Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Director, Advisor, Partner? Find Your Type of Committee Head

This is the second post of a two-part series on choosing a thesis or dissertation director. The first post was called “To Choose or Not to Choose … A Director, That Is!” published on March 24, 2016. Today's post focuses on models of working arrangements with advisors.

Sonja K. Foss and William Waters note that such working arrangements often wind up being one of the main disputes between a student and his or her advisor. (For more information on what Foss and Waters call the “three common misalignments” between advisors and students, see  Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation, starting on page 298.)

In fact, I recently talked with a student who encountered some problems working with her committee head. This director instructed this student to conduct her research on an entirely different subject group than the group she had proposed to study, and the student had to change her project as a result.

While the student above was satisfied at the conclusion of her dissertation, she was upset that she couldn't pursue the exact study-avenue she had wanted to. So we hope to reach those early in the thesis/dissertation process. Perhaps in knowing the different working arrangements that are possible, you can ask more relevant questions at the outset of setting up your committee.

Advising Models

Foss and Waters define an advising model as “the basic approach to mentoring that the two of you will use to do the work of the dissertation,” and they describe three working models: “replication, apprenticeship, and cocreation” (299). 

The Replication Model

In Foss and Waters' “Replication Model,” a director “supplies the basic plan for your dissertation" (300). This model might even lead to the student’s researching of a question of interest to the director as opposed to one of the student's own interests. With this arrangement, the student should “listen to the instructions of [his] advisor” and try to “perform as close to [the advisor’s] ideal” as possible, say Foss and Waters (300).

  • I’ll call this committee head a “director,” then, based on the connotative control inherent in that term.

The Apprenticeship Model

In the “Apprenticeship Model,” according to Foss and Waters, “you have some freedom in how to accomplish the tasks involved in the dissertation, but [these tasks] are assigned and directed by your advisor” (300). Foss and Waters say that with this arrangement, a student’s “primary job is to perform an insightful and credible interpretation” of the study while the advisor “monitors [the] work” (300). This plan calls for the student to attempt to complete “the processes [one’s director] recommends, listening to her critiques and … negotiating places where [one’s] own vision … can come through” (301).

  • I’ll call this committee head an “advisor” based on Foss and Waters’ description that this person also gives “mini-lectures on best practices “as well as her recommendations” as to “how far you can deviate from the boundaries she has established” (300 – 301).

The Cocreation Model

Finally, Foss and Waters describe the “Cocreation Model” of direction, where both student and advisor “contribute in substantial ways to the plan for [the] dissertation”; the advisor and student work together to synthesize ideas, but the student “drive[s] the research agenda” (301). Foss and Waters say that in this model, “communication is reciprocal” and that an advisor may “deliberately hold back” on offering advice (301) in order to urge the student towards taking on more responsibility.

  • I’ll dub this committee head a “partner,” being a literal interpretation of the model described.
My Experience

Obviously many committee chairs will employ working models that fall somewhere in the middle of these "types." If I had to choose the model of the working relationship I have with my advisor, I'd call it an “apprenticeship,” though it may approach a partnership in some respects. My advisor has always given me direction on my proposed study, she has sent me relevant articles, and she did once become concerned that I was deviating too much from the original plan (after I had changed my focus a bit). Here, she indeed indicated to me how far I could deviate from my proposal, but overall, she has allowed me to take my research where it needs to go.

From what I've heard from others, the "apprenticeship" is probably the most common working arrangement between student and committee head. However, the director mentioned at the start of this post obviously followed something like the “Replication Model.” 

Which model does your committee head follow? We'd love to hear from you about your experiences, especially if you have advice that could help others (without mentioning professor names). Please comment or post to our Facebook group!

Friday, April 8, 2016

Interesting Reading

It's been awhile since I've put up a post on recent-ish articles having to do with graduate school, graduate students, or having to write your thesis or dissertation.  I recently came across a couple of pieces that I found to be good reads, so I decided to share them with you.

"The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation" by Theresa MacPhail

MacPhail tells us that the secret to writing and finishing your dissertation is -- get this -- to sit down and write. She offers essentially the same advice that I wrote about in an earlier post on writing groups:

"Sit your butt down in a chair, preferably in a quiet and distraction-free room. Disable your internet and turn your phone on silent. Come into your writing space having already done the research you need for that day's writing task. You will not be researching or looking anything up during your writing time (researching and editing are discrete tasks, believe it or not, and should be done in separate blocks)."

She recommends writing every day, five days a week, 50 minutes a day. Don't write in ten minute chunks. Such a strategy does not accommodate deep thinking when writing.

Her style is conversational, making it a quick and easy read. I like a lot of what she has to tell her audience, such as: "[T]he dissertation is best thought of as the lousy first draft of an eventual book. No one but you expects your dissertation to be perfect." My director, my boss, and my committee have all told me this exact same thing. For some reason, it sinks in when I read it in MacPhail's piece.

"Your Dissertation Begins in Your First Seminar" by Rebecca Schuman

Schuman tells us that writing a dissertation is no different than writing the all-too-familiar 20-page essay for one of your seminar courses. She outlines strategies -- researching, writing, revising -- graduate students should be using to write an essay for a seminar class, as opposed to throwing something together a couple of days before the paper is due. I don't know anyone who would -- wait a second . . . oh yeah. I may have committed this egregious sin. It is actually good advice, and it reminded me that a couple of my peers in the English department expanded some of their own seminar papers into master's theses and dissertations.

Schuman's essay is a quick read, reeks of common sense, and I like her approach to the topic -- i.e. the dissertation is not some holier than thou document; it's just a longform version of a seminar paper. It made me wish I had read this back when I first started out in the graduate program.

"Master's Degree Programs Specialize to Keep Their Sheen" by Jennifer Howard

Howard's article focuses on graduate schools and how "master’s-level programs have had to adapt to keep up with students who seek an educational experience customized to their particular goals, and who put a premium on skills and experience that prospective employers will find valuable." 

According to the Department of Education, 751,000 master's degrees were awarded during the 2012/2013 academic year. Approximately half of these degrees were in health and education. While students continue to pursue higher degrees in fields like Math, computer science, and engineering, fewer students are pursuing master's degrees in subjects like education. There are a number of reasons for this drop in enrollment.

What Howard notes is that this generation of graduate students desire more specialized degrees that will be appealing to potential employers and to be taught a diverse skill set that will enable them to have an impact on the community. This is being attributed to an "activist air" among grad students. Because they want more from their higher education, graduate school programs are readjusting in order to be more appealing to future students.  
It is a fascinating read.

One last thing:

I want to remind everyone that the next session of Write Place, Write Time is coming up -- Thursday, April 14, 2016. Once again we will be meeting at 6pm in Founder's Library. Be there or be a dodecahedron. If you are still a bit confused about the group, you can read up on it by clicking here.

As always, please feel free to share your comments, concerns, random thoughts, hopes for the future, jokes of the day, etc. on our Facebook group page, or feel free to post in the comments box below.