Association of American Medical Colleges Group on Faculty Affairs and Group on Women in Medicine and Science Joint Professional Development Conference

Document Type

Conference Proceeding




A group of six women, each of them working full-time while pursuing a doctoral degree, began meeting every other week in the fall of 2017. Their backgrounds were unique, and their programs varied, but their goal was the same: to complete their dissertations. Along the way, these women supported each other through writing challenges, committee woes, and balancing the demands of work, life, and the dissertation writing process.

A proven model for success, the interdisciplinary writing group these women formed was based on a few basic principles: respect and positive regard for each other’s work, trust that the frustrations shared during meetings were kept confidential, and accountability to each other for the writing goals they set each week. Experts from campus spoke with the group about topics such as: authorship guidelines, research resources, turning the dissertation into publication, life after graduation, and technology tools.

The goal of this Ignite Session is to unpack the barriers that may be unique to women and discuss potential strategies for supporting women during these challenges. These personal, vulnerable conversations are timely and significant because more and more women are in pursuit of a doctoral degree. In 2015, 46% of all U.S. doctorates were awarded to women (National Science Foundation).

Leonard (2001) offers that women, more so than their male counterparts, face a balancing act between family and scholarship commitments. Moreover, Brown and Watson (2010) report that women tend to time their pursuit of a doctoral degree based upon domestic demands. Wall (2008) adds that for female doctoral students, juggling the demands of professional scholarship and personal life often requires them to make choices between the head and heart. This emotional struggle can feed into self-doubt and bruise self-efficacy for some women, which may slow or entirely halt their progress through a doctoral program.

Research culture tends to be deeply founded on objectivity and autonomy by overlooking emotions (Johnson, Lee, & Green, 2000), but channeling emotions via a support group may be a successful strategy for many women. According to Mewburn (2011), many women actively find or form supportive groups where they can engage in honest dialogue to minimize emotional dissonance and share personal feelings and emotions.

Historically, dissertation writing has been viewed as an independent venture; often one without external guidance and support. The notion of writing groups as they pertain to the dissertation stage have only recently been recognized as an acceptable support mechanism. Maher, Fallucca, & Mulhern Halasz, (2013) contend that dissertation writing groups can result in the development of a vibrant, intellectual community where commitment to degree completion and scholarly productivity soar. This implication is echoed by the session presenters. Support groups such as the one described by the presenters serve to hold participants accountable to writing outcomes; but potentially more important, a supportive group can dually function as a safe space for doctoral students to find support through the more sensitive challenges of writing the dissertation.

To achieve the objectives of the session, presenters will begin by engaging attendees in a discussion of the unique challenges women who are pursuing an advanced degree face. Secondly, group facilitators will focus conversation on the construction and success of the writing group represented and solicit success stories from other attendees with similar approaches. Last, specific strategies from the writing group experience and from the collective experiences of attendees will be cultivated in order to deepen understanding of approaches that each attendee can bring back to his or her campus community for action.

It is the ultimate goal of the presenters to validate the fears and concerns commonly shared by women in academia who aspire to develop through formal educational opportunities or through professional development activities and to equip them with multiple strategies for success as individuals and as members of a campus community. This equipment is imperative for faculty affairs officers, faculty developers, and other stakeholders at major medical centers because the success of our female faculty and staff members may well depend on proven, achievable strategies for supporting them through the juggling act they perceive as a significant barrier to achievement.