Oct. 12 2021

Let's Write Our Dissertations Together: Peer Support Program Launches for Doctoral Students

Writing a doctoral dissertation can be a long and lonely journey. But it doesn’t have to be.

A new peer support program called WritingWorks is making the process a much less isolating—you might even say social—experience. The Columbia Mailman Office of Education (OE) introduced the program to doctoral students earlier this month.

As a starting point, doctoral students in all stages of the dissertation process were assigned to writing clubs. These small groups meet regularly to share wisdom, provide constructive feedback, and cheer each other on. Members might talk about specific roadblocks they’re facing, offer pointers on how to sharpen an argument or techniques to overcome writer’s block.

Leah Hooper, senior director of teaching and learning in OE, expects each club will find its own rhythms—developing their own routines around when they meet and how they set goals and hold each other accountable. For those who need them, OE will provide dissertation templates with formatting based on Columbia requirements.

The other key pillar of WritingWorks, modeled after a similar program developed by Kate Daloz and her colleagues at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Writing Studio, is group writing. OE is organizing a variety of opportunities for students to write alongside their peers free of distractions—phones on airplane mode, wi-fi disabled.

These include monthly three-hour “writing sprints” modeled on Silicon Valley coding sessions, as well as occasional “write-a-thons” of up to seven hours. The latter might eventually be gamified to spur friendly competition based on how many pages participants can produce. Multi-day writing retreats will take place between the fall and spring semesters in a dedicated quiet space with catered food. Based on feedback from students, group writing sessions and writing clubs will also make space for publication writing, in addition to dissertations.

“We built WritingWorks around maximizing your opportunities to work in support with one another,” Hooper told doctoral students. “We want you to access the resources that meet your needs. I call it the ‘Chipotle model’: assemble the bowl that works for you.”

Hawi Teizazu is a doctoral candidate in Sociomedical Sciences who only recently started writing her dissertation—an analysis of media coverage of health disparities, specifically in the context of maternal mortality. “I joined WritingWorks to have time set aside to write with students at Mailman who are at a similar stage. It's a chance to get some accountability and build community with students I might have not otherwise met,” she says.

Another doctoral candidate in Sociomedical Sciences, Brennan Rhodes-Bratton is at the other end of the process, with only a few chapters to go on her dissertation on the effect of gentrification on the urban food environment. Finding time to write has been a challenge, especially during the pandemic, but she expects her new writing club will see her across the finish line. “I’m excited to work with them and share. I know they will be helpful,” she says.

Vice Dean Michael Joseph recalled his own struggles with getting his dissertation work done at the University of Michigan and how he benefited from working in tandem with a friend going through the same process. WritingWorks is designed to offer the same kind of peer support.

“I find it really wonderful that there is an opportunity for you to form connections with your fellow students and gain from their guidance,” he said. “It’s our obligation not just to get you into the door at Mailman. We also have a commitment to help you thrive.”