Twenty years ago Sweetland and the Rackham Graduate School collaborated to establish an innovative program designed to support graduate students during the process of writing their dissertations. Since 2003, the Dissertation Writing Institute has helped many students from multiple areas complete their dissertations. It is one of the most popular and sought-after Sweetland graduate programs.

To apply, students must have achieved candidacy, have completed at least one chapter of the dissertation, have a clear path for writing during the Institute, and have a faculty advisor’s support. During the Institute students have offices of their own, though the institute functioned in a remote capacity during part of the pandemic. Indeed, students have expressed enormous gratitude that we were able to continue the program in a remote capacity, but they are also very happy that the institute has returned to its traditional, in-person aspect. While in the Institute, students meet at least once a week with an Institute leader to discuss their progress, and they share a section of their dissertation with the whole group in a workshop session. Thanks to the Rackham Graduate School, students are financially supported during the program.

Louis Cicciarelli was instrumental in developing the Dissertation Writing Institute, having served as its leader since its inception. Many members of the Sweetland faculty have collaborated with Louis to direct the program: Paul Barron, Simone Sessolo, and Catherine Cassel. Together, these faculty have inspired, challenged, and guided graduate student writers during each eight-week institute.

One indication of the success is provided by the changes in participants’ writing behaviors. In surveys and interviews, they report that they are more able to set productivity goals for themselves, that they feel more confident about their writing abilities, and that they understand more fully the practice and craft of writing. Success is also evident in the fact that most participants produce at least 50 pages of new writing during the Institute.

Testimonies from former participants show that the effects of the Dissertation Writing Institute extend far into the future, shaping the ways Institute alums approach their own scholarly writing, the ways they teach, and the ways they work with their own graduate students. Here are but a few student responses we received through the years:

“[The DWI] allowed me to reflect on my writing methods and habits, and completely transformed how I manage my time. I now have a much, much better understanding of writing and authorial productivity as practices that require some degree of methodization and organization.”

“The office-like environment and hours were very helpful for me in terms of accountability and establishing a good writing routine. I found the workshops to be incredibly valuable--both in terms of the feedback I received and for getting perspective on what a draft dissertation chapter can and should look like. Likewise, having a community of peers, all around the same level and facing similar struggles with writing, though removed from our own departmental politics, was extremely grounding throughout the institute.”

“Having the chance to meet my faculty mentor every week for feedback and advice was extremely important. It definitely kept me accountable and helped me to move towards my goal. The support and feedback were fundamental for the progress of my writing and I appreciate all the dedication and time. Furthermore, the group workshops helped me in knowing more about the work in other disciplines and to get training in reading writings to produce for different expectations and using different methodologies. It’s something I’ll carry on with me.”

“The required hours, accountability measures (the weekly journal especially), and the workshop were the most helpful components of the DWI. The DWI allowed me to work from a set time with a group of "colleagues" as if I were treating the dissertation as a full time job. I know now how to approach building time into my schedule when the school year begins, and how to write for a specific audience and use their feedback in future iterations of my work, so these are transferable elements that will impact my writing in the future.”

Happy 20th birthday to the Dissertation Writing Institute!