Thursday, March 24, 2016

To Choose or Not to Choose … A Director, That Is!

This is the first of a two-part series on thesis and dissertation director styles and different models of working together. We hope to help those beginning their thesis or dissertation can choose their best director for the long haul. In this post, I will use the terms directoradvisor, and supervisor interchangeably; in the second post, I will offer my thoughts on some possible differences in those terms’ meanings.

Lack of Direction in Choosing a Director

I don't know about you, but I never thought about a director's "style" when I began my dissertation. Some time into my project, I joined the MOOC "How to Survive Your PhD," which covered the topic. Since then, I've noticed that publications discuss director styles only briefly, if at all. In The Portable Dissertation Advisor, Miles T. Bryant talks about the importance of one’s thesis or dissertation advisor, saying that the “advisor is a key factor” in a student’s overall program (4). Then he quickly moves to topic selection and components of the study.

And I recall having a hard time choosing my dissertation director. In my department, I felt comfortable with any faculty member within or near my field of study. I held great respect for all the professors who could have directed my study. I finally chose my director based on our coinciding interests as well as her expertise in such matters, which is actually quite logical! Plus, I wrote the term paper that led to my dissertation topic in her class, so I felt she had a stake in the project. I learned along the way, however, that I got lucky in terms of my director’s style, and our compatible working styles, considering some of the unpleasant stories I've heard from students all over.

So How Should You Choose a Director?

I've found that writers on this topic mostly agree: students typically choose an advisor based on departmental hearsay. I'm wondering if this is a good method, as my experience differed from some of the stories I'd heard "around."

However, R. Murray Thomas and Dale L. Brubaker, authors of Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing, state that departmental buzz is a good method of determining how a director will direct, and they list “fellow graduate students who are farther along than you are” as one of the “best sources of information about advising styles,” which includes professors “who are willing to talk about their colleagues’ modes of guidance” as the second best source (11).

Okay: maybe getting other peoples’ input on your prospective directors is the place to start, but I still wish to give you ideas on how to assess a director’s style with a bit more precision.

What to Ask Regarding Different Styles

Thomas and Brubaker say that “at one end of a monitoring scale” there are advisors who “closely control each phase of the student’s effort”; while at the other “end of the scale,” some directors may simply “tell students to work things out [… even] to finish a complete draft of the project before handing it in for inspection” (10).

Wow, that's quite a range! I’ll bet that most advisors fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but I would definitely recommend asking your director how often and at which stage/s he or she will want to monitor your writing.

Thomas and Brubaker also point out that directors “vary in how available they are when students need them” (10), and that professors “differ in the way they offer advice and criticism” (11).

Again, these are good topics to ask prospective advisors about, though I'd guess that some professors may not agree exactly with the general opinion as to how they assess student work :)

A Link to One Supervisor's Thoughts on Best Style

And what are directors' thoughts on this issue? We should probably ask ours, but I've got one source handy. Dr. Inger Mewburn is the author of The Thesis Whisperer blog and has worked with thesis and dissertation writers for over ten years. In one of her posts called “Supervisor or Superhero,” Mewburn addresses the expectations and concerns of advisors or, to use her term, "supervisors," on this matter.

In this post, Mewburn first mildly chastises supervisors who stop learning about their role; she feels it is their duty to always improve in that capacity as in any other. Next she includes an expert’s checklist of the things that supervisors should do and know. Here, Mewburn becomes reflexive, wondering whether she herself needs more training or if those particular demands are just too great for one person. Finally, she borrows a student’s comparison of a supervisor to Rupert Giles from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer series, saying that Giles models the best director style. Read Mewburn's post to get her take on the topic.

What Can Directors Do to Help?

The Oxford Learning Institute insists that directors explore “with students their expectations of supervisory style, so that any differences in styles do not lead to miscommunication.” 

The Oxford Learning Institute further refers to a study of four main supervisory styles, which are detailed on the Australian National University website and plotted on a quadrant by coordinates of how much support and how much structure a director offers the writer (e.g., high support with low structure vs. high support with high structure, etc.). Click the ANU link if you want to learn more.

The ANU writers also believe that mentoring characteristics, such as long-term interest, enthusiasm, and sensitivity to a student’s personal and professional needs, are even more valuable than any supervisory traits are for most students. 

The Take-Away, "Writer" (?) Beware

If your prospective director doesn't bring up any of the above issues, you should. Do your research, ask questions, and try to select a director that matches your needs and style. I’m glad my director is supportive, helpful, and understanding; however, you might want an advisor with a different style. I believe that with some knowledge and probing, any “pairing” should work--at least, it should work better--when we students know a little bit more about what to expect.

Please share your ideas or stories of your experience if you'd like (no professor names, please!).

Friday, March 11, 2016

A Quick Note on Re-Writes

What is the most frustrating part of writing my dissertation? All of the revisions.

For example: I just turned in the latest draft of chapter four of my dissertation. It was the fourth rewrite of the chapter. Do not get me wrong - with every tweak, alteration, subtle adjustment of my language, argument, organization, etc. I know the quality of my monograph improves.

Here's the problem: my eyes have begun to glaze over with all of the re-writing that I have been doing. I have devoted more time -- or at least, it feels like I have -- to re-writing and re-organizing my dissertation than actually researching and writing the original draft. I made so many changes to one of my chapters that I completely forgot my thesis for the entire dissertation. I started to wonder: Did my thinking change about the topic? Or did comments from my committee steer me in a completely different direction? (It was both)

I started doubting myself. I fell under the spell of the impostor syndrome (see blog entry from March 9, 2015). Based on all of the comments that I was receiving, I started to question whether or not I was a qualified academic. Where was all of this marginalia on essays I wrote for my graduate level courses? I always thought that I was a halfway decent writer. Was I delusional to think this? Why was I having so much trouble writing my dissertation? It got so bad that I even started to consider dropping out of the program. Why had the department not offered an one hour seminar on the theory behind organizing and writing a dissertation?

All writing is rewriting. I know this. I am in English Lit. I teach composition. Every semester I tell my students this basic fact about writing. Still . . .

When I first wrote my prospectus, I was tasked with designing a calendar of due dates for the rough draft of each chapter. In addition to this, it was recommended that I incorporate potential due dates for revisions. I was told to figure four to six weeks to write each original draft, and then plan two weeks for each revised draft. Needless to say, this calendar was thrown out. My experience for the past couple of years has been to write a chapter, and then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite that chapter. I do not move to the next part of my monograph until after having composed a "finished" draft of a chapter -- this alteration in my writing and revising schedule became necessary as each chapter builds on the argument of the preceding chapter. Still, all of the revisions are driving me insane. Even now, with one chapter remaining, I am writing and rewriting, and I have deadlines looming over me that I am scared that I will not meet because I expect to hear my director say, "You need to do another daft." It is as if this phrase has become obligatory every time we meet. What's more is that even though a draft has been deemed "final" by my director, I still have to submit the work to the other members of my committee who may or may not -- let's be honest, they will -- have comments about how the work can be upgraded. Oh joy . . . another round of rewrites.

Just last night I was sitting in Founder's in the dissertation room on the fourth floor taking part in Write Place, Write Now -- the office's writing group for NIU graduate students working on their thesis or dissertation. For two and a half hours I worked on yet another rewrite of an earlier chapter, previously deemed "finished." At some point, I realized that my prose was getting stronger, my thinking about my topic was clearer, and I came across a random sentence that I completely forgot about, yet as it turns out the phrase supports a vital claim that I make in a later chapter.

Here's the thing: I never would have realized this had I not been compelled to perform all of these revisions. For a few minutes, I thought myself rather smart. I've since made a note to myself to highlight this point in my work, thus prompting . . . another round of rewrites.