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Developing Practitioner-Scholar Doctoral Candidates as Critical Writers

Klocko, Barbara A; Marshall, Sarah M; Davidson, Jillian F.
Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice; West Palm Beach Vol. 15, Iss. 4, (Aug 2015): 21-31.


In this study, we sought to understand how students perceived the dissertation as practitioner-scholars and part-
time doctoral students in advanced doctoral programs in educational leadership. The results indicated that the
expectations associated with scholarly writing present major hurdles for doctoral students, and the dissertation
process can be lengthy, filled with anxiety, stress, and doubt. Doctoral faculty members are often called upon to
advise students as they balance their personal and professional demands with those of the academy. We found that
the essential part in this process is supporting practitioner students as they transform into doctoral level writers.

Full Text

In this study, we sought to understand how students perceived the dissertation as practitioner-scholars and part-
time doctoral students in advanced doctoral programs in educational leadership. The results indicated that the
expectations associated with scholarly writing present major hurdles for doctoral students, and the dissertation
process can be lengthy, filled with anxiety, stress, and doubt. Doctoral faculty members are often called upon to
advise students as they balance their personal and professional demands with those of the academy. We found that
the essential part in this process is supporting practitioner students as they transform into doctoral level writers.

In the realm of academia, writing skills are imperative to creating a lasting career, putting truth to the adage of
publish or perish (Ferguson, 2009). Since publications are commonly associated with academic prestige, it is fitting
that researching and writing a dissertation is the culminating activity for doctoral candidates (Kucan, 2011). In our
research and experience, we found that the dissertation process is lengthy, filled with anxiety, stress, and doubt. In
particular, the expectations associated with scholarly writing presented significant challenges to success for doctoral

For practitioner-scholars, there are additional stressors to completing coursework and the culminating dissertation.
Graduate students who are also full-time practitioners must carefully pilot the balance between graduate school,
employment and life (Belcher, 2009; Lavelle & Bushrow, 2007; Manalo, 2006; Nielson & Rocco, 2002; Ondrusek,
2012). Additionally, the need to alternate between the mindset of a practitioner and that of a scholar impacts both
the writing process and the framework with which one embraces inquiry (Labaree, 2003; Ondrusek, 2012).
Doctoral faculty members, and particularly doctoral dissertation advisers, are often called upon to instruct and
advise students as they balance their personal and professional demands with those of the academy. One key part
in this process is supporting practitioner students as they redefine their identity as doctoral level writers.


In 2013, we undertook a study designed to review the writing challenges experienced by doctoral candidates in an
educational leadership department at a Midwestern university. Our original study was written in response to the
literature base about the stresses facing practitioner-scholars as they advance through doctoral programs (Belcher,
2009; Ferguson, 2009; Kamler & Thomson, 2008; Nielsen & Rocco, 2002; Ondrusek, 2012; Wang & Li, 2011 ); the

concerns for the quality of scholarly presentation by doctoral candidates (Boote & Beile, 2005; Casanave &
Hubbard, 1992; Kamler & Thomson, 2008) and the possibilities that exist for educational leadership faculty to
provide assistance to students with expanded roles and responsibilities not normally associated with doctoral
candidacy (Manalo, 2006; Wang & Li, 2011).

According to Boote and Beile (2005), a lack of quality research in the field of education can be attributed to the
standards of educational doctoral programs. Graduate level discourse requires writers to “integrate disparate ideas,
synthesize perspectives, and extend theory” (Lavelle & Bushrow, 2007, p. 809). These concepts, which are
uncommon in undergraduate coursework, are elusive to practitionerstudents who approach writing assignments
from their perspective within their area of expertise.

Becoming a critical writer necessitates the development of a research lens with a focus on critical inquiry. When
analyzing an issue, the researcher’s position can be contrary to that of a practitioner and therefore practitioner-
doctoral students must be encouraged to separate from their professional identity in the workplace in order to
assess the underlying factors at play in education (Labaree, 2003). In essence, doctoral students must detach from
their pragmatism and subsequent practitioner beliefs in order to develop a worldview with an unbiased lens to
productively conduct objective research.


The importance of scholarly communication is well documented and understood as an influence to one’s research
output, which directly impacts a future academic career (Boote & Beile, 2005; Cafarella & Barnett, 2000; Ferguson,
2009). Nevertheless, the education of doctoral students on the writing process is neither a common practice in
higher education nor represented in the body of literature (Ferguson, 2009; Kamler & Thomson, 2006). Since the
1970s, the need for doctoral writing research has been noted and continues still today (Lavelle & Bushrow, 2007;
Manalo, 2006).

Doctoral Level Writing Dispositions

Two underlying stressors experienced by doctoral students when approaching writing include unclear expectations
of writing assignments and underdeveloped writing skills (Ferguson, 2009). Since undergraduate faculty have
different writing expectations than graduate programs, students do not have the opportunity to learn the
grammatical skills necessary to write at an academic level beyond the doctoral program (Kucan, 2011). When
students experience doubt about their ability to complete quality work, the result can be lower scores on their
writing submissions (Belcher, 2009; Lavelle & Bushrow, 2007; Ondrusek, 2012; Wang & Li, 2011).

Emotional Response to Feedback and Critique

During the course of doctoral studies, students receive varied feedback from peers and professors on writing
projects. Due to low self-confidence of writing skills, students are unsure how to move forward with the feedback
while maintaining their voice (Cafarella & Barnett, 1997; Cafarella & Barnett, 2000). Furthermore, critiques can be
viewed as personal attacks instead of assistance towards a better product (Nielson & Rocco, 2002). Wang and Li,
(2011) noted:

Feedback in doctoral research is a social practice embedded in supervisory relationships. This demands attention to
the interpersonal aspect of feedback, focusing not only on the what, that is, the text, but also on the how, that is,
the way in which feedback is given and received. (p. 102)

Overall, the process of editing is not understood by some graduate students; instead of using feedback to
reevaluate the overall strength of the piece, attention is often paid to correcting minutiae such as spelling and
grammar (Ondrusek, 2012).

Writing Efficiency

For practitioner-students, time management can be viewed as an insurmountable hurdle in the writing process
(Cafarella & Barnett, 2000). Nielson and Rocco (2002) noted that many doctoral students are responsible not only
for their studies but also a career or family. Accordingly, the age of students in educational doctoral students is
higher than other fields (Labaree, 2003). Thus, making research and writing a priority amongst life’s many other
duties and responsibilities can prove difficult for practitionerscholars (Belcher, 2009; Lavelle & Bushrow, 2007;
Manalo, 2006; Nielson & Rocco, 2002; Ondrusek, 2012). The issue of time is more about making the most of
limited time resources and prioritizing coursework amongst life’s other requirements.

Researcher View of Writing

Developing a researcher lens can be challenging for practitioner-students because “writing for their chosen
disciplines requires them to make major adjustments in how they view knowledge, learning, written expression,
and themselves before they reach a comfort level in scholarly writing” (Ondrusek, 2012, p. 180). By changing
viewpoints and ways of approaching inquiry, a level of dissonance ensues as doctoral students vacate their work-life
perspective for that of academia (Boote & Beile, 2005; Labaree, 2003). Less likely to be changed by their program
in a transformative way through the research process, many educational doctoral students do not plan to join the
academy and publish original research but desire to work in advanced practitioner roles in education (Labaree,
2003). The role of inquiry is therefore viewed as a by-product of advanced coursework versus a separate goal.


Issues of time management, doctoral level writing expectations, feedback and critique, and cognitive dissonance
between practitioner and scholar worldviews compound with the pressures of coursework and elicit feelings of
anxiety and a lack of confidence which can prove overwhelming in the dissertation writing process (Cafarella &
Barnett, 2000; Cuthbert & Spark, 2008; Ferguson, 2009; Ondrusek, 2012; Nielson & Rocco, 2002). Figure 1
provides a conceptual model of the four stressors we examined in this study.

Often, doctoral students have past academic successes which have created high expectations for their work. It is
understandable then when they receive constructive feedback and lower grades in their doctoral level coursework,
why self-imposed anxiety may result (Caffarella & Barnett, 1997; Ondrusek, 2012; Wang & Li, 2011). Additionally,
students can become frustrated when the feedback is limited, contradictory or of low-quality since they are unable
to clearly identify their missteps (Cafarella & Barnett, 2000). However, not all work produces the same emotional
responses. Belcher (2009) noted graduate students experience intense pressure surrounding academic writing
which can cause doubt, depression, or guilt and result in a lack of writing progress. Nielson and Rocco (2002)
explained “the more important the writing, the greater the apprehension” (p. 313). Students experience increased
anxiety in proportion to the importance of the assignment in their courses building to the ultimate project of
dissertation writing. To that end, the purpose of this study was to ascertain doctoral students’ beliefs regarding
critical writing skills and the extent to which professors can alleviate or contribute to student dissertation anxiety.
The research questions that inform this study included: 1) What helps or hinders practitioner students in their
academic writing process? 2) What areas do students feel they need more instruction? 3) What institutional or
curricular changes can be made to increase the number of practitioner students completing the doctoral program?


In this mixed-methods study, we systematically examined the beliefs of practitioner-scholars who had advanced in
a doctoral program in a Midwestern state regarding their critical writing expectations and stressors. We conducted
this exploratory study in 2013 to measure differing trends and adjust curricular practices and expectations
accordingly. Specifically we were interested in whether students felt that doctoral level coursework addressing
remedial writing skills would be beneficial to themselves or their peers. We designed a survey with both
quantitative and qualitative inquiry in mind. Consequently, the researchers were able to facilitate analysis by
calculating numerical averages as well as extracting emerging themes to provide a holistic interpretation of this
problem under examination.


Advanced doctoral students and graduates were invited to participate in this electronic survey. Eligible participants
completed their doctoral core coursework from 2006 to 2013 in a doctoral program in educational leadership at a
Midwestern state (n=97). Participants are part-time doctoral students who maintain full-time employment within an
educational setting. Most serve as administrators or faculty. Participants (n=47) consented to participate and
completed the online questionnaire administered through Survey Monkey®. This is not a longitudinal study and we
only sought to determine generalities based on the behaviors and attitudes of students and graduates as a cohort,
not as individuals through this research design. The sample size supports a 48% confidence level as ascertained by
the responses received by the researchers. Thus, we present a representative sample from the surveys to
adequately make generalizations about the perceptions of doctoral candidates in a Midwestern state regarding
critical writing skills and associated stress.


In order to establish construct validity of this survey, the variables were aligned with the literature base of scholarly
writing, the stress of doctoral candidates as defined in the literature, and the descriptors based on the experiences
that we had as researchers and professors. Thus, the researchers determined that the survey instrument measured
the theoretical constructs the instrument was designed to measure- doctoral students’ beliefs regarding critical
writing skills and the extent to which professors can alleviate or contribute to student dissertation anxiety. Since we
studied an array of variables that may be associated with doctoral candidate stress and writing under the multiple
constructs of knowledge, skills, and dispositions, we anticipated a wide degree of variation in the response. Thus,
there was a low but acceptable level of internal consistency (.59 Cronbach alpha) among the variables.


The final reporting of these data is presented as a descriptive narrative. While generalizable findings may appear,
this research is not seeking universals that exist free of context. Timely feedback from instructors, thinking
critically, and having a strong working vocabulary were essential elements for success indicated by these doctoral
candidates as shown in Table 1. We also found that respondents did not agree that technology resources were
essential to their writing acumen. However, candidates highly valued the supports provided through the university
library in securing literature, but seldom used the intensive writing support offered by the campus writing center.

Peer review provided interesting results in this study. When asked whether peer editing and review are helpful,
45% of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed. Conversely 26% either disagreed or strongly disagreed
and 24% of the respondents appeared ambivalent regarding peer editing and review. When asked how often they
asked a peer to review and comment on their writing, one third of the respondents reported almost never, and only
one respondent (2.22%) reported almost daily as shown in Figures 2 and 3.

The overall mean score of 2.4 suggests that students seek peer support once in a while, perhaps one occurrence
per week as shown in Table 2. These data generate questions regarding why doctoral students value peer review,
and yet seldom take advantage of this support.

This finding also corresponded with reports that 54% of the respondents answered N/A when queried about the
helpfulness of the writing center, suggesting that they had no experience or had never taken advantage of the
writing support offered by the university as shown in Figure 3. The writing center offers support for editing and
development of student manuscripts, and a mere 13% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that this was a
helpful support. It is interesting to note that 67% of the respondents indicated that they agree that doctoral level
class time should be used to teach writing skills and yet they do not avail themselves of peer review, nor did they
report problematic behaviors in their writing.

When asked to describe the challenges they face in developing their writing expertise, the respondents consistently
identified time and anxiety, over developing writing expertise. However the mean response indicates that students
schedule sustained blocks of uninterrupted time, more than two hours two to three times weekly as shown in Table
2. In looking at the distribution, it appears that they are prioritizing their writing time, but students still are
distraught over the time requirements of scholarly writing. If these practitioner students are indeed regularly

scheduling more than two hours for writing daily (15%), four to five times weekly (28%), two to three times
weekly (28%), or even once a week (24%), time should not pose a barrier to the completion of their dissertation.

As self-reported data from a small population, the qualitative results of this study posed interesting findings that
may inform faculty. The qualitative data were organized around four key themes entitled: time, feedback and clear
expectations, anxiety, and writing mechanics.


The first major finding related to effective use of time. According to the data, students are scheduling time to
complete their writing assignments yet they experience high levels of anxiety about the amount of writing required
in their doctoral program. If adequate time is being set aside, the efficient use of this allocated time is called into
question (Belcher, 2009). According to one participant, “I need long chunks of time in my schedule. I need to
immerse my brain in my material.” Students set aside sufficient time to complete quality assignments yet failed to
effectively utilize their time. Stress pertaining to writing and project completion lead to anxiety as a stumbling block
to writing. As one participant commented, “I fear not writing well. I struggle with writer’s block.” If students felt
more capable to do the writing assignments by improving their writing and researching skills, anxiety could be
lessened and the amount of time allocated for the projects would be sufficient. As one other participant added, “I
am challenged by organization. I never feel that I know enough about a topic to come up with a decent outline.”

Participants offered suggestions for lessoning anxiety associated with writing and time management. These
suggestions included meeting regularly with their advisor and/or faculty members for regular feedback, writing
strategies and encouragement. Participants in this study recognized the vital roles that faculty play in developing
students’ doctoral level writing skills but also in building their confidence. Second, participants recommended the
inclusion of organization tools to assist them in mapping out a timeline for completion, developing milestones
toward achieving their writing goals, and for learning how to locate and abstract literature. Third, participants also
identified the positive impact of peer editing or peer writing groups. By receiving additional feedback from their
peers, students were able to obtain another perspective on their writing from a less-intimidating peer.

Feedback and Clear Expectations

The second key theme that emerged from the participants was the need to have clear, faculty expectations and
consistent, constructive feedback. Additionally, the expectations and feedback should be consistent across faculty.
For example, one faculty member would have high expectations for the proper incorporation of and citation of
literature and the next would devalue these elements and emphasize grammar and organization. The contradictory
feedback between instructors was confusing and frustrating for participants. In the words of one participant, “The
expectations for each professor and paper have not always been clear. It would be beneficial for there to be ground
rules within the department for grading and paper component expectations.” The need for faculty consensus on
grammar, citations, organizational preferences, and other writing elements were frequently sought by participants.

Additionally, participants noted incompatibility between student and faculty expectations on writing assignments. As
one participant stated, “It seems each professor has a different hang up on writing…it seems a common rubric
would help… please stay consistent.” Ironically the quantitative data supported clearly explained scholarly writing
expectations on assignments, while the qualitative data spoke to a clear disconnect between student and instructor
expectations on writing assignments. In an effort to ensure uniform, realistic expectations that are consistent
between faculty and students, detailed rubrics with specific assessment criteria were recommended.


Another theme that emerged from the qualitative data surrounded student anxieties surrounding the writing
process. At times the emotional response to the assignment would appear as writer’s block, paralyzing even to the
most seasoned writers, leading to a student’s inability to complete quality, timely assignments. An additional
contributing factor to their writing anxiety included receiving participant’s responses to constructive feedback.
Rather than appreciate faculty feedback, participants commented on how the feedback only contributed to their

feelings of writing. One student in particular discussed his struggle after completing the comprehensive exam
process, “After comps, I had an extremely difficult time getting my confidence back. The first time I had to write I
sat at the computer for an hour and couldn’t get a word down. That had never happened to me before.” Rather
than recognize the constructive nature of faculty feedback, participants felt critiqued and their confidence shaken.

Participants offered strategies for reducing the anxiety associated with writing. These recommendations included
the implementation of peer review or peer writing groups where students could offer support, encouragement and
constructive feedback to one another. By supporting one another through the obstacles associated with writing,
participants recognized that they were not alone in their challenges and could learn from one another.

Additionally, faculty become critical in building writing skills and self-assurance in students. As per our participants,
faculty should consider providing practice examples of quality writing. Additionally, one participant commented on
how much she appreciated a faculty member who shared a recent review she received from a journal. The faculty
member received extensive feedback and planned to revise and resubmit the article. The student commented
knowing that a faculty member received feedback on her writing validated the idea that everyone’s writing could be
improved. Students recommended creating a culture of demystifying the feedback process and welcoming the
feedback as a way to improve their writing rather than the feedback serving as an indication of their lack of
understanding of scholarly writing. Additionally, participants reinforced the need for positive, reinforcing feedback to
help offset some of the harsher constructive feedback. For the doctoral students, knowing what they are doing
correctly was just as important as understanding the improvements which needed to be made by providing a boost
to their confidence level. As one participant stated, “when a faculty member wrote ‘that is doctoral level writing’ on
my paper, I was ecstatic. This one comment really boosted my confidence.”

Writing Mechanics

The fourth theme that emerged from the qualitative literature relates to the overall mechanics of writing. Students
noted that they struggled with the fundamentals of writing including proper citations, grammar, verb-tense and
passive voice. Since participants were practitioner-scholars with full-time jobs, their work settings did not often
require academic type writing. As a result, participants recognized the need for remediation in the fundamentals of
writing, citing and basic literature searches.

Participants recommended faculty administer and review practice tests related to writing basics. They also endorsed
allowing students to rewrite papers or submit drafts prior to the deadline. These opportunities would allow them to
improve their writing with each draft. Respondents suggested current students use the university writing center, if
that center has individuals qualified to assess and provide feedback for doctoral-level writing. Understanding that
the dissertation is a major hurdle to completion, students recommended course assignments be created to
specifically demystify the dissertation process and allow them to prepare for the dissertation (Cuthbert & Spark,
2008). Students did recommend additional writing support but most agreed that writing seminars or APA
workshops should be optional as not everyone needed remediation in this area.


As the findings from this study indicated, practitioner doctoral students struggle with efficiently using writing time,
ways to organize their writing projects, and high levels of emotional stress related to producing writing for critique.
Proactively addressing these challenges and infusing strategies for overcoming these barriers throughout a doctoral
program are vital to student writing success. As early as program orientation, writing strategies should be taught
and then reinforced throughout the doctoral program. By focusing on the process of writing and critiquing to
develop academic writing skills at the beginning phase of doctoral studies, a culture of improvement is established
during the initial socialization of a doctoral program (Cafarella & Barnett, 2000). Training topics should include
establishing writing timelines, how to search the literature, concept mapping and outlining projects, proper citation
and a review of common grammatical mistakes. As evidenced in our findings, despite being doctoral students, most
students needed intentional instruction and practice related to basic scholarly writing. By emphasizing quality
writing throughout a doctoral program, faculty and students alike have shared expectations for what it means to be
a member of the learning body.

Additionally, peer review can be a helpful tool in doctoral writing, but students must first be educated on how to
provide meaningful and constructive feedback. Peer evaluation helps create a culture of ongoing feedback and
insights about what feedback means, how to emotionally respond, and what to do with the feedback. Since
everyone in the writing group follows the same processes and is then critiqued, receiving feedback becomes de-
stigmatized (Cafarella & Barnett, 2000). This is an important process which can reduce some of the anxiety
associated with writing over time when students frequently take part in peer review assignments or group writings
(Cuthbert & Spark, 2008; Cafarella & Barnett, 2000).

Lastly, faculty members can help by defining writing expectations and holding individual student conferences.
Departmental consensus on writing expectations and priorities is imperative for student success in learning the
elements of scholarly writing. Clear expectations, detailed rubrics, and specific feedback (Belcher, 2009) are aids in
advancing student’s writing skills. When student’s skills improve and their efficacy increases, they are more likely to
view themselves as capable of completing a dissertation and have the motivation to complete. If improving student
writing and reducing writing anxiety are departmental priorities, faculty must collectively discuss expectations and
implement the necessary changes. Furthermore, students should be encouraged to meet with course instructors
and advisors to receive feedback on their writing and suggestions for approaching writing assignments. By regularly
discussing writing projects with advisors, students will build writing confidence and improve their writing skills
(Cafarella & Barnett, 2000).

This study was intentionally limited to one doctoral program with students who work full-time as educational
leaders. This study is unique because of the lens of practitioner-scholars and their perspectives on scholarly writing.
Based on the findings from this survey, areas for future research include identifying ways to embrace the diversity
of perspectives brought to doctoral programs by practitioners while prioritizing doctoral level writing. Moreover,
further studies could examine how institutions can strike a balance between creating an environment built to
provide students with academic success while still providing opportunities for transformative learning. Additionally,
we have determined that additional research is warranted regarding the role of the student in the dissertation
writing process.


The ability to write critically is an essential component to becoming a member of the academic community and,
therefore, doctoral programs conclude with the ultimate writing task; a dissertation. For many practitioner-
students, the writing skills they bring to the classroom are reflections of their undergraduate courses or workplace
experiences and do not meet the expectations of doctoral programs. This gap between skills and expectations,
when not met during the initial stages of a doctoral program, leads to doubt, anxiety and stress. For practitioner-
scholars managing multiple responsibilities on top of their coursework, the emotional duress can result in late
assignments, lower scores, and even discontinuation of the program. From our research, we have learned there are
changes which can be made by students and faculty to bridge the skills gap, create consistency and transparency,
and build a program focused on scholarly expression.


Belcher, W.L. (2009). Writing Your Journal Article in 12 weeks: A Guide to academic publishing success. Los
Angeles: Sage.

Boote, D. N., & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: on the centrality of the dissertation literature review
in research preparation. Educational Researcher, 34(6), 3-15.

Caffarella, R. S., & Barnett, B. G. (1997). Teaching doctoral students writing: Negotiating the borders between the
world of practice and doctoral study. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the University Council for
Educational Administration, Orlando, FL.

Caffarella, 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.

Casanave, C. P., & Hubbard, P. (1992). The writing assignments and writing problems of doctoral students: Faculty
perceptions, pedagogical issues, and needed research. English for Specific Purposes, 11(1), 33-49.

Cuthbert, D., & Spark, C. (2008). Getting a GRIP; Examining the outcomes of a pilot program to support graduate
research students in writing for publication. Studies in Higher Education, 33, 77-88.

Ferguson, T. (2009). The ‘write’ skills and more: A thesis writing group for doctoral students. Journal of Geography
in Higher Education, 33(2), 285-297.

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

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2008). The failure of dissertation advice books: Toward alternative pedagogies for
doctoral writing. Educational Researcher, 37(8), 507-514.

Kucan, L. (2011). Approximating the practice of writing the dissertation literature review. Literacy Research and
Instruction, 50(3), 229-240.

Labaree, D.F. (2003). The Peculiar problems of preparing educational researchers. Educational Researcher, 32(4),

Lavelle, E., & Bushrow, K. (December, 2007). Writing approaches of graduate students. Educational Psychology,
27(6), 807-822.

Manalo, E. (2006). The usefulness of an intensive preparatory course for EAL thesis writers. Journal of Research in
International Education, 5(2), 215-230.

Nielsen, S. M., & Rocco, T. S. (2002). Joining the conversation: Graduate students’ perceptions of writing for
publication. Paper presented at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the Adult Education Research Conference. Raleigh, NC.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 471830).

Ondrusek, A. L. (2012). What the Research Reveals about Graduate Students’ Writing Skills: A Literature Review.
Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 53(3), 176-188.

Wang, T., & Li, L. Y. (2011). ‘Tell me what to do ‘vs.’ guide me through it’: Feedback experiences of international
doctoral students. Active Learning in Higher Education, 12(2), 101-112.

Barbara A. Klocko

Central Michigan University

Sarah M. Marshall

Central Michigan University

Jillian F. Davidson

Central Michigan University

Copyright North American Business Press Aug 2015


Subject Studies;
Student writing;
Graduate studies;
Educational leadership;
Graduate students;
Scholarly communication;
Dissertations & theses

Title Developing Practitioner-Scholar Doctoral Candidates as Critical Writers
Author Klocko, Barbara A; Marshall, Sarah M; Davidson, Jillian F
Publication title Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice; West Palm Beach
Volume 15
Issue 4
Pages 21-31
Number of pages 11
Publication year 2015
Publication date Aug 2015
Publisher North American Business Press
Place of publication West Palm Beach
Country of publication United States, West Palm Beach
Publication subject Education–Higher Education
ISSN 21583595
Source type Scholarly Journal
Language of publication English
Document type Feature
Document feature References; Tables; Graphs; Diagrams
ProQuest document ID 1726783985
Document URL


Copyright Copyright North American Business Press Aug 2015
Last updated 2016-10-08
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By Patricia D’Urso


Essential Questions

1. What is synthesis?

2. What is the difference between explanatory synthesis and argumentative synthesis?

3. How does synthesis differ from other processes or terms used in developing the literature review?

4. What is the difference between summary and synthesis?

5. What are some strategies one can use to synthesize research studies and literary articles?

6. How does synthesis �t into the literature review?

A primary aspect of writing the literature review is to focus and contextualize the study, which requires the

writer to generate information to substantiate the topic and problem as demonstrated in the publication of

prior knowledge in scholarly literature (Mertens & McLaughlin, 1995). In writing the literature review for a

dissertation study, the researcher needs to place the topic or problem in the broader scholarly literature as well

as in an appropriate historical context of the �eld. Additionally, the doctoral learner should distinguish what

research has been done in the �eld of study as well as what needs to be done. Articulation of important

variables and phenomena relevant to the topic should be included and synthesized to demonstrate a new

perspective on the literature and prior research on the topic. There will be inconsistencies and tension in the

literature, which should be clari�ed and discussed. The doctoral researcher must illuminate the scope and

discuss limitations of the existing literature. Achieving these goals requires a variety of writing and research

skills, one of which is synthesis. This chapter of the textbook presents information related to the skill of

synthesis and how it is a critical component of the literature review process.

What Is Synthesis?

Synthesis includes acts of constructing or bringing together the different elements or strands of information

that contribute to a body of knowledge on a topic. Synthesis in the literature review is the way the researcher

integrates the analysis and evaluation of the many research studies and literary works of authors who have

published on the topic. Researchers will approach synthesis in a variety of ways, sometimes in�uenced by

their own schemas.

Synthesis should include a critical analysis of the literature wherein the doctoral researcher identi�es the

most important ideas read, discusses the importance of those ideas within the context of his/her own study,

and integrates all or most of those ideas, whether they are similar or dissimilar (Paul & Elder, 2006). By doing

so, the literature review can provide the opportunity to look across many disciplines that include the same

concept or construct for a comparative or contrasting analysis.

The writer should corroborate,

compare, and contrast �ndings

among the many sources.

When synthesizing, the writer should go beyond describing philosophy or �ndings, using critical analysis to

compare and contrast works. Some strategies used for critical analysis of the research include:

Read diagnostically and comprehensively for the problem spaces in the literature.

Identify groups or situations that still need to be studied on the topic.

Identify what authoritative researchers and thought leaders in the �eld suggest still needs to be explored

or investigated.

Think about how a contrarian position on what is in the literature to date could be a worthy opponent.

Identify the precedents that exist in the literature on the topic.

Analyze to separate the literature into constituent parts and describe each part as it relates to other parts

(Hart, 2010). “Analysis activities are characteristically re�ective, such as investigating the problem,

perhaps discovering previous solutions … and reviewing solution candidates” (Att�eld, Blandford, &

Dowell, 2003, p. 13).

Compare to relate two or more concepts, philosophies, elements, techniques, practices or whatever the

fundamental issue of interest is in the spirit of constructing an argument, where the items to be

compared are similar.

Compare what one thought leader has offered, perhaps in theory, and what others have offered; seek to

understand the existing perspectives in the �eld of study to establish credibility.

Contrast to differentiate two or more concepts, philosophies, elements, techniques, practices or whatever

the fundamental issue of interest is in the spirit of constructing an argument, where the items to be

contrasted are dissimilar.

Draw conclusions to think about a restatement of the topic and thesis for the section of a literature

review. The conclusion should address alternate explanations and perspectives and should also outline

potential actions or new research directions. A conclusion is drawn from what has been written, and a

mention of the problem space(s) found in the research process should be explained.

Once the doctoral researcher has engaged in suf�cient reading and critical analysis to arrive at valid

information to make an argument, explanatory and argument synthesis can be crafted. The literature review

can inform the reader how the researcher’s study is different from the previous studies analyzed in the

literature review and how this study can extend previous research (Pyrczak & Bruce, 2011). This expression of

ideas moves the researcher from existing perspectives to emerging perspectives from which he/she could

form new plausible arguments.

Many synthesis sections will include the following:


Explanation and argument,

A conclusion that follows the premise of the study, and

A declaration of the realization that it is impossible (most times) to represent all of what is in the


According to Hart (2010), taking this realistic approach about one’s research enables the reader to understand

that the researcher’s inquisitive attitude prevails in order to facilitate ways of looking at different ideas and

synthesizing them into new ideas.

Doctoral researchers, researchers of empirical work, interested citizens, all bring individual perspectives to a

discussion of a topic. This is to be expected. One responsibility of the sophisticated doctoral researcher is to

present crucial source material in suf�cient detail to capture the attention of the reader about the topic and to

present this information in a logical �ow as the argument is developed. Transitioning from summaries of

existing material often requires the researcher to synthesize

information from more than one source to create the new

perspective. The steps more commonly used to synthesize

properly are organizing to combine information, recalling

from the research, recreating from summary, and forming a

different whole to provide different meaning. The writer

should corroborate, compare, and contrast �ndings among the many sources to identify the similarities, the

differences, and other subtleties that could be lost easily without this deep analysis. Once these tasks are

completed, the doctoral researcher can form a new perspective (synthesis).

Synthesis should be grounded in a strong comprehension of the literature reviewed. For example, in practice, a

journalist has an assignment to get the story. This is like reviewing the literature and getting the facts as

written in scholarly journals about the dissertation topic. Not until all the facts are uncovered about the story,

and this could take months, even years, can the readers/viewers of this story be convinced of the a priori

assertion. At the time that all or most of the facts are revealed, a reader/viewer may change his/her mind from

the a priori formation because the facts revealed are grounded in a strong comprehensive investigation, which

includes corroborating, comparing, and contrasting the facts with other players in the scenario and, perhaps,

receives full exposure in a courtroom trial proceeding. This process requires the writer to develop both an

explanatory and argument synthesis of the facts and details related to the story. Explanatory synthesis or

argument synthesis, or a combination of both, can also be appropriate for the dissertation study. An

explanatory synthesis will provide information for the reader to understand the topic. In contrast, argument

synthesis, is used to present the focus and defend the problem statement from the many sources chosen to

analyze, realizing that any argumentative writing could be debated. There will be situations where two

doctoral researchers will present factual source materials and arrive at opposite theses (Att�eld, Blandford, &

Dowell, 2003). Many GCU doctoral learners use both explanatory and argument synthesis in their dissertation

literature reviews.

Often, explanatory synthesis is used in the initial parts of the dissertation literature review as the researcher

presents background information related to the topic. For example, conducting educational research

pertaining to the learner achievement gap before and after the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 will

immerse the researcher within Title I provisions applied to disadvantaged learners. Explanatory synthesis, in

this respect, may also include associated problems of statewide testing, local �exibility, and accountability

systems. The implementation of the NCLB Act impacted education in many ways, particularly with regard to

learner achievement. A literary non�ction account will present a perspective on problems associated with

NCLB (Quinton, 2015). Moreover, the researcher will understand that debates related to the implementation of

the act. Sections that incorporate information to enable reader understanding in the literature review will

again implement explanatory synthesis; however, argument synthesis is used in the literature review as well.

The GCU doctoral learner will use argument synthesis to focus and defend the problem statement. Here, the

researcher will identify a problem space from prior research on the topic. Therefore, the research studies must

be synthesized or categorized in some like manner, such as by method, data-collection instrument, sample, or

results. As part of the literature review, the researcher must present and analyze studies that have been

conducted on the topic. Here, the researcher will take the studies and will identify similarities among them

and present an argument for the problem under study. This process will be presented in more detail later in

this chapter and the dissertation template (

There are a number of steps to take to establish a convincing and logical argumentation synthesis. The writer

should consider what the structure of the argument will look like and how the argument will be built,

analyzed, and evaluated relative to the dissertation topic. The tools and process of developing a logical

argument and then the defense of the argument are essential to understand if the doctoral researcher is

attempting to in�uence the reader. According to Hart (2010) “argumentation analysis and evaluation …

deconstructs and then reconstructs differently the ideas of other people” (p. 97). Deconstructing and

reconstructing is part of the overall process, and these steps are necessary for the doctoral researcher to

develop the argument, support (or refute) the argument, and synthesize all the information analyzed.

Tools and Tips

Capture factual statements to demonstrate something is true (cite your work).

Check the facts. Is one set of facts better than another to establish something is true?

State the premise or problem statement clearly. Check that the claim the argument is

making is reasonable.

Check the literature for other sources.

Early in the literature review, the doctoral researcher will start with a topic in mind, but that topic is subject to

change as the researcher gets deeper into the subject matter and experiences a deeper understanding. It is

advisable not to make unequivocal statements at any stage of the argument construction unless you can

substantiate such statements from the literature review. A good practice is to assess the information at stages

and synthesize the information to determine if a priori thoughts still hold up, or if, after rede�ning and

rethinking, the researcher discovers so much more about the problem that he/she realizes a need to critically

evaluate his/her own original perceptions or misconceptions. An example of this type of problem solving in

decision science is Bayes theorem. A priori information is available upon which the decision maker makes a

decision, but when new evidence is available the decision maker can update his/her beliefs and perhaps

change the original decision. In linear analysis, Bayes theorem, a derivative of theory of probability, can be

applied in the activity of the literature review, in that probability of an event measures a degree of one’s belief

(Lind et al., 2012). Capturing this information in an authentic whole requires the ability to synthesize. There are

several strategies one can use to structure the literature review in such a way that effectively combines

summary with synthesis.

What Is the Difference Between Summary and Synthesis?
One issue that doctoral learners experience when writing the literature review includes learning how to

synthesize information rather than summarizing or writing in a book report format. When writers summarize,

they highlight the main ideas of a written work and paraphrase them in their own words. They also give

credit to those individuals who expounded the original work. In contrast, when writers synthesize, they

engage in higher level thinking, combining information into a new whole. Table 3.1 highlights the differences

between synthesis and summary.

Table 3.1

Differences Between Summary and Synthesis

When summarizing, the writer will �rst read two or more articles or research studies and annotate them,

highlighting key words and main ideas, making notes in the margins, writing down main ideas, and

identifying headings and categories. After reading and annotating, the writer will then make an outline or

summary of each article separately, to include the main content, main claims, and author’s purpose as well as

details, such as the population, methodology, and results of an empirical study. To demonstrate the summary

process, consider the following simple exercise: Every household has a junk drawer that serves as the “catch

all” for items. Have a friend or family member go to that junk drawer and randomly extract three items. For the

purposes of this discussion, a writer has taken the following three items from an of�ce desk drawer: a

computer mouse, a tube of lotion, and a wooden stamp set. The following is one possible summary of the three


Summary Synthesis

Lower level thinking Higher level thinking

Lists facts or main ideas from a single source Integrates information from more than one source
into a new whole

Entails restating the information in writers’
own words.

Compares and contrasts information from sources

Summarize: “Summarizing is an essential
activity in literature reviewing. It is also an
essential part of managing the literature and
provides the basis for the organizing,
analyzing and synthesizing which follow”
(Punch, 2009, p. 101).

Combines information from more than one source
in writers’ own words.

Multiple sources in a paragraph in which “findings
are compared/contrasted/analyzed, and if
possible synthesized, along with a discussion on
how these references relate to your study” (Simon
& Goes, 2013, p. 277).

The computer mouse is used to navigate the computer. It is about 3 inches long and 1.5 inches wide.

It is purple on top with black sides and bottom. It has a wheel on the top that the writer can use to

move the page on the computer screen up and down. There are indentations on the side for the

thumb and �ngers. On the bottom one will �nd a removable door for the battery and an on/off

switch, which also indicates whether or not the battery is working.

The tube of lotion is about 3 inches tall and holds healing, aloe lotion. The cover says the lotion has

a clean scent, contains vitamins A, C, and E, and is nongreasy. The lid to the tube is gold and the

actual tube is cream colored. The tube contains blue symbols that look like molecules and writing.

The lotion itself is white, creamy, and smells like coconut oil.

The wooden stamp set comes in a square box that is pink and white with gold lettering. There are

six stamps in the box, which offer words of af�rmation: thank you, hi, to: from, hooray, and

congratulations. The stamps are in three different sizes: two are rectangular, two are cubes and one

In the above sample, the author describes three separate items from a desk drawer for the reader. However, as

stated earlier in this chapter, synthesis entails the writer including information from more than one source in

his or own words. This requires the writer to compare, contrast, and analyze the information. The following

paragraph represents a synthesis of the three objects from the desk drawer. First, the writer combines all three

summaries into one paragraph. Then, the writer includes a paragraph that discusses the similarities and

differences of the items. Finally, the writer writes a conclusion that highlights the main themes from the

articles and how they relate to the overall topic. The writer may suggest areas for further consideration or

research in the conclusion, as well. The next example shows a synthesis of the three items from the desk


In this synthesis, the writer �rst compares all three items from the desk drawer and then contrasts them.

Finally, the writer draws conclusions about the three items. This paragraph moves beyond the summary

description of the three items to analyze the purpose and functionality between the items, along with the

choices of those items.

In Chapter 2 of the dissertation, the literature review, doctoral learners often summarize research studies

related to their dissertation topics. The following passage shows an example of how one writer summarized a

research study.

is long and rectangular in shape. The stamps have black, cursive lettering.

The �rst item described is a purple, computer mouse, which is used to navigate the computer. The

mouse is approximately 3 inches long and 1.5 inches wide, with a wheel on the top the writer can

use to move the page on the computer screen up and down. There are indentations on the side for

the thumb and �ngers and the bottom there is a removable door for the battery and a power switch.

The second item is tube of cream and blue tube of healing, aloe lotion, which is approximately 3

inches tall. The lotion contains vitamins A, C, and E and is nongreasy. The lotion is white, with a

coconut scent. The third item is a box of six wooden stamps that come in a square box that is pink

and white with gold lettering. The six stamps have phrases with black cursive letting: thank you, hi,

to: from, hooray, and congratulations. The stamps are three different sizes: two rectangular, two

cubes, and one long rectangular.

All three, colorful, compact objects were retrieved from one of�ce desk drawer and are used during

the course of the day. Two of the objects (the stamps and the mouse) are used for daily work tasks,

whereas the tube of lotion is used for personal reasons. The items are different shapes. Two items,

the mouse and lotion are bene�cial for the worker. The mouse helps navigate the computer, and the

hand lotion eases dry skin. The stamp set is “fun” and not a necessity for the of�ce.

In sum, desk objects offer some similarities and differences. They are all used in the of�ce setting,

but for different purposes. They also re�ect the worker’s or owner’s personality in that they are

colorful, cheerful, and to a degree, whimsical. One may conclude that the of�ce worker wants some

variety in her day, so she chose fun, colorful items and maintain her soft hands to get their job done.

Cross (2014) conducted a quantitative study designed to determine what, if any, impact “grit” had on

learner success in the doctoral program. Grit was de�ned as the persistence, determination, and

passion the learners had to reach their long-term goal of completing the doctoral degree (Duckworth

et al., 2007). Cross (2014) used a correlational design to determine if learner “grit” was related to

learners’ current GPA. The independent variable for the study was learner “grit” scores as measured by

the Grit-S survey developed by Duckworth and Quinn, (2009). The dependent variable was learners’

current GPA in the doctoral program. Other controlling variables of learner gender and age were

collected and tested in the study. The sample consisted of 669 doctoral learners from a private, for-

pro�t university in the United States. Results of Pearson R correlations showed a statically signi�cant

relationship existed between learner grit scores and their GPA. When speci�c demographic factors

were tested, the results revealed a statistically signi�cant relationship between the grit scores of

females and GPA, but not males. Furthermore, results showed that a learner’s age was not signi�cantly

related to GPA, but grit scores were. Grit was positively related to GPA, but only for the female learners.

Cross (2014) concluded that in some ways, grit is a factor associated with the success of the online

doctoral learners in this sample, warranting need for further research on the topic.

This passage represents a summary of a research study on a speci�c topic, that of learner grit. The author has

highlighted the key components of the study; however, the passage does not re�ect synthesis, because the

author has not compiled information on more than one study within a passage and offered a comparison or

contrast of those studies. While it is important to summarize and fully present studies to identify a potential

limitation and problem space, synthesis is also important for certain parts of the literature review as the

author attempts to pull together components from more than one source and combine them in a new “whole”

to present information and set context for the study.

In order to determine what synthesis is, one might consider what it is not. First, synthesis is not accomplished

when a writer lists information from three or four authors in one paragraph (Craigo, 2003). Consider the

following example using �ctitious sources (Note: The example presented refers to purely �ctitious studies. As

such, references for these studies do not appear in the reference list at the end of the chapter.):

This paragraph, while containing valuable information on the attributes of leaders, does not compare or

contrast the attributes presented by the three authors. Instead, the writer summarizes the respective attributes

of leaders. Likewise, synthesis is not achieved when the writer quotes three or more authors in a paragraph.

When synthesizing, the writer will integrate information from more than one source to present his/her

position on the topic, as seen in this �ctitious passage (Note: The presented refers to purely �ctitious studies.

As such, references for these studies do not appear in the reference list at the end of the chapter.):

There are many attributes of great leaders. Great leaders are value-based, not fear-based (Smith, 2009).

Great leaders provide the opportunity to be heard, as in a democratic organization (Johnson, 2013). Other

great leaders give employees a voice, emphasizing their values (Brown, 1985).

A fundamental statement of the Rushmorean principle is that trust derives from the respect a leader

displays for followers. Respect for employees is evidenced when leaders actively listen and loyally

represent employee interests. Great leaders are values-based, not fear-based, provide employees a voice

with opportunities to be heard, keep promises, and promote employee dreams and aspirations to achieve

cause, without harm (Brown, 1985; Johnson, 2009; O’Malley 2003). If the Rushmorean principle were

adopted authentically in a workplace where there exists con�ict, dissention, and hostility, over time, it

could take a longer to realize improvement. Employees at all levels should observe and engage in

behaviors that emanate directly from listening to one another, responding with care and representing

In this passage, the author synthesizes information on great leaders from four different sources, and then

connects these perspectives to her own study on the Rushmorean principle, providing context and evidence of

her position. Thus, the difference between summary and synthesis lies in the details. Summary includes the

writer’s own recount of information from one source. Synthesis, on the other hand, includes the writer’s own

recount of information from more than one source, presented as critical thought through comparison and

contrast. The following section describes some approaches writers use to synthesize information.

What Strategies Can Writers Use to Synthesize Information?
Several strategies may be used to synthesize information. When beginning the research process, the writer

must consider what other authors have published on the topic, what that writing entailed, and how those

works were related (Bowling Green State University, 2011). Then, the writer re�ects on how the view of others

can be incorporated into his/her own views in a new and meaningful work. A synthesis extends beyond a

summary or series of summaries; it includes several works woven together with the author’s unique

perspective on the topic. Additionally, the writer can discuss how the sources or results relate to the study,

argument, or topic.

The key to synthesis is to use several different sources to support one main idea but discuss the relationship

between the sources. Considering the following questions may also help the writer synthesize:

Do the authors or study results agree?

Do the authors or study results disagree?

Does the work of one author or results of one study add to or advance an idea or results presented by the

other? (Bowling Green State University, 2011).

In the synthesis, the writer may also address the following:

How are the studies similar (compare)? Different (contrast)?

How accurate and valid are the measurements?

Are the conclusions supported based on the data and analysis?

What are the strengths and weakness of the studies?

What is known and not known – identify the overlaps and problem spaces in the knowledge?

Thus, synthesis allows the writer to take information from more than one source and create a new and

meaningful whole. The new whole demonstrates the doctoral learner’s ability to identify the interrelationships

between and among the literature and research on the topic.

Graphic Organizers

Writers can also use graphic organizers to organize and compare and contrast ideas during the synthesis

process. To create a Venn diagram (see Figure 3.1), draw overlapping circles and place each signi�cant element

of the discussion of empirical works so that in the section where the elements overlap, those traits or

attributes are presented that make a difference or contribute to the basic or central part of the argument of the


others’ welfare, and managers and employees alike at all levels staying true to their word. “I’ve got your

back” would be an anthem for such a workplace. Oberon and Adams (2006) found that organizational

citizenship behavior was positively related to intrinsic motivators, which contribute to a positive work

attitude. The Rushmorean principle, which espouses values, such as respect, honor, integrity, justice, can

change worker attitudes, beliefs, and goals.

Figure 3.1

Comparison Matrix

Many GCU doctoral learners and faculty use a matrix to help synthesize writing. A comparison matrix can

help learners keep large amounts of information focused and organized. It also provides a place to view

selected notes side-by-side for comparison and analysis. By itself, it is simply an empty table, but once

learners assign categories to compare, then it becomes an effective research tool. The columns represent the

selected articles, and the rows contain the different sections the learner wants to compare. More rows and

columns can be added as the research expands. The comparison matrix allows learners to recognize

similarities and differences between the articles. Once learners have identi�ed the sections and input their

�ndings in each box, they are able to examine and analyze the information. Ultimately, learners will

synthesize the data in the rows and columns into a written document that demonstrates their analytic

abilities and understanding of the subject material. A comparison matrix is only as good as the learner’s

ability to adequately identify each section and produce comprehensive notes that communicate the necessary

information that can be synthesized later into sound analysis. A synthesis matrix is similar to a comparison

matrix, as it is a tool to help learners identify patterns and themes within the literature. For a synthesis paper

in a course, students identify themes to support a thesis, and while the task is comparable to a dissertation, it

is more complex.

In developing the literature review, a writer usually develops a detailed outline. For each section of that outline,

or topic/theme, the researcher can identify appropriate studies and/or literary articles on the topic. Speci�c to

the GCU literature review, learners must present a section critiquing methods used in prior studies as well as

instruments. Thus, a synthesis matrix can be bene�cial for this purpose. An example of a synthesis matrix on

the topic of community college succession planning is in Table 3.2. After recording information from these

studies, the researcher is prepared to summarize each study and then synthesize the information to develop

one section of the literature review.

Example of Comparing Shared Variance Among Three Related Elements

Table 3.2

Sample Completed Synthesis Matrix

Studies on
(NOTE: These
examples are
entered as
records not full
APA references.
While not
required, the
researcher may
wish to capture a
full reference.)

Trickle, M.
(2015). “The
Exploration of
Strategies in
New Jersey

Betak, A. K. (2010). “Community College
Succession Planning: Preparing the Next
Generation of Women for Leadership Roles.” View

Shantz, J. K.
“A Study of the
Impact of a
Program on a
Line and

Compare and Contras



House’s (1996)
theory; Kotter’s
(2005) eight
steps of change

Transformational leadership Kouzes and
Posner’s five

All three
focus on

All use

Purpose &

Investigate how
colleges in New
Jersey develop
and execute
colleges are
going to see
retirements in
the future due
to the
maturation of
maturation of
leaders and

Purpose: Investigate strategies that will help
community colleges to develop and cultivate
women who were employed in middle level
management positions to assume executive level
leadership positions.
Significance: Retirement rates of community
college leaders exceed the pace at which these
positions are being filled.

Investigate the
of a “Grow
Your Own”
program on the
of front-line
and middle
managers at
one community
college in the
United States.
shortage of
leaders, this
study shows
of Grow Your
Own programs
as one
strategy to

The purpose
of all three is
to identify
strategies or
ways to
planning in
setting, with
shortage of
leaders in the
future due to
retirement of

on exe
is inte
in com
level m
to mov


1. Focuses on
how leaders in
New Jersey
colleges plan
for the
succession of
2. Focuses on
how leadership
programs in
New Jersey
colleges align
with succession
3. Focuses on
structures that
planning in the
4. Focuses on
how shared
structure in the

1. Focuses on how community colleges plan for
the succession of females to senior level
leadership positions
2. Focuses on the variables that community
colleges face to make certain that females and
other underrepresented populations are
considered as candidates in the succession
planning process.
3. Ascertains if a specific incident or situation
triggers leaders in community colleges to develop
a succession plan and also to develop females for
these positions.
4. Focuses on how shared governance structure in
the community colleges influences succession

1. Investigates
the effect that
participation in
the leadership
program has
on middle level
managers in
the community
2. Investigates
whether or not
the leadership
program has
more of an
effect on
middle level
leaders with
less leadership
3. Explores the
component of
the program
participants felt
was the most
4. Focuses on
the leadership
skill that was
most improved
after the

All three
authors focus
questions on
used for

goal is

Materials and Method

Design and
Study Design

case study
Leaders of
colleges in the
United States
leaders in three
New Jersey
completed a
survey, 12
participated in

Mixed methods (concurrent, also labels study as a
case study)
Four senior level community college administrators
(interviews); 18 responses to a survey

Mixed methods
The population
for the study
was front-line
and middle
managers at a
United States
college (titles
of coordinator,
The study
participants of
a community
program on

All three have
All three use
surveys in
their design.
Subjects are
all leaders at
some level in

level l

Method: New Jersey Likert-scale survey which asked about perceptions Quantitative:

Limitations &

College Survey
adapted from
the Colorado
survey (Binard,
documents that
provided insight
into individual
related to
coding process
used for
Percent and
used for

related to planning for the advancement of women
senior level leadership positions in rural Illinois
community colleges.
Survey was online one month; 12 responses (24%
return rate)
Interviews with four community college leaders
Analysis: Descriptive statistics for the survey;
coding and themes for interviews

Inventory (LPI)
before and
after one year
of participating
in the program.
49 participants
in the GYO
completed the
LPI self. Only
40 participants
completed the
29 of the
Observer (LPI-
pre/post as
well on 48
Only 19
completed the
assessment on
Interviews with
eight randomly
and three of
conducted and
selected by the
three years
after the
conclusion of
the leadership
SPSS was
used to run
analysis and
rotation on the

LPI results.
used to
analyze data.
variables were
the five
variables were
analyzed the
LPI –pre and
post mean
scores to
growth. Items
on the LPI
related to
These items
were grouped:
Points 1, 2, 3 =
rarely engaged
in described
Points 4, 5 =
engaged in
Points 6, 7 =
often engaged
in described
Points 8, 9, 10
= almost
engaged in
were analyzed
using constant
process Corbin
and Strauss


Key Findings:

Theme 1: Lack
of planning for
need for
planning, but
gave priority to
other major
issues, mostly
related to daily
demands of

Interview results: Four themes.
Theme 1. Succession planning is a good idea, but
actually developing and implementing a plan is
wrought with obstacles and challenges. A process
must be in writing and approved by board of
trustees. Difficult to do due to budgets. Collective
bargaining units present challenges. Institutions
use a formal procedure for advancement,
regardless of gender. Limited time and staff make
succession planning difficult. Fair play and equity
Mentoring: Women need to be mentored and
developed. Little time for leaders to develop and
cultivate others. Good idea, but a plan must be in
place to select equitably, the participants.

showed no
significance on
of the GYO
upon gender,
age, or years
although all

All three
showed a
need for
Trickle and
showed that
planning is a
goal of

not su
that G

Theme 2:
Barriers to
planning in
colleges barely
existed. Focus
was more on
operations with
issues to be
Divisiveness of
caused strained
acceptance of
Theme 3:
Strategies for
Focus was on
mentoring and
those internal
employees who
showed interest
and proclivity
for leadership.
Theme 4.
planning. All
affirmed need
for succession
Theme 5: Lack
showed lack of
leaders to
information with
stakeholders on
major issues
related to
Theme 6:
existed at the
colleges, but
most programs
were informal
and aligned to

Mentoring is an obligation of senior leaders.
Board of Trustee support is critical, but often a
low-level priority (succession planning). Involves a
level of trust, not to micromanage. Educate
trustees on benefits of succession plans.
Challenges to succession planning: finding
qualified candidates in rural areas is difficult.
Women must be flexible and open to change,
mobility. Find those with less experience and train
them… attract those less qualified to rural areas.
Dialogue in place, but nothing specific. Employees
wear multiple hats.

increased from
pre to posttest.
and having
was the skill
they used most
after the
felt their skills
had improved
as a result of
attending the
and observers
liked mentoring
but noted not
everyone was
“engaged” in
the process.
Felt the
program had a
positive impact
on the future of
the college.
Liked the
opportunity to
network with
others. Finding
time to
participate was
Model the
Challenge the
Enable Others
to Act,
and Encourage
the Heart
almost always
engaged in
sample size
was small and
limited to one
data were
collected three
years after the
ended, thus
the reliability of
that data may
be in question.
was employed
at the college
in a leadership

leaders but
was not a
priority due to
other focuses
Shantz noted
in the GYO
program did
improve the
LPI scores of
in the

expansion of
within current
job positions as
opposed to
intent for
Survey results:
“Overall, the
majority of
who completed
the survey
indicated that
the college
offered current
for promotion,
employees to
develop new
programs or
services, and
employees with
exposure to
higher levels of
About half of
the participants
felt that if they
retired or left
their institution,
that one or
employees had
the personal
knowledge to
replace them.
Slightly more
than half of the
disagreed or
disagreed with
indicating that
individuals at
their institution
encouraged to
participate in
training on
campus and
encouraged to
attend national
training. More
than three-
fourths of those
indicated they
disagreed or


disagreed the
idea that their
institution made
efforts to
prepare high
individuals for
and that
vacancies that
had occurred in
over the last
five years, had
been replaced
with current
employees. In
sum, plenty of
existed for
members, but
little was
focused on
leadership skills
in preparation
to transition to
an executive or
position at the


Are the
valid based on
the data and

revealed that
the practice of
planning is
minimal and
may be
reflective of the
problem that
has been
discussed in
research. This
was evident
and aligned to
other research.
Results of this
study confirmed
leadership and
Boards of
Trustees at the
rarely took the
initiative to
develop a

Rural Illinois community colleges understand the
value in succession planning, but there are many
variables and challenges that prohibit
Community colleges do offer leadership
development opportunities, but those opportunities
were not linked to strategic planning.
Being in rural areas makes the process of
recruiting qualified individuals difficult, including
women. Other challenges include lower pay for
qualified applicants, isolated campuses, and a lack
of diverse students and community members.
Pending retirements and leadership transitions
take precedence over development of women to
take on leadership positions.
Succession planning can happen, but there must
be a deliberate plan to make it happen.
Women who desire to access leadership roles
must be proactive and seek out training and
opportunities, including mentors.
College must have a common vision to enact a
succession plan and it should be part of the
strategic plan. and it should
This research concludes that even publically
funded community colleges can
move forward with the development and
implementation of a succession plan if the
following two things occur: (a) community college
leaders must present a unified vision
of the succession plan and (b) provide opportunity

GYO program
appears to be
providing a
orientation to
the District and
training but is
lacking the
necessary to
planning within
the college
district. The
program builds
internal District
and networks,
which are
to the District
but not

were all valid.

and A
a deta
only p
in the

plan. Leaders
recognized a
need for the
importance of
planning in the
college, but felt
compelled to
give priority to
other major
issues related
to the demands
of day-to-day
results revealed
a lack of
knowledge in
culture relative
to succession
planning. One
of the
institutions did
not have a
plan, nor did
they intend to
develop or
implement a
Additionally, a
review of
minimal to no
evidence of
Findings from
this multiple
case study
confirmed that
planning in
colleges barely

for feedback and accept criticism

Participation in
the program
with a shared
and the
opportunity to
and network
with other
within the


Failure of
institutions to
value strong
inclusive of

Few colleges have a specific succession plan in

Grow your own
programs can
be beneficial,
but those
should look at
what other
colleges are
doing, seek

planning is
needed, but
not evident in
the samples
colleges in
the first two
studies. In the

need f
level l

creation of a
approach for
future potential
will create a
chasm of
leading to
appointment of
individuals with
little experience
in a time of
With the
sizeable level
of retirements
anticipated at
almost all
colleges in the
New Jersey
system, the
availability of
individuals to fill
positions will
scarcer. Lack of
planning and
programs could
cause an
institution to
lose valuable,
high performing
individuals to
even further
stability, at least
in the short
range. A
approach to
planning will
start with

input as to
inclusion of a
structure is
important. All
indicated they
would put a
great deal of
effort into the
program, so
they may be
although the
LPI scores did
not indicate.

Shantz study,
the GYO
evidence of a
strategy, but
perhaps lack
of growth in
LPI scores
indicates a
need for more
research on
the topic or a
review of the
curriculum for
the program.

to dev
level m
to acc
level p
in a ru

Instructions for Including Synthesis in One Section of the
Literature Review

After completing the synthesis matrix on one topic or theme in the literature review, the writer can then write

a synthesis section. To develop one section of the literature review, the researcher selects the topic or section

of the outline or literature review to develop. For the purposes of this example, the researcher has selected and

read three primary source research studies on succession planning and has completed the synthesis matrix.

Then the writer must complete the 10 steps to synthesizing the literature.

Ten Steps to Synthesizing the Literature

For each subtopic or theme related to the research topic (each theme or topic in the) literature

review outline:

1. Select and read three primary sources (empirical, peer-reviewed) articles.

2. As you read articles, use a synthesis matrix to make notes in the appropriate column

about the key elements of each study, including the conceptual framework, study

purpose and signi�cance, research questions, design, subjects, method (i.e.,

instrumentation procedure, statistics, and limitations/assumptions), results, and

conclusions. Label the columns across the top of your chart with your topic, a few key

words from the title of each article and/or the primary author’s last name.

a. A synthesis matrix helps to (a) clarify how the studies relate to one another and to

your research question and purpose, and (b) compare and contrast the research

methods, results, and conclusions among authors.

3. Next, write a four-part abstract (half a page for the introduction; one page on method,

one page on analysis, one page on discussion/conclusions) for each study using your

synthesis matrix notes, with focus on the methods and results.

4. The fourth step is to reduce the four-part abstract to a one-paragraph summary for each

study. Use your competed synthesis matrix to assist in this process.

IRB Approval
Were the
properly from
an ethical

IRB approval
was issued by
GCU and target
Subjects were

Participants in this study were ensured anonymity
as each are currently serving in senior
-level administrative positions in Illinois community
colleges. A signed consent form was provided
prior to each interview. The consent form was
approved by the
University Institutional
Research Review Board

All three
discussion or

5. Logically order the paragraphs so that the �ow makes sense and shows the

development of knowledge.

6. Add introductory and concluding sentences to each summary paragraph. Next write

paragraph links, and short transition paragraphs to connect your summary paragraphs

to each other.

7. Using the synthesis matrix, write a synthesis of your three research articles (two to

three paragraphs).

a. Compare/contrast the research. Look for similarities and differences.

b. How accurate and valid are the measurements?

c. Are the conclusions supported based on the data and analysis?

d. What are the strengths and weakness of the studies?

e. What is known and not known? Identify the overlaps and problem spaces in the


8. Write a conclusion (do this before writing your introduction).

a. Overview the main idea.

b. Articulate the contributions of this literature to the �eld (based on your synthesis).

c. Identify the controversy in the literature. What is missing?

d. Formulate questions for future research.

9. Write an introduction.

a. Overview the main idea, why is it important, what are the themes and trends in

research questions, methodology, and �ndings. This should be similar to your

concluding paragraph overview.

b. Describe the relevance of this literature to your research topic.

10. Organize your written work to look something like this:

a. Introduction (one to two paragraphs)

b. Studies

i. Study 1 – summary paragraph

ii. Transition paragraph (links Study 1 to Study 2)

iii. Study 2 – summary paragraph

iv. Transition paragraph (links Study 2 to 3)

v. Study 3 – summary paragraph

vi. Repeat for additional studies

c. Synthesis of the studies (two to three paragraphs)

d. Conclusion (one to two paragraphs)

After the synthesis is complete, the researcher should write a conclusion before writing the introduction. This

includes an overview of the main idea of the section. The writer should articulate the contributions of the

studies to the �eld, identify controversies in the literature, what is missing, and formulate questions for future

research. In the example of community college succession planning, the controversy is quite clear. There is an

impending shortage of quali�ed individuals to occupy executive leadership roles because of a large number of

expected retirements. The controversy outlined in the studies within the synthesis matrix, shows that while

the existing leaders value succession planning, they simply do not place priority on establishing processes

whereby their successors are identi�ed and trained. This is not due to a lack of want, but other factors, such as

time, budget, and daily operations, that occupy the job role.

Based on the earlier example of desk drawer items, a synthesis is included below:

Employees in of�ces around the country are required to complete tasks on a daily basis. In the course of

their work, employees acquire personal and professional tools to help complete job goals. Many of these

tools can be found in the employee’s desk drawer. These tools often offer a glimpse into the job role and

personality of the employee. This passage discusses the similarities and differences in items retrieved

from one desk in the College of Doctoral Studies: a computer mouse, a tube of lotion, and a set of wooden


The �rst item retrieved was a computer mouse. The computer mouse is used to navigate the computer. It

is about 3 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. It is purple on top with black sides and bottom. It has a wheel

on the top that the writer can use to move the page on the computer screen up and down. There are

indentations on the side for the thumb and �ngers. One the bottom, one will �nd a removable door for the

battery and an on/off switch, which also indicates whether or not the battery is working. The computer

mouse is used during the day as the GCU employee serves learners and faculty in the College of Doctoral


Employees who use the computer on a daily basis can use the mouse to help navigate documents and

email; therefore, they must have soft, healthy hands. A tube of lotion is helpful in making sure that hands

are not cracked and dry. Thus, it may come as no surprise to �nd lotion in the desks of many GCU


The second item retrieved from the desk in the College of Doctoral Studies was a tube of lotion. The tube of

lotion is about 3 inches tall and holds healing, aloe lotion. The label says the lotion has a clean scent,

contains vitamins A, C and E, and is nongreasy. The lid to the tube is gold, and the actual tube is cream

colored. The label contains blue symbols that look like molecules and writing. The lotion itself is white,

creamy, and smells like coconut oil. Given that the lotion contains vitamins, it can ensure that employees

have access to the essential nutrients for healthy hands.

As doctoral researchers, making a logical argument for a study is a central requirement for completing the

dissertation. To accomplish that, the researcher synthesizes information to illuminate the research problem

space and create logical support for the dissertation study. However, doing synthesis is not a simple task. To

that end, this chapter presented the concept of synthesis in the context of the literature review and discussed

strategies for performing the synthesis required by the dissertation literature review. As with all skills, a

researcher’s ability to perform synthesis will improve with continuing practice and experience. Doctoral

learners, then, should take every opportunity to engage in the practice of synthesis.

Check for Understanding

Employees can use necessary tools such as the computer mouse and hand lotion to ensure that they are

able to complete daily work tasks on time. However, working in an of�ce environment all day can get

rather routine as employees do the same tasks over and over. Thus, employees need to have items in their

desk that can offer cheer and offer a break from the routine. Some employees enjoy having wooden

stamps to offer af�rmation to faculty members and doctoral learners.

The third item recovered from the desk in the College of Doctoral Studies, a wooden stamp set, offers a

symbol of cheer and break from routine. The wooden stamp set comes in a square box that is pink and

white with gold lettering. There are six stamps in the box that offer words of af�rmation: thank you, hi, to:

from, hooray, and congratulations. The stamps are in three different sizes: two are rectangular, two are

cubes, and one is long and rectangular in shape. The stamps have black, cursive lettering. The employee

may use these stamps to offer “fun,” af�rmative messages to coworkers and learners.

Items found in desks in the College of Doctoral Studies and elsewhere can offer a glimpse into the work

environment and personality of the employee or desk owner. All employees have a variety of professional

and personal tools in their workspace to facilitate completing daily roles and tasks. Additionally, as

employees work in the same of�ce, at the same desk, each day, they acquire items that both help them to

do the job, but also that re�ect the employee’s character. Employees, therefore, acquire both personal and

professional items that help add variety to the work day and complete job assignments at the same time.

Three, colorful, compact objects were retrieved from one of�ce desk drawer in the College of Doctoral

Studies. These items, which are used during the course of the day, help the employee do their job, but also

add variety to the day and re�ect the personality of the worker. Two of the objects (the stamps and the

mouse) retrieved from the desk are used for daily work tasks, whereas the tube of lotion is used for

personal reasons. The items are different shapes. Two items, the mouse and lotion are bene�cial for the

worker. The mouse helps navigate the computer, and the hand lotion eases dry skin. The stamp set is “fun”

and not a necessity for the of�ce. However, the stamp and purple color of the mouse portray the “cheerful”

temperament of an employee, who also may enjoy offering af�rmations to others and a colorful

environment. While these items simplify the work for employees and are colorful and personal, the

inferences reached by the writer may not be accurate. Therefore, more research is merited on this topic in

order to determine if contents of other employee desks offer data to support this inference.

In sum, items retrieved from desks may highlight the personality and work tasks of an employee in the

College of Doctoral Studies. The three items used as data in this paper were used in the of�ce setting, but

for different purposes. They may re�ect the worker’s or owner’s personality in that they are colorful,

cheerful, and to a degree, whimsical. One may conclude that the of�ce worker wants some variety in their

day, so they choose fun items, fun colors, and maintain her soft hands to get their job done. At the same

time, the worker chose items that allow her to complete daily tasks. This conclusion was reached based

on three items from one desk drawer in the College of Doctoral Studies. Therefore, the inferences reached

may not be applicable to other desks or employees in the college or in other settings. More research on the

topic is recommended to determine if an analysis of more items from more desks in other settings offer

similar results.

1. Operationalize the term synthesis for use in the literature review of a dissertation.

2. How does synthesis differ from other processes or terms used in developing the literature review?

3. What are some strategies one can use to synthesize research studies and literary articles?


Att�eld, S., Blandford, A., & Dowell, J. (2003). Information seeking in the context of writing: A design

psychology interpretation of the “problematic situation.” Journal of Documentation, 59(4), 430–453.

Bowling Green State University. (2011). Synthesis as weaving.


Craigo, K. (2003, March). Tell ’em what it ain’t: Teaching synthesis through anti-synthesis. Graduate Learner

Writer (GSW) Development Session conducted at the Bowling Green State University Learning Commons.


Cross, T. M. (2014). The gritty: Grit and non-traditional doctoral learner success. Journal of Educators Online,

11(3). http://�

Duckworth, A. L., & Quinn, P. D. (2009). Development and validation of the short grit scale (grit-S). Journal of

Personality Assessment, 91(2), 166–174. doi:10.1080/00223890802634290

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-

term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087– 1101.


Hart, C. (2010). Doing a literature review: Releasing the social science research imagination. SAGE.

Lind, D. A., Marchal, W. G., & Wathen, S. A. (2012). Statistical techniques in business and economics (15th ed.).


Mertens, D. M., & McLaughlin, J. A. (1995). Research methods in special education. SAGE.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2006). Critical thinking reading & writing test: How to assess close reading and substantive

writing. The Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Punch, K. F. (2009). Introduction to research methods in education. SAGE.

Pyrczak, F., & Bruce, R. R. (2011). Writing empirical research reports (7th ed.). Pyrczak Publishing.


1. In the literature review, synthesis is operationalized as the researcher’s incorporation of

evidence from two or more sources to give voice to his or her own unique position.

2. For a researcher to analyze, compare, contrast, or summarize requires the application of

critical thought to the accurate restatement of factual information. To synthesize, the

researcher must move beyond surface critique to combine the ideas in a unique yet

cogent manner that gives credence to the position of the researcher as expressed in

his/her study.

3. Read widely and deeply. Think critically. Employ a synthesis matrix to organize ideas

and connect information.

Quinton, S., & National Journal. (2015, April 24). The lessons of No Child Left Behind.

Simon, M. K., & Goes, J. (2013). Dissertation and scholarly research: Recipes for success. Dissertation Success,


Copyright © Grand Canyon University 2020



In the synthesis papers, I ask students to become vigilant for ‘author tags’ because they lead students to summarize instead of synthesizing. Where possible, avoid using an ‘author says’ statement as it detracts from the power of your scholarly voice and renders your comments summative rather than evaluative.

What is an author says statement? Here is an example:

“According to Moore (2011). . . . .

Do you see how using a phrase like this serves as a crutch and robs you of the power of your own voice? I would rather you say something like this:

Wundt is given credit for. . . .(Moore, 2011).

Make the articles work for you, do not simply regurgitate what other people have already written. Find your own voice.

Other signals to watch out for…Author(s) state, describe, discuss, explore, cite, suggest, argue, posits, points out, suggests, argues, explains, writes, found etc.

Reporting Verbs to Introduce a Quote or Summary:

Admits Analyzes Argues Articulates Asserts Attempts Believes Claims Clarifies Compares Concedes Concludes Criticizes Defines Demonstrates Denies Disagrees Discovers Discusses Elaborates Emphasizes Evaluates Explains Finds Highlights Identifies Implies Insists Lists Notes Observes Outlines Points out Proves Rejects Reports Responds Says Shows States Suggests Thinks Writes

*Especially important to note is Author ‘states’ should only introduce a direct quote

Even after you note the author and title at the beginning of your summary, readers can sometimes lose track of how much of your paper summarizes an article. When this happens, readers do not see the end of your summary and the beginning of your reaction or opinion

Do you find yourself using Author tags often in your writing? How can eliminating them from your writing help you to find your voice as an academic writer? How does this knowledge translate to synthesizing for a paper or in a literature review?

QUESTION 2-    we discussed analyzing research and how to identify the scope of the problem presented in the literature. Critically analyzing the research helps doctoral learners develop writing skills and terminology related to dissertation topics.

Recapping how to narrow down scholarly research aligned to a dissertation topic how are you able to identify terminology that is consistent with specific design methods; qualitative or quantitative?


use attached article for source to provide cited reference 


Dr. Derek Cabrera is an internationally recognized expert in metacognition (thinking about thinking), epistemology (the study of knowledge), human and organizational learning, and education. He completed his PhD and post-doctoral studies at Cornell University and served as faculty at Cornell and researcher at the Santa Fe Institute. He leads the Cabrera Research Lab, is the author of five books, numerous journal articles, and a US patent. Derek discovered DSRP Theory and in this talk, he explains its benefits and the imperative for making it part of every students’ life. Watch this presentation and share with the class what you think. Did you learn anything?

LINK-  TEDx Talks. (2011, December 6). TEDxWilliamsport – Dr. Derek Cabrera – How thinking works. Retrieved from


use attached article as well for reference

What works for doctoral students in completing their thesis?

Siân Lindsay*

Department for Learning Enhancement and Development, City University London, London, UK

(Received 7 February 2012; final version accepted 4 September 2014)

Writing a thesis is one of the most challenging activities that a doctoral student must
undertake and can represent a barrier to timely completion. This is relevant in light of
current and widespread concerns regarding doctoral completion rates. This study
explored thesis writing approaches of students post or near Ph.D. completion through
interviews. The study’s aim was to highlight factors identified by participants as
helpful or hindering thesis writing. The analysis revealed ‘helpful’ factors were related
to students’ intrinsic behaviours and supervisory support, particularly support that
adopted a ‘project-management’ style. Additionally, a subgroup of participants
discussed the merits of a continuous-writing approach which is further explored in
this paper with reference to the notion of writing to develop knowledge; this is
recommended for timely Ph.D. completion.

Keywords: doctoral; thesis; writing; Ph.D.; student; supervisor

Introduction and rationale

This study set out to identify, explore and understand the positive and negative factors
that can directly or indirectly enable doctoral students to write their thesis in accordance
with the recommended completion time for Ph.D. study at a UK university. The findings
presented are derived from interviews with doctoral students who were completing, or
had just very recently completed their doctoral programme. Two relevant theoretical
frameworks in the area of Ph.D. study were used to underpin the design and analysis
stages of this research, namely that of Latona and Browne’s framework for predicting
timely completions (Latona and Browne 2001) and Lee’s concepts of doctoral research
supervision (Lee 2008). The findings are examined to argue the case for a continuous
thesis-writing model, with reference to writing as a knowledge-producing activity
(Wellington 2010), and should prove applicable to most doctoral programmes in the
UK and beyond.

The rationale behind this study originated from conversations with five Senior Tutors
for Research (STR) to initially understand the impact factors that affect the rate of
progression and completion of Ph.D. study. Most STRs admitted that the Ph.D.
completion rates in their school or department were not ideal. When asked why, all
STRs talked about the writing up of the thesis as a phase which represented a major
stumbling block for Ph.D. students. In English doctoral programmes, writing up of the
thesis is typically the last major activity that a Ph.D. student does before the viva voce
examination (the ‘live voice’ examination whereby a doctoral student must successfully

*Email: [email protected]

Teaching in Higher Education, 2015
Vol. 20, No. 2, 183–196,

© 2014 Taylor & Francis

argue and defend their thesis). ‘Writing up’ of the thesis is usually a highly concentrated
task during which no further research or data collection is undertaken. Based on the
perspectives of the STRs, this study therefore sought participation from doctoral students
who were writing or had just recently written their thesis in an attempt to understand what
enables or hinders this decisive stage of doctoral study.

Brief review of the literature

Doctoral completion rates and times-to-completion have been an ongoing concern for
higher education institutions (HEIs) across the world (Elgar 2003; Park 2005), despite
different countries adopting different programme structures. In the USA, for example,
doctoral students must undertake oral exams prior to being permitted to start writing their
thesis, and after passing these are called ‘ABDs’, meaning ‘All But Dissertation’.
Doctoral students in the UK are encouraged to write their thesis continuously throughout
their study prior to their viva voce examination. However, in reality thesis writing is
frequently seen as ‘a mopping-up activity at the end of a research project’ (Richardson
1998, 345). In recent years the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)
has published research degree qualification rates (RDQRs) for HEIs in England, for both
full-time and part-time Ph.D. students studying for the recommended period of time of 4
and 7 years, respectively. The RDQRs are used to positively discriminate English HEIs
for funding if they achieve timely completions. In addition to their financial impact,
doctoral completion rates are also important to consider for their impact on students’
emotional, mental and financial well-being.

During the last 20 years, various studies have focused on situational factors and
characteristics of doctoral students, using these as indicators of timely completions. Many
of these studies have used quantitative research methods to identify the following factors
that can have an impact on completion rates: discipline of study (Elgar 2003; Park 2005;
Wright and Cochrane 2000), gender (Martin, Maclachlan, and Karmel 2001), mode of
study (Rodwell and Neumann 2008), age (Park 2005) and whether home or overseas
(Park 2005). In 2001, Latona and Browne published a literature review examining such
studies and suggested that impact factors associated with the completion of research
higher degrees fall into one of three categories: (1) institutional/environmental; (2)
individual supervisory arrangements; and (3) student cohorts and characteristics (Latona
and Browne 2001). Whilst useful as a starting point for analysis, focusing on situational
factors may be problematic, with Manathunga (2005) arguing that some of these studies
are contradictory and may promote a risk-analysis approach amongst HEIs in selecting
students for doctoral study. Focusing on situational factors in this way also ignores the
larger, complex picture of the doctoral journey, especially when nearing the end.

Some studies have tried to identify key stages in doctoral study where Ph.D. students
are most at risk of attrition or are more susceptible of not completing. Lovitts and Nelson
(2000) suggest that attrition happens early on, with more than one third of doctoral
students leaving during their first year of study. Interestingly, little work has been done to
focus on the writing up phase of doctoral study as a critical point in leading to on-time
completion, or if it represents a significant risk leading to attrition. This is surprising since
writing up is a fundamental component of the doctoral journey, as Kuther explains: ‘The
dissertation is often the most difficult academic requirement a doctoral student faces;
many students exhibit delay in completing it’ (Kuther 1999, 1). Lee and Aitchison (2009)
argue that capacity-building for writing pedagogy is crucial as writing remains ‘neglected

184 S. Lindsay

as a central component of doctoral education’ (87) and ‘problems and struggles with
writing can be seen as an impediment to efficient completion’ (89). Yet students are often
left on their own to learn the rules of writing according to the styles and nuances of their
particular academic discipline (Lee and Aitchison 2009), with Ph.D. supervisors
assuming that their students are able to write their thesis appropriately (Johnson, Lee,
and Green 2000). A study by Wellington (2010) explores the affective domain in the area
of doctoral student writing to show that the intrinsic feelings of students can impact their
approaches to writing and so need to be acknowledged. Wellington adds that the notion of
writing up as a detached phase of doctoral study should be rejected, and writing should be
viewed as a way of developing knowledge rather than just ‘knowledge telling’
(Wellington 2010, 148). Linked to this is the central message to Murray’s self-help
guide for Ph.D. students entitled How to Write a Thesis (2011) – Murray recommends
that students write their thesis from the start of their Ph.D. and throughout their research,
and advises a model of continuous writing that she terms ‘serial writing’ in which the
thesis is written in instalments, meaning that writing occurs regularly and with clear
intervals between instalments. Serial writing allows the writer to work to a pattern that
ideally suits their working and social environment, with the latter sustaining the writing
process and not undermining it. Further, Murray argues that serial writing is ‘critical for
the development of our thinking through writing’ (Murray 2011, 179).

In terms of completing on time, several studies have acknowledged the integral role
of the Ph.D. supervisor (Lovitts and Nelson 2000; Seagram, Gould, and Pyke 1998). A
few studies such as that of Bargar and Mayo-Chamberlain (1983) highlight the
importance of supervisory support for the essential activity of thesis writing, offering
recommendations such as encouraging students’ initial efforts, withholding criticism (in
the beginning) and undertaking a critical analysis of the writing throughout. Murray
(2011) builds on this and argues that supervisors should motivate their students to start
writing their thesis and to maintain writing throughout their research, highlighting the
mistake that some supervisors could make if they suggest deferring writing until the end
of the project.

In terms of approaches to Ph.D. supervision, these have been explored widely in the
literature with Lee’s eminent 2008 study that identified a framework for five concepts of
research supervision:

(1) Functional: supervisors encourage a rational progression through tasks
(2) Enculturation: supervisors act as ‘gatekeepers’ to their students becoming a

member of the disciplinary community
(3) Critical thinking: supervisors challenge their students to question and analyse

their work
(4) Emancipation: supervisors act as mentors, supporting their students to develop

(5) Developing a quality relationship: supervisors use emotional intelligence to

enthuse and care for their students

It is interesting to hypothesise the approach that supervisors may take to support their
students as they write their thesis, as little has been published in this area. One might
expect that a critical thinking approach would feature strongly, as a thesis essentially
forms an argument that must show evidence of careful consideration and analysis.

Teaching in Higher Education 185

A review of the literature has found that few studies have focused exclusively on the
student experience of thesis writing to identify factors that students believe enable or
hinder the process and subsequently may have an effect on doctoral completion rates.
Furthermore, little has been done to explore the approaches that doctoral supervisors may
take as their students embark on thesis writing. The purpose of this study was to fill these
gaps in knowledge.

Methods and data analysis

Institutional context

This qualitative study was undertaken at a London university in the UK. The university
has a large population of international postgraduate students, where 15% are from
European Union (EU) and 30% are from outside of the EU. The university ranks fourth
and tenth largest in terms of numbers of postgraduate taught-, and postgraduate research-
students, respectively, in relation to 40 universities and HEIs in London.

Research approach

This study was undertaken using a case study approach, in the form of eight semi-
structured interviews with currently registered doctoral students who were actively going
through or had very recently gone through the experience of writing up their thesis.
Because case studies are typically small in the number of participants involved, there are
limitations in terms of how strongly any conclusions can be applied to a wider
population. However the merits of a case study approach lie in the richness of data that
can be gained from in-depth discussions and analysis of the data, which was felt to be
essential in helping to answer the research question. To circumvent the limitations of the
approach, selection criteria were applied to sample participants and as much as possible
avoid large deviations in the data. Therefore this study did not ask former doctoral
students for their insights to avoid problems of memory bias. Only currently registered
doctoral students in or beyond their ‘writing up year’ were approached. Within the
student records system at the university, the ‘writing up year’ is defined as year 4 of Ph.D.
study for full-time students, and year 7 of Ph.D. study for part-time students. Some Ph.D.
students do start writing up earlier than is required, whilst others choose to defer their
writing up year if they require more time to research. Doctoral students who are writing
up are no longer deemed ‘research active’ by the university and pay (often reduced)
write-up fees to remain registered as a Ph.D. student. Writing up doctoral students who
had recently withdrawn, or who had recently passed the viva voce examination were
excluded from the research sample to avoid overly negative or overly positive
experiences from skewing the study’s findings. Based on these selection criteria, the
resulting population was 183 doctoral students in or beyond their writing up year.
Approximately 15% of these (i.e. 30 students) were selected at random and sent a
personalised email inviting them to participate in the study. The email briefly set out the
purpose of the study, which was followed up with a more in-depth explanatory letter prior
to interview. Participants were told that their experiences would be used to help enhance
and inform the support mechanisms for future Ph.D. students. It was anticipated that
students having a particularly difficult experience of writing their thesis might view an
interview as akin to a ‘talking therapy’ session and their experiences might dispropor-
tionally represent problem cases (as described by Manathunga 2005). To avoid this, the

186 S. Lindsay

invitation text was written in a neutral way, being careful to equally appeal to students
that had had or were having positive and negative experiences. Over a 4-week period
following the email invitations, 10 doctoral students offered to participate, though the
eventual number of interviews carried out reduced to 8 since 2 students withdrew from
the study.

Prior to undertaking the interviews, ethical approval was sought and granted by the
university’s ethical approval committee. This ensured that participants were fully aware
of its purpose and intended benefits, its intention to maintain their anonymity, keeping all
data pertaining to them secure, and clearly setting out their right to withdraw at any time.
Informed consent was gathered for all students prior to the interview. Further, students
were contacted by telephone prior to interview to ensure that they were comfortable with
the types of interview questions that were to be asked. Writing up can be a stressful
period for some doctoral students and it was important to ensure that the interview
questions asked did not exacerbate this stress.

Study participants

Eight doctoral students volunteered to participate in semi-structured interviews and their
details are shown in Table 1. Pseudonyms have been used to protect identities. Most
students interviewed began their Ph.D. study on a full-time basis, with two students
(Natasha and Sofia) transferring to a part-time mode of study during the research/data
collection stages of their study, both for financial reasons. Six students had also only
recently completed their viva voce (within the past 6 months or less). It is interesting that
most students had also completed their Ph.D. study within the recommended period of
time as required by the university and by HEFCE (4 years for full-time students and 7
years for part-time students). The amount of time it took for the students to write varied;

Table 1. Participant details.

Name Status TTC TTWU Funded?
In employment during

thesis write-up?

Jennifer FT 4 years 9 months Self-funded No
Tom FT 10 years 5 years Self and

Full-time employment for
5 years

Natasha FT then

6 years N/A as writing

Self and

Part-time employment for
6 years

Evan FT 4 years 8 months Self-funded Part time employment for
3 years

Lilly FT 4 years 8 months Self-funded Part time employment for
3 years

Samantha PT 7 yearsa 2 yearsa Self-funded No
Sofia FT then

7 yearsa N/A as writing

Self-funded No

Luke PT 7 years 7 months Self-funded Part-time employment for
7 years

FT, full-time; PT, part-time; TTC, time to completion (from start of Ph.D. until viva voce examination); TTWU,
time taken to write-up thesis; N/A, not applicable.
aIndicates still writing thesis during time of interview.

Teaching in Higher Education 187

some took as little as 7 months, others as long as 5 years, with the median length of time
being around 8–9 months. Two of the students interviewed had written their thesis on a
continuous basis. All Ph.D. students interviewed were self-funded, with 2 also receiving
financial support from their department. Four students were international, which helpfully
reflects the proportion of international postgraduate students across the university as a
whole. The students interviewed were from a variety of departments within the Business
School, the School of Arts and Social Sciences and the School of Health Sciences. Five
of the students were in some form of employment (part-time or full-time) during their
writing up year.

Data collection and analysis

The data from this study was derived from semi-structured interviews with 8 doctoral
students, where a total of 11 questions were asked. The first 7 questions were quantitative
in nature, with yes/no, numeric, list-option answer types, whilst the remainder were
designed to be more open-ended and in keeping with discourse about doctoral student
completions, using the help/hindrance scale by Kluever (1997) and Latona and Browne’s
(2001) framework for predicting timely completions to guide question design and/or act
as prompts during the interview. Questions were designed to focus dialogue and doctoral
student reflections towards the writing up stage of their Ph.D. study.

The semi-structured interviews were recorded on an mp3 recorder and transcribed
by the author. Thematic analysis was carried out on interview transcripts using Latona
and Browne’s 2001 framework of three groups of influences for predicting timely
completions (institutional and/or environmental; individual supervisory arrangements;
individual intrinsic). A further category of ‘individual factors (non-psychological)’ was
added based on Wright and Cochrane’s (2000) literature review to initially guide
identification of the themes. A random first transcript was analysed and used to
identify initial themes which were categorised as either ‘helping’ or ‘not helping’.
Subsequent analyses of the other transcripts added to the themes identified. Then,
common themes were re-analysed and differentiated according to their correlation to
Latona and Browne’s framework. Supervisory support themes were further analysed
in relation to their connection with Lee’s five concepts of doctoral research
supervision, namely: (1) Functional (supervisor acts as project manager); (2)
Enculturation (supervisor provides gateway to academic culture); (3) Critical thinking
(supervisor encourages student to think for themselves, solve problems); (4) Eman-
cipation (supervisor as a mentor); and (5) Relationship development (supervising by
experience, developing a relationship with student which is exhibited by high
emotional intelligence; Lee 2008).

Research findings and discussion

Themes emerging from analysis of the interview data are shown in Table 2, where each
theme was grouped according to whether it enabled or hindered the doctoral thesis
writing up process. In the individual supervisory category, themes were further analysed
in relation to Lee’s concepts of doctoral research supervision.

188 S. Lindsay

How institutional and/or environmental factors impact thesis writing

Natasha and Sofia were the only doctoral students interviewed who said that they had
written their thesis on a continuous basis. Natasha attributed her approach to the support
she received from her head of department:

my head of department gave a few talks to us and I remember he said ‘make sure you write
as you go along and write it with methodologies because … by the time you finish it, you are
going to forget’ … I really appreciated this advice … that bit of writing up made such a
difference at the end … I had quite a bit of work done, maybe a third of the thesis more or
less done. (Natasha)

Sofia chose to write on a continuous basis as her department did not encourage her to
move to writing up status until she had ‘a whole draft of everything’.

Unlike Natasha and Sofia, all the other students interviewed had left their thesis
writing until their final year, and clearly demarked research/data collection from the
writing process. Wellington (2010) supports this finding, arguing that the notion of a
‘writing up phase’ still prevails amongst many doctoral students and some universities,
including the university pertaining to this study. For example the central university
student records system categorises doctoral students on the basis of their status as
‘research-active’ or ‘writing up’, with further reinforcement of this categorisation by way
of tuition fee differentials, with writing up doctoral students paying less. Combined with a
relative inconsistency of message regarding continuous writing up across different
departments, it is little wonder that students remain confused and unsure about the writing
up process. Evan explains:

Table 2. Factors that enable or hinder thesis writing.

Enabling thesis writing Hindering thesis writing

Institutional and/or

. Support from student’s own
department in terms of:
○ Providing adequate space
and resources for writing up
○ Reiterating key message
to write-up continuously
throughout study

. Peer support and encouragement,
peer review of thesis

. Lack of wider institutional

. Negative peer pressure

Individual supervisory

. Supervisor exhibiting a
supervision model which is
predominantly functional/project
management-focused, and further
enhances the supervisor–student

. Supervisor exhibiting a
supervision model which
lacks functional/project-
management, emancipation
and relationship development

Individual factors

. Emotional and financial support
from family and friends

. Being in part-time employment

. Difficulty in balancing Ph.D.
around family and work

Individual intrinsic

. Motivation

. Organisation
. Lack of motivation
. Lack of organisation

Teaching in Higher Education 189

there was a lot of uncertainty (about the writing up process) … and that kind of fed through
to the students because if staff didn’t know what they were doing in terms of how our study
was structured then how were the students ever going to know? (Evan)

De Valero (2001) has recommended the provision of thesis-writing workshops where
with their peers, doctoral students can discuss their results, share concerns and receive
peer feedback. Findings from this study suggest that workshops like these might be a
good idea for institutions to organise – Lilly, Luke and Evan described the support they
received from their peers as they were writing their thesis, with Evan making use of
online messaging tools:

there were lots of late night chats over the internet: ‘oh what do you think of this sentence?’ or
‘does this sound right because I can’t tell anymore what it sounds like, does it make sense?’ So
there was lots of that and that kept you going because you knew you weren’t in it alone. (Evan)

Yet Jennifer, who progressed very well with her Ph.D., remarked on the negative
atmosphere she felt when she was around her peers:

So there was a lot of (from her peers) ‘how did you manage that?’ and ‘how have you
finished so quickly?’ … it felt like praise, but it wasn’t really … it was like almost veiled
criticism … almost like other people were holding me up as an example of ‘you can tell us
how you did it’. So I spent a lot of time trying to … get away from people saying ‘can you
read this for me’. (Jennifer)

Jennifer’s experience may reflect the fact that she had an excellent relationship with her
supervisor which enabled her to confidently progress in her studies, whereas the others
who depended on their peers had a moderate or less favourable relationship with their
supervisor (Lilly in particular).

Concepts of doctoral supervision during thesis writing up

Most of the doctoral students interviewed had a good to moderate relationship with their
supervisor(s). Due to rapid staff turnover in his department, Luke was supervised by four
different supervisors, which each time caused temporary setbacks in his progress. However
he was ‘saved’ by his final supervisor who worked hard to update herself with Luke’s
research, advise him on what aspects he needed to finish to move onto writing up, and
supported him whilst he wrote up his thesis. Lilly had by far the worst supervision experience
of all students, whereby her relationship with her supervisor was practically absent:

he facilitated me I would say, and that’s probably the full scope of his support. So he ticked
boxes, he signed forms; he got me through the hoops for the University. But he wasn’t too
good on emotional support and he was non-existent in any kind of academic input! … it is
hard to get that sense of confidence in your own work and conviction, because part of this
business is disseminating it and I’m trying to, but on my own … that’s the sadness … that he
(Lilly’s supervisor) didn’t lift a finger to try to help. (Lilly)

Jennifer appeared to have the most ideal relationship with her supervisor, and frequently
spoke highly of him and the support he gave her especially during the writing up process.

Most students identified the importance of their supervisors acting as ‘project
managers’ in terms of chasing up the thesis, and giving final say on when they believed

190 S. Lindsay

their student’s work was ready for writing up or submission for the viva voce. This
approach aligns closely with the ‘functional’ concept identified by Lee (2008):

I saw my supervisor and I said to him, ‘look this is what I have got, I am going to stop at that
point, what do you think?’ And he said to me, ‘go ahead … you know you have enough …
put a full stop here and start writing up’. (Natasha)

she also made me aware of the fact that it’s (the thesis) is not quite there yet … having the
supervisor present throughout the writing up process … checking up on you and following
things through making sure you are on the way … that’s really crucial. (Luke)

Doctoral students also identified the importance of their supervisors providing ongoing,
relevant, constructive and timely feedback on thesis drafts. Students preferred feedback
which was meaningful and encouraging, and also showed that their supervisor believed in
their ability. This supportive approach enables students to develop themselves as
academic writers and is closely aligned to Lee’s mentoring or ‘emancipation’ concept
of supervision:

My first supervisor gave petty remarks … on grammar and sentence construction, stuff like
that … it just left you feeling very negative and … that they weren’t necessarily getting the
bigger picture. And then my second supervisor … she gave copious notes of feedback … it
made a difference … she didn’t mince her words either, which is a bit soul destroying at
times, but I suppose you need that … fact that her feedback was really targeted and you knew
what you needed to work on rather than just kind of an overview of a chapter was great.

I just have to say that she was absolutely brilliant because she was very critical but very
supportive at the same time and I think that’s a really important balance … also she reassured
me about the quality of my work because, in the last stages you think is it rubbish? Is it any
good? Is it original? (Luke)

All the doctoral students interviewed remarked on the quality of their relationship with their
supervisor and how this was sustained as a critical factor for success in thesis writing:

my supervisor relationship was fantastic; I was really chuffed when I got allocated my
supervisor and we just really clicked, and he realised that I was quite autonomous and he was
quite happy for me to just run with it, as long as I kept him up to date. (Jennifer)

Well first of all that is why I went to this University because of John (Samantha’s supervisor)
… he is internationally well known and a very good person too … he has been really helpful
in setting up conference calls to allow us to chat on a regular basis. (Samantha)

In her 2008 paper, Lee argues that a supervisor may demonstrate a range of conceptual
approaches, yet students may only experience one or two of these. In support of this and
in relation to thesis writing, the findings here suggest that the functional, emancipation
and relationship development concepts dominate, whilst the concepts of enculturation
and, somewhat surprisingly, critical thinking, appear less important or are not used, at
least from the doctoral student’s perspective.

Individual but non-psychological factors

Five of the 8 doctoral students interviewed credited the emotional understanding and
support they received from family and friends whilst writing their thesis. Lilly reflected

Teaching in Higher Education 191

on stories of perseverance and determination in her own family to inspire her to keep
going, whilst living up to the expectations and pride that her family had in her was a
critical motivator for Jennifer. Evan also appreciated that his friends understood why his
social life had to be placed on hold as he focused all his efforts into writing.

Prior to this study, discussions with STRs had indicated that financial support during
the writing up phase might be a key indicator for on-time completion. However, all of the
students interviewed were either self- or self- and department-funded, five of the 8 were
in some kind of paid employment and so most did not identify financial help during the
writing up phase as an important factor. Only Samantha acknowledged that without the
financial support of her husband she would not be in a position to complete her Ph.D..
Interestingly, all the students working in part-time jobs found that rather than being a
hindrance, their employment enabled an anchor to the outside world and provided a
useful schedule around which to write their thesis:

I find the work that I am doing … very inspiring even if it doesn’t directly relate to what I’m
writing … in a way it also gave a sort of framework that I’m working on Wednesday,
Thursday and Friday, so I have to get this done by Tuesday. (Luke)

it (work) broke things up … I did have something else I was focusing on during the week; it
wasn’t just the thesis … that did help. (Evan)

However, Tom, who started working full-time during the writing up stage, explains that
full-time employment was detrimental to his progress:

Well the first time I started writing up I believe it was spring 2005, and then I dropped out of
it somewhere in winter 2006. By that time I’d started to work so that’s when the troubles
started creeping up. By spending too much time at work … I just didn’t push myself in doing
it (the thesis) at all. (Tom)

Factors intrinsic to doctoral students that enable or hinder thesis writing

All students interviewed talked about their own behaviours that helped (or hindered) them
in writing their thesis. These behaviours were analysed and then themed under the
broader processes of ‘motivation’ and ‘organisation’ as shown in Table 3. Doctoral
students were motivated to write their theses when they demonstrated determination,
goal-setting (and self-rewarding), endurance and believed in their writing abilities.
Conversely, students lacked motivation to write if they felt doubtful, uncertain,
overwhelmed, apathetic or tired. Tom’s apathy emerged from his cynicism of Ph.D.
research in that he could not see its value and applicability in the wider world. Some
students such as Jennifer also admitted to perfectionism in hindering the thesis write-up,
whereas Luke claimed his writing ‘phobia’ was the reason for his delay in writing when
in fact he was procrastinating. Perhaps unexpectedly it was found that none of the
students interviewed expressed any notion of fear or apprehension of their impending
viva voce as a factor which could negatively affect their approach to thesis writing.

Students demonstrated good organisational skills by planning their time in advance
and being self-disciplined in keeping to a writing schedule. Students such as Natasha and
Evan structured their writing schedule around immovable deadlines, with some deadlines
leading to a reward such as a holiday which further drove student motivation by
providing an incentive to meet their deadlines. On the other hand, students found that

192 S. Lindsay

Table 3. Doctoral students’ intrinsic behaviours that enable or hinder thesis writing.

Enabling thesis writing Hindering thesis writing

Motivation Determination: Just, grit your teeth and get on with it,
one foot in front of the other, don’t panic (Lilly) Goal-
setting: I found that the only way that I could take this
incredibly daunting, overwhelming project, was to break
it down into small chunks and set yourself goals and
celebrate each goal, you know – even if it was just inside
my head like ‘yes! I’ve done this after all this effort!’
(Jennifer) Endurance: I was quite focused in that if I was
in ‘the zone’ as such, I would just work around the
clock – like some days I would work ‘til like 3 or 4 in the
morning … (Jennifer)
Self-confidence in writing: … just having worked for 20
years or whatever, I have got some understanding of my
level of writing competence, I knew I was going to be
okay (Samantha)

Perfectionism: And so for a long time it felt so massive and so perfect in my head,
this story of my research, that I was scared to get my laptop out, because I thought
I would destroy it (Jennifer)
Procrastination: I have a phobia, a writing phobia (Luke)
Doubt: …initially I was thinking ‘have I got enough data? Have I done enough?’
Uncertainty: I wasn’t confident as to what a thesis should look like … I had never
done this before in my life – for example can I use the word ‘I’? I know that sounds
really silly … but it was all these little things that no one knew the answer to … my
supervisor said that sounds fine but then it wasn’t your supervisor who was going
to be looking at it (Evan)
Feeling overwhelmed: I wasn’t looking forward to the writing up stage at all … it
was just the length of it (the thesis), knowing there was so much to write (Evan)
Apathy: in my case … you find something you are very excited about, you start
doing it, you will probably have done it, then you think ‘Oh, is that useful, is that
interesting?’… it’s too narrow, extremely narrow … and then you just don’t want to
do anything about it. (Tom) Fatigue: I finished my undergraduate studies when I
was 22, started studying again at 23, I’m still studying 5 years later, come on. I’m
fed up with it. (Tom)

Organisation Planning ahead: I’d have a wall planner in my bedroom
… and I literally planned out – this month I’m going to
do this, this month I’m going to do that – set a lot of
interim deadlines and my supervisor found that hilarious
because I was saying to him ‘right, we need to meet on
this date because then I would have done this’ (Jennifer)
Self-discipline: I am an easily distracted person so there
were certain things that I had to avoid like meeting
friends and my boyfriend … I had to avoid calling
people. (Natasha) Working around rigid deadlines: … in
August I went away and that motivates me, because I was
thinking ‘okay I am going away on that date so before
that date I have to write this part for my supervisor …
Deadlines for me work. If you leave me without
deadlines, that is not good really but with deadlines I am
fantastic.’ (Natasha)

Poor planning skills: I’m probably not desperately good at planning things so that
doesn’t help my case (Sofia) Easily distracted: Too many distractions? – yes – of
any kind. Shall I sit here and write? Or I can go outside and do what I like. (Tom)





poor organisational skills delayed their thesis writing, with students such as Tom being
quite frank about how disorganised he was, which resulted in him becoming very easily
distracted. Although a small sample, the findings suggest that having good organisation
skills facilitates the motivation required for writing a doctoral thesis.

Some of the positive intrinsic behaviours exhibited by students could be attributed to
the good relationship that they had with their supervisor(s). For example Jennifer’s ability
to organise her time well was done in conjunction with her supervisor who willingly
cooperated with her plans to submit draft sections of her thesis. On the other hand Tom,
who credited the academic excellence of his supervisors, exhibited less than ideal
intrinsic factors which appeared to hinder his writing efforts such that it took him the
longest of all students interviewed to write-up. So the link between quality of supervisor–
supervisee relationship and its effect on student intrinsic motivation and organisation
remains to be determined.


This small-scale study set out to investigate the factors that enable or hinder doctoral
students in writing up their thesis. Whilst the factors identified cannot be generalised
across the research population, they can be grouped under the broader themes of: (1)
institutional/environmental; (2) supervisory; (3) non-psychological / individual; and (4)
intrinsic/ psychological. Factors falling into the latter two themes appeared most prevalent
(although a strict frequency analysis of factors was not undertaken). Doctoral students’
motivation and organisation behaviours played a key role in helping or hindering thesis
writing and are consistent with similar findings by Wellington (2010); supporting the
notion that recognising the affective domain in doctoral writing remains an important one
that we need to support students with. In addition it is worth noting that some of the
students who experienced supervisory challenges also appeared to be experiencing
intrinsic/psychological ones (e.g. Lilly); this observation is worthy of a future research
study across a larger research population to give greater it credence.

This study further identified discrepancies and confusion amongst some students
regarding the notion of writing up as a separate phase or as a continuous activity. Most
of the doctoral students in this study waited until after they had completed their research
to begin writing their thesis; yet the minority of students who were encouraged to write-
up continuously positively acknowledged this approach in helping to complete their
thesis on time. Though more research needs to be done, continuous writing of the thesis
could arguably reduce the negative intrinsic factors and behaviours related to
motivation and organisation that students face when they leave the task of writing
until their final year of study. Some would argue that this approach has implications in
terms of how much time students can devote to their research activities (particularly in
experimental, practical disciplines where academic writing tends not to be a major
activity). However both Wellington (2010) and Murray (2011) argue that writing
continuously can actually foster the development of knowledge, which is arguably
better than demoting academic writing to a simple knowledge-telling activity that
merely ‘transfers thoughts from brain to paper’ (Wellington 2010, 148). Given this and
the preliminary findings presented here, future research will investigate a greater range
of empirical data to give further support to the relationship between continuous writing
and knowledge development.

194 S. Lindsay

The findings of this study have indicated that supervisory approaches to supporting
doctoral students as they write their thesis are biased towards being functional and
‘project-managed’ which intuitively would seem to work well in facilitating a model of
‘knowledge-telling’ thesis writing, which is highly focused and somewhat disconnected
from the actual ‘doing’ of research. The findings from this study indicate, at least from
the student’s point of view, that supervisory approaches during thesis writing lack a
critical thinking element, which Lee describes as the supervisor encouraging the
student to question and analyse their work (Lee 2008). Whilst more research needs to
be done in this area, it is hypothesised that a supervisory approach that included a greater
element of critical thinking may emerge in a continuous writing model, thus aiding
knowledge development. In a continuous writing model it is practical to assume that
following completion of doctoral research, students may require some time to modify the
structure of their thesis so that it tells a more coherent story, reflecting on the entire
journey in a written conclusion, for example. However this aspect of writing should be
viewed as making the final touches to a largely-completed thesis – ‘finishing up’ as
opposed to ‘writing up’.

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72 (3): 341–367. doi:10.2307/2649335.

Elgar, F. J. 2003. PhD Degree Completion in Canadian Universities: Final Report. Halifax: Report
for Dalhousie University.

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and Postgraduate Pedagogy.” Studies in Higher Education 25 (2): 135–147. doi:10.1080/

Kluever, R. C. 1997. “Students’ Attitudes toward the Responsibilities and Barriers in Doctoral
Study.” New Directions for Higher Education 99 (4): 47–56.

Kuther, T. L. 1999. “Overcoming Procrastination: Getting Organized to Complete the Dissertation.”
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196 S. Lindsay

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  • Part-by-part delivery
  • Overnight delivery
  • Copies of used sources
  • Expert Proofreading
Paper format
  • 275 words per page
  • 12 pt Arial/Times New Roman
  • Double line spacing
  • Any citation style (APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, Harvard)

Our guarantees

Delivering a high-quality product at a reasonable price is not enough anymore.
That’s why we have developed 5 beneficial guarantees that will make your experience with our service enjoyable, easy, and safe.

Money-back guarantee

You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.

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Zero-plagiarism guarantee

Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.

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Free-revision policy

Thanks to our free revisions, there is no way for you to be unsatisfied. We will work on your paper until you are completely happy with the result.

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Privacy policy

Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.

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Fair-cooperation guarantee

By sending us your money, you buy the service we provide. Check out our terms and conditions if you prefer business talks to be laid out in official language.

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