There is an illuminating article in the New York Times today (October 3, 2007) on the plight of so many graduate students who are trying to write their dissertations. Finally somebody is noticing!
My husband, who wrote a dissertation many years ago while he and I worked to support our young children, read it and reminisced. It certainly took him longer to get his degree than it would have if we hadn't had financial pressures. We were fortunate to live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where cheap, decent housing was readily available. But even so, he didn't have the luxury of a sabbatical, say, where he could devote himself to writing.
Several crucial points are made in the Times article. One is that graduate students, whether married and with families or not, need adequate free thinking time to write. The graduate teaching assistant/instructor system is antiquated, and students are still treated more like indentured servants than budding professionals. They are still poorly paid and have few rights. No wonder many students have to go out and find demanding jobs to make decent incomes before they complete their dissertations.
The second point is that graduate students need support from their advisers and other faculty, mostly through regular contact and real, constructive guidance. My husband remembers that his adviser had a set appointment with him weekly, even if just to touch bases. This isn't so common anymore, and for many of the ABDs I work with, who live away from their universities, this isn't even possible. But regular contact through email and telephone with their advisers would make a big difference to them.
Another point is that graduate students are often terrorized into believing that they have to produce a major seminal work rather than a piece of research that adds something to their field. Advisers often are not clear, as the Times article notes, about expectations, which creates tremendous anxiety in students. And many times advisers harbor unrealistic expectations, even though they say the don't. I've worked with students who have been deeply shaken, even publicly humiliated, by faculty criticisms.
If students have been able to complete doctoral course work, you would think they would be considered competent enough to write an acceptable dissertation. Yet several I know have been given such a hard time over the dissertation that they decided to transfer to other schools to finish or, worst case scenario, never finish. I'm not litigious by nature, but I think they should take legal action instead!
The final point I thought was important is the role groups can play in helping students write their dissertations. There are groups students form themselves on campus, online groups like PhinisheD, and phone groups like the ones my colleague Catharine and I run as dissertation coaches. We can help students from all over the country by gathering them together on a bridgeline regularly to talk about their timelines, their challenges, their progress. We provide accountability to keep them moving forward, a cheering squad when things go well--or don't (then we're a cheering-up squad)--and a place where the combined wisdom and experience of group members offers concrete help as well.
As the Times article concludes, schools are becoming more "aware that they must reduce the loneliness that defeats so many scholars." I am proud that I have helped create one place where ABDs can feel less isolated and more supported than they ever have before.