Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Dissertation Writing Institute boosts doctorate completion

The Sweetland Center for Writing's Dissertation Writing Institute, now in its 10th year, is helping to boost doctoral program completion rates of graduate students. Compared with national rates of 50-60 percent, institute students complete at a rate of 88 percent.

  Paul Barron (right) of the Sweetland Writing Center’s Dissertation Writing Institute, says faculty seek to build students’ confidence in their writing. (Photo courtesy Sweetland Writing Center)

Helping students to complete their doctorate degrees was a key inspiration behind the eight-week spring term program, says Anne Gere, director of Sweetland. It targets graduate students who have conceptualized the principal elements of their dissertation and have begun writing. The institute is supported by LSA, Rackham Graduate School and the Sweetland Center.

"We've had students tell us later how the program has shaped them, saying 'I have finished my book and gotten tenure because of the habits I learned in the Dissertation Writing Institute,'" Gere says.

Participants apply for the institute after being nominated by their department, and graduate advisers must write a letter supporting their application. Once accepted, they receive a $3,000 stipend, attend for at least six hours daily, and can't hold another position as they work on dissertations. Sweetland provides a computer, if needed, and work space. Students share writing, participate in group discussions, and report weekly on their progress to their peers and institute faculty.

"We become an open audience to what they've written. We repeat back to them what their chapters are doing. We're trying to get them to a point where their argument is clear," says Louis Cicciarelli, a faculty member at the Sweetland Center for Writing and in English Language and Literature, LSA. Cicciarelli helped create the pilot program for the institute in 2003. Since then, the number of students each spring has grown from 10 to 24.

Paul Barron, also a faculty member at the center and in English Language and Literature, LSA, says faculty seek to build students' confidence in their writing, and encourage them to view themselves not just as scholars but also as writers.

"We have no specialized knowledge of their field. This allows us to focus on the writing itself," he says.

Andreea Marinescu, now an assistant professor at Colorado College, says the institute gave her the confidence to finish a daunting task.

"I learned that good academic writing cannot and should not be a solitary endeavor. These practices remain valuable to me: not being afraid of sharing one's ideas, receiving criticism from peers, and asking for feedback from colleagues outside of one's discipline," she says.

Sweetland also offers less structured help with dissertation writing year-round. Nominations for the 2013 Dissertation Writing Institute are due Feb. 1.