Dissertation Support Groups for PH.D. Students

Finishing your dissertation? You don’t have to go it alone. According to Michael Kiparsky, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in the Energy and Resources Group (ERG) at the University of California at Berkeley, a peer support group can “guide you through the confusion, improve your writing, and help you spend your time wisely.”

Based on his own experiences, Kiparsky advises graduate students to form a dissertation-support group made up of fellow doctoral students. “Find one or two colleagues who are at about the same stage of research as you are. Meet once a week with the goal of furthering one another's progress.” A peer support group will, in his words, “enhance your productivity.”

What’s the payoff? Kiparsky is emphatic: “Faster progress. The insights of your peers can be invaluable as you are developing ideas or writing. Having an audience for practice presentations and brainstorming sessions is helpful as well. Also, you can maximize your meetings with professors by preprocessing with your support group the first stages of a decision or research question. Consistent, regular input can help you break through stagnant periods, and harness the productive ones.”

How to proceed? Based on his own experiences, Michael Kiparsky recommends the following:

Limit the size of your group to a maximum of three people. Any more than three will dilute the amount of time available for focused personal attention.

Choose your members carefully. Don't form a group with your friends. Do form a group with people you respect and admire for their productivity and savvy. Approach colleagues once you have thought through your needs, and get them on board for the goals you have developed.

Disciplines don't matter – much. Your colleagues can have very different research projects and backgrounds. Some congruence of interest and background is helpful, of course, but weekly discussions and shared written drafts will quickly make the members of your group the people who most deeply understand the ins and outs of your work. Each member of the group should be at approximately the same stage of progress in his or her dissertation.

Be businesslike. Treat your group as a professional relationship and separate your professional interests from your personal ones.

Meet weekly. An ongoing understanding of the content and process of one another's research is the value of these meetings. You won’t get that continuing support through occasional meetings with a professor, a lab group or journal club. Less frequent meetings will dilute your ability to participate in the substance of the other members' work, as you will need to spend more of your time catching up.

Emphasize product. Make a point of pushing each other to exchange written work often, even before you think you want to start writing the dissertation itself. Sharing outlines and unfinished subsections will help you clarify your thinking as you write.

Limit your time. Meetings of an hour to 90 minutes are long enough, and will force you to stay on task.

Organize each session. You can divide up the time so each member gets an equal share to discuss whatever is most important to them. Alternatively, you could focus the session on whoever has the most pressing needs that day; just make sure everyone feels well served over the long run.

Forming a dissertation-support group is a “commitment to involvement in others' work,” writes Kiparsky. He notes that the meetings can be “some of the most valuable time” you spend on your own Ph.D. work. Having a core community that is familiar with not only the details of your current research, but also where you came from and how you have justified getting there, Kiparsky writes, “is priceless.”

His conclusion: a dissertation support group can be a really good thing because “being happy in grad school is a beautiful thing, and that may be the most powerful secret weapon of all.”

For more tips on forming a dissertation support group, see Kiparsky’s 2007 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2007/08/2007080801c.htm