Training Graduate Students in Academic Writing

The kind of research and writing experience received up until the moment of [PhD] candidacy does not train students to a writing practice where months of research lead into months of writing lead into months of revision — where a good, finished, ‘in the bag’ chapter will reasonably take two semesters to complete, if not more. The structure of the system has set us up to fail — it has taught us to work and write in one way, and then a switch is flipped and we are expected to write and work in a radically different way, one we have had no preparation for, no training in, no familiarity with.

That’s Michael Collins, a graduate student in literature at the University of Toronto, in a post about problems with dissertation writing groups and other accountability strategies. He continues:

The training that graduate students receive, prior to candidacy, needs to be retooled so that it inculcates habits and rhythms of professional academic writing. Graduate students need to be familiarized with how a large intellectual project moves from first idea through to finished scholarly monograph…

Perhaps PhD coursework needs to be radically reimagined to teach how professional academic writing — public, publishable scholarly writing — is done. Perhaps dissertation writing groups should have faculty shepherds who attend meetings and set or create appropriate structures and goals. Perhaps this is a role that dissertation supervisors can take on — in which case, such duties need to be formally laid out as part of the terms of faculty member’s employment…  Perhaps a “dissertation writing” class in the third year is in order, where at the end of the semester, ideally, each student will have written a chapter draft through a structure of escalating class assignments.

He also suggests that additional training needs to be supplemented with additional support:

Institutional support needs to be radically reimagined. Writing a dissertation is meant to be a full time job. It needs to be paid like one. There is no mystery here. PhD candidates do not have the time an energy to complete dissertations on time because they are distracted by extreme financial and material challenges. I can’t stress this enough. We are demoralized and exhausted. Fix that, and dissertations will get written.

It would be useful to hear from others on whether they agree with Collins’s diagnosis of the problem and his suggested solutions, and to hear what special steps PhD programs have taken to prepare students for, and help them with, the kind of writing that’s required for dissertations, articles, and other academic writing.

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