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Do Not Leave Graduate School Before You Get Your Degree | FinishLine, Tips Tools Techniques for Completing a Thesis or Dissertation from Dr Wendy Carter

November, 2008spacerVolume 4, Issue 11


Welcome to all our new subscribers!

Writing a dissertation is a huge project, and one that you will not be able to do alone. Seeking help with the massive amount of work you will need to complete is not a sign of weakness; rather, drawing on the wide variety of resources available to you is a prudent way to work smarter, not harder … and, as such, is one of the most important steps you can take towards earning your degree.

Of course, one of the most helpful resources you can draw upon is the TADA! CD, designed to guide you step-by-step through the entire process of finishing your thesis or dissertation. This amazing resource includes tips and guidelines that will make your journey much easier, show you how to organize and plan your time and actions, ensure that you make progress every day, and overcome any obstacles that you may face.

Another resource to strongly consider is the use of a dissertation “coach.” I recently sat down with Gina Hiatt, Ph.D., who outlined the benefits that this helpful support person can provide to graduate students.

I Have An Academic Advisor but.....should I get an academic coach or therapist/counselor?

Dr. Carter: What is the difference between a dissertation advisor and a dissertation coach?

Dr. Hiatt: There are many differences between a dissertation advisor and a dissertation coach. Your advisor is an expert in the content in your field. Generally advisors don’t help you with the writing process or with your time management goals. They usually advise their students in a certain way, and do not fine-tune their advice to each student’s individual needs. They don’t generally teach techniques, habits, or methods to become a better writer or to maintain your writing productivity. I’ve even seen advisors give the wrong advice for writing a long-term writing project. 

For example, it’s not uncommon for advisors to suggest that you set aside long blocks of time for working on your dissertation. Some leave their students floundering, telling them to come back when they have a polished chapter. Most people need some intermediate guidance on such questions as, “When should I stop researching and start writing?” “How do I get over writer’s block?” or “How should I manage my writing time?” Some students are paralyzed and don’t even know how to get started. A coach helps students with the steps along the way. A coach will help with issues such as:

  • Overcoming ineffective work habits
  • Clarifying priorities
  • Developing work schedules
  • Helping to stay focused and on track
  • Maintaining a balanced life

An option that is available instead of individual coaching is group coaching. One coach can provide feedback to several students over the phone (via a bridge line). Everyone involved agrees to confidentiality, and the group is configured to guarantee that no one in the group will be in competition with another. An advantage of this approach is that you can learn from the advice given to others. The group setting also provides built-in peer support and helps with the feelings of isolation which are so common in academia.

Dr. Carter: Does it mean that I am weak if I need a dissertation coach? Am I not supposed to do this by myself?

Dr. Hiatt: No, it doesn’t mean you’re weak. Obviously, I don’t think so! I see dissertation coaching in the same light as sports coaching. I don’t think that an athlete would get to the Olympics without a coach. Michael Phelps knew all things he should do, but he had a coach along the way to help keep him motivated and focused, to help him stay on track, to point out where he was making mistakes, and remind him of his long-term goals by making sure that he didn’t get caught up in the temporary disappointments of the moment.

When you work without adequate coaching or support, you don’t necessarily achieve your optimum level of work. It definitely does not mean you are weak if you need extra support. Some advisors can be overly negative, neglectful, or harsh, are a mismatch with your needs, or are just way too busy. A coach can fill in the gap by providing the support, encouragement, accountability, feedback on the process, and structure for a long-term writing project.

Dr. Carter: How do you know whether or not you need “professional” help in terms of a psychologist versus a dissertation coach?

Dr. Hiatt: If you think that you need medication or therapy, you should always consult a doctor or therapist. Beyond that, some people might start with a coach and, despite the best effort of the coach, might remain unmotivated, or experience overwhelming anxiety or depression. In that case, it’s helpful if your coach knows something about psychology; they could then refer you for therapy instead of, or in addition to, coaching. Also, I’ve worked with graduate students who have dealt, or are currently dealing with, their emotional issues with a therapist, but who still find that they need direction in completing their long-term writing project. 

Some people can get down on themselves because they are not making enough progress in their writing. They see themselves procrastinating and they don’t know why. They may start saying negative things to themselves at an almost unconscious level, such as “I’m not cut out for academia,” or “I’m not smart enough.” Sometimes coaching is enough to get these students back on track. Just being able to make forward progress can be enough to improve their self-image and self-efficacy, and therefore jump-start their mood. Coaching is a form of cognitive behavior therapy and can really make a difference.

Dr. Carter: You have started the Academic Writing Club. Is that better than one-on-one help, or just a different approach? How is it different than a writing group?

Dr. Hiatt: It’s different; there isn’t anything else like it out there. We focus strictly on the process of writing a long-term writing project. It is a structured online system that provides accountability, coaching feedback, interactivity with others, support, and the kind of information that you need to complete a long-term writing project. Members of the Club check in online on a daily basis and answer a few questions about their writing progress or lack of progress. Others in their small group (including the coach) can read their answers and provide comments and feedback. The focus is on the process and not the content of their writing, so it helps them avoid the procrastination and feelings of being overwhelmed and confused. These feelings are common to academic writing.

Typically, a writing group organized within your department meets face to face. They may meet once a week or once a month. Generally they take turns spotlighting one person’s work at a time, after reading their work. The members of the writing group are often in the same field and provide comments and feedback on the content. 

While these groups do serve a purpose, there are some drawbacks. As a member, you might have to wait your turn to get help. Most of the help is content focused and useful, and participation in these groups can be time-consuming. Participation is not daily and they do not provide the motivation needed to push you forward, nor do they provide accountability or structure on a daily basis.

The Academic Writing Club is available 24/7 and helps keep you motivated and productive. I think it is important for graduate students to get both kinds of support.

Dr. Carter. Do the coaches of the Academic Writing Club write peoples’ papers for them? Do you get requests for this like I do? Or provide editing services?

Dr. Hiatt: I get those requests as well and, no, I don’t write anything for anyone, as I too think it is unethical to do so. 

Dr. Carter: Do you believe in using editors?

Dr. Hiatt: Some in the academic community disagree about the use of editors for graduate students. They believe that graduate students should learn to write in graduate school. That would be nice if it happened, but most often advisors don’t have time to teach their students how to write clearly.

If English is not your first language, I believe you should get a really good editor for whom English is their native language. In that case, I believe that finding an editor allows you to focus on your ideas; some students become paralyzed worrying about how to say something rather than focusing on what they are really trying to say.

The editor is not going to write it for you. But it is possible to learn how to write by having your work corrected. My dissertation advisor was very particular; she was a stickler for grammar -- she would point out things like when to use “that” instead of “which”. Now I am a good writer; I don’t think I appreciated her feedback then, but I do now! Most advisors don’t spend the time on improving your writing. All they say is “this is poorly written; fix it.” Generally they don’t tell you how. Usually advisors focus on the bigger picture and don’t want to focus on how you spell. They’re more concerned about how you think.

Dr. Carter: I noticed that you work with assistant professors as well as graduate students. Is there a difference when working with graduate students?

Dr. Hiatt: That’s true; I work with pre-tenured as well as tenured professors. I use the same psychological principles and techniques when working with professors. Professors are more experienced with writing, but have severe time management problems that overload them. They let the demands of others -- students, committees, service obligations, presentations -- overtake and eat up their time. These immediate obligations push things like publishing onto the back burner. Tenured professors might have managed to squeak by getting their first book out because of the tenure clock hanging over their head, but they have difficulty motivating themselves to finish the second one or to publish their backload of unwritten articles. 

For both graduate students and professors (and post docs, also), I offer different tiers of service that go down in cost as you move down the levels. In order to make our services most cost effective, I try to move people from individual-level one-on-one coaching to group coaching to the Academic Writing Club, which has the lowest fees. Each type of service has distinct advantages, and all help academicians improve their writing productivity while making academia more manageable and even enjoyable.

Graduate students might like to check out my Dissertation Writer’s Toolkit (, which along with your TA-DA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished program, will help graduate students finish their thesis or dissertation and, as I like to say, maintain their sanity and self-esteem.

We encourage you to explore the wide variety of options that are available to help support you in the completion of your thesis or dissertation, including those that Dr. Hiatt has suggested in the interview above. You are on a long journey, and it is infinitely helpful to have someone who can help you read the lay of the land, prepare an effective roadmap, and ultimately reach your final destination!

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Email Question of the Month:


I have a question regarding your presentation, " Tips for Writing Proposals". In my presentation at the Institute "Should I Stay or Should I Go: The Fit and Feasibility of a Pre-Tenure Career Move", there is topic discussion on moving to a research institute with heightened expecations for publishing and grant writing. Question: 1) Should doctoral students pursue grant funding independently and/or with other doctoral students without their advisors; and 2) As pre-tenured faculty are encouraged to obtain large extended grants, the pressure to publish is eminent - should one wait until they are tenured?


Dr. S


Hello Dr. S

Thanks for contacting me. Generally, it is impossible for a graduate student to pursue a grant without his/her advisor's knowledge because the advisor often has to write a recommendation for him or her. That does not mean that the student and the advisor are collaborators on the grant. To that end, graduate students should pursue a grant if possible to secure their own funding that is not dependent on the advisor; it gives them more flexibility and independence. Hence, if the student is not able to get along with that advisor he/she is able remain in school, find another advisor and to take his/her money with her/him.

The answer to your second question is not to wait until you get tenure to apply for a grant. For assistant professors, grants provide: summer salary, funds to buy equipment, resources, travel, can buy out teaching time (i.e. so that you can reduce your teaching load), support a student to help you with your research, etc. Grants buy you the time necessary to conduct research and to get that research published. Moreover, assistant professors should try to secure small grants early, an early in their career. Early grants are oftlen less competitive. After you get tenure, the grants become more competitive because the reviewers judge you and your work (seasoned professors) on higher standards. Writing small grants gives you practice and builds your confidence and reputation for securing grants. This foundation is key for securing larger more substantive grants after tenure.

I hope that my answers have addressed your questions.

All the best,

Dr. Carter

TA-DA!(TM) Graduates --
Congratulations on Your Success

Hello Dr. Carter,

.... Everything is going well and I really appreciate you checking up on me. I actually finished writing about six weeks ago. The problem has been getting my advisor to read it. However, I had to eventually move forward to have my committee members read it. So, to make a long story short, I was finally able to set a defense date for Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 1:00 pm. ...


Hi, Dr. Carter. I hope all is well. 

I just wanted to let you know that I am defending November 13th. I thought you might want to hear about another one of your successes. I can't tell you how useful it was to sit down with you in July and map out how much I had completed and how much more I had to do. That really lit a fire under my bum and got me working like a madwoman. I still have a lot to do in the next 16 days to get this diss. ready for my committee, but it will be ready. And thank you.



Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D.

About the Author: As a single mother, professor Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters' degrees and a PhD. Her motto is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done Thesis/Dissertation. She is the creator of a new innovative interactive resource tool on CD—TADA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished. To learn more, contact us. Privacy is our policy. TADA™ Finishline does not give out or sell our subscribers' names or e-mail addresses.

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I Have An Academic Advisor but.....should I get an academic coach or therapist/counselor?

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