Forming a Dissertation Group

A Dissertation Group, if well-run, can be a very important part of the dissertation writing experience.  The goal is different from a traditional reading group, where students typically meet once a week to discuss papers they have read.  A dissertation group, in contrast, focuses narrowly on the students own research and helps them in finishing their dissertation.  Such a group can provide accountability, motivation, as well as concrete help with problems.  Ideally, a group will have three to five members, and meet about once a week.  Here are some suggestions how to go about starting a group. 

1)  Find three other students interested in forming a dissertation group.

2)  Decide on a first meeting time.

3)  Very important: during the first meeting, everyone should state what they want to get out of such a group.  The goals could be quite different for different people and might include the following:

a.       Accountability

b.      Motivation and incentives

c.       Venting about research problems, unresponsive advisors, etc.

d.      Concrete help (e.g. proof-reading an introduction etc.)

Note that a dissertation group is a substantial time commitment!  Make sure everyone is equally committed.  Talk about valid (and not valid) reasons for missing a meeting. 

4)  Find a time that works for everyone, and decide on the length of the meeting.  For four people, one hour might be enough.

5)  It is helpful to divide the meeting into two parts.  During the first part, everyone should briefly talk about what he/she has accomplished during the last week, and what the goals for the next week are.  This helps to focus work on the things that really need doing.  It also provides an incentive to get the things done, as others will check on the goals a week later.  

6)  During the second half of the meeting, students should focus on one person, and this should be decided beforehand.  In a group of four, for example, it would be everyone’s turn once a month.  This time should be used according to the needs of that person.  Examples include:

a.       Comments on an introduction

b.      Brainstorming for a new idea

c.       Discussing a technical problem

d.      Help in writing a grant proposal

e.       Help with algebra or programming code

f.        Discussion of empirical results

g.       Talk about correct econometric specification

Typically, it would be useful to distribute material for discussion beforehand, say a couple of days, so everyone has time to read the intro, think about the problem, etc.