supervising thesis writers

IMG_1137.jpgThrough my thesis mentoring work, PhD supervisors write to me most weeks and ask — with varying tones of enthusiasm and frustration  —

“how can I support/encourage/motivate/force my student to get their thesis written?”

I tailor my reply to the cues I pick up from the emails, the context, timing, relational aspects. I ask for more detail about what’s been happening. Sometimes I coach the supervisor, sometimes I coach the student.

It would be a bit cheap and simplistic to suggest that every individual’s circumstances and relationships can be boiled down to the same couple of pieces of advice, but commonly I find myself discussing a variation of the two points below. I share it openly in the spirit of coaching — use it if it’s useful to you. I can’t give you 2 golden tips that will always work (because, doh), but here are some things to think about and be aware of.

In my and others’ experience, the biggest block to thesis writing is fear.

(1) Fear of the new, uncomfortable and unknown;

(2) Fear of being vulnerable (see here for more from me on vulnerability) being wrong, being embarrassed, or being found wanting.

On (1). Does your student know what they are supposed to achieve, how and by when? Do they know what ‘good’ looks like? Do they know how long writing takes? Do they know what processes we follow to get academic writing done?

You could: ask them to find and read/skim/compare some recent ‘good’ theses, and come back to you to discuss what they though of the tone/content and style. How similar or different will their thesis be to those they looked at. In short help them to go and get a clear sense of the product they are aiming for and how their thesis outline fits into this format.

You could: Show them the hidden work of writing. Students starting out with writing tend to be really unaware of the processes of development we go through to make our writing good. They assume (because its all they see) that we can just free-flow perfectly finished prose on to the page. So when their own first drafts are not perfect, they panic and delete it as ‘not good enough’, or they have difficulty showing it to you to get feedback. You could try reminding them how many drafts your last grant or paper went thorough, and perhaps show them your draft work. Making the drafting process explicit and normal helps to demystify the process of how writing is produced.

You could: as a very rough and ready guide, ask them to calculate how many working days to their deadline and show them that if they write in small bursts each day they can complete it fairly painlessly. e.g. 80,000 words/260 days = 307 words of new writing each day over a year. Make it explicit that if they leave it all to the last few months, this is going to get significantly harder and more stressful (they won’t believe you). Please do encourage/expect them to be writing as early as possible and not leaving it all to do in a ‘writing up’ phase. Ask them to note how long it takes them to write a 100 words, 500 words, 1000 words,. Show them that they can factor writing into their weekly schedule, and weave small bursts of writing into and around their other work, 30min here, an hour there.

On (2). Does your student know you are on their side? Data collection/analysis work is familiar and comforting, whereas writing is new territory and therefore involves some insecurity and discomfort. For harder tasks, those that are less familiar to us, require more effort or that we are more insecure with — we all have to manage our avoidance instincts and tendency to do something more immediately gratifying. The fear and avoidance is increased when the work we are producing will be used by others to judge us. Providing a safe environment for your student to get it wrong, miss things out, need to redraft is a good way of building up confidence with writing. Having a buddy/champion/cheerleader is more likely to motivate anxious writers to have a go, than having a critic/antagonist/prison warden.

You could: Make it explicit that you both want them to succeed. Make it clear that you are there to help them by giving them feedback to shape what they draft up, and that together you will make sure it’s a good thesis, worthy of being submitted for examination. Perhaps define what each of your roles is, what they do, and what you do, but make it clear that even through they are the one who needs to write it, it’s a partnership and they are not standing on their own against the wrath of scientific community.

You could: Keep the faith. In wanting to help students prepare a defendable thesis don’t get hung up on making it watertight in the first instance by picking up every last little issue. Yes, others will criticise the document, but only after it’s been worked on more. Perhaps ask the student to self-mark their work before meeting you to discuss it. Then compare your marking, did you both identify the same issues with the text? Their red pen will be more palatable to them than yours. And hopefully as they learn to self-correct, you will have less to do.

You could: Encourage ‘just getting started’ by adapting/improving the process below — this is not a failsafe, it’s the process I myself follow when I’m panicking about what my data show and how to communicate it. Perhaps encouraging your students too to scratch out something that’s relatively easy, to start with the descriptives and build up the criticality in their writing, might help them figure out what they want to say too.

  1. Make a figure/table/point
  2. Write the legend/expand the point
  3. Describe the data = the ‘what’
  4. Describe why it’s important novel or interesting and what they can conclude = the ‘so what’
  5. Describe what literature agrees/disagrees and why this might be = the critical voice
  6. Describe the still unknowns, the caveats and the obvious next steps = the ‘what next’

You’ll note that all of the above relies on open channels of communication and as much listening and patience, as directed guiding and advising. This is why I wouldn’t like to say it will work for every supervisor-student relationship.  As always, your questioning, countering, discussion, and expansion of these thoughts are welcomed in the comments.

And if you’re looking for a deep read on supervising doctoral writing — please look here at Pat Thompson and Barbara Kamler’s work.


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