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Michel X.

FWIW, the dissertation workshops Collins describes don't sound anything like those I've participated in. The first seemed to involve a discussion aiming to set goals and review how each student met the last week's goals, while the second was just a group writing session.

My experience of dissertation workshop groups is very different (I've participated in four): each week (or every two weeks), someone submits a chunk of work (~20-30 pages) to the rest of the group. We read it and comment on it at home, then at the appointed time we congregate and share our comments with the writer and with each other, and have a conversation about the chunk we just read. The groups are fairly small, so everyone gets about a month to work on something before having to submit it.

As far as I can tell, it's a system that works quite well, and I don't really think that the problems under discussion are all that applicable. A faculty member from another discipline was involved in the first group I took part in, and having her input was great: her experience with writing a dissertation was really useful. But to be honest, not having a faculty member since then hasn't felt like much of an obstacle. It's a wonderful thing to have, to be sure, but I just don't think the system is as broken as Collins makes it sound, or that we're quite as helpless as we might think. When push comes to shove, it turns out we (as a group) actually have a pretty good ideas about long-form writing.

Full disclosure: all participants in my current group wrote an MA thesis. I'm not sure it's what's making the difference, though. I think the bulk of that is probably just due to the structure of the group. The kinds of groups Collins describes sound to me like they're pretty undesirable and prone to the kinds of failure described.

Trevor Hedberg

I wrote an MA Thesis for several reasons, but the biggest one was to be better prepared for writing the dissertation. I'm still relatively early in the dissertation writing phase, so I can't yet say much about how it's helped me. However, I did get stuck at one point while writing the thesis, and I think having that experience prior to writing the dissertation and working through it will be very valuable moving forward. Since the dissertation will be at least double the length of my MA thesis, it's a safe bet that I'll get stuck again somewhere in the process.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Michel: Thanks for your comment!

You write: "I just don't think the system is as broken as Collins makes it sound, or that we're quite as helpless as we might think...Full disclosure: all participants in my current group wrote an MA thesis. I'm not sure it's what's making the difference, though. I think the bulk of that is probably just due to the structure of the group."

I think your experience--including the experience that we're not quite as helpless as we might think--may indeed be due to your all having written MA theses. As I note in my OP, *I* felt incredibly helpless at the dissertation stage, and there were many others in my program (none of whom wrote MA theses) who fumbled around helplessly for years just like I did!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Trevor: Thanks for your comment!

Your experience is a nice data-point. If you don't mind me asking, how did you get stuck in the MA thesis, and how do you think your experience there might help you at the dissertation stage. I ask because it might be good to draw out into the open specific ways MA theses better prepare one for dissertating.

Michel X.


Iunno. I think the structure of the group actually explains most of its success, rather than our experience with MA theses. Here it is:

We keep the group fairly small (4-5 people), and a different person gives a chunk of her work each week (breaks are occasionally longer due to conferences and travel and stuff). The chunks are paper/chapter length (~30 pages), and we get them between three or more days before the scheduled meeting day (the first chunk is preceded by a quick explanation of the person's bigger project). We read them and mark them up, and then on the appointed day we go through the person's chunk page by page and raise whatever we've marked up. Sometimes they're substantive comments or disagreements, sometimes just questions about what was meant or how it fits in with the rest of the project, and sometimes it's just structural/editorial suggestions.

I think anyone who's familiar with philosophical papers (and the occasional book) would already have a pretty good sense of these things, and would do just fine in such a setting. I don't really think that the skills learned by writing the MA thesis are contributing very much, if anything, to the success of the group. Anyone past candidacy can write a 30-page paper, and a dissertation chapter isn't all that different. It's entirely appropriate for it to start its life as a 30-page paper.

I guess having written an MA thesis might make the process of writing the dissertation a little easier. But I don't think it's at all necessary. What *is* necessary is a better group structure than the ones described by Collins!

Michael Collins

Thank you for the generous and insightful thoughts! I only have limited time to comment, but I noticed Michael X. had slightly misread my post: I don't talk about two groups. I talk about three groups, and the third group was a workshop just like the one described: a member circulated a 30-ish page chunk of work days before the meeting, and then at the meeting the work was discussed, feedback was given, changes suggested, etc etc etc.

To summarize and simplify what I said in my original post, this third group failed because of a lack of material support combined with (or leading to) exhaustion and demoralization. Our institution expects us to pay full tuition even after our (paltry, sub-cost-of-living) funding has lapsed (there are no post-residency fees). The on-and-off campus work required to buy a car when living $8,000 below the city's poverty line (except you don't get a car, you just get to keep your library card), plus the demoralization and mental health issues attendant to being in such a situation, make scheduling group meetings incredibly difficult.

I know that professors have busy lives, must juggle a dizzying number of disparate tasks, etc., but do not underestimate the psychological fortitude and energy that can come with a good salary, job security, and professional prestige. The dangling carrot of "if you do this well, you'll probably get a job" is now so terrifying and disgusting false, its power to motivate is diminished to almost nothing.

If Universities are truly concerned with PhD completion times, and if they are determined to follow the path of corporatization to its bitter end, well, at least we at the bottom of the heap should be allowed to reap what silver lining we may lay hand to. Maybe PhDs need to be rethought as 5-year research contracts, where those who enter into them are not students at all, but are workers who will be protected (and paid) in accordance with labour laws - I am not talking about TA or RA labour, but the work of the dissertation itself, which is currently a sort of free labour (except it's not free; PhD candidates have to pay to do it). Perhaps there could be a $5,000 bonus for each dissertation chapter completed, up to a maximum of $15,000 per year? Dissertations would be completed quickly then, for sure - no 6th Year PhD candidate wants to do the opening shift at Starbucks for eight months if finishing two chapters in that time will pay roughly the equivalent.

Trevor Hedberg

Hey, Marcus. Sorry for the belated response here: I left town for the summer on June 17th and did not see your reply.

Essentially, the point at which I got "stuck" on the thesis occurred when I realized that the position I was defending was untenable. It was too bold; I had to pull back to a more modest view. However, since the entire thesis had been structured around defending a more extreme position, this required some rather substantial changes. While it's pretty common to change one's position while drafting a paper, it's a much different to try to change one's overall position in a document 4-5 times the standard paper length.

I suspect that this experience will be useful because the same thing may happen with the dissertation. It would surprise me if my overall position never changed as a result of continued deliberation on the topic and feedback from committee members.


Such groups are indeed helpful especially if you hit a dead end but I think one shouldn't rely too much on it. I believe if you don't know what you should write or research, it's better to ask your supervisor since he or she knows more than the people in such groups. Still, probably attending such meetings won't help you with writing your own paper but it may show your a way to how do it. And as pointed out by the Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill writing a dissertation is a transition from a student to a scholar and it turns out to be stressful. And with this groups will help you. Additionally, the blog from DW mentions you should be able to distinguish between a simple research paper and a dissertation. Simply put before writing it, you should know how it should look and what it should contain. These answers you will find when consulting with your supervisor.

Bob Evans

Such meetings are indeed helpful if you come with a purpose to write your dissertation, in particularly. Otherwise, if you are constantly distracted with issues concerning day-to-day life of your classmates, you can end up with nothing. In an attempt to make your work more productive, you can take a look at these tips on starting to write dissertation. Not only does it help you how to start your dissertation writing with ease, but also you will be always motivated to finish up your work due date.

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