The Dissertation Workshop

Dealing with Discouragement and Writer's Block
Getting Organized
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You Need
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Different Types of Peer Support

A peer support group is not for everyone, but it can be a very powerful tool in getting the task done. Equally valuable, but different, is a support partner, someone you check in with each week. Here are some keys to a successful peer support relationship:

  1. Be clear on what each of you wants to get out of the group. Ask for a mission statement from each member describing what he or she wants to get out of the group. You may want to work out a joint mission statement to which everyone agrees. Make sure that a positive and respectful tone is the agreed upon climate for the group.

  2. Set a regular time to meet for a specific number of meetings (say 6 or 10) and decide whether to renew the commitment in the session before the last of the agreed upon meetings is reached. Decide on the frequency of meeting. Many have found that once every two or three weeks is a good interval between groups..

  3. Rotate the role of facilitator of the group among the members. In this way everyone in the group participates in giving shape to the tone and culture of the group. Each member develops the skills for running the group: scheduling, getting the meeting started on time, keeping to the format and time allocated for each turn. Members need to be comfortable leading and being led, helping and being helped.

  4. Recognize that this is a work group, not a therapy group. Recognize that you have a responsibility both to yourself and to the other members of the group to attend the group and be helpful. If a member can't attend the group, he should let the facilitator for that week know he will be absent. If a facilitator can't attend, then he should find someone else in the group to take that role. Try to keep the scheduled group meeting, even when not everyone can be present; it is often too easy to decide to cancel the group.

Peer support groups can help students create a healthy social obligation to get work done. You may, for example, promise: "I'll bring two pages to the next group meeting." Beyond that, a peer support group is a way out of the destructiveness of loneliness. If you feel shame about not getting more done, then instead of your own critical, self-deprecating voice being the only voice you hear, you can in fact hear many voices--supportive and encouraging voices. Having the guts to report to someone that the work isn't going well will defuse your self-criticism and help you feel open to approach the work anew.

"Pair" Support Group

A single support partner can be as powerful as a larger support group. In fact, pairs are often more efficient, because you don't have to listen to so many different members discuss what they are working on. The drawback, of course, is that a single support partner doesn't provide the diversity of feedback, the momentum or the creativity that is often present in a group.

Nevertheless, a regular meeting in pairs is a powerful tool to help you commit to getting your work done. As with the larger support group, be clear about your plan. Sometimes it can seem too formal in a pair to clarify who is going to call whom or when you are going to meet. The challenge is to take your commitment to each other seriously. Students often take commitments to classes and to groups more seriously than they do to one other individual.

Note: Of all the appointments you make, to attend classes, to go to the doctors, to meet your advisor, It is hardest one to keep is the one with yourself. There is no easier commitment to break than the one to yourself. If you set up a meeting with yourself to write for one hour starting at 4 p.m., it is remarkably easy to break that commitment. Be as responsible to yourself as you would be to any other support partner.

Summary of Suggestions for Creating a Dissertation Work Group

  1. Come to an agreement as to who is in the group, how long each meeting will be, and how many meetings you will commit to before renewing the commitment. You might simply agree to meet for five times initially.

  2. Rotate the role and responsibilities for facilitating the group among all members.

  3. For the first meeting, have each member bring a mission statement for the group, stating what you want the group to be for you and for the others.

  4. Recognize that this is a work group, not a therapy group.

  5. Have each member keep a binder in which to place handouts, when there are some, for the group. The facilitator should write up brief notes on each meeting. Notes should be kept in the binder.

  6. Begin each meeting with some question composed by the facilitator which everyone answers briefly to somehow touch base. The discussion of the question should include feelings and thoughts. Sample question: What is a small success you've had since our last meeting, no matter how minor, and what feelings do you associate with it? A member might answer, "I managed to get to the group. It wasn't easy, because I have been discouraged, and was embarrassed because I haven't made much progress on my work."

  7. Encourage pairs to talk between meetings.

  8. The facilitator should plan equal blocks of time for each member. Each member should think ahead about how he wants to use his block of time and what, if any, kind of feed back he wants from the group.

Other Support






The Dissertation Workshop
Fred Stern, Ph.D. and Lois Feldman, Ph.D
Phone: 212-874-4530


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