Dissertation House paper

The Dissertation House Model: Doctoral Student Experiences Coping and Writing in a Shared Knowledge Community


ABSTRACT: The problem of PhD attrition, especially at the dissertation-writing stage, is not solely related to mentoring, departments, or disciplines; it is a problem that affects the entire institution. As such, solutions require collaborative efforts for student success. Building on Yeatman’s master–apprentice model, which assumes mastering disciplinary writing in singular advisor–student contexts, and Burnett’s collaborative cohort model, which introduced doctoral dissertation supervision in a collaborative-learning environment with several faculty mentors in a single discipline, the Dissertation House model (DHM) introduces a model of doctoral dissertation supervision that involves multiple mentors across several disciplines. On the basis of more than 200 students’ reflections, we find that challenges in completing the dissertation extend beyond departmental and disciplinary boundaries. The DHM’s multidisciplinary approach preserves the traditional master–apprentice relationship between faculty and students within academic departments while providing an additional support mechanism through interdisciplinary collaborative cohorts. Using Thoits’s coping assistance theory and data from DH students over a 10-year period, the DHM incorporates Hoadley’s concept of knowledge communities to establish a successful dissertation-writing intervention for graduate students across doctoral programs. Using propensity score analysis, we provide in this study an empirical assessment of the benefits and efficacy of the DHM.

(Carter-Veale, Tull, Rutledge, Joseph, 2016)


Dissertation House on UMBC and paper


Full article link via CBE: http://www.lifescied.org/content/15/3/ar34.full

PUBMED: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27521236

The Dissertation House has also been acknowledged in:

  • Rutledge, J.C., Carter-Veale, W.Y.  & Tull, R. G. (2011).  Successful PhD Pathways to Advanced STEM Careers for Black Women in Beyond Stock Stories and Folktales: African Americans’ Paths to STEM Fields, Vol. 11., H. T. Frierson and W. F. Tate, Eds. United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Ltd.
  • Byrne, R.  (2011, Fall) “The Write Stuff”, UMBC Magazine. p. 12. (PDF)
  • Glenn, D. (2010, March 31) “Help to the Finish Line: Ways to Reduce the Numbers of Ph.D. Dropouts”, The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Sowell, R. S., Bell, N. E., & Kirby, S. N. (2010). Ph.D. Completion and Attrition: Policies and Practices to Promote Student Success, Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.
  • Chubin, D.E., DePass, A. L., & Blockus, L. (2010). Understanding Interventions the Broaden Participation in Research Careers: Volume III. Embracing a Breadth of Purpose. Washington, D.C.: UnderstandingInterventions.org.  “Dissertation House: Graduate Innovation in Ph.D. Completion and Retention” pp. 69-71.





Dissertation House opens door to secrets of doctoral success

By Ricardo Howell(University of Pennsylvania, Guest Scholar-in-Residence, Stockton College), August 2009

At Dissertation House, a project of PROMISE, the Maryland Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), PhD students from Maryland’s research campuses learn the skills of thesis-writing success. During the immersive twice-yearly four-day program, a group of nearly twenty graduate students share experiences, set transparent goals, and map out ways to get to the finish line of the doctoral dissertation.

PROMISE staff and instructors are at the helm of the seminar-style gathering, and offer proven strategies, personal counseling and assessment, as well as a dose of academic reality to students attempting to navigate the mysterious and often-long writing and research process.

“Our overarching goal with the Dissertation House is to help our PhD students create visions of themselves as successful future faculty,” says Dr. Renetta Tull, who has led PROMISE since 2003 and helped create the Dissertation House in 2006.

During a typical Dissertation House, attendees break down the dissertation process into small manageable units. They focus on scenarios and factors doctoral students commonly encounter, and work on setting consistent reachable goals; fostering a productive work environment; overcoming obstacles in the research and writing process; communicating with difficult-to-read faculty; and preparing the thesis for publication.

“The dissertation is one of the times during the PhD process that students struggle most,” says Calvin Williams, an MD/PhD student in microbiology at University of Maryland Baltimore and a recent Dissertation House participant. “The Dissertation House helps lower the likelihood of students not finishing the dissertation and contributes to the completion of the PhD process.”

Dissertation House dovetails with the goals and other offerings of PROMISE, a seven-year-old comprehensive support program for students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields in the Maryland area. An alliance of UMBC, the University of Maryland Baltimore, and the University of Maryland College Park, PROMISE employs its tri-campus structure to recruit, mentor and advise, and develop the academic careers of students throughout Maryland who are pursuing Master’s and PhD degrees. Funded by the National Science Foundation, PROMISE seeks to increase the number and diversity of PhD graduates in the STEM fields.

While the PROMISE program’s activities are generally targeted toward students from underrepresented populations in the science and technology fields, many PROMISE activities such as Dissertation House are broadly open to students of all ethnicities and from all academic disciplines at the two campuses. An additional online component allows students to participate and receive feedback on their progress from distance. Tull notes that the programs wide-ranging goals are met when students from a variety of disciplines receive the message of inclusiveness and the benefits of student support.

Having studied the explanations for student retention and success in graduate school, PROMISE advocates support across the institution as key to the goals of graduate student diversity and degree completion. In their own research and in the research of others, the PROMISE leaders point to several important practical steps that need be taken to strategically involve an entire university community to, in their words, “provide the intellectual, social, and administrative environment for doctoral students to fully achieve their potential and successfully complete their degrees.”

One of PROMISE’s central goals is to increase the flow of students into the doctoral pipeline. Sessions like Dissertation House increase students’ chances of getting through that pipeline once they arrive in graduate school.

Heather Holden recalls the struggles she overcame to reach the point of her dissertation defense now scheduled for fall 2009. “Everything in the dissertation took longer than I initially thought,” says Holden, an information science graduate student at UMBC. “Writing the dissertation is a process, and in order for it to be done correctly, it takes time. I was frustrated semester after semester because of the delays.  It took me a while to realize you cannot write a dissertation overnight. This became more apparent during the Dissertation House when I did not get through all of my objectives for the week.  I was being overambitious.”

During Dissertation House, Dr. Wendy Carter, PROMISE’s program coordinator and dissertation coach, meets with each student daily to help measure student progress, refine their goals, pinpoint ways to overcome their obstacles, and to identify opportunities to strengthen student investment in the academy.

Carter suggests that students view the doctoral program alternately as a job and an apprenticeship process during which students treat advisors as something akin to employers. Carter says that students should gain as much knowledge as insight as thy can from these senior members of the academy who essentially are training PhD candidates to be scholars and professors.

The discussion and activities of Dissertation House help students mentally prepare for careers as faculty. “We believe there is no reason that doctoral students should not finish their degrees,” says Carter. “If they have the right skill sets, structured support, and an awareness of how to be proactive in their own interests, students can survive and thrive.”

Indeed, the assistance that PROMISE and Dissertation House provides participants is more than academic. “Completing the dissertation requires more than an aptitude for original research,” says Ernesto Muñoz, who attended the Dissertation House while working on his PhD in Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at UMCP. Muñoz, who received his degree in 2007, now serves as a postdoctoral associate with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Some students have to balance their time between work, social and family relations, and school and research,” he says. “By providing an environment – the Dissertation House – where the PhD candidate can work towards completion of the dissertation, PROMISE goes the additional mile in facilitating more PhDs.”

The extra efforts that PROMISE and its staff exhibit extend to identifying undergraduates with potential. While an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, Patricia Ordóñez Rozo found out through PROMISE about fellowships that could allow her to attend grad school full time. Now a student in computer science at UMBC, Ordóñez Rozo is on the verge of receiving her PhD

Ordóñez Rozo notes that through her continuing involvement with PROMISE in addition to improving her writing she has learned how to network, write grant proposals, give scientific talks, and has gained the ability to explain her research in 30 seconds. At Dissertation House, she received help getting over the hurdle of drafting a thesis proposal. Beyond her scholarly achievements, she points to intangible skills she has also acquired, including leadership and confidence. “All these skills will transfer into my career after grad school and make me a better professional,” she says.

Williams, Holden and Muñoz echo the sentiment that PROMISE experiences and lessons will endure beyond the dissertation. Muñoz says that he still applies the lessons learned as a Dissertation House participant – breaking down projects, setting deadlines, communicating with advisors and mentors, and keeping materials on his desk and computer organized.


The Dissertation House seminar and its all-inclusive approach to the thesis process are the brainchild of Dr. Renetta Tull, Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Development at UMBC and Director of PROMISE, Dr. Wendy Carter, Dissertation Coach for PROMISE and UMBC and PhD Completion Coordinator, and PROMISE’s founding principal investigator Dr. Janet Rutledge, Dean of UMBC’s Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education.  Dr. Johnetta G. Davis, Associate Dean Emerita of Graduate Studies at UMCP was involved with the implementation of the Dissertation House on College Park’s campus. PROMISE’s current PI is UMBC Provost Dr. Elliot Hirshman.  Lead Co-PI is Dr. Janet Rutledge.  Additional Co-PIs are Dr. Renetta Tull at UMBC, Dr. Carol Parham at UMCP, and Dr. Jordan E. Warnick, Assistant Dean of Student Research at UMB.

What is dissertation house?

The Dissertation House program is an intensive writing retreat designed to help graduate students overcome the barriers that often impede progress on their dissertations. Developed by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the program provides a supportive and structured environment where students can focus on their writing, receive feedback, and learn effective time management and goal-setting strategies. Over several days, students work in groups, participate in workshops, and receive coaching from experienced facilitators. The Dissertation House program has been highly successful in helping students make significant progress on their dissertations. It is widely regarded as a valuable resource for graduate students seeking to complete their degrees.