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Dissertation Supervision

This article was originally published in the Spring 2001 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

By Peggy Thoits, Professor of Sociology

During her career, Peggy Thoits has worked with graduate students at three major universities- Princeton, Indiana, and Vanderbilt- and supervised numerous dissertations. She has also been honored for her effectiveness as a mentor to women at Vanderbilt. Here, she describes her approach to working one-on-one with students during the dissertation process.

Dissertation supervision is one of the most enjoyable forms of one-on-one teaching. Dissertation students are working on interesting questions that really matter, and for me, this makes it intrinsically more enjoyable than other forms of independent study.

Dissertation supervision differs in other ways from other forms of independent study. With other individual study formats, the process is guided by me. I know what happens next. I know what the student should do next. But in the dissertation stage, it’s really much more mutual. Other kinds of individual supervision are graded, so there’s an explicit contract and an explicit product and an explicit process. In contrast, dissertation guidance is absolutely open ended; it depends on the dissertation student. In a way, it’s really student-initiated and student-directed. I provide information and guidance when it truly is missing, but more often I am responding to the next stages that the dissertation student has reached.

In deciding whether or not to supervise a dissertation it’s important for there to be some familiarity between the graduate student and the advisor and some sort of connection between the student’s topic and the advisor’s areas of expertise. Otherwise, I don’t think the supervision goes very well. In my experience, students who’ve never taken a seminar with me and whose interests may or may not fit within my general areas may need to be gently guided to some other potential advisors.

Once the advisor and the student are satisfied they have a good match, the work of the dissertation can begin. Because of my philosophy that dissertation work is largely student-directed and student-initiated, my personal involvement can vary widely and is based on the needs of individual and the phase of the dissertation research itself.

When the graduate student is early on in his or her development of a topic, my involvement varies from weekly meetings to occasional conferences, depending on how far along the student’s thinking has moved. If the topic is coming out of a prior research project, then the topic may be a natural extension of the preliminary work and there’s less need for frequent meetings to hammer out what the dissertation is going to do. If the student is starting cold with a new idea or an area in which she or he hasn’t done a lot of work before, then my advice usually is to have frequent meetings, one a week, until both the advisee and the advisor feel like they’re on the same page in terms of the topic, its importance, and its suitability as a topic for dissertation research.

When the student begins working on a written proposal, there may be a hiatus in the meetings because the graduate goes off to write. Here is an area where the variability on the whole process starts to emerge. There are folks who go away for two months and come back with 35 pages of rough draft that are in reasonable shape and there are people who go off and write five pages and come back and discuss the next section and then go off and write those five pages and return for more discussion.

This is an example of letting the graduate student lead. Whatever he or she needs, at the proposal writing stage, I’ll do. People have different writing styles, different paces, and different needs at that stage and I try to work within that.

Once the proposal is defended, a whole new stage of relationship emerges. The student is off doing the instrumental tasks of the dissertation and I may not see him or her but once a month or once every two months. I might even just get e-mail reports from graduate students at various stages of the data collection process when questions or issues arise that haven’t been anticipated. Sometimes we’ll have a periodic update meeting just to keep me informed of where things are and what decisions are being made in the process of doing the research. But again, that varies from person to person. I accommodate whatever style a person needs, because these needs are really variable. The analytical stage is fun, we end up having conversations more often and talking in more detail. Once the writing begins, my advisees and I often barely see one another. We are communicating through paper. I get a written, hard copy of a chapter, and I give written feedback both in terms of things that need to be fleshed out, and alternative arguments that could be tested and rebutted here. I may suggest redoing the analysis so that the findings may be simpler and easier to present.

For me, the key has been to let the relationship between me and the graduate student ebb and flow with the phases of the dissertation research and the individual needs of that student.

Preparation for both the proposal defense and the dissertation defense is a final area in which the one-on-one teaching relationship can be very helpful. Some faculty may forget that students don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s useful for the advisor and advisee to meet before the dissertation defense (and also the proposal defense), and talk through what the student should expect.

My best advice about both a good dissertation defense and a good proposal defense is that they are the only two times in a person’s career when people will sit around and concentrate on his or her work only. It’s important students know that the committee’s goal is not to stop them or to hurt them or to show them up. Their goal is to help make the student’s research be the best it can possibly be. If the faculty member, the committee, and the dissertation student have done the work they needed to do prior to the defense, it can be an exhilarating capstone experience in the process.