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Start your own dissertation group

Graduate students who participate in departmental dissertation groups or groups led by their dissertation advisor (which I will call "formal groups") can count themselves lucky. The vast majority of grad students, especially in the humanities and social sciences, are not members of a dissertation group.

The good news is:
  1. You can start your own dissertation group
  2. It might even be more useful than the formal groups mentioned above.
I've written about the difference between such formal groups and the coaching groups we run at Academic Ladder. There is another solution, however, for those of you who don't have access to a formal group and cannot afford to sign up for a coaching group with us.

Start your own group! The trick is to start thinking outside of the box.

Here are some features of the standard formal group, which I would suggest you consider changing, in order to meet the needs of your particular group:
  1. They meet monthly
  2. They meet in person.
  3. You submit a chapter to the members ahead of time.
  4. Depending on the size of the group, your turn to submit may only come around every few months or twice a year.
  5. One person presents their work at each meeting and it is critiqued by all present.
Here are some alternatives and creative additions to this standard format:
  1. Meet weekly or every other week.
  2. Meet on the phone (there are free bridge lines available.)
  3. Start a private listserv for your group to communicate whenever they want (private listservs can be set up through Yahoo Groups.
  4. Submit smaller and less polished pieces of work.
  5. Ask for help on specific areas where you are stuck (e.g. presenting your argument, how much or which evidence to use, organization of a section.)
  6. Play around with various "assignments" that you all agree on (e.g. submitting a "statement of purpose" for your current section or chapter, or submitting a work plan for the next month).
  7. Commit to specific goals that you will achieve and report on in the next meeting.
  8. Keep a group score card with a space for each person to check off whether they achieved their goal.
A client of mine recently started her own group, and it is working wonderfully for all the members. She wrote to me:
I'm so proud of our group. I think the format is great--a small group, meeting every other week with some form of writing. We are getting very attuned to each other's projects--having the dissertation abstract as the first writing piece has been marvelous, b/c it gives me a roadmap for the subsequent writing pieces that each of us produced.
Another client arranged a group by writing to her departmental listserv, and then forming a smaller group online with those who responded. She has since successfully defended her dissertation, and credits the group (and me!) with a lot of her success in finishing.

If you can't find enough people in your own discipline, consider looking outside your field. People in foreign languages, comparative literature, and English, for example, can help each other with the writing process.

Be creative and try out different options. Academia can get so sticky and possessive of its methods, which are sometimes too formal and old-fashioned. Think about what your needs are, and start your dissertation group based on that starting point. And please let me know how it goes!


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