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Dissertation boot camp helps graduate students avoid pitfalls and get writing

Posted: October 1, 2013
Graduate students at dissertation boot camp. Photo by COLA

Graduate students at dissertation boot camp. Photo by COLA

By Michelle Bryant for COLA's Life & Letters, September 5, 2013

Like most graduate students, the hardest part of Kathleen Shafer’s dissertation was getting started.

Shafer, a graduate student in the Department of Geography and the Environment, was among 11 graduate students from The University of Texas at Austin to attend Dissertation Boot Camp this summer, a two-week pilot program hosted by the College of Liberal Arts’ Office of Research and Graduate Studies. The boot camp assembled some of UT Austin’s premier faculty and staff to offer guidance on writing and the importance of maintaining mental and physical fitness throughout the process.

“The task of writing a dissertation is one of many challenges that our doctoral students face as they grow into their scholarly profile, and the work habits and confidence that they develop during the dissertation stage remain with them for the duration of their professional lives,” says Esther Raizen, associate dean for research. “In addition to providing the framework for actual progress in writing, the boot camp was also a statement on the extent to which we in the College of Liberal Arts value students’ scholarship and the long-term promise of their career trajectories, as well as their well-being.”

Getting Started

Staring at a blank computer screen can be a daunting task for any writer. Graduate students face the added pressure of representing a culmination of years of study and research, while knowing they will eventually have to defend their work.

“The boot camp literally jump started me writing my dissertation,” Shafer says. “Two things were huge for me: Just start writing, because you can’t edit nothing. Also, working in small time blocks is okay.”

“It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of a book-length project, so it’s essential to break it down into manageable parts,” says Randy Lewis, a professor in the Department of American Studies. “This is key to developing a mindset that allows you to endure and even enjoy a multiyear writing process.”

Lewis, who served as a boot camp mentor, says he often imagines a large-scale writing assignment as a huge pile of sand that needs to be moved, but you only have a spoon.

“All you can do is move one spoonful at a time,” he says. “Yet if you do this consistently, you’ll actually make progress faster than you expect.”

The boot camp incorporated plenty of time for writing and visiting one-on-one with faculty mentors, as well as the opportunity to exchange work with a partner for feedback and advice. A chalkboard was used to keep tally of their writing progress each day. By the end of the boot camp, the participants had collectively written 241 pages and 67,579 words.

“My advice to people starting work on their dissertation is just start,” encourages Sandra Black, professor of economics and a boot camp mentor. “I found that was the hardest part of graduate school. I kept waiting for a brilliant idea to pop in my head and it doesn’t really work this way. You just need to start working on some project and the right project generally evolves from there.”

Shafer stumbled onto her dissertation topic in Marfa, Texas during a summer spent photographing abandoned airfields in the Southwest. One of her dissertation chapters is on visual methodologies, and she will be incorporating some of her own visual arts work into her dissertation.

“It is a town that combines both my interests of art and airfields,” she says. “I also knew that there was little qualitative writing on it so that was exciting.”

After boot camp, Shafer began keeping a daily writing log of her activity. She says that keeping track of her progress and working patterns helped her realize it is okay to take a day off, since about every sixth day she was producing little to no writing.

“Seriously, boot camp was essential,” Shafer says. “I would be in a very different place right now if I had not done it. First draft is done!”

Timing is Everything

Yamanda Wright, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, struggled with getting started early enough in the day. Her dissertation focuses on racial mistrust in grade school children, examining when and how young children first come to mistrust cross-race peers and teachers.

“Instead of writing first thing in the morning when I am most alert and creative, I usually began each day with tasks that seem urgent but often are not—such as grading papers, answering emails and meandering coffee breaks,” Wright says. “Then, by the time I got around to working on my dissertation, I was completely spent and academic writing felt almost painful.”

Wright says boot camp helped her establish a regular schedule and the 8 a.m. start time made it possible to pack in more writing each day.

“It reminded me that I’m a betterwriter first thing in the morning,” she says. “On the flip side, I can do the non-challenging stuff like grading papers and answering emails any time of the day without compromising quality.”

Building A Community of Support

As a graduate coordinator for the Department of History, Marilyn Lehman works closely with doctoral students and is particularly attuned to the struggles and obstacles they face. She and fellow graduate coordinators Chaz Nailor, French and Italian; Rolee Rios, Anthropology; and Kimberly Terry, Psychology came up with the idea for a boot camp after attending a National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals (NAGAP) workshop.

“I think the best part of the boot camp was the dedicated writing time and space in a supportive environment the Boot Camp provided,” Lehman says. “The community of support the students provided for each other was very important.

“I came away thinking that some components of the boot camp could be introduced to the students in our departments throughout the year,” she adds. “I’m thinking about workshops with writing instructors and faculty to talk about the writing process, setting up writing groups, and perhaps even some wellness sessions. We already do some of this in my department, but the boot camp gave me ideas for expanding.”

Surviving Your Dissertation

Throughout the boot camp, presenters emphasized the importance of maintaining mental and physical health and encouraged the graduate students to recognize links between their personal wellness and writing.

R. Joseph Rodriguez, an instructional developer at theCenter for Teaching and Learning, kicked off boot camp with a quote from Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

“As writers, we must keep a pulse on our habits and self-talk, especially how these are connected to our well-being,” says Rodriguez, who led many of the boot camp writing activities. “All of these influence writing attitude, production and results.”

Cinzia Russi, an associate professor of Italian and romance linguistics, encouraged the graduate students to find a healthy balance between personal life and work. She says a dissertation should never feel like a burden, but should be an enjoyable and gratifying experience.

“It is only you who can determine whether writing your dissertation will be a positive or a negative experience,” she says. “It is crucial, then, that from the very beginning you embrace an optimistic, constructive, relaxed attitude and that you keep it throughout the entire writing process.”

“The emphasis on health and well-being—which included meditation, yoga, massage and nutrition—helped provide an antidote to the unhealthy habits and lifestyle choices that stressed-out grad students often make,” says Michelle Reeves, a graduate student in the Department of History, whose dissertation focuses on Russian and U.S political history.

During the course of the two-week boot camp, she drafted an entire chapter of her dissertation and wrote two encyclopedia entries and a book review.

“I have never in my life been so productive and had so much fun doing it,” Reeves says. “I strongly encourage other grad students to apply for the program. It would be virtually impossible to exaggerate just how beneficial it was for me.”

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