Should you join a dissertation support group?

In the seemingly endless struggles with your dissertation, you may think about joining a dissertation support group. Experts in dissertation shepherding often advocate a group. It be excellent for “solace, support and motivation” (Axelrod & Windell, 2012, p. 101) and sharing of information and writing techniques (Grant & Tomal, 2013; Joyner, Rouse, & Glatthorn, 2012; Rockinson-Szapkiw & Spaulding, 2014). The group can also give you much consolation and camaraderie, a welcome environment in which everyone speaks the dissertationese dialect, and a relieving spot for empathetic grousing. When in the group you report on your work and progress, you have to describe it. Your description enables you to hone what you’re writing about and clarify it for yourself and others. In the group too, you learn from members, hear their critiques and (hopefully) accept them gracefully, exchange much information about work habits and university procedures, and often gain a cheering section.

But dissertation support groups can produce problems you may not have foreseen. In addition to advantages, Bolker (1998) points out many drawbacks of groups, especially if they’re leaderless. You, or other members, may whine incessantly about the difficulties, trot out personal problems, or expect other members to edit or even write the thing. Members may also show off with constant oneupmanship, tear down everyone else’s work, burst into tears when their own work is critiqued, monopolize the sessions, relate disastrous chair stories, or flirt inappropriately. Or they may actually steal others’ ideas. Before you join a group, make sure you trust the members. You may prefer a same-sex or mixed group, and each has its pros and cons. In a same-sex group, members may have similar problems about the dissertation and feel comfortable talking about them (in women’s groups, for example, juggling child care and the endless research of Chapter 2, your literature review). And too, a mixed group will reflect more accurately your later professional world.

Yet competition and consequent jabs may take over. In mixed groups, some members may feel overshadowed by more dominant ones—Bowker noted that women can “feel silenced by men in groups” (p. 108). In my own dissertation group, I recall being intimidated, and muted, by a male group member who constantly spouted his esoteric, vast, and very impressive knowledge (not that a woman couldn’t also). Whether the group composition is same sex or mixed, different members may be at different stages of dissertation production, with different problems surfacing.


In my academic editing and coaching practice, my client Rachel said she was “swearing off the group.” Why? I asked. “They’re all talking about data analysis this, data analysis that, and spouting all kinds of statistical jargon. What the heck is the Goodman-Kruskal? Sounds like a wedding announcement.” Not only may the group focus almost exclusively on one aspect of the dissertation, but it may veer off completely from its declared or implicit purpose. Clients have told me of deterioration into gossip fests, especially about professors’ alleged infidelities. Trevor vividly described how his group became a party, with too many Twinkies and too much sugary punch. Marguerite related that her members almost came to blows over a night-long passionate comparison of Netflix offerings. Pleasant or steam-releasing as these activities may be, they are not why you joined the group.

My dissertation support group took shape informally around chance meetings for morning coffee in the university student lounge. The gathering functioned primarily as a “gripe group” as we all vented about the system and our nemesis chairs. We tried to outdo each other on which chair made the snidest comments and entertained each other with tales of fruitless searches for that pivotal article that would prove the incontrovertible need for our study. Entertaining and immediately vindicating, yes, but I eventually dropped out because the general negativity obstructed my writing. I made more progress alone holed up in the library and got my coffee at a nearby convenience store.

After a few sessions, you too may feel you’ve exhausted the group’s value. If you’ve been in a group with negative issues, announce your decision to leave, thank everyone, and save the time and commute. More positively, you may realize that you’ve already gained what you need from the group in support, direction, and confidence. Keep in contact if you wish with one or two members for mutual encouragement, but you now know you can work better solo. Congratulations—you’ve just become your own support group!

Text credits: Noelle Sterne. Author, editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories in print and online publications. An academic editor and coach with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers.  Check her website to learn more about Noelle’s publications. 


Axelrod, B., & Windell, J. (2012). Dissertation solutions: A concise guide to planning, implementing, and surviving the dissertation process. Lanham, MD: Rowman &            Littlefield Education.

Bolker, J. (1998). Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day: A guide to starting, revising, and finishing your doctoral thesis. New York, NY: Owl/Henry Holt.

Grant, C., & Tomal, D. R. (2013). How to finish and defend your dissertation: Strategies to complete the professional practice doctorate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Joyner, R. L., Rouse, W. A., & Glatthorn, A. A. (2012). Writing the winning thesis or dissertation: A step-by-step guide (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J., & Spaulding, L. S. (Eds.) (2014). Navigating the doctoral journey: A handbook of strategies for success. Lanham, MD: Rowman &   Littlefield.


© 2017 Noelle Sterne

Revised from “Dissertation Support Groups, Part 1—Watch Out!” Published in Textbook and Academic Authors Association. Guest blog, Abstract, May 17, 2016.

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).


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