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Navigating the Dissertation: Strategies for New Doctoral Advising Faculty and Their Advisees
Date Reviewed: April 15, 2016
The high attrition rate of doctoral candidates remains a major problem for higher education in the United States. Drawing upon her experience as the manager of graduate research and retention at Western Michigan University, Di Pierro offers an engaging text aimed at new faculty who are advising candidates and their advisees. Di Pierro argues that “despite abundant research and often-echoed affirmations that something must be done to quell doctoral attrition, progress is essentially hampered by a reluctance to recognize that advising faculty cannot continue to work with doctoral advisees by replicating models that are passé” (1). She believes that faculty and candidates need to be aware that models have changed “and are moving in the direction of collaborative, integrative, and interdisciplinary styles” (10). Furthermore, faculty need formal advising training before directing dissertations or serving on committees.
Di Pierro makes dissertation committee work a reoccurring subject throughout this book. She begins by addressing communication within committees and with the advisee. She covers expectations, roles, duties, expertise, and responsibilities not by offering a model but by outlining the areas the advisor needs to establish to ensure healthy and helpful communication on the committees. She also explores topics such as vetting a committee by the candidate, dealing with toxic committees, and considerations for faculty members to consider before accepting a role on a committee.
Another major subject of Di Pierro’s work is the actual writing of the dissertation. She explores subjects including finding a dissertation topic, the role of literature reviews, concept papers, maintaining draft files, combating the writing blues, responding to plagiarism, and working with human subject review boards. Building on the theme of communication, some of Di Pierro’s strongest chapters cover expectations for editing both from the perspectives of the advisors and the advisee. She explains line-by-line editing versus conceptual editing, explores using technology to give editorial feedback, and engages the problem of when editorial feedback is not working.
In her final chapters, Di Pierro offers a number of ideas including developing a “Student’s Bill of Rights” and a “Dissertation Advisor’s Bill of Rights” (173-174) and dealing with the post-dissertation blues. In her closing, she presents her views on the future of doctoral education by calling for the establishment of dissertation wellness checks and envisioning the creation of Graduate Centers for Scholarship, where candidates will find writing experts, statisticians, qualitative and quantitative methodological experts, and digital technology experts all in one place.
Di Pierro’s work is very reader-friendly with take-away lists, end-of-chapter biographies, and checklists, but the overall organization of the chapters seems out-of-sync. The author jumps around quickly from topic to topic and back again frequently. That said, the content of the chapters is valuable for its intended audience. Chapter 25, which provides an outline of each chapter, is a useful tool for navigating the book itself.
For schools of theology and seminaries, dissertation completion and dissertation quality are important subjects for both PhD and Doctor of Ministry programs. With limited resources for faulty training, Di Pierro’s book offers a valuable discussion starter for faculty and administrators and could serve as a planning tool for overhauling program handbooks. This title is strongly recommended for academic libraries with PhD and Doctor of Ministry programs, veteran faculty who want to improve their advising for candidates, as well as the book’s target audience of new doctoral advising faculty and their graduate students.
Mapping the Range of Graduate Student Professional Development: Studies in Graduate and Professional Student Development, Number 14
Date Reviewed: December 25, 2014
Graduates from religion and theology programs cannot expect to be hired to teaching positions (tenure-track or adjunct) without prior teaching experience, as the current job market demands that candidates gain significant experience and training prior to graduation. Graduate programs must therefore augment their academic offerings to students with an education that prepares them for successful teaching careers. To that end, a number of universities across diverse fields have adopted intentional Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) programs to prepare future faculty for a profession of teaching.
The collection of essays in this volume examine multiple options for offering this kind of training, from institution-wide certification programs for teaching to single courses on pedagogy that can be embedded into existing degree requirements. Several chapters present case studies, providing a range of models for how an intentional GTA program might operate. Most of the programs reviewed are overseen by research universities with large student populations, such as the University of California-Berkeley. These programs are cross-curricular and focus exclusively on increasing teaching experience, and can be easily adapted for training teachers of theology and religion.
This volume is most useful for those who are at least generally familiar with the rationale for training graduate students for teaching vocations and the value of it, and who are familiar (in knowledge if not in fact) with formal GTA programs. Administrators of GTA programs will find this a helpful reference volume as it provides information about how GTA programs compare with one another – including data on the kinds of training being offered (programs, certificates, and courses). Those who have the beginnings of a program and want to improve it will find examples of success (and failure) in schools of comparable size and student population, and find lists pertaining to the components of robust programs. Administrators of programs in schools operating with limited resources will want to read Chapter 8, “Leveraging Existing PFF (Preparing Future Faculty) Resources to Create a Certificate of University Teaching” (125-146), which describes the steps Duquesne University followed to develop a Certificate of Teaching program from meager resources.
This is a data-rich volume, although the editors acknowledge the lack of discussion on teaching-related training regarding the ethics of teaching and professional behavior (170), as well as training to teach diversity (171). Also of note, the essays address professional development only insofar as it relates to teaching. They do not address training for supplementary skills needed to prepare future faculty of theology and religious studies, such as administration, community involvement, or advising/mentoring undergraduates.
In addition to preparing graduate students to teach, forward-thinking Professional Development Programs should consider careers for their graduates beyond teaching. To that end, programs should also include training in how to apply degree-related skills to the nonprofit sector, as well as education-based, non-teaching careers (such as administration and editing). Administrators will want to keep an eye on future publications of the series Studies in Graduate and Professional Student Development to supplement this otherwise comprehensive and detailed volume.