Category Archives: Graduate Writing

Posts that discuss topics of particular interest to graduate writers

Autonomy and Doctoral Study

In addition to writing about the topics on my mind, I enjoy using this space to talk about the topics on other people’s minds. Pat Thomson had a recent post on methods assignments and methods chapters that was fascinating to me. She was writing about the possibility that a certain notion of doctoral training might have deleterious consequences for how doctoral writers conceive of their intellectual task: “I’m worried that in instituting doctoral ‘training’ courses, we might have extended the under and taught postgraduate assignment genre, and everything it means, into doctoral research.” The specifics of her concern are connected to the shape and conditions of the doctorate in the UK, but the question of how much disciplinary training ought to be given to doctoral students is of broader interest.

My own doctoral education was pretty much a matter of trial and error; the overwhelming message was ‘we trust you, you’ll figure it out’. We were, by many measures, neglected, although we preferred to think of it as European (sounds better). From the very outset, we were expected to come up with our own topics—and our own due dates, but that’s another story—and our own reading lists. Those who finished the program (and many did not) were generally ready to take responsibility for an autonomous research agenda. While that sounds positive, the fact remains that the time-to-degree was unmanageable and the attrition rates were unacceptable.

It is with this slightly Darwinian back story that I now teach academic writing to graduate students. My biggest initial adjustment in this position was grasping the degree of support and scaffolding that my current university provides to doctoral students. To be clear, I think the growth of a supportive infrastructure surrounding doctoral education is an excellent thing. And so I was intrigued by the suggestion that doctoral training could have the unintended consequence of diminishing the extent to which doctoral students are able to inhabit their new role as researchers. I realize that this is somewhat dicey territory. I have absolutely no desire to be the person blathering on about my uphill walk both ways! Nor do I think that suffering should be replicated out of habit or misplaced ideas about its value. But I also know some of the frustration I see in some doctoral students comes from a certain stasis in the role of student. The shift away from student toward researcher can be facilitated but cannot, by definition, be taught. Autonomy will come from experience, not instruction. As I have discussed before in this space, I believe that doctoral writers need to avail themselves of a range of resources in order to gain the confidence and competence to occupy their new role.

As always, I will end this links post with things that I have recently shared on Twitter; since my last links post was in mid-December, there’s lots of great stuff!

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @StanCarey, a strong endorsement of the singular ‘they’. Bonus: you won’t be forced to use ‘thou’ for the sake of consistency!

From @thesiswhisperer, having a key word to act as a theme or rubric for the year. My word: habit.

From @joshmkim, how inbox=zero has worked for him. A great way to make more rational decisions about what tasks to do when.

From @thesiswhisperer, a great @DocwritingSIG post on “working in the deep end of the methods pool”. Very helpful!

From @PhD2Published, a summary of the January 24th #acwri chat on the value of Twitter for academic writing.

From @phdcomics, a brutal comic on the perils of conference presentations. Don’t let any of this happen to you!

From @ntos, a great cartoon about blogging in academia

My favourite non-academic blogger (from the Dinner: A Love Story blog) has great advice about starting and managing a blog.

From the Lingua Franca blog, William Germano gives you all the ‘catfish’ puns you could ask for.

From @scholarlykitchn, a useful discussion of the systems in place for pre- and post-publication peer review.

From @ThomsonPat, a post on blogging identity: crafting private ‘texts’ (for instance, teaching conversations) into public and enduring ones.

From @professorisin, tough, helpful advice on crafting a teaching philosophy that doesn’t rely on emotion, aspiration.

From @GradHacker, an argument for the cognitive benefits of using pen and paper.

From @utpress, a new grammar feature on their blog: When to use a semicolon and a colon?

From the Academic Life in Emergency Medicine blog, reflections on becoming a peer-reviewed blog

@MacDictionary asks whether adverbs imply ill-chosen verbsCould your writing stand to lose a few adverbs?

From @fishhookopeneye, an argument for vibrant presentations regardless of disciplinary dictates. Here’s my take on the same question.

From @PhD2Published, a short discussion of typical patterns in research article conclusions.

From @raulpacheco, a great Storify on how academics can benefit from Twitter.

From John Tierney in the New York Times, an account of ‘positive procrastination‘: can you trick yourself into getting the important stuff done?

From @thesiswhisperer, thoughts on concentration, energy, laziness, adrenaline, and completion in our academic work.

From @StanCarey, a discussion of prepositions at the end of sentences, with the best example ever.

From @GradHacker, thoughts about the fine line between pernicious and productive anxiety.

From @AltAcademix, suggestions on expanding career preparation during doctoral study.

People are always trying to get forestall usage that irks them. I love this project to revive neglected words instead.

From @scholarlykitchn, interesting comments on online comments and the lack thereof.

From Inside Higher Ed, Barbara Fister on the way excess negativity can preclude much-needed rational responses to real challenges.

From The Onion, 4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence

The first #acwri chat of the year talked about resolutions and motivation.

From @MacDictionary, a useful discussion of nominalizations and communicative goals.

From The Monkey Cage blog, JSTOR Cracks the Door.

From @UVenus, lovely reflections on superstition amidst rationality in our scholarly routines.

From @StanCarey, the need to question but not demonize nominalizations.

From McSweeney’s, some irreverent writing advice.

From @qui_oui, a great take on the balancing act performed by contemporary graduate students.

From @poynter, an entertaining list of media mistakes, corrections, apologies, hoaxes, typos, &c from 2012.

From @PhD2Published, a Storify of #AcWriMo success stories.

From the Crooked Timber blog, an excellent defense of Erik Loomis.

From the When in Academia tumblr, an accurate depiction of me and today’s blog post.

From @ThomsonPat, how to prepare to write a conclusion by returning to the commitments made at the outset.

This piece in The New Yorker made me think how a thesis can alternate between being a focal point and being a distraction.

From @PhD2Published, reflections and a Storify on conference presentations on social media and academics.

From Inside Higher Ed, a great round-up of a year’s worth of MOOC-related commentary.

Writing at @DocwritingSIG, @thesiswhisperer has some recommendations (including some kind words about @explorstyle).

From @ThomsonPat, a precise and perceptive account of what can go wrong in a thesis conclusion.


In a one-on-one writing consultation, the most common thing—hands down—for me to discuss with a student is the effectiveness of an introduction. Masters or PhD, humanities or sciences, native or non-native speaker of English, it doesn’t matter. Most draft writing comes with introductions that are inadequate to the task. Which is why I am grateful to John Swales for his essential Creating a Research Space (CARS) model. His model consists of three moves: establishing a research territory; establishing a niche; and occupying the niche.

While I value Swales’s insightful and durable model, I have never particularly warmed to the language he uses. I find it a bit removed from the language that we naturally employ when talking about our research; for me, it seems useful to use more hospitable language, language that reflects the instinctive way we talk about our research. I very much like the way that Booth, Colomb, and Williams talk about the moves of the introduction; indeed, as I have said before, I generally like the way that they talk about all parts of the research process.  Their introduction model also has three stages: a common ground, a problem, and a response. Although I generally like their wording, I’ve moved away from using the phrase ‘common ground’. I find students sometimes interpret common ground as requiring an actual consensus rather than just an established context (which may, of course, be highly fractious). To avoid this misunderstanding, I find it easier to use the word ‘context’ to characterize the opening of an introduction.

Drawing on these two sources, here is the way I present introductions:

1. Context: What your audience will need to know in order to understand the problem you are going to confront. This background material will be familiar rather than novel to your target audience; it may act as a refresher or even a primer, but will not cover new ground. I usually suggest that students try to form a template sentence that they can then use as a prompt to help them sketch out each of the three moves. For instance, “Over the past two decades, research in this field has focused on … ”.

2. Problem (and Significance): What isn’t yet well understood. That is, the problem statement will explain what you want to understand (or reveal or explain or explore or reinterpret or contest) and why it will matter to have done so. For instance, “However, [topic] is still poorly understood (or under-examined or excluded or misinterpreted). This lack of attention is significant because knowing [about this topic] will provide a benefit OR not knowing [about this topic] will incur a cost”.

Given the importance of establishing significance and given the frequency with which this step is neglected, I have often wondered about framing it as a separate step. I haven’t done so, for two reasons. First, the three moves are so well established; it seems needlessly confusing to disrupt that familiarity by talking about four moves. Second, and more important, the problem and significance are genuinely connected; it doesn’t make sense to treat the problem and significance separately, even if doing so would encourage us to pay more attention to the significance. The significance is requisite for the problem, not separate from it.

3. Response: What you are actually going to do in your research. For instance, “In order to address this problem, I will …”.

The beauty of this basic model is, of course, that it makes a great deal of intuitive sense. When students hear it for the first time, they generally feel an immediate sense of familiarity. That intuition doesn’t, however, necessarily make it easy for them to deploy it in their own writing. I focus on four things about this model that may help writers deepen their understanding and thus be better able to use these moves proficiently.

The way it encourages us to take the perspective of the reader. These three moves tell readers what they need to know; having these needs met will then motivate them to continue reading. Our natural inclination is often to express our research as a by-product of our own thinking process. These three moves remind us to disrupt that inclination: instead of telling a story about the twists and turns of our research process, we need to tell the story about our research that the reader needs to hear. Take the example of context. As writers, we often struggle to define the correct amount of context to provide; if we approach this question from the perspective of the reader we are more likely to provide the right amount of context. The reader needs enough to appreciate the topic but doesn’t want us to take them through all the contextualizing information we have at our disposal.

The way it forces us to express the significance of the problem. The significance is generally the least apparent thing to the reader and yet is often the most neglected by the writer. The key here is to remember that the significance needs to be connected to one’s own discourse community. Some novice writers suffer from the sense that there isn’t much significance to their research because they are looking for significance in an unduly broad sense. Remembering that the current work needs to be valuable in the narrower context of the existing work in the field—responding to it, extending it, altering the way it may be done in the future—can help us to craft a clear and credible statement of significance.

The way its explicit breakdown shows us what may still be underdeveloped. By breaking down the introductory passages into distinct parts, this model helps us to see what is already there and what still needs to be addressed. It is very common, for instance, for writers to have a clearly articulated response but a confusing context and weakly expressed problem. For those writers, the response is what they have right, but they don’t yet know how to provide the necessary preceding information. Making the breakdown explicit can help us see what we still need to develop.

The way its scalability helps us to see how we must repeat and reinforce our key issues. Once these three moves are clear to you, you will see them—writ small or writ large—throughout your text. Take the literature review, for instance. Understood as a deeper iteration of the context, we are better able to understand what the work of reviewing the literature means. And we will grasp more easily that a literature review needs to be repeatedly connected to the problem that will be articulated in its wake.

These general observations can help writers to understand the three moves as central to our overall project of connecting our research to our intended audience. I’m out of space for today, but I will return to this topic soon. In particular, I will focus on this notion of scalability in a post devoted specifically to thesis introductions. Given the length of thesis introductions, the three moves have to be used in such a way that the reader doesn’t drown in an initial sea of detail.


Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. C., & Williams, J. M. (2008). The craft of research (3rd ed.). Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

The Supervisory Relationship

This blog aims to present both my own ideas about graduate student writing and my commentary on other people’s ideas. I’ve struggled a bit with the best way to do the latter. I find that I often draft comments about interesting things I’ve read, but then don’t post them (because writing is easy, sharing your writing is hard!). Those sort of reflections can quickly become stale, so they end up sitting unused in a draft folder. Increasingly, I just share the things that I find interesting on Twitter; the commentary aspect is lost, but at least the sharing is timely. Since not everyone follows me on Twitter (@explorstyle), I am going to start including a list of the things I’ve shared on Twitter at the end of these posts. The post itself will consist of a comment on one recent item of interest. Today’s link isn’t particularly recent (unless, like me, you feel like July was just a minute ago!), but I know that it is one that graduate students will find relevant.

This post from the Thesis Whisperer blog on what doctoral students need from their supervisors highlights the potential for difficulties in the supervisory relationship. The post discusses what doctoral students can and should expect from their supervisors—and whether that relationship needs to be as fraught as it so often is. The post was inspired the actions of a new doctoral student who was looking to avoid the inevitable pitfalls. I thought the post did a great job of summing up two equally undesirable poles: one, avoiding all rookie mistakes or, two, suffering through every indignity that every doctoral student has ever endured. Surely neither of those extremes is ideal. Although a PhD is never going to come without some struggle, the process shouldn’t be a source of actual trauma. We all hear far too many stories about the misery caused by inadequate supervisory relationships; the Thesis Whisperer’s characterization of her role as that of a ‘global agony aunt’ is telling.

In general, I believe that the uneven quality of supervision, while unfortunate, must not be allowed to derail the writing process. Instead, the thesis writer needs to see themselves as capable of gaining the necessary expertise from a range of resources. Ideally, the supervisor will figure heavily in the writer’s development, but an unwilling or inexpert supervisor needn’t signal doom for the writer. And while I don’t think that the goal of supervision should be to make sure that each generation suffers as much as the last, I do know that trial and error can be an invaluable route to meaningful expertise. A good supervisor is many things, but not necessarily a protection against travelling down unproductive pathways. Those pathways are crucial—not to replicate a needless tradition of suffering but rather to give thesis writers the depth of experience necessary to complete this demanding and defining writing task.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

I love this cartoon from @xkcd

More good advice from @GradHacker on successfully navigating conferences:

From @GradHacker, a post on getting our ideas down on paper, so they don’t keep us up at night!

From @ProfHacker, a post on the things that we should make easier and those that we should make harder:

From @chronicle, something to make you laugh and feel better about your own presentation mishaps!

@scholarlykitchn says the exact right thing about PowerPoint and Prezi:

From the NYT, a clear discussion of the subjunctive in the always-delightful After Deadline blog: Save the Subjunctive! 

From Barbara Fister, a very nuanced take on the way we talk about plagiarism: The Plagiarism Perplex

From @chronicle, a call for reverse mentoring:

The recent @GradHacker podcast on productivity systems is full of interesting and helpful insights:

From @ProfHacker, a helpful overview of Twitter for academics:

From @GradHacker, a useful discussion of the pros and cons of Prezi:

I love this post from @stancarey on the choice between following bad rules or standing up to their eternal enforcers:

Putting it in Your Own Words

My six-year-old son loves this blog. Well, not the actual blog itself, but the stats page. And he’s merciless about slow days. On Sunday mornings, he will often report, in a tone of morbid satisfaction, “Only nine views! You are doing terrible today!”. (I hope in your head you can hear the word ‘terrible’ being stretched out for maximum emphasis.) He understands that the spikes in activity—which are the whole point, to his quantitative way of thinking—are caused by new posts, so his suggestion is usually that I should sit right down and write something. Unfortunately, his desire for me to write is in direct conflict for his desire for me to play endless games of Monopoly. Even more unfortunately, I don’t have the heart to tell him that blogging is actually way more fun than Monopoly.

Given all this, you can imagine his pleasure when I told him that I might be able to use a new joke he’d repeated to me in the blog. Here goes:

Q: How can you fit a 10 page article on milk into 5 pages?

A: You condense it!

Hilarious, right? Welcome to my summer vacation!

As summer vacation slowly turns into preparation for fall, I’ve been mulling over how to improve the way I teach one of my least favourite topics: paraphrasing. I’m sure my discomfort with this topic is connected to the fact that paraphrasing necessarily brings up issues of plagiarism, a topic that we all feel anxious about. The immediate stakes are high for students when I talk about effective paraphrasing, in a way that isn’t the case with discussions of transitions, semicolons, or sentences. If I’m wrong about those topics or even if I just do a poor job explaining my intent, the implications aren’t particularly significant. But if I handle paraphrasing badly in the classroom, a student might go on to provide a weak paraphrase in their own writing, an act that can have consequences.

It is also the case that explaining a good paraphrase can be pretty hard to do; even if you ‘know one when you see one’, it can be hard to craft enduring principles to use in future writing situations. The classroom conversation often ends up centred around whether sufficient changes have been made. This is a legitimate issue for students to worry about, but I think that the notion of ‘sufficient changes’ is ultimately a problematic one. Conceiving of any writing task as a matter of making sufficient changes to someone else’s text seems risky to me.

To address this risk, I like to shift the focus away from the whole notion of making sufficient changes. Of course, the idea of putting something into your own words is a commonplace in academic writing, but I think the resultant emphasis on changing words can lead students to feel that they are engaging in a meaningless technical task. What’s worse, students who don’t write in English as their first language often feel that they end up with something less elegant and effective than the original formulation. But what if we were to think less about word or phrase replacement and more about how we can effectively use someone else’s ideas in our research; that is, not so much just ‘put it in your own words’ as ‘reframe the idea in your own words so that it helps you to explain your research aims’.

For sound advice on paraphrasing, you can try the OWL at Purdue site or the Writing at U of T site. In keeping with my advice to think about paraphrasing as part of a broader issues of talking about the literature, I also suggest looking the Academic Phrasebank from the University of Manchester. This site is one of my favourites, and I will return to a discussion of its many merits another time. For now, I point to it because it provides a helpful range of ways to talk about the scholarly  literature. Asking ourselves why we are talking about another person’s work is often the first step to deciding how to phrase our explication of that work. The Phrasebank, by offering a range of sentence templates, can help us to decide whether we are interested in a text because of its author, its methodology, its topic, its time frame, etc. Those decisions can help us with the broader issue of how to structure a lit review, but they can also help us talk effectively about other people’s work at the sentence level.

Communication and Content

This interesting article by Jacques Berlinerblau in The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the future of the humanities. This is well-covered territory, obviously, but I was interested in the way he discusses the role of communication skills. His argument is that the humanities can be ‘saved’ by greater engagement with the general public and thus by a greater emphasis on communication skills. Berlinerblau suggests that we ought to “impart critical communication skills to our master’s and doctoral students. That means teaching them how to teach, how to write, how to speak in public.”

Needless to say, I am in complete agreement with that sentiment. However, I am puzzled by the next step in his argument: “this plan will result in far less time for the trainee to be immersed in seminars, bibliographies, and archives. That this will retard the absorption of deep knowledge at an early stage of one’s career is undeniable.” While I understand that this may be a strategic concession designed to allow him to get back to defending his core idea, I do not understand why he allows that time spent on communication skills necessarily has a deleterious effect on disciplinary knowledge. To be clear, Berlinerblau is definitely saying that this trade-off—greater capacity for communication, diminished grasp of content—is worth it. But why is he so sure that this is a trade-off? I see no reason to believe that graduate students who devote time to improving writing or speaking skills are actually taking time away from their disciplinary studies.

There can be no doubt that we all feel that way at times; we all feel that we must try to balance time spent on process with the more urgent demands for production. This sentiment can be particularly pronounced in graduate students. I often hear from students that they would like to visit the writing centre, but they just don’t have enough time. And I am not denying that—in any given day—putting writing on hold in favour of visiting the writing centre may not get you tangibly closer to the goal of a finished piece of writing. But graduate students can and must think in longer increments of time: over the course of their degree, they genuinely do have time to improve their communication skills.

More importantly, formulating this relationship between communication and content as a trade-off contributes to the problematic notion that our communication skills are somehow distinct from our disciplinary knowledge. I would argue that the two are in fact closely intertwined. Effective communication is not valuable only to the recipient; as we improve our capacity for communication, we necessarily improve our own understanding of the topics about which we are communicating. The better we communicate, the more we engage others; the more we engage others, the more we learn from them. And when we strive to explain ourselves better, we inevitably come to a better understanding of what we thought we knew. The artificial division of content knowledge and communication skills needs to be resisted. Knowing what to say and knowing how to say it aren’t distinct. Graduate students who address themselves to the crucial matter of communication aren’t diminishing their content knowledge, they are enhancing it.

Earlier in the summer, I had the great pleasure of participating in the GradHacker podcast. I spoke with one of the hosts, Alex Galarza, about this blog and about academic writing more generally. The audio is a bit wonky in places near the end, but I hope you’ll listen and I hope you’ll return to the GradHacker blog and podcast; they are both great resources for graduate students. You can find the podcast on their site or you can subscribe in iTunes.

Finally, Rob J. Hyn­d­man from Monash Uni­ver­sity has created a helpful list of research blogs (in which he kindly included this blog). Not only did he create this list, he set it up so you can subscribe to all of these blogs as a bundle: one stop shopping for enhanced insight into many facets of the research process!

My links posts are a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Writing for a Presentation

Regular readers of this blog know that it has an unsurprising tendency to reflect my current teaching or research interests. So today, after my first week of teaching, you will have to bear with me while I reflect on writing for oral presentations. This post is about the aspect of writing that is currently most on my mind: the creation of a written text designed to be read aloud. Even if oral presentations aren’t your favourite thing to think about (and most people like presenting even less than they like writing), they are an area in which most of us can improve. In fact, oral presentations are a topic that most people choose not to think about too much. Instead, most people just try to survive them. And most of us know firsthand what it is like to sit through a presentation when the presenter has no higher ambition than to survive. The challenge of oral presentations is obvious: oral presentations are a complex blend of intellectual command, organizational skills, technological expertise, and performance ability. So there is a lot to be said, but today—since this is still a blog about academic writing—I will focus on the creation of a text written explicitly for a presentation.

I will begin with an important clarification. Writing a text that is designed to be read isn’t something that all of you will do. In many fields, the expectation will be a presentation that revolves around speaking and not reading. But those of you who do need to read a presentation have a uniquely difficult task. Faced with this task, some presenters seem to feel that reading is in fact all that is required. However, the experience of having a standard academic paper read to us is not one that most of us wish to repeat. There is, of course, a range in people’s listening abilities; some listeners can manage a degree of attention and comprehension that others—me, for instance—cannot. But as a presenter, it is probably best to target average listeners, rather than the superstars of academic listening. And the average listener has needs that reading alone can’t meet.

So once you’ve learned that a read presentation is standard in your field and acknowledged that simply reading a paper may fail to engage your audience, what to do? The key is to identify what is so valuable about the read presentation. A read paper allows for a complexity and density that might not be achieved without a written text. The benefit of reading is that you can offer deliberately structured prose of the sort that most of us can’t create on the fly. This is what you will be able to maintain in your written paper: sophisticated sentences that convey complex relationships among concepts. Beyond that, you need to think how your presentation text needs to be different. Here are three key areas for alteration: one, the degree of elaboration; two, the extent of structural explanation; and, three, the use of actual annotations of your presentation text.

In the first place, your complex sentences will need elaboration; what can be said once for a reader should be reiterated for a listener. Complex ideas will likely need to be unpacked further in the designed-to-be-read version. Ask yourself if a sentence in your writing might require a reader to read it more than once or even just pause to think about it. If so, you must work that repetition or time for reflection into your read version; strategic repetition is your friend here. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a lot of presentations during which I wished that the speaker had spent less time clarifying the key idea.

Second, you need to think of your paper as a one-way street for the listener. When readers read you, they have the luxury of flipping back to something, of reminding themselves of where they are within your argument. Listeners, on the other hand, are completely at your mercy. Once they lose the thread, their only way to regain it is through the structural signposts you have provided.

Third, the physical text that you read from needs to be distinctly different from a normal paper. The difference will come through the annotations that you make to direct your reading process. Some sentences need to be read in their entirety; some sentences can be a way to get you started with some room for improvisation at the end; some aspects of your paper should probably be left completely unwritten. I usually suggest that some proportion of the examples or anecdotes or elaborations be left open. I also suggest noting for yourself basic things like where you will pause, where you will look up, where you will put the emphasis. If you don’t need this degree of guidance, you will naturally disregard it, but many will find it helpful. For most of us, the appearance of spontaneity is much better than actual spontaneity.

One final note: a more dynamic read presentation requires careful attention to time management. When practicing ‘reading’ in this way, you have to make sure you know how long everything will take you during the actual presentation. It can be helpful to know whether it generally takes you longer to give a presentation than you anticipate or whether you are one of a smaller number of people who actually end up being quicker during the real thing. If you are in the former group, time yourself approximating the presentation as closely as possible, and then give yourself a few minutes leeway. If you are in the latter group, try slowing down!

This topic was well handled by ProfHacker last winter. Their blogger talks about creating a dedicated reading copy, a term which does a good job conveying how it must be different from the original version of the paper. If you have other questions about oral presentations, here are a few recent links that might prove helpful or might lead you to other helpful resources. Here is something from Dave Paradi’s blog about a technical issue: preparing to make a presentation on a computer that is not your own. Here is something from the Presentation Advisors blog on simple ways a presentation can go wrong. Here is something from The Guardian on deciding strategically how many conferences to attend. Finally, here is something from The Professor is In blog on making conferences work for you as a graduate student or junior academic.

Using Resources for Thesis Writing

As a graduate writing instructor, I think about thesis writing much of the time. And this week I am thinking about the topic even more than usual. I am starting a new thesis writing course this afternoon, and I am making a presentation at a conference on Friday on thesis writing as professional development. Since thesis writing is all that I’ll be thinking about anyway, I thought I would devote today’s post to the idea of using resources for thesis writing.

In my presentation on Friday, I am going to discuss how a thesis writing course can be a valuable form of professional development for graduate students. Simply put, writing instruction becomes professional development when it focuses on the writer rather than on a particular piece of writing. As long as thesis writers see their goal as merely surviving the ordeal of writing a thesis, they are not likely thinking about their long-term development as academic writers. My presentation will focus on two ways that thesis instruction can encourage this sort of professional development. First, a thesis course can present the notion of thesis as genre, an approach which opens students’ minds to a new dimension to their responsibilities as writers; not only are they trying to complete a particular research task, they are also trying to convey that research in a form that is meaningful and valuable to the research community they seek to join. Second, a thesis course can also discuss the resources necessary for a student to thrive during the thesis writing process. It is this second aspect that I wish to touch on here today.

When I speak about resources in the thesis course, I am doing so in order to make students aware that there are so many resources available and that they can significantly improve their own writing process by availing themselves of such resources. Too often, I encounter students whose ‘writing resource’ is their supervisor; in some cases, of course, this works well, but more often it leaves the student feeling under-supported. Thesis writers generally need to move from thinking of themselves as fully dependent on a supervisor to thinking of themselves as developing academic writers who can take advantage of a range of resources. The sort of resources I have in mind include books on thesis writing; completed theses, especially if they are linked by a shared supervisor or by similar topics, methodology, etc.; thesis writing groups; courses on thesis writing or on academic writing more generally; published work in the student’s own field; and blogs about the thesis writing process. 

Such resources are plentiful (and multiplying rapidly), so I’ll mention just one today. I particularly want to recommend The Thesis Whisperer. This site presents wide-ranging advice that is both accessible and wise. Broad topics include the writing process; working with a supervisor; the oral presentation component of thesis completion; using new technologies in the writing process; productivity and other psychological aspects of the writing process; publishing considerations; and general research support. Anyone writing a thesis will find some parts of this advice, with its warm and supportive tone, helpful and relevant. It is impossible, of course, for any source of support to be universally applicable; a necessary part of using a broad range of resources is developing the ability to distinguish between advice that is appropriate for your circumstance and advice that would be better suited for someone else (for instance, someone working in a different country or someone from a different discipline or someone with a different theoretical framework). That is, even the most general advice is inevitably rooted in a particular context, and we all must learn to ‘read’ advice and support in such a way that its value for us becomes apparent.

Taking advantage of an expanding range of resources is a way of improving the thesis writing process. Although we all know that we are not actually the first person ever to write a thesis, many of us instinctively approach our writing life as though we were. Figuring it out as we go along; hoping for the best; using trial and error to make key decision; treating a supervisor as the only source of support and feedback—all of these strategies tend to isolate us and keep us unnecessarily apart from the community of thesis writers. If you are writing a thesis, take stock of your current situation so that you can find the resources that will ultimately improve your life as a writer.