The struggle to manage any writing process is one of the key challenges faced by graduate students. The consequences for them cannot be understated: longer completion times, financial hardship, poor mental health, to mention just a few.
It is common for graduate students who lack control over the writing process (framing, outlining, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading) to start doubting their capacity to do the work expected of them, which in turn negatively affects their sense of self-worth and harms their future outlook. This could extend well beyond their performance in graduate school and impact their overall development as competent professionals, especially given the importance of adaptable writing skills in many of the professions graduate students seek to enter.
This predicament is partly the result of how graduate training is delivered. While graduate students are trained in disciplinary conventions by their supervisors, many do not receive formal instruction on how to manage the writing process effectively. Too often, they are expected to hone these skills through trial-and-error — just like their supervisors might have done at the outset of their own careers. The remedy to this is to reframe the process of writing skill development through the help of professional development mentors who play a more holistic role.
Solutions at the institutional level
Institutions should begin by supplementing the traditional apprenticeship model of advisor/advisee and avoid treating it as the only possible model in graduate studies. This is especially true in relation to writing and planning skills which form a key part of professionalization. While the traditional model works very well – in terms of helping graduate students achieve their professional goals – when the conditions allow, it often leads to many graduate students falling through the cracks for no fault of their own.
Of course, writing support at the institutional level is already available at many universities. What is needed, however, is a shift in strategy to target the unique needs of graduate students. An alternative way to think about writing support delivery for these students could be through a professional development lens. Replicating undergraduate writing support at the graduate level is rarely helpful to graduate students who might need help with the immediate demands of academic writing but who are in greater need of practicing how to adapt their writing skills to a wide range of situations, including understanding how to manage the writing process as such. This gives them a better grasp of writing techniques and strategies which would improve their academic writing skills but, more importantly, would develop their capacity to deploy those techniques and strategies in a variety of professional contexts and meet various demands, including academic ones.
Unlike undergraduate writing support, which tends to take on a narrow academic focus (how to structure essays, how to write strong thesis statements, etc.), graduate writing support should take on a more holistic approach, one whose point of departure is the recognition that enhancing writing skills at the graduate level is inseparable from developing broader professional skills such as managing projects, working independently without direct input, coordinating with others effectively, planning and problem solving, and adapting writing styles in a variety of contexts. Writing challenges tend to mask other, more fundamental issues. The key is not to address the symptoms without addressing the root causes.
Writing as professional development
Situating graduate writing support within professional development programming allows for a qualitatively different model. It supplements the traditional adviser/advisee model, which focuses on disciplinary conventions, by helping students master the varied processes that go into all types of writing activities. The alternative model, which is tailored to the unique needs of graduate students as early career professionals rather than as academics-in-training, addresses writing-related challenges by situating academic writing within a more comprehensive set of related concerns: planning the writing process, developing an effective writing routine, understanding the intersection of creativity and craft in writing, experimenting with different writing modalities, reflecting on one’s personal relationship with writing, managing relationships with advisors and mentors, seeking and implementing feedback, and managing the different aspects of the writing process such as developing a conceptual framing, outlining, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading
From this perspective, mastery over the writing process is not achieved only by teaching graduate students a set of techniques but by guiding them as they develop/enhance a well-rounded skillset which will serve them in the long term rather than simply help them overcome challenges related to the most immediate milestone. The deep understanding of processes, the capacity to adapt to various audiences/contexts/demands, and the enhancement of a wide set of overlapping skills would help students deal with both the immediate needs related to their academic programs as well as with the long-term demands of the professional roles they might perform in the future.
A shift in the mentorship paradigm
Writing is ultimately a socializing activity, a vessel of professional practices, not just a medium for communicating ideas. This view means that a mentor’s role is not limited to ensuring graduate students are able to communicate their research while following relevant academic conventions. Rather, the mentor’s role extends to overseeing a broader process of professionalization.
Graduate students receiving this type of support would be more likely to progress through their programs in a timely manner, thus avoiding the detrimental consequences mentioned above. More importantly, however, they would be more likely to emerge from graduate school as competent, more confident professionals.
In 2011 my department (Classics and Religious Studies) at the University of Ottawa developed a graduate course simply called “Thesis Proposal.”
The course is required for all MA and PhD students in Religious Studies, and it provides a framework within which to help students learn and understand how to conceptualise and pull off a major research/writing project. I have been teaching this course since its inception and it has been the most satisfying teaching if my career. It provides support and guidance for students as well as a place and time to talk about strategies for facing the inevitable ups and downs and anxieties of graduate school.
Thank you for sharing this perspective. I can see value in it, but one concern I’d have with framing graduate writing support broadly or solely as professional development is the risk of losing sight of valuable research on doctoral/graduate academic writing, research writing, and L2 writing which may also contribute to more tailored and writing-specific strategies and support.