It Takes a Village to Write a Dissertation or Publish

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It Takes a Village to Write a Dissertation or Publish

From the first day of graduate school until you retire as full professor, you unwittingly take in subliminal messages such as these:

  • “There are a lot of things you should already know about how to be successful.”
  • “If you don’t know these things, then maybe you’re not cut out for academia, anyway.”
  • “Whatever you do, hide how little you know about this whole process.”
  • “Even if we did know how little you knew, we wouldn’t tell you anything.”
  • “If you seek out support, then you’re weak.”

These messages get slowly absorbed into your brain, until you feel total shame whenever you consider getting answers to your nagging questions about the process of succeeding in academia.

This is a sad situation.  It leads people to isolate themselves and to feel inadequate.  It even leads people to hate the very field that they originally loved so much.

In the best schools (and I don’t mean the most prestigious), you are helped to find out what you don’t know, and then you’re gently either given the answers or guided to find the answers.  For example, the University of Michigan AGEP Program (Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate) has asked me to give a keynote speech on Success in Academia through Writing Productivity (don’t hold me to that title) before their conference on academic writing, which will cover topics like dissertation and grant writing, and, writing for journal publication.  Other universities, such as Emory University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst have had Academic Ladder conduct in-depth programs with their grad students, and pre-tenured and tenured professors.

What if your college or university isn’t helping you enough? What can you do to overcome these subliminal messages? How can you get the information and help you need in order to succeed in writing your dissertation or in publishing enough to get tenure?

Show Me the Village!

My theme for today is “It takes a village to write your dissertation or publish.”  The problem is that your village won’t knock at your door, ready to help.  You have to find or create the village that will help you be successful.

The three steps that you need to take to find or create your village are:

  • Don’t isolate
  • Be proactive
  • Use all available resources

Don’t Isolate

Even if you have competitive colleagues, an unsupportive advisor, an out-of-touch department chair or a mean dean, don’t hide out.  If you’ve been hurt by negative interactions, it’s even more important not to retreat to your home or office and lick your wounds.  See my articles on Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder or other Academic Anxiety Disorders to learn how to handle the aftermath of such unlucky but all too common situations.  It’s only through interaction with others that you can succeed.  Find a supportive group of graduate students or fellow professors who can understand your experiences and who will make suggestions for how to improve it.

In terms of your academic writing, it’s crucial that you not try to do it alone.  In the humanities and in some social sciences and sciences, both thinking and writing tend to be solitary activities.  Going it alone can cause people to fall into a sinkhole of stagnant thinking and beliefs that lead to writing paralysis.  In fact, Chris Golde of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a leading researcher on graduate-level education, commented in response to that same article that “regular interactions with more advanced graduate students and post docs can help normalize and reduce the enormity of the inevitable setbacks and challenges of graduate school. This helps explain the lower attrition rates in the sciences relative to the humanities.”

Share your work early and often.  Follow the advice of Tara Gray, the author of a gem of a book, Publish and Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar: “Share early drafts with non-experts and later drafts with experts.”  As Academic Writing Club Manager and academic coach Jayne London, frequently points out, the longer you wait to share you work, the more you will think that it needs to be perfect, and the more you will hesitate to share.

It is my theory that a majority of academics are introverts who enjoy solitude.  Ironically, as teachers they are often in front of large (and increasingly critical) audiences, so it’s a relief to be alone with their reading, research and writing.  If you are one of these people, you must force yourself to go against your tendencies occasionally, as difficult as that may be.  Make a regular time in your calendar to interact with others about the experience of being an academic, and to share your work.

Be proactive

Create your own village.  Don’t wait until it’s too late to find out what you don’t know.  Take responsibility for forming your own pathway during your graduate education or academic career, and get information about the road map that is ahead of you.  Don’t reinvent the wheel.  Others have gone before you, so learn from them.

Being proactive like this demands a level of vulnerability that you may feel like avoiding.  You may have a misplaced sense of shame about your own lack of knowledge or poorly written first draft.  But as Susan Marshall, author of the book How to Get a Backbone, (which I wrote about in my last newsletter) said to me in a recent personal communication, it takes huge strength to be vulnerable.  Try turning it around in your mind and thinking of yourself as being a leader in this regard.  By stepping past your fears and asking others for help, you show a capacity for learning and growing that others will envy.

Here are some examples of what being proactive would look like in practice:

  • If you’re a graduate student, find out how others organized their work, how they worked on writing while they were doing their field studies, or got help with their data analysis.  Ask to see copies of other previous dissertations written by your advisor’s students.  Arrange to have coffee with a more advanced graduate student and get their advice about who should be on your committee (and who to avoid).  Set up a student-run dissertation group.
  • If you’re a professor, ask more senior colleagues for a copy of their first year review application, find out how many publications the recently tenured professors had when they applied for tenure, and talk to the chair and dean about what you need in order to get promotion (and then get that in writing!).  Follow up on a conversation you had with a colleague during a conference by writing that colleague a friendly email.  Set up a peer-run writing support group.

Use all available resources

Once you have freed yourself up to reach out and get help, you will start to notice the wide variety of resources that are available, both inside and outside of your institution.

The following is a list of resources that may be at your disposal.  Make it your business to make use of them.

  • Your advisor and committee/department chair and mentors
    • Learn how to make use of these people who could make your life easier.  Granted, they aren’t always predisposed to be helpful, but learn how to work with them to your maximum advantage. Here is a workshop that Jayne and I gave on how best to work with your advisor.
  • Editorial and other help with your writing
    • University writing centers often provide experienced academics who will help you write better and more clearly
    • Editors from outside your university
      • Developmental editors, who will help you formulate and organize your ideas when you are stuck or confused.
      • Copy editors who will help you format your paper or dissertation and correct it for punctuation and spelling.  Try Andree Swanson at
  • Dissertation and tenure coaches – find out more here about what coaching can do for you.
  • Statistics consultants (are you available to do independent statistical consultation?  If so, contact me so I can recommend you to my readers!)
  • Workshops and classes on navigating aspects of academia
    • Academic Ladder’s upcoming free teleseminar, “Publish Your Academic Book (and avoid the countless dreaded pitfalls that can sink it)”
    • TaDa’s “Practical Steps to Completing Your Master’s Thesis or Dissertation” Workshop, which includes 3 free bonuses if you get it before April 26.
  • Written information that can make your life easier:

There is a whole village, or even universe of help out there.  Reach out and find it, and you will be much more likely to succeed in academia!



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