• Doreen Starke-Meyerring Doreen Starke-Meyerring

Canadian Doctoral Writing Study

The state of doctoral writing in Canadian doctoral education: A cross-disciplinary study of practices, challenges, and resources

Project Abstract

This research project works with research participants—doctoral students, supervisors, program directors, and administrators—to understand the traditional, regularized, and habitual practices of doctoral writing that participants often inherit from previous generations, but that are increasingly under pressure as a result of growing demands on doctoral student writing and publishing. Our goal is to understand participant needs for support and resources and to work with participants to influence policy and pedagogy for doctoral student writing at Canadian research-intensive universities.


Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, (2009-2013)

Project Description

The goal of our research program is to address the pressing need for systematic research, policy, and pedagogical attention to research writing by doctoral students at a time when the productivity and impact of new researchers determines not only their success in their careers, but also Canada’s success in an increasingly competitive global knowledge society. As knowledge moves centre stage in all sectors of society, the development of new researchers has been declared one of the most critical infrastructure issues in the knowledge society by governments around the world (Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, 2005; Council of Graduate Schools, 2007; European University Association, 2007). To compete in this environment, Canada will need 30,000 doctoral graduates by the year 2011 (AUCC, 2002) who can train future generations of knowledge workers and researchers as well as produce and disseminate original knowledge, which is critical to innovation, economic growth, and national prosperity.

For their research productivity, new researchers depend on their ability to write for publication to ensure the international impact of their research, to write grant proposals to obtain increasingly competitive research funding (Hyland, 2004), and to write in ways that engage the public in knowledge making beyond the ivory tower (Willinsky, 2005, 2006; Starke-Meyerring, forthcoming). Trends toward growing competitiveness in higher education have added even more pressure on doctoral students and their supervisors for timely degree completion and a strong early publication record to ensure the competitiveness of new researchers in research funding applications and job searches (Aitchison & Lee, 2006; Kamler & Thomson, 2006; Lee & Boud, 2003).

Yet, research writing is a highly specialized and discipline-specific social practice critical to knowledge making (Green, 2005; Hyland, 2004; Kamler & Thomson, 2006; Starke-Meyerring & Paré, forthcoming) and to (re)producing disciplinary membership and identity (Bazerman & Prior, 2005; Graves, 2005; Horne, 2007; Prior, 1998). As a result, developing productive writing researchers requires intensive and time-consuming work on the part of supervisors, who—like their students—are often left without resources and support for writing pedagogy, making doctoral writing “one of the major sites of anxiety for students and … their supervisors” (Kamler & Thomson, 2006, p. 3). With blame often placed on individuals (new researchers and supervisors), students delay completion of their degrees or abandon their programs altogether because of issues around writing (Torrance & Thomas, 1994). Yet, aside from a flood of untheorized and misleading tips on doctoral writing, little research-based support is available to doctoral students and supervisors (Kamler & Thomson, 2006; Rose & McClafferty, 2001).

To address this problem, our research program pursues the following objectives: 1) to identify and describe the practices and demands of doctoral writing at Canadian research-intensive (G13) universities in an environment of increasing competitiveness and technological change; 2) to identify and analyze the consequences of these practices and demands, and specifically the challenges they present for doctoral researchers and their supervisors; 3) to identify and document the institutional perceptions of and support for doctoral writing at G13 universities; and 4) to develop a web-based research participant network to engage doctoral students, supervisors, and others involved in doctoral education in our research; invite their ongoing input, questions, and interpretations of emerging results; and to engage them in our ongoing efforts to influence policy and pedagogies for doctoral writing.

In pursuing these objectives, our research program will provide the first systematic, theoretically informed and empirical account of the practices of doctoral writing at Canadian research-intensive universities. Rooted in current theories of writing as a social practice, a systematic account is not about identifying deficient individuals in need of remediation, but about identifying the regularized traditional writing practices that may now be at odds with current demands, presenting new challenges for doctoral students and their supervisors. Our research program will also provide an empirical basis for research-informed writing pedagogy and decision making for program, university, and national policy makers as they respond to emerging pressures on the timeliness, productivity, and impact of doctoral writing.

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