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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James
James
5 years ago

This is interesting. I get the impression that in the UK philosophy context the worry would be rather different. Something like: PhD students often spend their whole time writing thesis chapters and little time is spent developing the skills they really need, ie, those needed to publish papers.Report

Grad
Grad
5 years ago

In my experience, the author is exactly right w.r.t. the first set of complaints. A few years back, our department instituted a writing-mentoring workshop, but the general impression is that faculty instructors don’t actually push anyone to develop anything publishable. This, I think, is the crucial thing: a large number of tenured faculty members in philosophy departments today do not conceptualize their upper-year grad students in the right way. When you have a 3rd-year or higher student in front of you, they are nascent professional scholars, not mere “students” whose work is to be evaluated primarily in terms of its consistency with the propositions you accept. Many well-meaning faculty fall into the trap of thinking that this kind of consistency-evaluation is mentoring: it isn’t.

The financial complaint is less convincing. They do *tell* us what the stipend will be before we accept, and while my memory of that elated afternoon is somewhat hazy, I don’t recall anyone holding a gun to my head and telling me to accept the offer I’d just received.Report

Kristine
Kristine
5 years ago

I agree that graduate institutions can do more to teach graduate students the process of writing *for journals*. I came from a graduate institution that taught me how to write a dissertation. And I think that was a valuable skill – I was forced to think for a very long time about one particular project, to trace out an arc of an argument, to engage with a wide range of scholarship. But I was never taught how to write an introduction for a paper that has an immediate hook for a skeptical reader. I was never taught how to include enough scholarship to show serious engagement but not so much to overwhelm my own argument. I was never taught how to navigate the world of readers’ reports (nor, in fact, told at all that I had to have written replies to those responses) nor how to gauge where to send a particular article. These are all things I’ve had to learn while on the tenure clock.

I think that having some serious element of revision of seminar papers might work to address some of this. And also more explicit mentoring about the nature of publishing in one’s particular AOS, including the inside dirt of particular journals. What I think would most help with this is for there to be a culture of co-authoring with one’s senior graduate students. That would be a fantastic way of teaching by navigating the process together and has the added bonus of (hopefully!) a publication at the end.

The other thing that I’ve had to learn is how to write when I have rather little time and how to juggle multiple projects at a time. I taught for the entire time I was at grad school, but there’s a difference between teaching one course a term and teaching three courses a term. I was also only ever working on one project at a time. This is simply different than my life now, when I’m working on 2-3 projects at any given point and have just 30-60 minutes a day during the semester to write. Can this be taught in graduate school? Perhaps professors there can be more open about their own daily writing habits. And perhaps the teaching requirement (that Collins laments) can be used to help graduate students navigate the pressures of teaching with the pressures of publishing. Because it’s not just graduate school that has a time limit. Life on the tenure track also has a very loud ticking clock.Report

SomeStudentSomewhere
SomeStudentSomewhere
5 years ago

Yes. I’ve actually just stopped worrying about coursework and have completely switched my focus to reading and writing as much as I can with the goal of having a ton of work to submit for publication in the near future. It’s sort of a shoot the moon strategy, but given that the odds of academic employment are so low to begin with, I figure it might be the way to go. I’ll let you know if it works.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago

Another argument in favor of the “three paper” dissertation, as opposed to the monograph.Report

sydm
sydm
5 years ago

“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.”

Who ever said that writing a diss is “meant to be a full time job”? It isn’t. Being a grad student, with all that entails, including teaching, coursework, and TA-ships MIGHT be a full time job. It was for me, but I also had additional adjunct work and non-teaching jobs when I was writing my diss, so I could pay the bills. I don’t think I ever had fewer than three jobs while I was in grad school.

It is not your grad program’s obligation to make sure your diss gets written. It’s your responsibility. Cripes, this is like the entitled nonsense I hear from undergrads.Report

Justin philgradcandidate
Justin philgradcandidate
5 years ago

i completely agree with Collins. It’s the same in Philosophy for those of us writing a traditional dissertation. The traditional dissertation is not a viable option for those of us not in a top program. It’s time that philosophy departments realize this and help their grads. Enough is enough already.Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
5 years ago

I agree with [email protected]#7. If writing a dissertation were a full time job, then how would faculty members who have to teach, supervise students, run programs, and serve on committees ever manage to write articles and books? (Hint: it does not all happen in the summer.) Graduate students need to learn that it is possible to produce good scholarship while holding down numerous other responsibilities. That is what is involved in the career for which they are preparing. (I write this fully aware that in today’s terrible job market many good students do not have the opportunity to put their preparation to appropriate use. But that is another issue.)Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
5 years ago

I’ll add, however: I really meant only to signal agreement with part of what sydm said (the part about a full-time job). I agree with the original post about the need for graduate programs to help students to learn how to manage the process of academic writing (as opposed to writing in coursework, which is really not the same thing). In my department we have a third-year paper which is completed by January of the year after coursework, and involves both a peer-review workshop and two faculty readers/advisors. This is meant to move students into the mode both of doing more independent research (no one prefeeds them a bibliography; the process begins in Spring of second year, they do research over the summer, and write the paper in Fall of third year). It is also supposed to move them into the mode of dissertation writing in which they produce multiple drafts, and revise in the light of feedback. I don’t think this at present works perfectly, but it does try to respond to some of the original post’s concerns.Report

Ben Gibran
Ben Gibran
5 years ago

Time to end the PhD system. There was a time when a good undergraduate degree was all you needed to get on the first rung of professional academia. The rest was ‘on the job’ training and publishing in peer-reviewed journals, not presenting a thesis for examination. You were judged by your peers on the value of your publications, not by a small clique of examiners on a narrow dissertation. If you wanted to write a thesis, you wrote a book and published it. How is the PhD system better than that?Report

CW
CW
5 years ago

I was introduced to and mentored through a variety of writing projects in grad school. Several of our professors asked us to write “conference style” papers in our courses, which we were then encouraged to submit to conferences. Our comprehensive exam was a “three paper” assignment. The papers were supposed to be “publishable” quality. Of course, no one thought they’d be published, exactly, but we were expected to learn to write that sort of paper, in addition to demonstrating sufficient knowledge of some content. (FWIW, one of my exam papers was published while I was in grad school.) We then wrote traditional dissertations.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

The dissertation is a peculiar genre. It is intended to demonstrate competence and advance knowledge, but does so in a different way than the articles most scholars publish during the rest of their career. Having graduate students gain competence in writing publishable articles seems important, however the move to make PhD programs into mere vocational career preparation should be treated with caution. The ultra-competitive job market has brought this on, I think. Most recent PhDs, especially from less prestigious schools, will not land jobs nowadays without having publications already in hand. I wonder whether the criticism of dissertation writing as “pointless” in this environment is akin to the attitude business students or other vocational students take towards philosophy or humanities as being irrelevant to their future careers. Perhaps the dissertation is a genre appropriate to the graduate school stage of a scholar’s career when the student is being guided by a mentor in extending the breadth and depth of her knowledge. I feel writing a dissertation can be a valuable exercise and discipline. At least in the final year, it should be supported by a fellowship releasing the student from other duties (I was fortunate to have such a fellowship), although I doubt every school wants to make that investment. In any event, students often generate articles from dissertation chapters and/or expand and rewrite the work as a monograph.Report

Chris Franklin
5 years ago

I did my PhD at UC Riverside and in second or third year (can’t remember which) John Fischer put together an agency writing workshop. He was the only faculty member that regularly attended, but other faculty did attend from time to time. There was about 10 grad students all writing on agency broadly conceived (including free will, practical reason, the ethics of responding to wrongdoing, etc.). We met weekly or bi-monthly (depending on how much stuff people had ready to present) and all read one student’s paper beforehand and then gave feedback for about 2 hours. The presenter would receive tons of feedback on the both the substance and style of the paper. The aim was explicitly to prepare papers for publication. I can’t say enough about how incredibly helpful to me this was. I grew in leaps and bounds in my skill for writing journal papers. It was also incredibly fruitful. I can think of at least ten papers published by students in that workshop in top ten journals *while* grad students.Report

Tom
Tom
5 years ago

I’m not really sure what such “training” would look like. I mean, unless you have intentionally stuck your head in the sand you must have realized publishing is something you’ll have to do. You must have read published work. Have you honestly never (a) imagined trying to produce some of your own or (b) actually tried to do so? I simply don’t understand what most graduate students do with their time. I adjuncted outside my department, wrote a dissertation, published, had a family and (some semblance of a) life while in graduate school. I did notice many of my peers didn’t do most of these things. I could not for the life of me tell you what they did with their time, though.

I suppose this is an agreement with Kremer/sydm.Report

Adrian Piper
5 years ago

Like Tom, I think what I’m not getting in these comments is why students, including grad students, seem not to be making the connection between the published material they are assigned to read, and the material they are being trained to write for publication. My generation of students learned what was expected of them for journal publication by reading journals; and what was expected of them for book publication (and hence dissertations) by reading books. Once we understood that much, it was up to each one of us to what extent we chose to meet those expectations. In my grad program, we were required to write what was called the Second-Year Paper. Its point was not to coach us about how to write the dissertation, but rather to determine whether we had by that point learned the skills needed to do so.Report

Brian Watkins
Brian Watkins
5 years ago

In response to Tom and Adrian: Sure, (good) published articles should be models for the kind of writing that many philosophers are trying to produce, but in my experience grad school involves little institutionalized time reflecting on what such models do well as pieces of writing. The goal of instruction in scholarly writing during grad school should be to reflect on the kinds of moves made by good writers in the discipline of philosophy, give students a chance to practice those moves themselves in a space where they can receive lots of feedback from their peers and other more experienced writers, and have a chance to improve their work through revision.Report

Graduate Student
Graduate Student
5 years ago

Currently I am a PhD student and I have several publications. In part, I attribute my success to one particular professor I had who informed all of the students in his graduate seminar (there were only 5 of us in this particular class), on the first day of class, that the goal of his class is to write a paper suitable for publication. He taught us how to conduct lit reviews for our paper, what it means to make a unique contribution to our area of research, what sorts of sources are appropriate and how we should, in part, decide which journal to submit to based on our sources (for instance, if a number of our sources were published in the same journal, that was an indication that the journal has an interest in the topic at hand). My professor required us to submit multiple drafts of our papers throughout the semester, to the point where our core arguments were so strongly developed by the end of the course. In addition, after the class ended, the professor followed up with an e-mail, telling me to submit my paper “right now” so that I didn’t change my mind or forget about it over the summer. His relentless encouragement motivated me to submit to a journal for the very first time and I ended up getting my paper published. After his class, I used the tools he taught me when writing my other articles.

Honestly, I think most graduate students, at least at the universities I have attended, do not submit to journals because they are not encouraged to by their instructors. Too often are graduate students considered to be just “students” and not the colleagues of their professors— it is assumed that we can’t possibly publish in the same journals as them! Because of the lack of encouragement and guidance, some graduate students don’t even know the first place to look when considering what journal they should submit to in regards to the breadth of the journal or ranking of the journal or how the publication process works, etc. So, they refrain from sending their work off because the process seems too unfamiliar and overwhelming.

Sadly, many professors are too wrapped up in their own research to even provide feedback on term papers, let alone sit their students down and provide them with the mentorship for publishing that they might need.Report

Alex
Alex
5 years ago

Perhaps it would be most useful to list schools where this sort of training (how to write a publishable paper in philosophy) actually occurs.Report

A lowly MA student
A lowly MA student
5 years ago

I would love to hear about the schools that do what Graduate Student is talking about. I’d rather go there than some top-ranked school if it meant I learned how to write publishable pieces during my time there…Report

CW (from #12)
CW (from #12)
5 years ago

I graduated from Tennessee a few years ago. You can read more about the portfolio comprehensive exam here:

http://philosophy.utk.edu/phdphil.htmlReport