'Share your writing often, widely and early': Daniel Newman of Milestones and Pathways offers writing advice to grad students

October 4, 2019 by Alexa Zulak - A&S News

Finding your way in graduate school can be a challenge. 

Beyond the nitty gritty of research, it’s the first time many students may be asked to write thesis chapters, grant proposals, conference abstracts and journal articles.

And it can be hard to know where to begin.

That’s why the Faculty of Arts & Science launched the Milestones and Pathways Program, with support from the School of Graduate Studies Innovation Fund.

“The program is designed to address needs that are felt by many — perhaps even most — graduate students,” said Daniel Newman, assistant professor, teaching stream and director of graduate-level writing support in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

“Milestones and Pathways helps graduate students navigate the difficulties they face as they move through their degrees — the milestones — and as they prepare to move beyond their degrees — the pathways.”

For Newman, this means providing students with the skills and strategies they need to produce quality work, while also working to clarify the expectations of graduate studies and research training in the ever-evolving world of academia.

Newman spoke with A&S News about his role in the Faculty’s Milestones and Pathways Program, what he finds most rewarding about his work and his number one writing tip for grad students.

Can you tell us a bit about your role?

What’s unique about my position is that I do most of my writing-support work within academic units. So I might run a workshop on dissertation writing for the Department of Mathematics one day, and another day run a workshop on the same topic for the Centre for Medieval Studies. 

Broadly speaking, the support I provide falls into two categories: clarifying how to write the kinds of genres graduate students have to write, like thesis chapters, grant proposals, conference abstracts and journal articles; and providing support and structure for getting writing done, which is especially important for those struggling for whatever reason to write their dissertation or thesis.

How does your process differ between disciplines? 

There are more similarities across disciplines than some people believe, but of course, graduate students in physics do generally seek different kinds of writing support than graduate students in history. 

In the sciences, I find that much of my work involves helping students better understand the genres they’re asked to write, like grant proposals or abstracts. I do a lot of that in humanities and social sciences too, but in those fields, more of my work involves helping graduate students begin and progress in their dissertation writing. 

The nature of dissertation writing in most humanities and social sciences means that many students struggle to begin writing, or end up revising and re-revising endlessly, so the support they need often involves supplying structure and accountability they might otherwise find hard to find.

What’s the most rewarding part of your position?

Working with graduate students on their writing is a reward in itself. I get to see the astounding range of research done in the university and talk to brilliant students from such a wide range of disciplines. One of the most rewarding parts of the job, though, is getting to work with students on their dissertations, grant proposals, journal articles and job-application documents — among others — over time, so I can watch as their writing improves and their ideas become clearer. 

What do you hope students take away from the Milestones and Pathways Program?

More than anything, I hope grad students take away the strategies and tools they can use in order to do the work they need to do with more confidence and clarity.

What’s your number one writing tip for graduate students regardless of discipline? 

It’s hard to choose, but “share your writing often, widely and early” might be one of them. Students often keep their writing to themselves too long, and that can delay things a lot. It’s tempting to revise your work over and over, but there are diminishing returns to doing that — and sometimes all that’s needed is another pair of eyes. 

Graduate students and faculty members are invited to contact Daniel Newman with ideas for graduate writing support.