Supporting Graduate Writers

Introduction

In this resource, we provide guiding principles and recommendations for supporting graduate student writers in your courses, in your advising, and across your programs. We draw from research about learning and writing at the graduate level (included at the end as further reading) to provide not a set in stone, prescriptive approach but, rather, guidelines toward asking students questions about how they work, how they learn, and how you can support them.

First, we’d like to emphasize a few key guiding principles to consider when thinking about how to support graduate writers:

  • It’s important to make the implicit explicit, as it’s easy to assume that graduate students know more than they do (Ambrose et al., 2010; Brooks-Gillies et al., 2020; Khost et al., 2015)
  • Writing is a social, rhetorical, and recursive process for all writers—including graduate writers (Adler-Kassner & Wardle, 2015)
  • Writing at the graduate level and in the academy is inherently disciplinary (Hyland, 2013), and you as disciplinary faculty members hold key knowledge and expertise
  • Writing in graduate school is an affective experience that also can coincide with other affective nuances of moving locations and acclimating to new programs and expectations (Badenhorst & Geurin, 2015; Micciche & Carr, 2011)

Recommendations

Below are some recommendations and steps you can take as you teach and discuss writing with your graduate students across context

1. Discuss Student Workflow

Assisting graduate students with identifying their workflow can help them create patterns and best practices for their work, which is especially helpful for earlier-stage graduate students who are still adjusting to the new expectations of graduate school. While there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to writing and workflow, asking students to identify their workflow can include:

  • Thinking about where students are writing. Is this on campus? At home? A third space? What kinds of work do they do in these spaces? A (safe) change of scenery can be beneficial for writers.
  • Thinking about when students are writing. Some people like to write in the morning. Some people like to write later in the day. And some people have family or community responsibilities, which means they may have to finish those responsibilities before starting their own work.
  • Thinking about how students are writing. Consider the technologies students use to write (Microsoft Word? Google Docs? Pen and paper?). Additionally, consider the tools students use to write (Desktop computer station? Laptop computer? Tablets like iPads? Cellphones?)
  • Creating structured time to do different tasks like coursework, personal research, dissertation or thesis writing, can help students chunk their work into manageable tasks.

The desire here is not to create a rigid set of procedures for graduate writers, but to have graduate students consider their own workflows to identify what works for them, or to have a discussion about trying something new.


2. Help Students Synthesize Ideas and Sources

Thinking is where learning happens; therefore, it’s important to value and place emphasis on the thinking process as much as on the writing process/final product. However, synthesizing ideas from sources can be difficult for graduate students to do, especially if they have not been taught how to do this. Here are some suggestions to help students identify and keep track of what they have learned, which can be the first step in creating impactful and effective syntheses.

The following tools, programs, and citation managers are resources students can use to organize their notes and collect their references/citations. However, the tools do different things, so it’s important to consider why and how students would use these instead of simply suggesting these resources without context.

Conceptual Mapping (Synthesizing sources)
Tools like a synthesis matrix can help students structure their thinking before synthesizing ideas. Additionally, the HCWE’s Teaching Literature Reviews resource contains a section focused on graduate students which may be helpful to review. Some students may prefer mindmapping tools to connect and organize ideas and sources. For an example of such an assignment, check out Jennifer Kinney’s scaffolded concept map assignment for GTY 702 in our Example Assignments from Miami Faculty.


Mapping Software (Organizing notes)
These notetaking options allow users to tag and organize information, including images, pdfs, and more. Obsidian, for example, allows users to link internal notes to each other, creating a local network of connections.


Citation Managers (Collecting sources)
These citation managers will help graduate students keep track of the resources they read and use, and can automatically create bibliographies and in-text citations in various citation styles. A few of them offer options to tag readings and have search features embedded.


3. Model Your Own (or Other Writers’) Processes

Talking through how you write as a faculty member can help you identify gaps (or assumptions) you might be making about student knowledge and what it is they do or do not know already. Doing so also reinforces that writing is a recursive, ongoing process for all of us, which can help graduate students with imposter syndrome.

One idea is talking through a current or recent work in progress. Highlighting the process of writing either a current article you’re working on, or if a previous student is willing to share an early draft (especially if the student has turned that draft into a publication) can help students imagine the steps they can take with their own writing. Sharing less polished works that are/were in progress can help graduate students remember and see the messy nature of writing and how many steps it often takes to get to a more “polished” product.


4. Consider Your Disciplinary Expertise

Remember that you have a lot of disciplinary expertise in your field, and that you do a lot of writing in the ways your graduate students are being trained (writing articles, presenting at conferences, working on grant applications, etc.). There are also multiple nuances in your specific field (e.g., engineers write reports one way while chemists might write them in another way).

One way you can do this beyond modeling your own writing process is by using model texts in your discipline to conduct a genre analysis (Foss, 2018). What are the moves a writer is making in the text? What is the structure/format of the text? And what wouldn’t be permissible in the genre for your discipline? For an example of a graduate-level assignment that does this, see Jennifer Kinney’s GTY 705 genre analysis assignment in our Example Assignments from Miami Faculty.

Our disciplinary writing guides can also be helpful models of this type of genre analysis to share with students to discuss characteristics of writing in specific disciplines. These guides are created by teams of Miami faculty who complete our Faculty Writing Fellows Program (see linked page to learn more about the program and how to apply).


5. Support Writing through Faculty Advising

Writing instruction happens outside of the classroom as well, including informal or formal faculty advising and mentoring. An important reminder here is that a faculty advisor does not, and should not, be the only source of mentoring a student receives. However, faculty advising and mentoring is an integral part of graduate writing development.

For more formal faculty advising, in addition to the recommendations in this document, consider the following ideas:

  • Discuss the goals and expectations for advising and mentoring with your mentees. Creating a psychological contract with your graduate student can be a way to identify these goals and expectations (Haggard and Turban, 2012). A psychological contract is a contract identifying the expectations each person has in the mentoring relationship. Even if you don’t have an actual psychological contract, discussing the goals and expectations for advising and mentoring can help both you as an advisor and your graduate students navigate the unsaid expectations each person may have.
  • Giving feedback in a way that is beneficial for your graduate students. This includes asking what kind of feedback students may want/need. Not every student benefits from the same kind of feedback, and students also might not know what kind of feedback they need until they receive some. Being open and flexible to adjustments is key. Timely feedback is also important, as it’s getting at the learning while it's happening.

6. Supporting Writing through Peer Mentoring

As mentioned in the previous section, faculty are not the only source of support for graduate student writers. Mentoring should occur in a network; therefore, graduate students can learn from other graduate students, both through formal and informal interactions. This type of peer mentoring, often called horizontal mentoring (VanHaitsma and Ceraso, 2017), can be beneficial for graduate students. However, not every graduate student thinks about this type of mentoring, so encourage your graduate students to create dedicated networks of other graduate students, especially one’s outside of their immediate cohort, and encourage them to create graduate student writing groups or to carve out dedicated time for writing, such as by attending our open writing hours. This type of writing support can encourage students to create deadlines and discuss their writing in a supportive environment with other graduate students.


7. Give Expansive Feedback

Students benefit from all sorts of feedback, both from you and from others. Feedback can be formal such as written comments on a chapter draft but also can present more informally, such as thoughts on said chapter during a scheduled meeting or simply sharing ideas and brainstorming possibilities. Below are some suggestions for what feedback might entail:

  • Talking through in-process writing and projects
  • Peer review sessions in class
  • Graduate student writing groups (encourage students to make their own!)
  • Notes on a chapter draft
  • Live-time discussion of an outline/plan
  • Howe Writing Center Appointments
  • HCWE Writing Hours

Feedback should be both research-focused and task-focused, meaning addressing both bigger-picture ideas and also more specifics about how a student should revise or improve. For example: the comment “vague” in a section will not help a student make the needed revisions, so consider what kind of language you are using in providing feedback (for more ideas, check out Giving Feedback to Writers in Online Classes and Kamler and Thomson, especially chapters 6 and 7 ). Help students identify if the feedback is more research-focused or task-focused.


8. Set Goals and Make a Plan

Graduate students often report feeling less productive and more isolated post-coursework. But for all levels of graduate study, it’s important to set reasonable goals. Part of your role as a faculty member might be to help students recognize and set realistic goals for their contexts, realities, and circumstances. Some ideas for helping with this might include:

  • Create long-term, mid-term, and short-term goals (i.e., finish the dissertation next year; finish chapter 3 next month; read this set of articles this week)
  • Create SMART Goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) with students
  • Make the goals visual and tactile to create stronger motivation for staying on track. This can include marking a calendar you can cross off, creating a set of post-its on a chart, or using chart-paper or a whiteboard with a grid that includes deadlines, goals, and tracking progress.

Resources for Further Reading

Writing and (Graduate) Learning

Adler-Kassner, L., & Wardle, E. (Eds.). (2015). Naming what we know: Threshold concepts of writing studies. Utah State University Press.

Ambrose, S. Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Badenhorst, C., & Guerin, C. (Eds.). (2015). Research literacies and writing pedagogies for masters and doctoral writers. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Publishers.

Brooks-Gillies, M., Garcia, E. G., Kim, S. H., Manthey, K., & Smith, T. G. (Eds.). (2020). Graduate writing across the disciplines: Identifying, teaching, and supporting. WAC Clearinghouse. https://doi.org/10.37514/ATD-B.2020.0407.

Cafferella, R.S., & Barnett, B.G. (2000). Teaching doctoral students to become scholarly writers: The importance of giving and receiving critiques. Studies in Higher Education, 25(1), 39-52.

Powell, R., & Driscoll, D. (2020). "How Mindsets Shape Response and Learning Transfer: A Case of Two Graduate Writers.” Journal of Response to Writing, 6(2). Retrieved from https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=journalrw


Advising & Mentoring

Haggard, D. L., & Turban, D. B. (2012). The mentoring relationship as a context for psychological contract development. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(8), 1904-1931.

Hyland, K. (2013). Writing in the university: Education, knowledge and reputation. Language Teaching, 46(1), 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444811000036

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. London, UK: Routledge.

VanHaitsma, P., & Ceraso, S. (2017). “Making it” in the academy through horizontal mentoring. Peitho, 19(2), 210-233.

Three below are from our resource Best Practices for Supporting Graduate Students Remotely:


Workflow

Lockridge, T., & Van Ittersum, D. (2020). Writing workflows: Beyond word processing. University of Michigan Press. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.11657120


Assignments, Activities, and Courses

Foss, S. K. (2018). Rhetorical criticism: Exploration and practice (5th ed). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Grouling, J. (2018). Training writing teachers: An assignment in mapping writing program values. Prompt: A Journal of Academic Writing Assignments, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.31719/pjaw.v2i1.16.

Khost, P. H., Lohe, D. R., & Sweetman, C. (2014). Rethinking and unthinking the graduate seminar. Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, 15(1), 19–30.

Micciche, L., & Carr, A. (2011). Toward Graduate-Level Writing Instruction. College Composition and Communication, 62(3), 477–501.

Rose, M., & McClafferty, K. A. (2001). A call for the teaching of writing in graduate education. Educational Researcher, 30(2), 27-33.

Example Assignments from Miami Faculty (graduate assignments Gerontology 602/702/705)