Friday, February 9, 2018

Spring 2018 Programs at the Thesis Office

We are excited to announce a new season of workshops and presentations at the NIU Thesis Office! Each semester we offer programs to help you with everything from proposal development to final editing, and everything in between. Check out our current offerings...

Informative Presentations
We offer several presentations geared to specific audiences, and also a submission process presentation that is essential for ANY student who is nearing completion of their thesis or dissertation.

Saturday, Feb 17:  Writing a Dissertation in Education
Designed for students enrolled in 799 in the College of Education or similar program. We will walk you through general dissertation requirements, discuss frequent dissertation issues in Education and Public Service, and we will have plenty of time for discussion and Q&A. This class meets 9am to 2pm in Naperville for the convenience of working teachers and administrators.

Tuesday, Feb 20: Thesis Essentials (For master's thesis writers)
This is the "411" presentation on getting a thesis done. Whether you don't know where to begin, or you are planning your defense, there is probably a thing or two you don't know about how the Graduate School handles theses. This is not a writer's workshop, but a nuts and bolts, project management approach to ensuring you check off all the boxes. We will meet in Adams Hall room 103, and we will have plenty of time for Q&A.

Wednesday, Feb 21: Dissertation Essentials (for dissertation writers at ANY stage!)
This is the "411" presentation on getting a dissertation done.  This is not a writer's workshop, but a nuts and bolts, project management approach to ensuring you check off all the boxes.  You can attend this session in ANY stage of the dissertation writing process! We will meet in Adams Hall room 103 at 2pm, and we will have plenty of time for Q&A.

Tuesday, Feb 27: Writing a Thesis in Engineering
This presentation covers the ins and outs of the very specific task that is the engineering thesis. ASME documentation as well as general thesis guidelines will be covered. We will meet in Adams Hall room 103 at 2pm, and we will have plenty of time for Q&A.

Wednesday, Feb 28: Demystifying the Submission Process
Carolyn Law, director of the Thesis Office and the arbiter of thesis readiness, will demystify the secrets and confusion surrounding the thesis and dissertation submission process! Pull back the curtain and prepare to become prepared. This special session meets in Wirtz Hall room 104, from 5-7pm.

Hands-On Workshops
Each semester we offer a workshop or two based on the needs of thesis writers. This term, it's the return of the infamous "T/F/P" workshop as we like to call it.

Tables, Figures, Pagination
Come get one-on-one help with wrangling those documents! There will be some instruction and presentation at this workshop, and you will also have ample time to work on your thesis with the help of staff members and peers. Common problems like disappearing page numbers, messy figures and tables, staying within margins, and other issues will be fought and conquered!

Informal Brown Bags
Since we don't want to do all the talking (we're here to help YOU), we host several informal Brown Bag sessions each semester. These are a great way to meet other people who are on this unique journey and facing our unique struggles. Come tell us what you're on about! (And what you'd like us to help with more.)

March 7 Writing the Proposal
Bring your lunch and talk with us about your proposal ideas and frustrations! This session will be hosted by Robyn Byrd, doctoral candidate in English literature, who defended her dissertation proposal this last October. So she knows the process and remembers the ABD journey!

March 21 Breaking through Writer's Block (and other obstacles)
Join us with your brown bag (or styrofoam container) to discuss the many kinds of writer's obstacles we all face, and some possible solutions. Hosted by Carolyn Law, professional editor and Thesis Office director, who knows the fear of the blank page!

Meet-Ups for Writers
Finally, don't forget, we have a writer's meet-up we call "Write Place, Write Time,"on the second Thursday of every month. This three hour block is a stellar opportunity to make an unbreakable date with your self.  We reserve the doctoral study room on the fourth floor of Founders, and we work quietly together. There is no agenda at Write Place, except to write.  Our next meeting is on March 8.

We hope you join us for one or more of these events this season! Find them all on the University events calendar, or on our Workshops page

Friday, January 26, 2018

Interview with a Freelance Editor

Producing a thesis or dissertation is one thing.  But then after the writing’s done comes the crucial final phase of combining, editing, and proofreading front matter, chapters, tables, references, indexes, and such so that the whole document meets the Graduate School’s formatting requirements—no small chore.  As you head toward (or envision) that final lap, perhaps you’ve considered getting help from an editor.  Here in the Thesis Office we maintain a list of freelance editors who are familiar with NIU’s document formatting rules and offer various editing, formatting, and transcribing services for a fee.  These experts see a lot of research-based writing and can thus share plenty of useful insights on the process of getting your big document in proper shape.   

In this post, we offer some words of reflection, wisdom, and advice from one of the veterans among this group.  She recently visited our office and sat down to share her experiences working with thesis and dissertation writers at NIU.  Our interview covered a range of topics, including her early years of editing (back when clients came to her with printouts and/or files on 3 1/2-inch floppy disks), changes in her work methods over the past decade as documents became almost completely electronic, and the various fields in which her clients have written their papers.  Below is a summary of a few other matters we discussed.     

Red Marks, Red Shoes

It was near the end of the last century when friends and colleagues in DeKalb encouraged Susan Richter, an English literature major, to offer her editing services to thesis and dissertation writers at NIU.  Carolyn Law, our Thesis Office director, told her the work would be “fun.”  Has that prediction turned out to be true?  Overall, Susan’s answers add up to a firm yes.  

“I’m really a bean counter at heart,” she offered at the start of our interview, in reference to the intricacies of arranging and formatting a document in order to avoid a final editor’s red marks.  “Putting everything in the proper order, checking references to make sure they have the volume, issue, and page numbers, making sure everything is following the rules: I enjoy that.”  Though she sometimes finds the content of a thesis or dissertation to be intriguing, Susan insists that what the paper is about is less important to her than the editing of it.  “When people ask me what I do, I tell them, ‘I read but I don’t pay attention.’”  She mentioned that she remembers a few topics from documents she’s edited over the years—teaching methods, management approaches, and engineering solutions come to mind—but doesn’t recall much detail.  She said: “I don’t try to retain any of it because unless it’s something that really interests me, it doesn’t get to stay in my short-term memory.”  In emphasizing her enthusiasm for editing, she also offered a few words worth passing on to writers who may be reaching that final submission stage: “I enjoy making things look the way they’re supposed to look and follow the rules.  If that’s not something you enjoy, you’re going to have problems.  You’re going to have lots of red from Carolyn.” 

Memories about a document’s content may not linger, but anecdotes from her experiences working with grad students readily come to mind.  For example, years ago she would often meet new clients in person.  “It was interesting with the international students,” Susan recalls.  “I would usually meet them over at the student center.  And the first couple of times I said, ‘I’m a white female,’ you know, ‘I’m…’—whatever my age was at the time.  They thought I looked young.  I didn’t look as old as they thought I should.  So I started wearing red shoes.  I would say, ‘I’m 5’3” and have dark hair and will have on red shoes.’”  Thus, students looking for their editor in a crowd would scan below people’s knees, searching for foot coverings matching the color of an editor’s pen.  And does she still have those shoes?  “I do, just in case!”

Words of Experience 

Susan also shared insider views on what writers who seek a freelance editor’s assistance can get right or get wrong.  Highlights worth noting:

  • Determine the particular editing or formatting problems you need help with.  Susan likes it when clients are “honest about what they have” up front.
  • Give your editor ample lead time before deadlines.  “Most clients contact me ahead of time and seem to be working through the process like responsible adults,” she said.
  • Remember that your editor feels deadline pressure, too.  As Susan puts it: “If clients say they’ll send something to me Monday morning and they don’t send it to me until Wednesday night, then a Friday deadline is going to be a little hard to meet.”
  • Check your in-text citations and references extra carefully for accuracy and completeness.  Susan reports that they’re never correct.  She says, “People will say, ‘Oh, no, I used a program.  It’ll be fine.’  They will not be fine.  That has never happened.  Twenty years—never.”  Susan will often assist a client by adding missing information in citations and/or references, but she notes that the writer is ultimately responsible for these things.

Sympathy and Advice

Over the years, Susan has also developed a great deal of sympathy for soon-to-be-finished students at this stressful stage in their careers.  “When people would come over to the house to pick up their three copies and their original, or just their original if they needed it, I kept Kleenex by the door.”  Why Kleenex?  “Because they would just burst into tears—men and women—when I would give their finished document to them.  It was done, and it was delivered, and they would be talking and normal and then just start crying.  And so I know it’s a stressful time.  What I hope is that I can relieve some of that stress.”

Near the end of our talk, we asked if she has any words of advice on how to accomplish the thesis or dissertation wisely.  Her answer provides food for thought for writers of all stripes, not just those who may be thinking of sending their document to an editor for hire:  “Focus on the project and the writing.  Nobody can do everything equally well.  The actual formatting, the mechanical part that I work on, has pretty limited value.  Don’t let that end part be a bad memory or a problem.  Make your research worthwhile for somebody to look up and quote.  That’s the whole purpose—to contribute to the body of knowledge.  Do that.  And if editing and formatting has you overly stressed, consider hiring somebody else to make your document look pretty.”  

Friday, January 12, 2018

This is Part Two of a two-part series on Temple Grandin and the importance of "different" minds  Last month we talked about how to succeed in higher education in spite of mental disabilities (and how to excel because of them!). 

This month we discuss what kinds of contributions different minds like Grandin's (who is autistic) can bring to higher education and to university research. Today she is a renowned professor of Animal Science, but Grandin unexpectedly stumbled upon her talent for working with animals when her poor high school behavior landed her at a special school, one where kids of all abilities were put to work as ranchers. Years later, combining hands-on ranching experience with hard-won knowledge, Grandin earned a Ph. D. in Animal Science. Not your typical academic path!

So what is unique about the contributions of someone like Temple Grandin to scientific research? Her hands-on approach, necessitated by her autism, stuck with her as she began her career as a scientist and author. For instance, she expects her students to think in concrete particulars, rather than abstract theories about animals. Animals don't care about your theories about them. They only have behaviors, not theories -- and behaviors we can observe and respond to. Grandin believes that her autism, which enables her to be present in the moment, helps her to connect with animals and to see why they behave the way they do. Her "walking in their path" approach to working with cattle in particular has resulted in significant discoveries that have changed the way slaughter houses and ranches contain and move livestock.

Grandin's research and developments enrich her classroom teaching, because she brings outside knowledge and novel approaches in front of students who are studied in textbook theories and laboratory work, but not necessarily experienced in field work or real world problems addressed by science. So Grandin's inability to be an ivory tower academic, a pure scholar, is really a valuable trait -- she can't do anything but tell it like it is, and show students how to do concrete things.

The concreteness of Grandin's work also allows for many collaborative opportunities. With projects in the field (sometimes a literal field!), many minds are needed to do the work, interpret the results, and write up the reports. Most of Grandin's peer-reviewed articles are based on collaborative work, or are co-authored. She relies on the writing abilities of others and on their abstract minds, but they rely on her for the nitty gritty details of experiments and inventions that solve real problems with animals, from pigs, to dogs, to cows, of course. Increased collaboration is one of the important ways that contemporary research is changing.

While Grandin's work is exceptionally groundbreaking, many more minds like hers, and other "different" minds as well, are invaluable to academic research, applied research, and classroom teaching. The university is adapting, and will continue to adapt, to the next generation of knowledge workers. They will have autism, ADD, mental health issues, and various learning disabilities, but they will be prepared for academic work -- all because education is finally capable of reaching many young people who could not be reached, even a decade ago. It could be the overactive mind of someone who can't focus, the empathy of someone who has lived a lifetime with depression, or the transposed figures seen by a student with dyscalculia that lead to new approaches in history, social science, and math. And these thinkers, working together with their neuro-typical peers to pick up all the pieces, may be the key to developing novel solutions for the practical problems of the 21st Century.

Friday, December 15, 2017

How the Differently Minded Can Take Life by the Horns -- Temple Grandin's Take

This is Part One of a two-part series on Temple Grandin and the importance of "different" minds.

Last week I attended a talk by Temple Grandin here at NIU. I jotted down a variety of take-aways from her presentation, but one of the ideas that stuck with me (a doctoral student suffering from depression) is how those of us with different minds, those whose minds refuse to conform to neurotypicality, can often provide new insights into research and other kinds of intellectual work. Grandin also argued that as difficult as work might be when you have to struggle against the limits of your own mind, in some ways her high-functioning autism is a blessing. Knowing one's mind and having to work around it enables the differently minded to succeed in unexpected and unconventional ways.

Who is Temple Grandin?

If you didn't get the title reference to horned animals...Temple Grandin knows a thing or two about horned animals. Grandin is an animal scientist, author, and entrepreneur who, despite her autism (and perhaps because of her autism), earned a PhD from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1989. Since then, Grandin's work with farm animals and how they think has led to her invention of the curved corral and other innovative solutions for working with animals. While all of that is extremely impressive and interesting, what interests us most is how her "different mind" enabled her to develop unique and unexpected ideas about animals, and to do doctoral work.

What is a different mind?
Grandin herself has a diagnosis of autism and cerebral damage, but her philosophy on the strengths of the differently minded applies to anyone who suffers from neuro-atypicality -- whether a person is dyslexic, has lost their short-term memory, has dyscalculia, or thinks in pictures rather than words. A  number of mental conditions could apply to people who are otherwise functional and intelligent. What Grandin and others find advantageous about what are otherwise considered disabilities is that a differently minded person's altered perception and processing enables them to see things from a completely new perspective, and to sometimes discover solutions that a neurotypical person would never have access to.

For instance, Grandin's patented cattle corral design was developed when she decided to walk with the cows on the way into the slaughterhouse, and to try to see what they see. Rather than looking at their progress toward the plant analytically, from the outside, she did so sympathetically, walking in the shoes (or the hooves, in this case) of the cattle. In her presentation she shows several photos of cattle avoiding entrances. It is not always immediately apparent why they seemed to stop dead in their tracks with only thin air in front of them. But Grandin points out shadows, streams of light, reflections, and even a stray chain swaying, hanging from a ceiling, as sources of confusion and fear for the animals.

Grandin also names many other well known "different minds" who put mild disabilities to work for them. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk -- she offers them all up as examples of people whose minds did not fit the mold, yet enabled them to innovate. The Steve Jobs reference reminds me of Apple's ungrammatical tagline from twenty years ago -- "Think Different."

Why Grandin Doesn't Have to Be an Anomaly
Folks like Bill Gates aren't born every day, it's true. But it's also true that people with mild disabilities, disabilities which may eventually make them believe they are incapable of advanced study, are born every day.  A significant portion of Grandin's talk is devoted to teaching people how to live and work better with the minds they have. Some key takeaways that could help us all through an advanced degree:

  • Develop workarounds: Grandin believes there are types of minds -- mathematical ones, visual ones, and verbal ones, to be specific. And each of them can be differently affected by autism, dyslexia, etc. So if, for instance, you have been shown by your mind time and again that you are not particularly verbal, then develop a method where you don't have to rely on words. Draw your notes, use visual reminders, make big checklists, etc. Research your disability to learn other workarounds that will support you through the intellectual work you have to do.
  • Don't overspecialize: Though Grandin has a Ph. D. in animal science, she is adamant that graduate students should not overspecialize. Here she offers particular caution to her autistic peers who tend to be hyper-focused. Grad students need to specialize in a degree area to complete a thesis or dissertation, but they should surround themselves with different minds when they do collaborative work. Most of the research work Grandin has produced has been in interdisciplinary teams, and some of her articles are co-authored. Working with people across various fields keeps her versatile and keeps her interested in her work. It also keeps her more social! (She gets in a few jokes here, about Ph. D. students who can't talk to people at parties...)
  • Have art or hobbies in your life: Piggy-backing (haha) on "don't overspecialize," Grandin stresses the importance of doing art, music, or any kind of hobby that is unrelated to your studies. For an autistic person like Grandin, this can express itself in many ways! For instance, she is obsessed with space and NASA, and reads voraciously about these topics. She mentions people she knows who have nearly pigeon-holed themselves with their studies, but were saved by picking up a violin or learning woodcraft. I can speak to this personally. I am always in a rock band or working on recordings. People ask me how I have the time to do that, and "Don't you go crazy from doing too much?" I answer no, I would go crazy if I didn't have bands and gigs in my life! Because it's not anything like what I study. 
  • Learn to work early: Even if your parents didn't turn you loose until grad school, you can still learn to work... Grandin believes in putting kids to work early, not to teach them the value of a dollar or anything like that, but to make sure they can take care of themselves early. Without her own work on a ranch during high school, she may never have found her talent for working with animals. So whatever your discipline, get your hands dirty with it as soon as possible. Intern, volunteer, collaborate, conference, teach, or do whatever your field will let you do. Doing is better than just thinking and writing.
Temple Grandin was a joy to watch. I think she is a person who lives by her own advice and is a role model for autistic folks and other folks who struggle in an academic environment. Her gruff delivery and straightforward manner was refreshing and funny. (At one point she tossed the audience a ball of duct tape she'd found on the floor. "Here you probably want this!"). She closed the talk by saying it was time to go sit at the book table, because she loves to sell her books. ...As she would not let us forget, she is also an excellent businessperson. 

This ends this month's installment of our two-part series on Temple Grandin. I hope her wisdom and example inspires you to push forward on your studies, whether you struggle with a disability or not. Next month we will talk about what kinds of contributions different minds like Grandin's can bring to higher education and to university research.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Drive You Save May Be Your Own

From start to finish, the thesis or dissertation is an arduous journey fraught with highs and lows.  Along the way, many things require special care, including even the computer device(s) on which you save your important work.  For many writers, the principal means of storage is a USB flash drive.  Words to the wise (and reminders to the conscientious): flash drives are a convenient but by no means failsafe storage option.

Nothing Lasts Forever

If you’re like me, you devote much of your attention these days to drafting and revising your dissertation.  You depend on a flash drive to store your work as you go.  You rarely consider flash-drive wear and tear.  But you should.  Think of all the places such devices regularly visit: in between connections to various USB ports, they spend time in pockets or backpacks or on table surfaces alongside other objects large and small.  Drives that hang with keys on a keychain experience another broad assortment of surroundings.  Imagine the bumps and variations in temperature flash drives regularly encounter.  Note that such stresses can gradually weaken the connection between a drive’s plug and its body.
Inside a flash drive

This connection is partly mechanical, partly electrical.  It involves a short row of tiny lugs.  They’re soldered atop the surface of a small internal circuit board.

I became keenly aware of such technical details of the typical flash drive about two months ago when the plug on mine—a drive on which I had been saving enormous amounts of precious data—suddenly snapped off.  In one stroke, recent notes and chapter drafts became instantly inaccessible!  A mammoth tornado swept through Research Avenue and knocked down Dissertation Hall, the home I had been digitally building for over a year on the remarkably vulnerable grounds of a flash memory chip.

Flash Drive Fiasco Headed Your Way?

No, you’re safe.  Clearly you won’t suffer such a catastrophe if you always handle your flash drive with tender loving care and keep it in a special place when not using it.  Or if you regularly back up files on your drive to other storage media (in accordance with the First Law of Safe Computing).  And of course you’ll avoid flash-drive horrors if you never store files on such a device to begin with and instead save everything to your hard drive…and/or external backup drive…and/or the cloud.

Yes, you’re flirting with disaster.  Again, however, if you’re like me, much of your attention nowadays centers on revising and composing your big writing project.  When you’re in the thick of all that and moving from home to office to library and back, plans for a rigorous storage routine fade into the background.  You easily fall back on the familiar habit of quickly and simply saving to the flash drive (and often forget to make backups).  Actually, in the Thesis Office, we’re quite used to working with grad students well acquainted with this habit.  Those who stop by for help with editing or formatting typically bring their working drafts (and many other important files) on what appear to be well-used and fully-loaded flash drives.

Flash Drive Recovery

What can thesis or dissertation writers do if most or all of their saved writing vanishes when their flash drive snaps in two—or otherwise fails?

Closeup of my wreck, post recovery. 

In my case, after it quickly became clear that I myself wouldn’t be able to repair the damage, my first stop was a DeKalb computer shop.  For a small fee, the attendant there soldered the USB plug back onto the drive’s circuit board.  But no luck: now Windows wouldn’t recognize the drive!

Flip-side view.  So much data in one little chip.

Was all my data really gone forever?  He then calmly referred me to an out-of-state recovery service.  I soon learned that data recovery experts can fetch fees that range from the livable to the breathtakingly astronomical.

Eventually I located a different and more feasible service online.  (Details on such services are plentiful on Google.)

Preventative Measures

Save to the cloud.  This well-known and sound advice, noted above, is always worth repeating.  One way to integrate cloud storage into everyday flash-drive usage is to set it up to run automatically.  Look for shareware or software that enables automatic uploading of files from your USB to Dropbox, OneDrive, or other cloud storage services. (Several such options are easy to track down on Google.)

Make regular backups.  You’re likely familiar with ways to configure Windows to perform automatic backups of your computer’s hard drive.  Note that relatively inexpensive software programs exist that also enable you to back up data automatically from your USB drive to your hard drive.

Remove safely.  Obviously, you should be gentle when removing your flash drive from USB ports.  Never remove the drive while a file is being written (or copied) to it.  And despite any optimizations you may have set on a Windows machine for quick removal, always right-click Eject and wait until you see the window that says the device can be safely removed before you unplug it. 

Long Story Short

In the end, I was able to recover all data on my damaged flash drive, but not right away and not without considerable misery and embarrassment.  If you ever face such an exasperating (but largely preventable) dilemma, know that recovery is possible...but not always certain.  Scribe carefully.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Collaborative Dissertation

Soooo many authors...
Yesterday, I completed the drudgery that is teaching undergraduates how to cite their references in APA format. As we went through all the little details, commas here, periods there, I found myself marveling at how many papers had multiple authors. I always knew this to be the case for papers in the sciences and social sciences, but as I wrote all those names and "et als" out on the board I thought, "Why are scientists expected to write their own solo dissertations? None of these people are writing alone!"

Writing the dissertation can be the loneliest time in an academic's life. In the case of the humanities, it actually does reflect much of the work we will do once we get a job someday (please, please, please...). But in the case of the hard and soft sciences, that isn't so. Researchers in the fields most often work in teams. The American Sociological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science both offer extensive articles and blog posts on collaborating. Everyone is doing it!

So it seems that no one person can or should handle all the moving parts of a major experiment, be it conducting gene therapy on mice, or surveying survivors of assault. Science and social science require objectivity. Placing an experimental project meant to add original material to scientific discourse -- dissertations must be original contributions -- into the hands of an amateur scientist (the doctoral student), no matter how brilliant, seems like a recipe for existential and experimental trouble. Results could be compromised and things could be overlooked or fall through the cracks, when a researcher has to plan it all, do it all, document it all, and write it all up.

More importantly, for the students' sake, placing such a weight on the individual is not indicative of, or good training for, collaborative work that they will eventually engage in. It does them a disservice to expect such a strangely isolated project of them, at a time in their lives when pressure is high, pay is low, and finishing the project is the only thing that lies between them and their career. Weathering this experience as a team, or even as a partnership, could make it far more bearable and fruitful.

Looking at tissue cultures is more
fun with friends!
This is not to say that every science dissertation writer is actually going it all alone. Certainly, collaborative research feeds into students' dissertations and into professors' papers all the time. But no one but the writer is given top billing. Usually, only one student gets the Ph.D. for that dissertation. And where does that leave the others who put long days and nights into the scientific work that created it? Should working on other students' doctoral research grant a junior grad student a master's degree? Or should senior students simply plan and execute the entire project together, as equals?

A search for collaborative dissertations comes up thin. They are catching on in education, where all kinds of collaboration are non-competitive, daily occurrences (give me that lesson plan, eh?). Collaborative dissertations are, according to a 2015 paper, a "disruption" in composition studies. This is odd considering Comp teachers are teachers too. And in the sciences, the co-authored diss is still highly uncommon. However, some researchers and universities hope to change this.

NIU Chemistry students make one of
their colleagues disappear.
In 2014, two students at Saybrook University completed an important study on diabetes -- together! -- as their dissertation.  The dual-authored document is a far better model and far better practice for writing scientific papers for publication. Charlene Conlin and Carlene Phelps offer some awesome insight into the basic requirements of doing such work as a team:

  • Mutual agreement on what the researchers intend for their dissertation, both in process and in outcome.
  • Ego minimization when necessary to achieve the greater good.
  • Organization in the form of intentions, goals, and timelines.
  • Resiliency in the form of drive to keep going until both get to the finish line. (It seems particularly important to have someone else relying on to you to get done!)

You can read the rest of their advice and more about their study here.

Why collaborative dissertations have not caught on, seventeen years into this new millennium, I can't say. We've rethought every kind of document we create, from music to film to the news. But we still think of a dissertation as a monolithic monograph and a rite of passage, rather than a learning opportunity that will prepare students, especially those in the sciences, for a long life of collaborative work and collaborative writing. Why do you think we cling so tightly to an outdated dissertation model?

For more on the future of the dissertation, keep reading!

"I'm not sticking my hands in there unless someone else does it first!"

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Future of the Dissertation Is Already Here

This post was contributed by Carolyn Law, Thesis and Dissertation Advisor in the Graduate School at NIU
James Whiton: "Aren't you jealous?"

How did we get here?
To talk about the future of the dissertation, you must understand a little something about its past. To say the dissertation has changed over the centuries is an understatement.

The first three doctorates in the U.S. were awarded at Yale in 1861. A dissertation was required, but only one of the documents survives today, the notorious dissertation of James Morris Whiton. It was handwritten, of course, entirely in Latin--six whole pages on the subject, “Brevis vita, ars longa” (Rosenberg, 1961).

Today, the average length of a doctoral dissertation in the sciences is hovering around 200 pages. There was a dramatic surge in length between 1950 and 1990 (Gould, 2016, p. 28), probably for a number of reasons. For one thing, literature reviews over time have grown because, frankly, there’s just more literature to review now and that body of literature is more easily accessed by students. Also, new theoretical frameworks, methodologies, and experimental procedures are often more complex, unfamiliar, and difficult to explain in academic prose than in earlier eras.

But much of the change in dissertations over the course of the 20th century was conspicuously driven by technology. A dissertation in the 1950s was produced on a manual typewriter with carbon paper. Corrections were made with a razor blade. I wrote my own master’s thesis on an IBM Selectric typewriter. By the time I got to doctoral study in the early 1990s, computers were available, but not universally used.

Big change was occurring in the access chain as well. A dissertation has always been a public document, but until very recently “public” did not mean “accessible.” Dissertations were typed directly or photocopied onto cotton-bond paper, bound, and shelved in research libraries. They were very rarely accessed and many (like two thirds of Yale’s PhD class of 1861) have been lost forever.

In 1938, a little firm in Ann Arbor began microfilming and archiving dissertations, mostly because they were a technology company in search of content and the massive stock of dissertations presented a perfect pool of material. UMI is today known as ProQuest International and it is the largest database and repository of electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) in the world. In 2008, NIU made electronic submission of digital theses and dissertations (in PDF) mandatory. These documents are now discoverable and in some cases fully downloadable anywhere in the world, any time of day or night.

Recognizing the acceleration of technological change in the way research and scholarship are produced and shared in the 21st century, the Council of Graduate Schools convened a symposium in January 2016 on the future of the dissertation, citing “recent controversies about the purpose of doctoral education and the meaning of the dissertation” (Blackwell, 2015, p. 1). What came out of that meeting suggests that the future of the dissertation must include a heart-to-heart discussion of the role of doctoral education in general in the 21st-century knowledge marketplace. That’s changing too. More accurately, it has changed, but graduate education and its grand artifact, the dissertation, are lagging far behind the times.

Where do we go from here?
Graduate schools are just now beginning to grapple with three prominent issues arising in this evolving new-century context: authorship, access, and format. Some of the discussions we must continue to have include:
NIU students collaborating in a study lounge.

Collaboration and Coauthorship 
Most knowledge is created in groups, and in some disciplines the particular skills required to work in teams are absolutely essential to the successful conduct of an individual study as well as the professional development of the student-researcher. Shouldn’t dissertations be allowed to reflect that real-world process?

Open Access 
Knowledge that is not shared might as well not exist, and a dissertation that is not accessible fails to achieve one of its primary purposes. According to Maureen McCarthy (2016), Assistant Director of Advancement and Best Practices for the Council of Graduate Schools, “The idea of the dissertation moving a student from a private to a public phase resurfaced repeatedly” (p. 1) throughout the symposium in 2016. But the public nature of the dissertation in the 21st century is not the same as it was in the 20th. The internet, full-text downloadability, Creative Commons licensing, none of this was even imaginable when dissertations were routinely shelved in brick-and-mortar buildings. On the one hand, such accessibility furthers knowledge dramatically, but on the other hand, that accessibility may run counter to tenure review policies that privilege conventional publication. Shouldn’t dissertation authors choose their own levels of exposure? Shouldn’t students maintain control over their own intellectual property?

Alternative Formats 
In recent years, the idea of the monograph dissertation, an extended discourse on a single topic or experiment, has been challenged. The two most common complaints are that these papers take too long to write and they are not representative of the kinds of writing expected of working researchers. In economics, for instance, the norm now is the “three-article dissertation,” in which the author bundles a series of shorter pieces under a unifying introduction. In other disciplines, the very nature of the “document” itself is being questioned, introducing multimedia, graphical representation, and other digital forms into the dissertation genre. Shouldn’t dissertations be allowed to fly free from the cage of the page when it is technologically feasible and intellectually meaningful to do so?

Dance your dissertation!
These are just some of the questions, not thoughtfully crafted, negotiated policies. But we must ask the questions to arrive at the policies. And we need the policies soon. What do you think? We welcome your comments.


Blackwell, J. (July 2015). Rethinking the dissertation: An opinion piece. GradEdge [Council of Graduate Schools], 4(6), pp. 1-3. 

Gould, J. (7 July 2016). Future of the thesis. Nature, 535, pp. 26-28.

McCarthy, M. (March 2016). The dissertation’s many futures [summary of the January 2016 symposium on the future of the dissertation]. GradEdge [Council of Graduate Schools], 5(3), pp. 1-3.

Rosenberg, R. (1961). The first American doctor of philosophy degree: A centennial salute to Yale, 1861-1961. The Journal of Higher Education, 32(7), 387-394. doi:10.2307/1978076