I would like to discuss in more depth some important issues raised by one of the two articles I commented on yesterday: Michael Collins' post, "Wilderness Group Tour: PhD dissertations and writing/support/accountablity groups." Collins' post examines two issues that I had ample experience with as a graduate student:
- Dissertation "accountability" groups
- Feeling completely unprepared to write a dissertation
Let me address the issue of dissertation groups first. Collins reports that he and some fellow grad students attempted to form several groups to work on dissertations together and hold each other accountable--but that they all fell apart. Collins suggests that one major reasons these groups "are not particularly effective and are often short-lived" is that the students comprising them simply aren't well-equipped to write disserations, and by extension aren't well-equipped to run dissertation writing groups. Collins' basic thought is that because, prior to dissertation writing, PhD students work in highly-structured ways (coursework, comp exams, etc.), they just aren't prepared for the unstructured nature of dissertation work (i.e. making your own deadlines, etc.). Collins then suggest that this is why dissertation groups fail ("This is one reason why accountability groups fail — they are attempts to reassert the structure of a graduate course, but everyone is fumbling novice, and, in any case, courses, as we knew and experienced them, are not useful models for dissertation writing"). In short, Collins' thought is that dissertating students can't help each other very well because none of them are well-trained in the skills and habits it takes to write a dissertation--and so he thinks the real problem is that students aren't prepared well enough by their programs to write dissertations.
Okay, I agree with the latter point. At least anecdotally, my impression--from personal experience and testimony from people at other programs--is that programs, by and large, don't prepare their students very well to dissertate...and for more or less the reasons Collins gives. Indeed, I had Collins' experience. I got through course work and comp exams fine enough...and then felt like I had gotten "thrown in the deep end" of a very deep pool without ever having been taught to swim. Writing 20-page term papers and taking comp exams are not at all like coming up with a viable 5-6 chapter, 200-400 page dissertation. Nothing I did in grad school prior to dissertating prepared me for that--and so I found myself floundering for a few years just like Collins and the other students whose experiences he relates.
Before I say more about this, however--more about how I think programs might better prepare grad students for dissertating (though, as we will see, I think there is only so much programs can do)--I would like to offer a piece of advice to those who have struggled forming effective dissertation groups: find a faculty member to lead them. This, quite frankly, saved my hide. I had gotten nowhere on my dissertation for like a year-and-a-half, and it was only a stroke of luck that some other, also-struggling grad students had the bright idea of asking my advisor, Tom Christiano, to lead a group. It was brilliant. Tom invited me to start attending, and so I did--and seeing my friends actually getting somewhere lit a fire under my rear-end, motivating me to get my act together. Tom held us accountable, read and discussed our chapter drafts with us (regardless of how rough they were)...and we all started getting somewhere. So, I say, if your dissertation writing-groups are failing, try to find someone like Tom to lead your group. Maybe some faculty might not be interested, but, I think, chances are there is at least one faculty member in your program who will be willing to do it. It's at least worth giving a try!
The issue of preparing students to dissertate is more difficult to solve. Personally, having written a dissertation (and now a book manuscript unrelated to it), I suspect there is not too much one can do to prepare one to write a dissertation. Apologies for the admittedly crude analogies, but in the broadest sense I suspect it is a bit like getting married or having a child: it takes having one to 'take what it knows to have one.' Even writing a 90-page Masters thesis, for instance, isn't all that much like a dissertation, as there's a huge difference between a promising 90-page idea and a promising idea for a 5-chapter, 300-page idea that all hangs together. That being said, I do suspect that the elimination of Masters theses is part of the problem. My wife is in a STEM field whose programs standardly have their PhD students do comp exams and masters theses at the same time before moving onto a dissertation--and people in her program don't seem to have the problems completing dissertations that philosophy PhDs often appear to have. Indeed, their students transition from the Masters thesis to the dissertation (usually, they transform their thesis into a larger, dissertation-sized project), typically with a good deal of "hand-holding" for the Masters thesis (faculty in her program really help their students develop thesis ideas, and hold them accountable with deadlines) before taking the training-wheels off, so to speak, with the PhD dissertation. In practice, it seems to work beautifully. By the time they finish the MA thesis, they are well prepared for the less-structured work of the dissertation--and since they already have a basis for moving forward (again, their dissertations usually stem from their MA thesis), they typically have a much easier time at the final dissertation stage than we do.
So, I would tentatively suggest that programs seriously think about moving back in that direct: doing MA theses along with comp exams before the dissertation. Having students do comp exams and a MA thesis simultaneously might sound like a lot--but honestly, let me say a few things here. First, now that I'm a faculty member and I see how much damn work we have to do--and how many projects we have to juggle--I think it would really behoove programs to have their students do so much: being a professional philosopher takes the ability to juggle many things at once, and so doing a Masters thesis and comp exams would (in all honesty) better prepare students for the real work-load of being a professional. Second, in my experience (though I recognize it is only one data point), students typically have more than enough time on their hands--and waste a lot of it--studying for comps. I know I did. I thought I was doing a lot of work. But, if I'm being honest with myself, it actually would have been better for my development had my program asked me to do more during the comp-studying period. I wasted 3 months or so reading for comps and recording music...when really, I would have been much better off reading for comps and writing a masters thesis. Indeed, while asking students to do MA theses and comp exams might seem excessive, I really do think it would be to everyone’s advantage: to students and their programs. It would better prepare students for successfully completing their PhD dissertation. It would (A) develop their ability to put together and write a project substantially longer than term-papers (but not as long as a Phd Dissertation), (B) develop their ability to work effectively with less structure than during their coursework, and (C) if guided/semi-structured by faculty (as in my wife’s program in her field), would provide a kind of transition between the heavily structured coursework portion of grad school and the unstructured nature of the PhD dissertation. In other words, it would help students avoid that horrible situation in which they all too often find themselves: being completely unprepared to write a PhD dissertation. It would prepare students for it, helping them achieve the one thing they and their programs have a common interest in: them successfully finishing their degree!