How to get students through their PhD thesis

Tara Brabazon shares her 10-step regime for steering emotionally drained postgraduate students through the final stages of their thesis

September 22, 2010

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a university in possession of a poor doctoral completion rate must hire another administrator to improve it.

 Like Jane Austen’s opening sentence to Pride and Prejudice, my remix is not only wrong but wish-fulfilment. Administrators can destroy a PhD candidature as quickly as gold diggers bankrupt a husband.

Motivated students and experienced supervisors build a successful doctorate. Any obstruction that separates students and supervisors slows academic progress. This is not a radical statement. It is obvious. If students attend meetings with administrators rather than academic specialists, or submit forms about their progress rather than progressing their scholarship, then their time is reduced for research.

It is remarkable how often ailing departments, faculties and universities add layers of administration to a failing system. They rarely realise that duplicating forms and meetings caused the poor completion rate in the first place. It is like trying to cure alcoholism with a shot of whisky. The alcoholic may feel better but it is not addressing the core issue. Less is more. Well targeted, tested and respectful administration is helpful. Sloppy, untested and careless processes destroy a research programme.

This is particularly the case in the last six months of a candidature. It is important to be honest about this last stage; it is a bloody nightmare. The students are stressed and confused, cannot see the introduction for the conclusion, or theories for methods. Students enter a supervisor’s office accompanied by the chanting soundtrack of “I know I am going to fail and my life will be over.” Two hours, five tissues and a yogic breathing session later they return to their computer screen, only to reappear mid-afternoon when the process is repeated, often accompanied by hiccupped tears. “I…ich…know…ich…I am going to…ich…fail and my life will be…ich ich ich…over.” Crying. Breathing. Return to the computer.

Students are right to be upset. The last six months are exhausting, infuriating and filled with doubts and fears. Confusion and hard work are masked by the phrase,“writing up”. If students are writing their thesis at this point, it is too late. Instead, students and supervisors should be pinching every available hour to hone the argument, shine the prose and check the references. The best doctoral administrators recognise the burden on the supervisory team and do not create additional obstructions at this sensitive time.

I know from personal experience the importance of quiet and careful doctoral administration. I completed my doctorate while in full-time employment and resident in a country different from the university in which I was enrolled. My supervisor had not read one word of the draft. Before he could, he transferred to another post. Three examiners – spread across three countries – had yet to be contacted for a completed and bound doctorate that was sitting on the counter of a graduate centre.

Two great doctoral administrators – Karen Olkowski and Anne Randell – carried me through the process with no waves or traumas. They didn’t invent forms or processes to make a bad situation worse. Instead of adding to my worries, they accepted five copies of the thesis via post from New Zealand, logged the challenges with a pro vice-chancellor for later review, determined a process that would fulfil the regulations and meet international standards, and began the examination. They contacted, confirmed and sent the thesis to three professors. The doctorate passed without correction.

Karen and Anne were calm. They were professional. They cared for the student, examiners and university. They achieved a completion.

Other universities reveal some shocking examples to balance their brilliance. To cite an email received by my friend’s postgraduate during the “writing up” stage: “If you do not attend a meeting on 15 July, then your enrolment will be suspended.” This was sent to a student six weeks from submission when their every moment was focused on editing and sharpening the thesis. Yet at this crucial time, the postgraduate was forced to meet administrators to justify the continuance of her candidature.

Why would a university trying to improve its completion rate write to a postgraduate with a completed draft to state that they were about to suspend the enrolment? It is counterproductive. Thorstein Veblen, the American sociologist and economist, termed this type of behaviour “scholastic accountancy”, arguing that it “lowers the value of the instruction for the purposes of intellectual initiative and a reasoned grasp of the subject matter”.

I understand why scholarly accountancy exists. But there are other strategies – involving supervision rather than administration – that improve the final push to submission. I have developed an (arbitrary) structure to scaffold students, but it has succeeded. It was developed after one of those heart-stopping supervisions many of us conduct in our early years where the student scrambled through the examination process. Lessons were learned.

The case that changed my supervisory practice more than a decade ago involved a young woman who had attained first-class honours, delivered outstanding conference presentations, produced refereed articles through the candidature and was just about finished. The “just about” matters in this story. In the final six months, all that was left to complete was the introduction. Five thousand words to go. She had completed 95,000 words. I was confident she would sail through this stage…but I was wrong.

She froze. The fear of submitting the doctorate unleashed a wave of incapacitating confusion. She would come into my office and cry. I would stop her crying. I would mention the introduction. She would cry again. I would make her a cup of coffee. I would suggest due dates. The tears would return.

It took three years and five months to complete a doctorate that should have been finished within the planned three years. More troubling was the fact that the introduction was not of quality. The rest of the research was gleaming and magnificent, but the introduction – the first text examiners read – was stodgy and stilted. The scars of her emotional state marked the pages. She passed, but only just.

After “managing” this candidature – my fifth completion – I started to develop a strategy to give students an intellectual ladder to steady them during the final months. It compartmentalised emotion and focused on the tasks to be completed rather than how they felt about submitting. The system worked and has continued to function. It does not mean all students finish in three years. Instead, it ensures that when students have a first draft there is a method to move to completion.

Much of a candidature is administered on the basis of time management, punctuated by annual reports and progression reviews. When moving in to the final stage, I switch from time to task orientation. It freshens the student’s relationship with their words. To quote one of my soon-to-finish postgraduates, “I can see the light again. I thought I was in the wrong tunnel.”

My strategy is that at the point when the first draft is completed the supervisor and student begin 10 editing cycles. I call them draft dialogues. When these are completed, the thesis is submitted. This keeps the supervisor and student aware of their responsibilities. It also helps supervisors with multiple doctoral students to track progress. For example, one of my postgraduates has just finished the 10 drafts and submitted. One is on draft three. Another is at draft nine.

While the completion template varies between students, each draft focuses on improving a different attribute of the thesis. The choice of 10 was arbitrary. The key is to create achievable targets, rather than suffer the enormity of an entire doctoral submission and the life changes it signifies. These are the 10 stages:

Draft one - Evaluate the structure.

Draft two - Assess the thesis statement. Is the argument consistent and signposted throughout the document?

Draft three - Examine the abstract, introduction and conclusion. Do they frame the argument?

Draft four - Go through the references and bibliography. Most examiners start reading at the back of the document. What are their first impressions? Are there wider problems? Are the sources dated? Are some sources overused?

Draft five - Determine the weakest area of the thesis – a poor chapter, inattention to a concept or theory, awkward transitions or dated references. Lift the quality of this area.

Draft six - Highlight the original contribution to knowledge throughout the doctorate.

Draft seven - Attention to spelling and grammar.

Draft eight - Focus on paragraphing.

Draft nine - Monitor the engagement with quotations. Ensure that there is fluid movement between ideas.

Draft 10 - Read every sentence underlined with a ruler. Every inaccuracy that is corrected at this stage gives the thesis a better chance of passing.

Depending on the student and thesis, this editing is conducted either with paper drafts or via the tracking function in Microsoft Word. Alternating between paper and electronic drafts locates different errors. But at least one of the 10 drafts is paper-based to see how the argument appears in its final form.

Universities – rightly – are judged by the calibre of their PhD programme. Administrators can destroy the specialness of graduate education if they assume it is managed in the same way as undergraduate degrees.

I know how exceptional postgraduate administrators can be. When walking up to the Graduate Centre at Murdoch University to wish Karen and Anne a good Christmas break each year, the office would be filled with flowers, cards and chocolates from grateful students. These special women realised their role was not to discipline, attack, block or ridicule, but support, care and nurture. University systems, regulations and forms are important. However, it is necessary to remember that PhD programmes are created for PhD students so that they can be assessed beyond the often arbitrary rules of a single institution.

Every doctoral candidate has a few days in three years during which one thoughtless, ill-judged email or telephone call could trigger a withdrawal from their degree. Our role as supervisors is to keep them thinking and writing. They may not have a successful academic career. They may not pass. But they deserve a stable structure of support and a chance to be extraordinary. They are, after all, more than a completion statistic in scholarly accountancy.

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