The posting below looks at how to form and use a dissertation support group. It is from Chapter 1 – First Steps Toward Your Dissertation, from the book, The Portable Dissertation Advisor, by Miles T. Bryant. Corwin Press, A Sage Publications Company. 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320 www.corwinpress.com. Copyright © 2004 by Corwin Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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Finding a Dissertation Support Group
Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs. – Christopher Hampton
Good, constructive criticism is fundamental in building a sound dissertation. Such criticism may be unpleasant, as the quote above implies, but it is important. How does the nontraditional student create opportunities for such criticism?
For the nontraditional student, an informal peer group can be just the right antidote to the liability of what I have labeled solo scholarship. Solo scholarship is just what the label implies; it is researching and analyzing in isolation. Solo scholarship is a reality for most doctoral students at the dissertation stage, but that reality doesn’t always lead to the best of outcomes. A lively focus on a research project by a number of people will typically result in a richer study. For example, a recent book titled The Sociology of Philosophies, by Randall Collins, finds that most major creations and innovations were brought to fruition within some kind of a movement or social group (Collins, 1998). If creativity was nourished socially for Freud, Degas, Hegel, Darwin, and Saturday Night Live, as Collins argues, creativity can be nurtured in the doctoral student by social interactions (Gladwell, 2002). Criticism of the right kind is essential in the construction and completion of a dissertation.
One of the best places to get criticism of the right kind is from a supportive group of peers. Students who pursue their degrees on campus or close enough to attend face-to-face classes often find ways to work together. When these students are all at the point of developing a doctoral dissertation, an opportunity exists for what graduate faculty now refer to as a dissertation support group, an informal group analogous to the class or course in the development of the dissertation proposal. Such interactive peer groups can go a long way toward replicating the type of experience many on-campus students find as they work to complete the dissertation.
Benefits of a Dissertation Support Group
The benefits of a peer support group are many. Psychologically it can be an important boost to be able to share issues, concerns, and doubts with others who are in a similar position. Shared experiences help the doctoral student overcome the obstacles that stand in the way. Dissertation support groups also tend to create a form of overt and covert pressure to work on the dissertation. This pressure is overt in that members of the group will typically help you improve your ideas and encourage you to move ahead. The pressure is covert in that you will feel a pressure to have something to communicate to the other members of the group about your progress.
A dissertation support group also gives you the weight of a larger group of students in dealing with the doctoral faculty and program administration. Often, nontraditional students suffer from not being able to voice their concerns or questions with professors. This is not due to intent. Faculty and program administrators have multiple demands on their time and the most immediate demand often receives the most attention. Thus, the nontraditional student may not feel well served by the institution.
A dissertation support group also provides students with the opportunity to practice developing clarity and rigor in their study. Having to present and defend your ideas before an audience is a solid way to bring strength to a dissertation study.
Organizing a Support Group
Tip: If at all possible, arrange for face-to-face meetings. All will benefit.
As you go through your program, you become familiar with other students. Either in face-to-face classes or in distance classes, you will have had an opportunity to come in contact with others. Your program may facilitate the formation of such support groups. If so, take advantage of this. If not, find ways to form your own. Ask your advisor about peer group support. You will be able to identify your fellow students by requesting names from the program administration or from class lists. Often, distance classes provide you with the names and e-mail addresses of others. Communicate with these individuals about forming a dissertation support group.
Who, how, and when are three factors you will want to keep in mind.
What students will be in your group? For on-campus groups, there is often the opportunity to know students from other doctoral programs, and thus the support group may consist of individuals from different programs. The nontraditional student tends to know best those students from the same department or program. It is probably best to begin with students in your own program, although there may well be reason to involve others. It is also best to keep in mind that the group should consist of three to five students. The question of how to form a support group may require assistance from a faculty member or a program administrator. Establishing communication links is necessary. When to form a support group depends on need. Doctoral students at the dissertation stage can most benefit from such a group. Prior to that stage, there may be limited interest in devoting scarce time to an activity that does not seem relevant. Still, if you have worked in a class with others on a project, you might well have developed relationships that you value that could easily lead to a dissertation support group. Here are some suggested steps in forming a dissertation support group.
1. Identify students with whom you would like to work.
2. Either extend a specific invitation to students whom you know and respect to form a group of three to five students, or extend a more
general invitation to the larger list of your peers, inviting all who express their interest in participating in such a group.
3. Consider proximity in constructing a group (i.e., if possible, do you want people who can meet face to face?).
4. Consider personality (as best you can) in constructing such a group.
5. Consider how you will communicate and interact.
6. Give initial consideration to how often you will commit to interacting.
Here are some suggestions for beginning the work of the group. Below is a list of items to discuss. You can do so via e-mail, a chat room, a phone conference, or if possible, a face-to-face meeting.
1. Provide each member a chance to talk about his or her dissertation study.
2. Discuss what you want to accomplish as a group.
3. Discuss how you want to organize your group.
4. Discuss what you need to do to establish both asynchronous and synchronous ways to communicate (in all probability, you will want
5. Determine how you feel about establish for each other.*
6. Determine how you feel about other people joining your group.
7. Determine how you want to achieve a supportive but critical environment.
I present specific activities for the support group in Appendix D.
Persistence is one of the characteristics that distinguishes those who complete their doctoral degrees from those who remain ABD (all but dissertation). Finding ways to persist is important. Obviously, how students organize their time and energy is important. A dissertation support group of peers can be an invaluable tool in helping you persist to completion.
Collins, R. (1998). The sociology of philosophies: A global theory of intellectual change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gladwell, M. (2002, December 2). Groupthink: What does Saturday Night Live have in common with German philosophy? The New Yorker Magazine, 102-107.
* Typed as presented in original text, although meaning not clear - RR