition often cover some of these university wide resources.
Summing It Up: I trained in a new program with a virgin student handbook and not much guidance from the faculty. Rather than see the dark and gloomy side, I reached out for support beyond my college and university in some cases in the form of a PhD peer network, an online writing club, some self-help books, and a library course. These resources changed the trajectory of my experience. I had faculty and student services personnel often say to me: “you don’t seem to be having the same challenges as some of the other students in getting through the program.” My response was: “well yes I do from time to time, but rather than asking my advisor or committee to be my sole resource for ideas – I called in my own experts.” Believe me, I had many gloomy nights in the process and big challenges, yet I found when I reached beyond my college and university for resources and support, I got a much clearer perspective than always looking internal to my advisor and committee members. Your advisor and graduate committee mean well and usually want to help you. However, they live busy lives and are under enormous financial pressure from the institution they work for. I called on them when it was critical. Because I often found my own solutions to smaller problems, my advisor and committee members were delighted to help me when I really needed it.
Aitchison, C., & Guerin, C. (2014). Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond: Innovations in practice and theory. New York: Routledge.
Hiatt, G. (2009). Tips for Surviving a Toxic Academic Environment. IETE Technical Review, 26(3), 169. doi:10.4103/0256-4602.50700
Maher, M. A. (2005). The Evolving Meaning and Influence of Cohort Membership. Innovative Higher Education, 30(3), 195-211. doi:10.1007/s10755-005-6304-5
Roberts, C. M. (2010). The dissertation journey: A practical and comprehensive guide to planning, writing, and defending your dissertation (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif;London;: Corwin.
Schulte, L. E. (2002). A Comparison of Cohort and Non-Cohort Graduate Student Perceptions of the Ethical Climate and its Importance in Retention. Journal of College Student Retention, 4(1), 29-38. doi:10.2190/AF38-4URF-53QW-10DV
Single, P. B. (2009). Demystifying dissertation writing: a streamlined process from choice of topic to final text (1st ed.). Sterling, VA: Stylus.