Navigating Thesis and Dissertation Challenges: Advice from Experts

Feb. 28, 2024
Headshots of the three interviewed experts. From left to right Drs. Andrea Hernandez Holm, Shelley Hawthorne Smith, and Leslie Dupont.

I like to think that crafting a thesis or dissertation is akin to setting sail on an academic odyssey, navigating uncharted waters filled with challenges. Fortunately, in this expedition at UArizona, we have seasoned academic advisors like Drs. Leslie Dupont, Shelley Hawthorne Smith, and Andrea Hernandez Holm. They, serve as wise navigators, offering insights that help you chart a course through the complexities of project data management, writing dilemmas, time constraints, and the climactic defense.

Meet the three experts interviewed for this article.

Dr. Andrea Hernandez Holm

A headshot of Dr. Andrea Hernandez Holm.


The Director of the Writing Skills Improvement Program (WSIP) at the University of Arizona, Dr. Holm has two decades of expertise as a writing specialist. With a focus on academic and professional writing, she coordinates projects like the Graduate Writing Institute and is an adjunct professor in the Mexican American Studies Department, holding a PhD in the field. She is also a published researcher, essayist, and poet, who contributes to the literary landscape.









Dr. Shelley Hawthorne Smith

A headshot of Dr. Shelley Hawthorne Smith.


Dr. Hawthorne Smith is an Assistant Professor of Practice and Associate Director of the Graduate Writing Lab where she passionately supports graduate students' writing development. Creator of Fellowship Application Development Programs, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Rhetoric from the University of Arizona.











Dr. Leslie Dupont

A headshot of Dr. Leslie Dupont.


Dr. Dupont is a writing coach who helps College of Nursing students, staff, and faculty improve their scholarly and professional writing skills. With a PhD in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English, she has been teaching writing since 1989, both at UA and online with Johns Hopkins University. Her passion lies in collaborative coaching and mentoring.








The Writer’s Blueprint: Strategies from Thesis and Dissertation Writing Mentors

According to Dr. Holm, one of the most important aspects of thesis or dissertation writing is mentorship. Though there are plenty of online resources that can help, students also need personalized guidance. Mentors can address student writers’ individual experiences, changes in academia, and the evolution of disciplines.

One area that Dr. Holm notes is often addressed last when it should be in the forefront is one's identity as a writer. In graduate school, the personal perspective often gets relegated to the bottom of the priority list. It's important to consider how you're feeling, assess your confidence level, and actively nurture your identity as a writer. 

Dr. Holm suggests the following self-reflections:

  • Celebrate what you have accomplished so far. Most students forget that writing their thesis/dissertation means that they have completed or are about to complete their coursework, which is in itself a great accomplishment. Recognizing that gives you more confidence to tackle the next task and helps you find your voice as an academic writer. 
  • Use the lessons you have learned while writing for courses or as a teaching assistant. What has worked for you so far and what hasn’t?  
  • Change your mindset. Do not view this piece of writing as a final hurdle but an opportunity to express your work in writing to a captive audience (your committee) and to the wider community. This is an opportunity to have your voice heard, your work expressed and shared.

On a similar note, Dr. Hawthorne Smith says that having a strong sense of purpose for your projects is important for success. While some students start with a clear understanding of this in their graduate studies, most develop it over time, often by the end of their dissertation. The challenge is understanding the significance of their work, which may not be clear at the beginning as ideas take time to develop. Students who develop their ideas later may not have the same initial motivation as those who start earlier. Therefore, it's essential to cultivate a deep understanding of the 'what' and 'why' behind your academic endeavors. However, if you do not know this at the start of your project, it is okay. Dr. Hawthorne Smith stresses that coming into the program with all the necessary understanding and motivation is rare. In fact, in her 12 years of working closely with writers, she has only met 3 such students. Don’t doubt yourself; you will in due course find your strong motivations and a richer understanding of the importance of your work that will propel you forward.

Data Management and Writing

  • Dr. Hawthorne Smith maintains that you do not have to finish data collection before starting the writing process. You can write as you go. Even writing twice a week in 30-minute sessions will help you develop your ideas and make progress in the writing phase. 
  • Dr. Dupont advises students to store data so they always have access to it. Even if you do not micro-organize it into specific subfolders, at least have a “project data” folder instead of simply keeping everything in your downloads. In addition, keep backups of your data on hard drives, flash drives, or a secure cloud storage platform, so you can access the work from any device. A good resource for information about secure storage of sensitive data is the Institutional Review Board.
  • If you consult the internet while working on your writing, you can end up with too many open tabs. To avoid losing the links, create bookmark subfolders for your project, name it accordingly, and add to the subfolder all relevant papers and webpages you have open.
  • The University of Arizona Libraries website has helpful information about both project and data management.

Unlocking the Writing Process

If you are in graduate school and have no idea how to navigate academic writing, you are not alone. After speaking to these three writing mentors, I understood that most graduate students need guidance as they start communicating their findings to the academic community. 

Here are some tips that can help you improve your writing or gain the confidence to keep going. 

1. Overcoming the Dreaded Writer's Block

  • Take breaks strategically, especially after significant milestones. Seek support from peers, tutors, or colleagues. Remember, community and support systems are your lifelines.
  • Gamify your writing process, set achievable goals, and reward yourself. Create a dynamic outline, experiment with different environments, and if you have an alternative way of processing information or dealing with some neurodivergence, utilize resources like the Disability Resource Center.

2. Crafting the Manuscript: A Symphony of Words and Ideas

  • Understand your audience and the scholarly conversation you're joining. Break down the writing process into manageable steps. Leverage the support of writing tutors and groups at the Graduate Writing Lab.
  • Make a mess during drafting. The first draft is for yourself, so don't aim for perfection. Start with organizing ideas, address content issues, and focus on sentence-level details later.

3. Harnessing Tools for Enhanced Writing

  • Tools like Grammarly and Chatgpt can be beneficial for non-native speakers. Use them for pattern recognition and flow improvement. AI tools are tools, not substitutes; use them ethically and professionally.
  • Read aloud for flow and pattern identification. Use AI tools for brainstorming, proofreading, and organizing ideas.

4. Thriving Amidst Challenges

  • Overcome shame and imposter syndrome by seeking support. Remember, challenges are part of the journey, and many share similar struggles.
  • Celebrate achievements along the way. Perceive writing as an opportunity for growth and knowledge dissemination. Prepare diligently by understanding department expectations and utilizing campus resources.

5. Charting the Course to Dissertation Defense

  • Collaborate with graduate writing tutors, set goals, and seek feedback. The dissertation defense is a performance; prepare like an actor rehearsing a play. Embrace nerves as a sign of readiness.
  • Know your department's expectations, communicate with advisors, and leverage campus writing resources. Feedback is not criticism; it's a tool for growth. Navigating writing challenges is a shared experience; avoid internalizing external opinions and seek support from writing specialists.

Time as a Precious Resource

Time management is paramount for success in graduate school. Here is valuable advice from our interviewees on optimizing your time for effective and efficient thesis or dissertation writing.

  1. Creating Structures for Consistent Progress

Establishing writing structures and systems is laying tracks for a smooth academic journey. As suggested by seasoned writers, consider forming or joining writing groups. These forums provide not only accountability but also a sense of camaraderie, fostering a conducive environment for consistent progress.

  1. Embracing Flexibility and Acknowledging Trade-Offs

Flexibility is the ally of productivity. Recognize that sacrifices and trade-offs are often integral to academic pursuits. While commitment to your research is non-negotiable, understanding the art of balance is crucial. Whether it's compromising on leisure time or adjusting your schedule, being flexible is a key to success.

  1. The Power of Accountability through Writing Partnerships

Embark on your writing odyssey with a companion. Join a writing group or find a writing partner who shares your academic aspirations. This not only adds an element of accountability but also provides a support system during the inevitable peaks and valleys of your writing journey.

  1. Carving Out Dedicated Writing Time

Time, even in small increments, is a formidable ally in the writing process. Set aside dedicated periods for writing, making it a non-negotiable part of your routine. Daily commitment, even if brief, accumulates into significant progress over time. Remember, consistency is the linchpin of success.

  1. Leveraging University Resources for Writing Improvement

The University of Arizona has a treasure trove of resources. Explore writing improvement programs and coaching services tailored for graduate students. These tools not only enhance your writing skills but also offer personalized guidance, aligning your academic pursuits with the highest standards.

Here is where you can start:

  • Graduate Writing Tutors - Free consultations by appointment with trained and certified graduate writing tutors. Our tutors offer helpful feedback on any kind of writing at any stage in the writing process. Work with them to set writing goals and create strategic plans. The Graduate Writing Tutors service is a collaboration between the THINK TANK Writing Center and the Graduate Center’s Graduate Writing Lab.
  • Writing Skills Improvement Program Tutoring and Consultations -  A free service for UA undergraduate and graduate students. Meet with a WSIP tutor to receive focused feedback on a shorter sample of writing. Sessions are 15-30 minutes, depending on availability. No appointment is necessary.
  • College of Nursing Writing Coaching - Dr. Dupont works directly with Nursing students, staff, and faculty on strengthening their scholarly and professional writing.
  1. Task Prioritization and Safeguarding Writing Time

The academic landscape is teeming with tasks and commitments. Prioritize your responsibilities and zealously guard designated writing time against encroachments. Establishing clear boundaries ensures that your scholarly endeavors receive the attention they deserve.

Cultivate a Positive Attitude

When you get to the thesis or dissertation phase, it is important to remember that in addition to the anticipated challenges, there will likely be some unforeseen ones. However, no challenge should stop you from achieving your goal. This section consists of advice from Drs. Dupont, Hawthorne Smith, and Holm on the support you can get across campus, cultivating a positive mindset, and dealing with some ‘perceived’ writing problems.

Instead of isolating yourself while you marinade in thoughts of self doubt, acknowledge the potential for loneliness and combat it with intention. Tap into available resources and community support. Whether you turn to a mentor, fellow graduate students, or campus groups, writing can be easier when shared. Join the Graduate Center’s Graduate Writing Groups and Writing efficiency sessions. Even seasoned writers like Dr. Hawthorne Smith and Dr. Dupont meet up and write together in a cafe or online. 

A Strategic Approach to Preparing for the Thesis or Dissertation Defense

As you near the pinnacle of your academic journey—the defense—it's crucial to be prepared and confident. Dr. Hawthorne Smith offers suggestions for a successful defense that is also a celebration of your scholarly achievement.

  1. Attend Dissertation Defenses

Familiarize yourself with dissertation defenses before your own moment in the spotlight. Attending peers’ defenses not only educates you about the process but also provides a firsthand look at the expectations and dynamics of a successful defense. Learn from others' experiences and envision yourself in a similar position.

  1. Communicate with Advisors and Committee Members

View your advisors and committee members as allies. Foster open communication with them to demystify the defense process. Seek their guidance on what to expect, understand the nuances of the evaluation criteria, and discuss any specific areas they may emphasize. By learning their expectations, you set the stage for a more collaborative and informed defense.

  1. Tap into the Wisdom of Recent Graduates

Knowledge is power, especially when it comes from those who have prior experience. Connect with recent graduates who have successfully defended their dissertations. They can offer you practical advice, share common pitfalls to avoid, and provide a nuanced perspective on the entire experience. Learn from their triumphs and challenges to better navigate your own defense.


Tune into our Graduate Student’s Guide Podcast where you can listen to the conversations I had with these three writing experts. Their recommendations about embracing your identity as a writer, effective data management, unlocking the writing process, time mastery, and defense preparation serve as a compass for graduate students.

Anesu Samuel Masango