‘Dissertation Write-In’ provides camaraderie and focus for graduate students

Mary Abowd
News Officer for Arts & HumanitiesUniversity Communications

On a recent August morning on the seventh floor of the Merchandise Mart, 20 advanced graduate students sat in what must have been the quietest room in the entire city of Chicago. Except for the tapping of keys on laptops and the distant ding of the elevator, no sounds entered or left the room. All morning long, the students did nothing but write. The words may not have been perfect or polished, but hour after hour they spilled onto computer screens.

Welcome to the Dissertation Write-In. Every quarter for the past two years, Graduate Student Affairs has organized a weeklong program to give late-stage graduate students a welcome boost toward finishing their dissertations.

“This is a kick in the pants for me, to help me get over my first hurdle,” said Megan Tusler, who came to the Write-In hoping to start and finish an outline of the first chapter of her dissertation. She’s writing about urban realism and community formation for a PhD in English Language and Literature.

Graduate Student Affairs invites anyone working on a dissertation to join other students for this writing marathon. Some sessions are specifically for people working on their dissertation proposals, while others, like this particular late-summer session, are designed for people in the throes of writing their projects.

The common barriers to writing—perfectionism and daily distractions—fall away through the program’s rigid structure and community spirit. During the lunch break, speakers from the many offices on campus that serve graduate students address common questions and problems, such as how to submit a dissertation or where to go for career advice on campus.

“There is a great demand for these programs, which help the students progress toward degrees,” said Deborah Nelson, the Deputy Provost for Graduate Education. She sees the relatively new Write-Ins as part of a broader focus on supporting graduate students throughout their journey through the University of Chicago. The office has multiple ways to help connect students to support systems they need in graduate school.

“No matter what the discipline, graduate education creates common needs among students. They spend a lot of time by themselves, working on intellectually risky projects,” Nelson said. The community spirit of the Write-Ins has proven a great antidote to the frustrations of struggling alone on a mammoth project.

Elsewhere in the world, as the students worked at their laptops, dishes sat in sinks, dogs waited for walks and emails waited for responses—distractions for another day.

As an added incentive to keep the commitment, the students pay a $50 deposit to join the group. The money is returned on Friday to everyone who showed up on time every day and worked from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.  Graduate Student Affairs brings snacks and coffee, and offers the students a healthy lunch in the afternoon. It also provides a moderator, to help the group enforce the rules they set for themselves at the beginning of the week.

“We’re all in this together,” said Michael O’Toole, who came to the session to write about contemporary pop music in Germany for a Music PhD. He found the structure and the off-campus location to be extremely helpful commitment strategies. Without free Internet access, there was nothing to pull his attention away from his goal. And, seeing other people hard at work helped him do the same.

“It’s nice to know that this structure helps other people, too,” O’Toole said.

When lunch was wheeled in and broke the severe quiet of the writing room, the students stretched, talked with their neighbors, and looked over what they had accomplished. “I can feel my productivity improving,” said Arum Kang, who is writing the fourth chapter of a dissertation on the semantics and pragmatics of definiteness for a PhD in Linguistics. “It’s not easy going, but everyone is focused and the atmosphere is professional.”

On this afternoon, the lunchtime guest was a massage therapist, who kneaded sore necks and shoulders and dispensed advice on stress relief.

Each Dissertation Write-In is capped at 20 participants, to facilitate group cohesion. Participants in these sessions often will continue to meet after the week is over, working together on their dissertations in fields as varied as Biological Sciences and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

And if the satisfaction of marching toward that PhD weren’t enough reward, the students who complete each session get a T-shirt from Graduate Student Affairs that says scribo, ergo conficiam—“I write, therefore I finish.”