Friday, July 13, 2018

Approaching the End

In composing your thesis or dissertation, you naturally move back and forth through all five phases of the writing process.  (For more on engaging each stage of that process, see this post from March 2017.)  In this entry, we revisit this theme but with an emphasis on the eventual product—your final monograph—and some tips and thoughts on one of its important components: the end.

The End First

No matter how many chapters it has, your thesis or dissertation is like any piece of writing in that it presents to the reader three broad parts: an introduction, a body, a conclusion.  In the Thesis Office, we generally suggest that you compose these parts in following order: chapters of the body first, conclusion next, introduction last.  Still, we acknowledge that during the long project you’ll likely need to veer slightly from this overall plan.  If you find yourself stuck on a certain chapter or part, you should move on to another that you can more actively and productively make progress on.  If you find yourself adequately ready to draft introductory material, so be it.

Yet consider the advantages of drafting your ending very early on—long before you start to tackle the introduction and even before you draft one or more chapters of the body.  Components of a successful final chapter include a brief summary of your key findings, a restatement of your conclusion(s), an assertion of your work’s significance, an acknowledgment of its shortcomings, and recommendations for related future research.  When you wrote your proposal, you likely envisioned how your project would address such concerns.  You may be able to draft a concluding chapter that tentatively covers them while—or shortly after—you complete necessary readings, lab experiments, interviews, field work, and/or data analysis.  Drafting an ending first can provide a firm foundation on which to build the rest of your document, particularly its beginning. 

The End in Reach…

As you head toward your finish line, keep in mind that, in the final analysis, no piece of writing is ever fully realized.  “Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,” said poet Alexander Pope back in the 18th century, “Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.”  Granted, in the Thesis Office, where we generally work with writers in the final stages of document preparation, we do stress the need to adhere to the Grad School’s guidelines for formatting a thesis or dissertation at NIU.  Your finished document must be consistent and accurate in terms of form.  But we certainly recognize that any piece of writing varies in presentation of content.  So should you.  Ways to express ideas in writing are infinite.  In finalizing your overall written statement, try not to let the best be the enemy of the good.

The Writer’s End

On a related note, consider the various meanings behind the end to a piece of writing.  More than just the happy moment when you can confidently type “The End,” it can refer to the purpose you bring to the overall task.  Pope, the poet mentioned above, had this meaning in mind in these further lines in his versified “An Essay on Criticism”:

          In ev’ry work regard the writer’s end,
          Since none can compass more than they intend;
          And if the means be just, the conduct true,
          Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due.

Thoughts worth keeping on board as you realize—and approach—your writing’s end.

Incidentally, in another sense this post is this blog writer’s end.  My assistantship in the Thesis Office ends on July 31.  Another graduate assistant will take my place in August and work with Carolyn and Robyn.  Best of luck to all, at any and all stages of your projects!

Fred Stark
Doctoral Candidate in English

Friday, June 29, 2018

Graduate Students: University Assets, Underpaid Labor

by Robyn Byrd

On a recent Wikipedia journey, I ended up on the page defining graduate assistants. They got some of it right. But the page doesn't mention that many grad students are not exactly "assistants." We teach classes as the instructor of record, developing our own syllabus and lesson plans. We run labs by ourselves. We hold office jobs that keep the doors open. We are mandatory reporters, freshman advisors, and perform hundreds of other roles that carry the burden of a "real" job. Sure some of us spend a semester here and there "assisting," but many of us have regular duties that would fall under a full-time job description. 

The fact that people outside of academia continue to think of us as "little helpers" rather than workers and laborers, allows our low pay and lack of representation to persist.  

The real clincher on the Wiki definition? People also don't understand how little we're paid: "The stipend allows for the graduate student to focus on their studies instead of a full-time job, but pays a significant portion of the income of a full-time job." I laughed out loud at this. Perhaps if you go to Yale and are a member of Local 33. But such a tier of income is not accessible for most American graduate assistants, forcing us to work outside the university to make ends meet, compromising the studies the assistantship is supposed to fully support. At NIU, almost everyone I know who has a master's degree works as an adjunct (which is a whole other can of worms and exploited labor). This makes life extremely stressful, and puts studying extremely on the back burner.

What can we do to alleviate the suffering of grad students? It may be somewhat voluntary suffering, but for no other laborious job do we fault the workers for asking for more money, especially when they work for an enormous entity. What's different about our work? What's different about a university system with millions versus a corporation with millions?  Non-academics and administrators seem to perpetuate the myth that we don't do much but "assist" and that our lifestyle is easy. A chosen path of intellectual pursuit and austerity. But it doesn't have to be this way. We are academics. But we are also laborers.

There are ways to solve this imbalance!
A graduate nursing student conducts a patient exam

  • Increase awareness and transparency about grad student labor, and improve the language we use to talk about it: First and foremost, any of the below suggestions will require a change in how administrators and tenured faculty talk about GAs, their work, and their pay, both to the public and to new recruits. For instance, perhaps "assitsantship" is an outdated word that does not accurately reflect the professional and valuable work that grad students contribute. Even "stipend" could use an update since we pay taxes on that as income!
UW's GA union marches

  • Unionization: While some GAs at U.S. universities have managed to organize unions, faculty, admins, and former students I've talked to say it is quite difficult and discouraging. Yet grad students do not have the representation that many other university employees do, so how do we ask for what we need? How do we protest pay decreases, terrible work schedules, or a refusal to give us medical leave? We have to do this as individuals, each governed by a different handbook per the year we began our current program. It's quite a mess, and even if one of us can follow through with some kind of complaint or demand, we are all alone. No other university employee has to deal with this lack of security for such a long-term position. (But they make it not so long by giving out 9-month contracts, and not so important by not even lumping us in with employees.) Unionization would definitely benefit all GAs. Nearby universities with GA unions include UW Madison (which claims the first ever!) and UI-UC.
  • University Reorganization: I fear the only way grad student unionization could become an accepted norm would be for universities to reorganize and reprioritize. If knowledge is the product of the university, then the teachers, including the rookies, must be treated well. The plights of the adjunct and the grad student (while university administration swells and football fields get built and re-built) show just how backward university priorities have become. I don't know what it would take for this to happen. Do you?
  • Fewer GAs: Finally, one way to reduce the pressure on the university to provide a living wage to grad students, is to reduce the number of grad students. Since assistantships are usually awarded to only the most talented grad students, many others are paying full tuition and not receiving a stipend. If GAs were based more on enrollment than on growing a program, that would ensure that there is plenty of work to go round, and plenty of budget to cover it. While those doing the hiring would tell you they consider enrollment, I have seen cohorts come in with nothing to do, or having to snag jobs from more experienced GAs. Don't hire so many!
When it comes down to it, I don't have one good answer to our problems. But I know we are workers, not just assistants, and I know that we don't have to suffer the way we do just because people don't understand what it is we even do, or how little we actually get paid.

These views are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Thesis and Dissertation Office.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Committee Coordination...Together or Apart

While working on your thesis or dissertation, you may occasionally find yourself out of regular communication with your director and/or committee members.  Several factors can lead to such a situation.  Examples: a committee member goes away on a sabbatical, someone receives a distant research fellowship, or you or others need to conduct field work away from campus for a while.  

But even during phases of separation, you still work on a team.  To borrow thoughts and phrasing from Robert Frost, you and your committee work together, whether together or apart.  (Read the original thoughts and lines in Frost’s “The Tuft of Flowers” here.)  

In previous posts, we’ve covered various aspects of forming and working with committees.  For general thoughts on committee relations, see this post from September 2017.  For details on different types of project directors and their working styles, see this one from April 2016.  And to read about approaches to choosing a director, check out this entry from March 2016.  In today’s post, we offer ideas on coordinating with committee members—whether nearby or far apart—during the middle and final stages of your project.  We also add a few thoughts for those of you who may need to reconnect with one or more members after an extended period of separation. 

In Progress: Staying in Touch

In the Thesis Office, we strongly recommend that thesis or dissertation writers regularly update committee members on their progress.  In-person updates are nice, but, as noted above, not always possible.  Consider how you might be able to adopt or adapt the following approaches to updating:

Office Visits:  If you and a committee member haven’t seen each other in a while, such a meeting can be especially rewarding.  Even a brief face-to-face chat can be meaningful and uplifting.  If possible, arrange to stop by a day or so before or after you’ve completed an important chapter draft or other project milestone.  

Classroom and/or Lab Visits:  Similarly, catching up with a committee member while that person is engaged in teaching or research can be constructive.  If possible, arrange to audit a class session or to observe lab activities that touch on interests or concerns you’re currently working on.

Group Email:  A commonsense way to integrate progress reports into your email practices, but one worth reviewing here, is to include each committee member as a recipient when you send out a “major” email message.  Examples include (1) any message with a revised chapter attached for review, (2) any message in which you respond to feedback on a chapter or chapters that all members have seen, and (3) any message in which you review or confirm procedures or scheduling matters that your director has asked you to follow.  

Nearing Completion: Bringing Everyone Up to Speed

As your document grows and its parts come together, consider the following ways to communicate its holistic development to all members your committee.  

Share a Folder Online:  Uploading files to a cloud service is not just a matter of safe computing.  Doing so can also make your large document easier to access and evaluate.  Share a folder on OneDrive or Dropbox with your committee members.  When the time comes, you can upload your combined file to this shared folder.  (The combined file may be rather large for email, especially if it contains images and/or other graphics.)  Your committee members can then conveniently open and experience your whole document in one piece.  

Share a List of Author’s Notes:  If you’re like me, as you make progress, you compile notes of various kinds concerning the text you’re making.  Some notes emerge from additional reflections on past feedback from committee members.  Others develop as the overall document starts to take shape.  When you approach your project’s end, share a list of author's notes with all committee members, via group email or the online shared folder.

Final Thoughts

About that Near-Final Document:  Over the past few weeks, a few student writers have contacted us to ask if their thesis or dissertation needs to have all front matter—including abstract, acknowledgments, and dedication—complete and properly formatted before their oral defense.  In short: the Grad School has no rule on this.  (Note: if your director wants these parts included, then of course you need them.)  But, at minimum, your defense document should feature coherent page numbering throughout so that committee members can easily refer to parts of the text during the defense examination.  Note that, as shown on the Results of Oral Defense form, your examination can result in one of two kinds of “Pass”: (1) a pass requiring no further revisions or corrections or (2) a pass requiring such changes.  Regardless of the kind of pass received, the document will need to contain all needed parts and meet all Graduate School formatting requirements before it can receive final approval for graduation.

As always, if you have questions about formatting or submitting your final document, be sure to contact us here at the Thesis Office.  Good luck...and happy committee coordinating!

Working Together Teamwork Puzzle Concept by Lumaxart: Flickr.
Robert Frost Stamp: Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Why Write a Thesis?: Alternatives to the traditional route

The thesis as the gateway to a degree is a time honored tradition, dating back to the middle ages. First, it demonstrates the breadth and scope of master's student's knowledge. Second, the long-suffering, mostly independent work put into it indicates that they are ready to work in their fields. Or.. does it?
They want more time in the lab than behind the screen.

This still-new millennium has so far been a time to rethink academic traditions. Collaborative projects are becoming more en vogue, and in fact, more practical.  And if we're being practical, what does writing really have to do with showing one's knowledge in fields like engineering and chemistry? The long-form monograph is having to work hard to argue for its value, especially when even academic readers today have shortened attention spans and prefer to consume data and ideas in more digestible nuggets. Tables upon tables with pages upon pages of analysis? Please no! How about an interactive infographic?

Universities are notoriously slow to change anything but their logos, but alternative theses are nevertheless beginning to gain a foothold at graduate programs around the world, and in the US. So, before you dive into a master's degree, perhaps consider whether you really want to write a thesis? And where can you go to school that will allow you to forgo that long journey?

Some thesis alternatives:

Juried Lecture

A juried lecture is a bit like the oral defense of the thesis... but without a thesis. Granted, since the written component is not as substantial (you may have powerpoint slides, handouts, anything that makes sense for attendees at a lecture), you will be graded harder on the oral and presentational components of your work. Your advisors attend this as they would a thesis defense. This option seems excellent for a student who wants to continue to teach rather than focus on research. Or for someone who is flipping their degree into a more communication oriented role.

Should they write a paper about it? Or show us how it works?
Project and Presentation and/or Report

This option is available at some schools (including NIU) in departments such as Engineering. Rather than spending months working on a written document, the student is able to focus on project management, down to the nuts and bolts and blueprints. The project must be reported on or presented, in order to have something to submit for the degree requirement. Do you want to study something that lends itself better to a project than a "paper"?

Multiple Article Publications (or 3-Part Thesis)

Some departments, especially in the sciences where frequent publication is important and somewhat easier to do than in the humanities, offer a publication option. Often this will consist of  publishing multiple short articles, or writing multiple short article length pieces and submitting those as a thesis. The article size stays manageable, unlike the onerous task of producing a monograph. Some departments at NIU offer this option. Check with graduate directors in the departments you are interested in to find out the details.

Collaborative Thesis

Collaboration is key! It's key to avoiding reproducing work in the sciences, it's key to understanding one another in the social sciences, and it's key to getting something off the ground in engineering, where not everyone can know everything! Collaboration across disciplines is something embraced more and more by universities too. At NIU, we see geologists working with geographers (seems likely) but we also see computer scientists working with geographers and dietitians. Hmm. All of these crossovers, likely and not so likely, lead to better research. We have always known that two heads are better than one. So it is a shame that universities are moving very slowly when it comes to "allowing" a collaborative thesis. While collaboartive work is often encouraged, scholars are producing separate theses and dissertations. Perhaps we could simplify this, and even make the impact of each scholar's work farther reaching.

In the future:

Maybe you could perform your thesis?
Perhaps none of the above thesis alternatives are really alternative enough for you? Consider that in the arts, a show or a recital is often the student's "thesis." Maybe thinking completely outside the box of "school project" or "graduate thesis paper" could lead to even more options for the master's candidate.

Some suggestions we've gotten are a documentary, an interactive website, a database, or a new translation with an introduction. All of these sound as if they would take immense knowledge of a subject, and would easily demonstrate proficiency in researching in that subject.

Who knows how long it will take the slow mechanisms of the university system (and culture) to allow for such potentially amazing collaboration and creativity in research. But I hope we don't have to wait another millennium.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Your Defense: Closer Than You May Think

Soon the day will come when you stand before a room full of peers and speak in defense of your project.  That is, you’ll sit (and stand) for the oral defense, the final exam for your degree.  Whether your oral defense is scheduled next month or not yet scheduled, think ahead and plan carefully for this important event in order to reduce stress and ensure success.

Who Will Be There?

In almost all cases, more people will be present than at your proposal defense.  For thesis writers, the final oral defense features at least four participants: you and your three committee members.  For dissertation writers, the smallest number of participants will be five: you, your minimum of three committee members, and the exam’s designated reader, who is appointed by the dean of the Graduate School.  (In almost all cases, you won’t know who the designated reader is until you show up at your oral defense.  For an official explanation of this non-voting faculty participant, see information at this link under “Designated Reader, Dean’s.”)  Of course, you’ll likely invite friends and family members to experience the proceedings.  But you should expect others to be in attendance as well.  Both the Graduate School and your department will announce an oral defense of a dissertation ahead of time, and the event is open to all interested parties.  Colleagues from your graduate program, former professors, and perhaps even people from other departments may be in the audience.  Various public-speaking skills will no doubt come into play.


When it’s time to defend, you’ll know.  Not only will you have a sense, as a writer, that the argument you advance in your document is suitable for public airing, but your director and committee members will have communicated to you that your work is ready to be defended.  At least three weeks before the examination (a Grad School deadline), you need to submit a Request for Oral Defense of Thesis or a Request for Oral Defense of Dissertation.  Note that the Graduate School also has several strict deadlines, including a deadline to submit the post-defense version of your thesis or dissertation.  Ideally, schedule your defense more than three days before this deadline.  That way you’ll give yourself ample time to make any needed changes to your document before submitting it electronically to the Thesis Office for final review.  Your committee may request that you make changes during or after your examination.  In addition, you may need to reformat your document so that it meets the Graduate School’s format requirements.  (See Thesis Format Guidelines or Dissertation Format Guidelines.)  Here in the Thesis Office, we often assist writers editing their documents during the post-defense phase.  We strongly advise that you plan ahead so that you have more than three days to prepare your final copy.


Procedures during the 90 minutes or so of an oral defense vary slightly, depending on expectations of your department and committee.  But, as noted in the Graduate School’s Quick Guide for Faculty (see “Defense, Oral”), all defense meetings consist of two main parts: an examination session and a public presentation with opportunity for Q & A.  The order of these parts is determined by your department.  Last year, when I attended a colleague’s dissertation defense in the Department of English, the candidate opened the meeting with an overview of her work (a presentation that lasted about 12 minutes).  Then the examination began.  Each committee member—as well as the designated reader, who came from the Department of History—asked probing questions about the dissertation’s content and its relation to other studies in the field.  The session was formal and rigorous but never became overly tense.  The Q & A was lively and enlightening, with questions from several colleagues and guests in the audience.  The event was also “traditional,” in that each committee member was there in person.  However, these days, it’s not uncommon for a “nontraditional” defense to take place, whereby one or more members participates via Skype or some other internet-based communications program.  Here in the Thesis Office, we’ve recently become aware that such virtual participation is often unavoidable in fields like anthropology, in which faculty members and even degree candidates routinely spend extended periods of time away from campus to conduct field research.  On this note: if your oral defense will require internet-based communications, you may wish to look into alternatives to Skype.  For a recent list of such options, see this link.

Final Thoughts

Once you’re past the halfway mark on your big writing task, earnestly start thinking ahead to your defense.  As soon as you start on the last segment of your document, get back in touch with your director to determine when to schedule the important day.  Best of luck to each of you defending sooner or later—this summer and beyond!

Friday, May 4, 2018

Announcing: Dissertation Boot Camps

A post-traditional NIU student
*trying* to work from home
This summer, for the eighth year, the University Writing Center at NIU is offering its Dissertation Boot Camps!

These camps are retreat-style workshops, presentations, and writing sessions for those who are in progress (past prospectus defense) on a dissertation in any field. What is retreat-style? That means you the Writing Center facilitates full-day schedules (from two days to a whole week), giving you dedicated writing time with interruptions from home life and other work. We all know it can be impossible to write at home with kids, pets, and responsibilities distracting us. Or even if you write at work... there is always other work! Dissertation Boot Camp is a chance to get away from everything that's been keeping you from writing, and work on your dissertation surrounded by peers with the same lofty goal: a done dissertation.
Quiet writing time in the lab
or around campus

In addition to long blocks of dedicated writing time (approx. 5 hours per day), Gail Jacky, director of the UWC and veteran writing tutor, will lead sessions on tackling writer's block, how to relax, and other common problems. Writing coaches will be available to give formal consultations and feedback, and talks with your peers can be just as fruitful.

Intellectual isolation from our family and friends can be almost as frustrating as not being able to find time to work around family and friends... so being in a cohort of dissertation-writing peers can also potentially alleviate the stresses of compartmentalizing everyday life and feeling alone in our struggles. Even if just for a few short days.

Schedules for the programs depend on the length of the workshop: the cost of the 2-day camp is $100, and the cost of the week-long camp is $250. Some writers decide to go ALL IN and stay overnights at NIU! The Holmes Student Center offers affordable lodging on campus, if your really need to get away and focus your time on your work.

Workshops run throughout the summer. You can make this fit around your summer vacation or work responsibilities:

Writers can chat, cheerlead, or just comisserate!
2-day Bootcamps

June 13-14
July 17-18
August 1-2

Week-long Bootcamps

June 25-29
July 23-27

Learn more at the UWC website, and email Gail Jacky with any questions!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Embracing Academic Conferencing

When you present at an academic conference, scope out your room before your session starts.

Many of you have likely attended an academic conference during your graduate program, and several of you are probably planning on presenting at one in the near future.  Conferences are of course major components of academic life but also common in research and/or knowledge-based fields.  The unstoppable conference phenomenon naturally gives rise to plenty of guidelines for presenters and speculations on past, present, and future uses for conferences.  For a recent overview of such concerns, see this short but informative 2013 article that ran in The Guardian.  Conference etiquette, or seeming lack of it, is another topic of interest to conference goers, as noted in this 2015 piece that appeared in Chronicle Vitae featuring an interview with Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of famed etiquette guru Emily Post.

In contrast to such general-interest articles, this post offers some conferencing food for thought specifically targeted to you, the NIU thesis or dissertation writer.  Photos and most anecdotes come from my experiences this past week presenting and attending the 54th Allerton English Articulation Conference in Monticello, Illinois.


In addition to obvious preparation musts such as practicing your planned speech (at least three times) and identifying sessions to attend before and after you present, double-check your travel arrangements with the goal of arriving at the venue at least an hour earlier than registration time.
Ordered rows in the gardens at Allerton.
Beware: routes to conference sites may not be so orderly.
Commonsense advice, yes, but nevertheless worth repeating.  You may have fairly clear directions, but expect to run into complications during the actual journey and plan accordingly.  Case in point: the drive down to the venue in Monticello (not my first trip there—I also presented at Allerton four years ago) took longer than planned because I got lost.  My memories of the route off the interstate were fuzzy, my printed directions turned out to be slightly out of date, and access to directions via phone or GPS device is wonky in this rural area.  A related anecdote: last April I presented at a conference in San Diego.  Accomplishing the first trolley ride from hotel to venue there also took a bit longer than expected.  Once on the scene I found myself relearning how waiting to cross busy streets can add minutes to your walking time and that trolleys don’t always arrive or depart exactly when scheduled.


The small but adequate Butternut Room at Allerton.
Room size naturally affects your speaking approach. 
After registering and donning your name tag, wander and mingle but also check out the room you’ll be presenting in.  A common bit of advice is to test equipment you may need such as computer, OHP, screen, or microphone.  The earlier you can do this, the better.  Ideally, you should visit your room well in advance of your session so that you can also get a feel for its size and layout in relation to your talk.  A large space naturally requires a different speaking approach than a small one does.  If you can scope out the room while it’s empty, stand at the front or at the lectern.  Practice parts of your presentation.  If chairs or tables are movable (and if your session is the next one), consider ways you can rearrange the speaking and/or audience areas to suit your needs but especially those of your expected attendees.  Also consider lighting.  Depending on the sun’s position during the time of your session, window shades might need to be adjusted.  Before the presentation at Allerton this past week, my speaking partner and I went through all these steps.  As a result, our presentation ran smoothly and featured engaged participation from attendees.


Food line at Allerton.
Surely you’ve heard plenty about practical approaches to delivering a presentation.  Let me add a reminder that your planned speech, though very important, is still a minuscule moment within the overall time you’ll spend sharing your ideas at a conference.  Before and after your session and during other sessions, you’ll have numerous chances to speak with others about your work.  At Allerton, I met and chatted with several attendees during lunch; I met and conversed with several others between various sessions, during walks in the gardens, and over dinner.  In so doing, I naturally discussed aspects of my joint presentation but also my dissertation, teaching, and career plans.  Remembering that presenting at a conference means more than just speaking formally for a short time can actually help you when it’s your time to stand and deliver.  Share main ideas in your planned speech.  Expect to elaborate on these and other ideas during Q & A and during other interactions throughout the event.

How did the presentation go?  Were the follow-up discussions and later sessions constructive and helpful?  Was it all worth it?  You’ll have various answers to these questions immediately after your session and as the conference moves to a close.  But you can expect a different set of answers in the days and months that follow.  These later reflections will be most useful to you in the long run.  Expect to reevaluate your studies, your stance on issues important in your field, and your ongoing thesis or dissertation project during and after your next academic conference.  If you can, spend some time outside the venue during and after the event to foster these healthy reflections and to add to the overall experience.  Allerton is especially rewarding in this regard.  But no matter where your conference is held, there is always much to explore within but also beyond the center.

Path to the Walled Garden at Allerton.
Heed your long-view reflections after an academic conference.