The Problem and Expectations

The problem facing many doctoral students is that, when they start writing their dissertations, they discover that the quality of their writing is not at an acceptable standard for the university. Sometimes, they may be able to conceptualize an adequate research design, but their manuscript continues to be rejected for a variety of issues, problems and conditions. Various researchers have estimated that only about fifty percent of doctoral students, complete their courses and dissertation and graduate. Barbara Lovitts and Ellen Wert in their excellent book, Developing Quality Dissertations in the Social Sciences (2009), proposed ten abilities or skills that dissertation students need to master, namely: (1)identify/define problems; (2)generate questions and hypotheses; (3)review and summarize the literature; (4)apply appropriate methods; (5)collect data properly; (6)analyze and judge evidence; (7)discuss findings; (8)produce publishable results; (9)engage in a sustained piece of research or argument.; and (10)think and write critically and coherently. Through three or four years covering 20 to 30 courses, students are educated and trained to do these things. Most students pass all their courses with “A” and “B” grades. Anything less would lead to academic probation and/or dismissal from the program. So why are so many doctoral students having great difficulty writing acceptable dissertations? Although the first nine abilities and skills are very important, this paper will address the tenth one proposed by Lovitts and Wert, think and write critically and coherently.

The Students’ Point of View

I have talked with dozens of my doctoral clients who have expressed confusion about this situation. Students many times have told me that they made straight “A’s” throughout their courses and now their dissertation drafts are rejected or severely criticized. They are confused and befuddled because it seems inconceivable that they could have done so well on their many term papers, but now have great difficulty with dissertation writing. This discrepancy is apparent among students from both traditional as well as online universities. After students submit their term papers at the end of  courses, these are graded and returned. Faculty rarely make line-by-line comments. At most, professors would write a brief note and assign grades. Regular coursework deals with specific academic topics, such as Theories of Counseling, Fundamentals of Teaching, and Leadership Styles in which the students are presenting arguments or positions relative to the curriculum. Therefore students are not generally concerned so much with basic grammar, usage, style, and tone. Neither are the faculty for the most part.

What is the Role of the Faculty?

As professor and as dissertation chairperson, a faculty member has quite different roles to fill. When teaching courses, the faculty are expected to give instruction in their academic disciplines, evaluate students’ work, and assign grades. These are the traditional requirements of faculty at all universities. The professor is the only one who is involved in instruction and evaluation of students’ performance.

When faculty serve as dissertation chairs or members, their roles change. Now they are supervisors and evaluators because the students are expected to do independent research for their dissertations. Regarding the dissertation, faculty are not technically supposed to be teaching how to write it; they are only reviewing and critiquing the document and providing feedback. They are free to offer suggestions. Faculty also know that the students’ dissertations will be reviewed by other committee members, the Dean, the Instructional Review Board faculty, and at some schools the Scientific Merit Board faculty. With various other faculty involved, it is easy for some chairs and members not to take their roles very seriously when it comes to writing style. Faculty are left with a dilemma: how much help is too much help.

Possible Solution

Since the mission of the university is to educate the student throughout their coursework and dissertation and prepare students for graduation, there should be support systems in place that teaches high level writing styles. Faculty could assign incomplete (I) grades for term papers that do not meet university writing standards. Students could then be tutored through the Writing Lab about the expectations of doctoral level academic writing as well as the basics of English writing. Through training at the Writing Lab, students could learn more about APA style and tone, conceptualizing and implementing basic research designs appropriate to their terms papers. After receiving one or two tutoring experiences to upgrade their term papers, students would be better prepared to write excellent papers in the future. High quality term papers would lead to higher quality dissertation writing. Then after completing all their regular courses, their writing would improve. Later, when they started working on their dissertations, they would be better prepared to meet the high standards required.