Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Poorvu Center’s Graduate Writing Lab Reimagines Dissertation Writing as Practice

November 1, 2021

The Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning’s Graduate Writing Lab is inviting doctoral students from across the disciplines to a six-part Dissertation Writing as Practice Series. 
Since this year’s sessions started in October, 75 Yale students have signed up to explore strategies for managing the dissertation process. “It brings people in from the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences,” says Julia Istomina, Associate Director of the Graduate Writing Lab. “The students have a wide range of experiences.”
Originally designed and taught by previous GWL Director Elena Kallestiova, the series has been going strong for over a decade with great reviews from students. Istomina recently redesigned it, drawing on her experiences as both a doctoral student and a professor. “I always felt the series could use more structure, but I recognized the limitations of what we could do as a program. With Poorvu Center resources, we can experiment,” she says. “This is the first time we used a Canvas site dedicated to it. Participants have readings, accountability, reflective exercises, discussion boards, and a balance and wellness component.” Students complete a pre-series self-reflection about their writing and research practices. The class then provides a space for them to find out what they need to improve and what habits they need to cultivate. By the end of the course, they will have set a working plan to complete the dissertation and have a greater awareness of the Yale’s resources to support them through the process.
Doctoral degree completion has been a growing, nationwide concern for decades, and the difficulty of writing a book-length, juried manuscript is one of the biggest roadblocks. Istomina added “practice” to the title of the series particularly to reinforce the idea that writing a dissertation is a skill that can be learned and improved. “Making these practices overt helps them recognize these are skills they can build,” she says.
To that end, the class explores strategies that approach the craft of writing and help calibrate relationships with advisors through structure and regularity. Weekly goal setting and small-group conversations during the series build in the tools of habit-stacking, accountability, and peer community. With the recent struggles caused by COVID-19 in mind, Istomina also focuses on wellness and balance, sharing various methods to deal with distraction, imposter stress, perfectionism, and demoralization. “We ask them to sit and be present,” she says. “We call it ‘being a duck,’ giving space to yourself, attached to no obligation, in order to get into a good head space for writing.”
Students can schedule consultations with Istomina, where they can discuss more individualized needs and outcomes. “Every single person has their own process,” she says. “It’s about recognizing that there are different blocks to our writing and figuring out ways to overcome them. In that way, this series is all about self-discovery.”
Reviews of the new course format are positive. “I have been finding myself embracing the lessons, and eager to apply them, eager to use them to get over my anxiety in receiving feedback, and I know I am a work in progress, but I feel more anchored,” one student writes. “I am realizing no one really told me how to approach feedback, and how to approach it with confidence.”
In the past the series has been offered to GSAS students once a year, but Istomina’s ideal goal is to offer it every semester to support Yale’s doctoral students at their particular stages of the writing process. “Yale wants to see innovative work,” she says. “And that means we have to figure out ways to support innovative thinkers.”
The series takes place every Thursday: Oct 14th, 21st, 28th, Nov 4th, 11th, 18th.

  1. Time Management and Dissertation Planning (Oct 14th)
  2. Crafting a Holistic Dissertation Writing Practice (Oct 21st)
  3. Working through Distractions and Procrastination (Oct 28th)
  4. Writing through Imposter Stress [All-GSAS student workshop] (Nov 4th)
  5. Hanging up on Perfectionism and Demoralization (Nov 11th)
  6. DWAP Adjusted Dissertation Working Plans & Series Celebration (Nov 18th)

Contact Julia Istomina for more information at julia.istomina@yale.edu.