Demystifying Scholarly, Academic Writing
Mentoring Dissertation Writing
The decision to pursue a terminal degree, whether it is a PhD or an EdD should be a thoughtful, strategic decision wherein an individual makes a conscious decision to pursue a degree around the thoughts, ideas, and perceptions of advancement, gaining skill sets, and widening access to opportunity. For many students who decide to earn a terminal degree, significant decisions are made about continuing employment or new employment opportunities, relocation, and often, rearranging lives to accommodate the choice to engage in advanced graduate study. Learning to write academic discourse is an expectation. However, writing is an area that understandably causes consternation among advanced level graduate students. In this piece we offer suggestions about how we each mentor our doctoral students regarding writing and what has emerged as successful practice for us as colleagues in different programs but within the same unit.
In fact, we were so interested in how better to mentor doctoral students that we consciously sought common ground despite our dissimilar research interests, our divergent fields, and distinct preferences for research designs. As we advise and direct graduate students, we have varying degrees of expertise, and we possess distinct skill sets as they pertain to conducting research, writing up research, and writing productivity. As scholars, we understand what success in academia demands, but we also recognized that we needed to be much more explicit in order to clarify writing and productivity and to make each more accessible by demystifying the processes of productivity and publishing.
Both of us experienced excellent preparation and mentorship – for writing up a PhD study. We learned from amazing scholars at two prestigious universities in the United States (US) – one, a Research I institutions (University of Iowa) and one, a well-known urban, regional Louisiana institution (University of New Orleans). We both attest to outstanding professors and remarkable major professors. They counseled us well, advised us, they held us accountable for our emerging scholarship, and they provided us support and feedback. Our advisors asked us early on in our academic pursuit of a dissertation why we were pursing such a degree and what we intended to do with our degree. Both of us earned a PhD in order to gain employment as an educational professor. The goal of this piece is to provide advice on how to increase writing productivity for PD students who seek the professorate. Specifically, we address how to:
1) craft a coherent plan of study, 2) consider a research trajectory, 3) generate ideas for writing, 4) develop writing discipline, focus, and wise use of time, 5) create a sacred space for writing, 6) set goals, and 7) revise and edit. These seven foci have been successful in terms of how we support and advise or our doctoral candidates when it comes to writing.
Creating a coherent program of study means graduate students craft a plan to enroll in classes that expand frames of reference and develop and sharpen research skills. Know your degree hours, requirements, specifications, and options for electives. We advise graduate students working with us to consider a dissertation topic early in their coursework. In that way, every independent opportunity that arises in coursework such as investigating an issue, creating a balanced argument, conducting a literature review, and creating a pilot study results in some form of written product that can be “mined” later and used in a dissertation study. A coherent plan of study should have a central core of courses that are related, add to an expanding knowledge base, and contain research courses (we often refer to them as tools) that result in doctoral candidates having a solid base of research coursework that allows them to be competent consumers of research, versus a loose collection of disconnected coursework.
As an example, every doctoral student in the School of Education is required to enroll in ELRC 7299 – Introduction to Scholarship, which is offered every fall semester on Monday evenings. In this course, students engage in a variety of topic exploration exercises such as interacting with faculty guest scholars. Often, faculty guest scholars share their PhD journeys and research interests as well as impending special topics courses which can spark an interest in a course that may expand students’ base of knowledge and expand horizons – building knowledge that can also lead to idea generation for dissertation topics. Most, but not all programs, include electives. As well, in ELRC 7299, students also complete a final issues paper, for some students, this initial issues paper has resulted in a solid foundation for chapter 1 of their dissertation, the chapter wherein students explain their topic, their connection to the topic, and describe a “burning” issue.
We want to stress exploring a potential topic early in a dissertation program to both maximize coursework and allow student to explore a topic in-depth during coursework to discover a possible niche. Again, written products associated with coursework can potentially contribute to an eventual dissertation study. We counsel students who study with us to find a niche, to develop a research agenda, and to publish. However, having a foundation provided by logical, coherent coursework and a solid plan of study, leads to eventual writing productivity.
In tandem with a solid program of study, we also encourage students who study with us to consciously create a research trajectory. A research trajectory merges a student’s interests and passions with current issues within distinctive academic fields and can serve to eventually launch a career in academia. This concept involves developing a clear research identity as a scholar. Creating a research trajectory usually involves adopting a theoretical stance or donning a theoretical framework from which research originates. In the School of Education, a second required course for all doctoral students is EDCI 7910 – Traditions of inquiry, which is offered every spring semester on Monday evenings. In this course, students have an opportunity to engage in rigorous readings and responses to those readings that can result the development of a theoretical stance. Reading and responding to literature is a useful exercise for doctoral students, and can supply potential writing that again, may be used in part, in a dissertation study. Exploring theoretical stance allows a novice scholar to also consider both a research trajectory and an eventual research agenda.
A research trajectory can also be thought of as a kind of diagram of what research you intend to accomplish and the potential products of that research – publications. Characteristically, a research trajectory contains specific research questions or problems or lines of inquiry a scholar intends to pursue and usually involves methods of inquiry and research designs. Finally, a research trajectory typically includes both researchers you intend to follow as well as a possible dissemination plan for publication of future research, including ways that you will cull publications from your eventual dissertation. A research trajectory leads to a research agenda, which is a formalized plan of research that summarizes explicit action for a scholar and helps a scholar to prioritize projects, publications, and possibly, publications venues in a formalized and articulated manner. We encourage students studying with us to begin to think about their research trajectory early in their doctoral journey. Most late-stage doctoral students we advise have begun to formalize their research agenda, and that begins with thinking about issues within a field, exploring those issues, and crafting a plan to research those issues. This kind of strategic thinking and planning involves copious amounts of writing. That said (written), we want to delve into specific writing strategies and skill sets that can be acquired, honed, and result in a scholar’s productivity.
For many graduate students, novice scholars and emerging researchers, getting started with research, writing, and eventual publishing feels overwhelming. An individual’s interests and passion can be used as a mechanism for generating ideas that can come to fruition as published pieces. We often joke about research and manuscripts as being comparable to our relationships. How are they comparable, readers might ask? In a relationship, if there is a sense of truly liking someone, it is much easier to dodge and sidestep the drawbacks, challenges, and complications of what may be encountered in the life of a relationship.
The same concept applies to researching and writing. We use a simple exercise to help students to focus interests in a manner that may be overall useful and advantageous to the whole process. The premise is the same as the relationship example provided; if you have a sincere interest in an issue, you are more likely to persevere when the work becomes hard or problematic. In particular, selecting a dissertation topic feels intimidating to many students. Some feel torn between investigating what they are interested in and passionate about and with trying to find a niche.
We have discovered that a niche or specialty area often develops with practice and over time. For example, Cyndi, began her professional life as an early childhood special education teacher, while on a temporary teaching certificate and pursuing alternative teacher certification. She became very interested in intervention research as a means to providing support for young children and their families and embraced these problem-solving strategies as she continued in the profession (she is also Director of the LSU Early Childhood Education Institute).
As another example, Margaret-Mary began her professional career as a high school English teacher where she taught writing and literature, then she was employed as a Title 1 literacy specialist, working with elementary-aged children who struggled with literacy acquisition. Her first collegiate job was at a regional institution in Mississippi where she focused on literacy and access issues, followed by four years as an assistant superintendent in neighboring East Baton Rouge Parish schools. Her leadership experience served her well as she transitioned back into higher education at LSU where she now investigates literacy leadership, access issues – to literature, the arts, and writing (she is also Director of the LSU Writing Project), and teacher and teacher leader development.
Both of us further developed our interests over time. And we expended a lot of time and effort on exploring our interests through research and writing.
The steps or stages of the writing process call for pre-writing as a first step. Pre-writing is some kind of activity that calls for writers to think about potential topics. Pre-writing can take many forms including brainstorming, discussing a topic, using a graphic organizer such as a radial web, creating a graphic of your ideas, or creating a jot list of possible topics. Based on the pre-writing strategy of a jot list, we suggest a simple exercise to encourage readers to consider what interests them and then, explore and flesh out connections between interest and ideas for potential studies and subsequent publications based on research. The two-part progression honors interest and allows for choice, with choice being a prime motivator when writing. If you are seeking a dissertation topic, use the following activity (below purple box labeled Research Exercise Activity) to capture your interest in a straightforward and uncomplicated manner.
We maintain that research should address persistent issues. Research should also involve a sustainable interest and needs to be grounded in the literature from related fields. We return to the relationship analogy discussed earlier. If earning a PhD and securing a job in academia, and being successful in writing productivity was easy, more individuals would pursue these paths.
Scholarly, academic writing is demanding work. It requires disciple, focus, and wise use of time. Without discipline and the budgeting of time, focus can be hard to maintain. Choice, personal interest, and passion can be prime motivators when writing.
From Sulentic Dowell, DiCarlo, Saal, and Willingham, 2022
One way each of us has maintained productivity is by setting a writing schedule and adhering to it. Margaret-Mary has maintained an early morning, daily writing schedule for 25 years. Born out of necessity, this has worked well for her. Initially, she carved out writing time by getting up early while pursing her doctorate. As a full-time teacher and mother to two pre-teens, early mornings were available and allowed her spend at least an hour each morning on her dissertation work. Typically, that yielded 5-7 hours each week of writing time. She has continued to favor an early morning block of time and throughout her career at LSU, has adhered to this time except when teaching and other obligations preclude her from following her schedule. During the COVID lockdown, she wrote every morning from approximately 6:00 AM to noon, completing several studies, budgeting time for doctoral students, learning how to teach via ZOOM, and she completed a book about academic writing with Cyndi and two colleagues (Sulentic Dowell, M-M, DiCarlo, C., Saal, L.K., and Willingham, T., 2022).
As a practitioner and action researcher, Cyndi worked directly with young children with disabilities in home, center, and community-based child care environments for 10 years prior to joining academia full time. As a practitioner, she would seek out and ascertain the best course of action to maximize student learning while she worked with teachers on delivering meaningful instruction to help children reach developmental milestones. Her current research and writing emanate from her work as a practitioner, extending this work along with her desire to assist other practitioners in their efforts to work successfully with young children and make a difference in their lives. Cyndi’s writing style may not appear organized, but it is very conscious, deliberate, and strategic; she believes that to be effective at what you do, you have to know yourself, including your strengths and needs, very well. And she continually shares this philosophy with her doctoral students working with her. Cyndi recognizes that she also works best in the morning and in long spurts. She often works on several projects simultaneously and always with a variety of different writing partners, who are most often action researchers. She finds the collaborative process energizing; collaboration keeps the process motivating for her.
Both of us lead full lives, have significant professional obligations, and we write regularly. We encourage doctoral students to engage in a simple two-three week logging activity, asking them to log when they write during that timeframe. In doing so, students typically discover when they are productive and can create a dedicated writing schedule. We suggest doctoral students try this, blocking out non-negotiables such as car pool, family needs, work obligations and such. Silvia (2018) suggests a similar activity as a means for discovering when you have time and when peak productivity occurs, using an excel file. The following chart can be used to log writing and can be examined to determine optimal writing.
Simply put, you must schedule time to write! We recommend that you initially schedule at least 4-5 hours into your work week to write. Protect that time as a standing commitment. If you wait for time to materialize, it will never come. Dedicated writing time can be used for any writing task including:
- Setting goals/planning
- Reading published research and journal articles
- Outlining sections of a dissertation or paper you intend to write
- Revising and editing
- Reviewing manuscripts and/or grants as a peer reviewer
Week log: (Month, date range, year)
|Sunday, month date, year||Time from _____ to _____||Activity accomplished|
|Monday, month date, year||Time from _____ to _____||Activity accomplished|
|Tuesday, month date, year||Time from _____ to _____||Activity accomplished|
|Wednesday, month date, year||Time from _____ to _____||Activity accomplished|
|Thursday, month date, year||Time from _____ to _____||Activity accomplished|
|Friday, month date, year||Time from _____ to _____||Activity accomplished|
|Friday, month date, year||Time from _____ to _____||Activity accomplished|
|Saturday, month date, year||Time from _____ to _____||Activity accomplished|
From Sulentic Dowell, DiCarlo, Saal, and Willingham, 2022
Having a space where you can write and access needed materials is important. It could be a stationary desk in a nook in a room, or if you are lucky, a dedicated room in your home. Here we provide two kinds of home office, one which is reclaimed space in a corner of a room, located between a window and a chaise. The space was created and while small, the desk area is full of needed writing tools such as sticky notes, highlighters, and pens. The second photo is an office.
Likely, not all who read this have the luxury of a dedicated space. Many of you may have created a temporary space, like a kitchen tale that is not used between meals, the third photo.
Some who read this may have a favorite table in a coffee shop or an outdoor space such as a balcony or porch. It doesn’t really matter; the idea is that you dedicate both the time needed to produce writing and that you locate a scared space that allows you to produce writing.
Setting goals that are realistic allows a writer to become productive. Sometime we witness new doctoral students who set goals but they are huge and unwieldy. Consider breaking goals into small, attainable chunks. We counsel doctoral candidates to outline every section of a paper, every paper, and each dissertation chapter they write as a way to break tasks into smaller attempts. Outlining sections of a dissertation or paper you intend to write makes those smaller parts more manageable, allows a writer to think about logical progressions as well as content, and smaller parts can be accomplished more easily and seems less overwhelming. While it may feel monumental, once you complete a solid draft (step or stage two of the writing process), writers need to budget time to carefully read, revise and edit what has been written.
Revising and editing take time. If one follows the time-honored steps or stages of the writing process, these are essential steps that follow pre-writing and drafting. Giving yourself time to revise a piece means that you read for flow and cohesion, and a writer carefully considers their ideas, organization, and word choice. Editing is typically described as one of the final stages or steps of the writing process that writers experience when they read a piece for conventions or mechanics. This includes grammar, spelling, and in the case of a dissertation, format. We can state emphatically, that doctoral students need to include revising and editing as a regular part of their writing schedules.
These strategies serve a purpose, and that is to help you establish or reestablish a writing routine and evaluate the routines you have in place. If you are currently a doctoral student, you may have some routines, techniques, and methods that have been working for you. We do not suggest getting rid of what works, but perhaps these activities and strategies can become additional systems that can help you become more productive. Or, perhaps, these structures will allow you to examine new ways to be productive. These strategies also help doctoral students produce more high caliber scholarly writing by being thoughtful about what they write and by budgeting time to revise and edit what they write.
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Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell, PhD & Cynthia F. DiCarlo, PhD
Dr. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell is Professor of Literacy, Leadership and Urban Education, School of Education, College of Human Sciences and Education, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Sulentic Dowell is also Director of the LSU Writing Project. Her research agenda includes three strands focused on literacy in urban settings, specifically the complexities of literacy leadership, providing access to literature, writing, and the arts, and service-learning as a pathway to preparing pre-service teachers to teach literacy authentically in urban environs. Sulentic Dowell is a career educator, spending the majority of her 20 year public school teaching experience in Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, and most recently, serving public education as Assistant Superintendent of 64 elementary campuses in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System in Louisiana. Sulentic Dowell has been nationally and regionally recognized for her scholarship and teaching, most recently being honored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities as the Light Up for Literacy awardee in 2019. She has also been awarded the Outstanding Faculty Contributions to Service-Learning in Higher Education from the Gulf South Summit (2014); she received the LSU Outstanding Faculty Service Learning Award (2013), she was named LSU Flagship Faculty (2012), and was recipient of the (LSU) College of Education’s Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award (2012). In addition, she was named recipient of The Kenneth S. Goodman “In Defense of Good Teaching Award” in 2007. The University of Southern Mississippi named her an Academic Service-Learning Faculty Fellow (2001), and she was finalist for the International Reading Association’s Outstanding Dissertation of the Year (2000).
Cynthia Fontcuberta DiCarlo, PhD, holds the W.H. “Bill” LeBlanc LSU Alumni Association Departmental Endowed Professorship of Early Childhood Education and is the Executive Director of the Early Childhood Education Laboratory Preschool at LSU. DiCarlo also serves as the Coordinator of the Early Childhood Education Teacher Education Program and her research focuses on interventions to improve outcomes for young children and clarification and innovations in recommended practices in early childhood. Prior to joining LSU in 2004, she was a Clinical Assistant Professor at LSU Health Sciences Center (New Orleans). Dr. DiCarlo has been recognized for her research, teaching and service; her research on children's attention during whole group instruction received the 2012 Research Paper of the Year from the Journal of Research in Childhood Education; she was recognized for excellence in teaching receiving the Tiger Athletic Foundation Teaching Award (2010). Additionally, she has received recognition for her service, receiving the College of Human Sciences and Education Faculty Service Award (2016) and the Louisiana Champions of Service Volunteer of the Year: Plantation Region (2013). Dr. DiCarlo has incorporated her passion for research into the courses she teaches and her work in mentoring undergraduate and graduate students. Since its inception in 2014, Dr. DiCarlo has mentored 67 undergraduate students who have subsequently presented at LSU Discover Day. She currently serves on the editorial boards for Infants & Young Children, the Journal of Teacher Action Research, and Beyond Behavior.