Friday, July 7, 2017

ProQuest: Your Publisher...and More


Picture yourself near your project’s end.  Writing completed and defense successful, you move on to the long-anticipated last step.  That is, you upload your document for final review to ProQuest.  For a number of reasons, that shouldn’t be your only experience with this company. 

Actually, through reading and research during your time in your program, you’re probably already fairly familiar with ProQuest, a company that traces its history back to 1873.  They maintain numerous online research databases, including ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, the world’s largest collection of digitized dissertations and theses—and the future host of the degree-qualifying document you’ll finish here at NIU.  But ProQuest’s many other offerings for researchers, educators, and students are worth checking out during any stage of your research and writing. 

GradShare

I was somewhat surprised to discover that, along with its many research databases, ProQuest maintains five blogs, each geared for a specific academic clientele: ProQuest Blog (concerning research databases), International Blogs (academic news in multiple languages other than English), Magazines for Libraries Update (details on scholarly journals), Share This (ideas for schoolteachers), and GradShare.  Concerns of graduate students take center stage in this last one.  Primarily addressed to writers of dissertations and theses, GradShare features brief but informative posts on researching, planning, composing, and completing the big project.  Several of the entries complement ideas we’ve written about here at Project Thesis NIU.  Others unique to GradShare are worth a look right away, namely:

How to Write the Best Dissertation:  Parts 1 and 2 of this post give helpful drafting guidelines and general advice for those at the start or in the middle of their projects.  If you’re in those stages, spend a few moments going through these November 2016 posts, which also happen to be the most recent entries to GradShare because the blog is currently on hiatus.  (We recently contacted Devin McGinty at ProQuest to check on the blog’s status, and he told us GradShare will be publishing again in the near future.)        

Answers to Questions about Dissertation Orders:  This especially informative post from December 2015 features links to pages that answer frequently asked questions about ordering theses and dissertations through ProQuest.  A bonus: it also has a link to a review of the important procedures for uploading your document to the company—the glorious last step of the thesis or dissertation journey.  Several of the questions dealt with here are remarkably similar to ones students regularly bring to the Thesis Office at NIU.
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Review of The PhD Movie:  Movies really can be about anything!  In 2011, Jorge Cham, creator of “Piled Higher and Deeper” (PhD Comics), produced a feature based on the comic strip titled, you guessed it, Piled Higher and Deeper.  In 2014, Devin McGinty reviewed the film on GradShare.  “Sometimes the best ideas arise when we are distracted,” McGinty writes at the end of his enthusiastic review, “so the solution to your academic problems could be a bowl of popcorn and The PhD Movie.  Enjoy!”  In 2015, Cham produced a follow-up film titled The PhD Movie 2: Still in Grad School.  Check out the trailers, stills, and other information about the two films at the producer’s website.  If you happen to see the second film, perhaps you might want to share your take on it with a wide audience in the form of a review of your own, which leads to another attractive feature of GradShare: you’re invited to post there.

Guest Bloggers Wanted:  This post from March 2016 invited grad students anywhere to send in a post of 500 to 750 words on a topic of one’s own choosing.  A review of the second PhD film would likely be a welcome submission.  But other topics would certainly also be of interest.  (And if you do happen to see the second film and write a review of it, and for some reason you can’t get it to GradShare, we’ll be happy to receive your review for consideration as a guest post on Project Thesis NIU.  Send submissions as an attachment to thesis@niu.edu.)
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Final Words

In short, GradShare and other ProQuest blogs can provide helpful supplementary information to the points we pass on to graduate students at this blog.  Happy reading and researching of all kinds, through ProQuest and beyond!

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 16, 2017

For International Graduate Students: The Ins and Outs at NIU


Writing a thesis or dissertation is one of the hardest things you may ever do. Doing so in another country, in another language, is even harder!

At NIU we offer an holistic and supportive international graduate student experience, focused not only on your education, but your cultural enrichment and lifelong learning.  From offering financial support, to emotional, social, and professionalization support, our mission is to help you finish your thesis or dissertation and move on to make your mark on the world.

At the Thesis and Dissertation Office, we see many students from Saudi Arabia, China, India, and Latin America (and all over!). We are aware of your unique challenges and bumps in the road that make writing your thesis a difficult journey.

Some challenges our students face are:

  • Language barriers
  • Student Visa requirements (completing the thesis on-time)
  • Understanding Graduate School policies
  • Lacking a social network at school

For current and prospective students, getting acquainted with NIU's support services is the place to start.

The Nuts and Bolts

The International Student Faculty Office (ISFO) is where you can find all of the information, forms, advisor contacts, and immigration help you need for becoming an international graduate student, and maintaining your status.  Additionally, the Graduate School website has a page dedicated to international admissions. These pages will help you understand the "ins and outs" of doing graduate work and completing a thesis here:

International Student and Faculty Office

The Graduate School: International Students

The Fun Stuff!

Marcos Quezada and Pablo Suarez,
founders of NIU's Global Friends Network
Knowing how to make social connections, find mentors, and participate in our global community at NIU is as important to your success as actually doing the work. As we have discussed on this blog, having a group of friends or colleagues who are going through the same unique journey as you are is crucial to maintaining interest in your work, and keeping a level head about it!  Explore the student associations and mentorship opportunities such as the Global Friends Network, as well as events and scholarship programs at the Division of International Affairs website:

Division of International Affairs

Some Recommendations

Remember, you may feel alone, and you may feel like you are doing the most difficult thing you have ever done. Only one of those things is true! The global NIU community is here for you, and the Thesis and Dissertation Office is part of that community.  We are your go-to for any questions about completing your thesis, but we are also a resource for navigating graduate school in general. Our office is staffed with Graduate Assistants who are writing their dissertations, and our events and programs attract students from many countries who are trying to do the same thing. So remember to:

  • Network through the social groups for international students
  • Seek help when you need it! If you don't know where to go, ask us.
  • Educate yourself by exploring the links we've provided.
We want you to succeed!


To end, a message and interview with some international students:

International Students at NIU: A Perspective



Friday, June 2, 2017

Writing Outside: Healthy Now and for the Long Haul



In our last post, we shared several helpful ways to overcome the terror of the blank page and fill it with words.  Here we offer a somewhat related tip: often you can effectively recharge your writing by taking it outside.

Outside?

Absolutely.  In the fresh air, under natural light.  Preferably somewhere relatively open so that walls don’t separate you from the expanse of your natural surroundings.  At nearly any stage of the thesis or dissertation, you can benefit from spending quality time in open-air settings that are suitable for relaxing but also walking, running, and cycling.  You may question the idea of bringing anything related to your project to such locales.  Yet this approach can often be just what you and your writing need, especially during times your progress slows down or your energy runs low.

Why?

Introducing your writing to outdoor settings can restore its vigor and rebalance your approach to it.  The thesis or dissertation tends to keep you indoors and narrowly focused for long stretches.  Granted, most of the work requires a lot of desk time.  But too much of that can dull your body, mind, and ultimately your writing.  Although there are many ways to take breaks, spending time outside can be especially rejuvenating.  “In the woods, is perpetual youth.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson offered that statement in his 1836 essay Nature as a way of introducing perhaps his most celebrated image dealing with the individual and the outdoors: “Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all.”  Fanciful interpretations aside, Emerson’s idea hints at what you and your project can gain through outdoor excursions.  Certainly there is much to see and appreciate in nature.  But getting out in it can also help you see and appreciate your growing text more clearly.

How?

Among the many approaches to taking writing outside, the following are useful for immediate gain as well as long-term success:

Meditation on the Move.  Here you explore your thoughts about your writing (or anything else) while traversing outdoor surroundings on foot or bicycle.  This approach is particularly helpful during drafting and revising stages, that is, while you’re building and/or rearranging ideas.  As noted in a previous blog post, the term for this approach comes from writer and long-distance-running enthusiast Joe Henderson.  Fundamental to it is the principle that time spent thinking and moving is more important than mere distance covered: thus, aiming to get outside for 1 to 2 hours is better than aiming to complete a certain number of laps or miles.  As you meditate on the move, it also helps to note beings and objects in the distance, such as birds on branches, fish under water (often quite visible in certain sections of the Kish south of the NIU campus), clumps of faraway trees, or clouds on the horizon.  In addition to helping you stretch your mind, such distance viewing can give a welcome break to your eyes, which already spend plenty of time narrowly focused on words, pages, and screens.

Outdoor Journaling.  During a walk, run, or ride, stopping to make notes in a journal can be a very rewarding practice.  A journal allows you to put down ideas on the spot that might not come back to you when you later return to your indoor writing.  Out in nature, a pen and a pad of paper can reassert their handiness as writing tools.  Natural light can reengage your interest in your handwriting as well as the thoughts you express in it.  Of course, instead of such quaint holdovers from yesteryear, you could bring along an electronic writing gizmo.  But since you’re going outside partly to break away from routine, why not also temporarily disengage from such devices?  When you get down to it, working with writing on a screen outdoors, no matter how much you move in or out of the shade or adjust brightness settings, tends to be cumbersome and is often counterproductive.
 
Write by Windows.  Luckily, even while still working indoors, you’re generally never too far from nature.  Thus, obviously the quickest way to engage your writing with the outside world is to move to a nearby window and open it.  (Yes, even in cold weather.)  Simply composing by an open window can remarkably restore connections with your broader surroundings and thus ultimately also help revivify your writing.  It can also encourage you to venture further afield and take up some of the tips detailed above.

Wishing you continued success with your project as we head into the summer, perhaps the best season for taking your writing outside!



 

 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Fear of the Blank Page


We've all been there. In fact, I was there until about three seconds ago.

No matter what kind of writing we do, whether we're consummate wordsmiths or grammar-phobic mathematicians, the blank page is, as one Modernist writer called it, "The face of fear." While we meet many other faces of fear along the way to completing a thesis or dissertation (procrastination, stalled research, critical advisors...), simply getting started causes its own unique terror. But there are several simple ways to overcome this phenomenon.


How to Vanquish the Blank Page

 1.  Put some words on it. This is the simplest way you can lessen the starkness of a white screen.  Something about empty white space instills fear in us, and of course it hurts our eyes too. Really: simply type out a working title. Format a table of contents or dash off an acknowledgements page. Or paste in your bibliography and begin to edit it.  Any of these little tasks not only fill the page with quite a bit of text, but it will get you comfortable with sitting with THAT document. (You know the one.)

2. Use a blue blocker, especially after sunset. Reducing the blue light in your life is good for your overall health, but it also decreases the whiteness (read: scariness!) of the screen. You can buy a physical screen blocker or download an app.

3. Trust that every little step leads to the next one.  You don't have to begin at the beginning! When I began the draft of my dissertation prospectus (so we're talking draft and prospectus... not even the real deal), I was terrified. So, I started with the low-hanging fruit. Did I know how to write a contextual history of the topic I'd barely begun to research? No. Did I even know what methodology I would use? No. So, I began by pasting in my bibliography, cleaning it up, and formatting it. I learned from that exercise which sources were most important to me. Then I was able to write a methodology (i.e. which literary texts I would research and using which sources).  Once I did that, I was homed in on a topic, and better suited to write the introductory paragraphs of the proposal.  And, if I had had to write a literature review, I wouldn't have been able to do that until I'd read everything for the rest of the proposal. Every simple task teaches you something that helps with the harder tasks.

4. Type up your notes. You've already written or typed out ideas, observations, and reactions as you read or researched. Paste those ideas into an outline. The outline can be loose! Whenever you write a first draft, it's just a draft. You can make it pretty later.  Seeing all your thoughts in one place, and connecting them with the tissue of a paper-structure (however tentative it may be) gives you a framework for imagining your paper. 

5. Actually use your imagination. True story: When writing up prospective chapter outlines in my proposal, I asked my advisor, "So, I just imagine the chapter I hope to have written and describe it? Like I'm describing the best chapter I can imagine?" Yes, she said.  Use your right brain to power through those crippling left brain moments. At some point you have to make your imaginary dissertation into reality (and edit the unicorns out of Chapter 2...), but visualizing it helps make it happen. 

These are the tricks I'm currently using to make my dissertation happen.  What frightens you about writing? And how do you find ways to overcome the fear of getting started?





Friday, May 5, 2017

Staying in Love with Your Thesis or Dissertation


Exams passed, proposal approved, and you happily move forward with your writing project.  The growing relationship between you and your significant document draws on several forces, not least passion and devotion.  For some writers, these forces never waver and may even increase over time.  Yet other writers can face weary stretches due to a fading of that initial spark.  How does it happen?  How can writers stay enthralled with their thesis or dissertation?  This post mainly goes out to those of you who ponder such questions.  But it also offers helpful bits even to those convinced from the outset that they will blissfully go the distance—and those thrilled to be nearing their project’s final stages.    

Prime Factors Behind Burnout

Waning enthusiasm over the course of such a long undertaking can result from many things.  You deal with certain matters beyond your control, such as outside commitments to work or family, schedules of your committee, or availability of resources for research, experiments, or data analysis.  But most important are your own contributing thoughts and emotions, internal matters that can press acutely but that you can likely address more readily.  Such as:

Doubts about your progress.  Uncertainties about the development of your lengthy document can crop up during writing slumps and delays.  You may also harbor doubts while waiting for feedback on chapters from your readers—or, after receiving feedback, while acting on requests for changes or revisions, major and minor. 

Concerns that what you’re doing is trivial.  Such concerns partner with the so-called imposter syndrome.  They may cause you to reconsider the theory or methodology you’re applying to your endeavor.  You may ponder tweaking your approach, revisiting your proposal, or even stripping away at the foundations of the entire affair.

Temptations to pull the plug.  These can accompany outbursts like “I’m sick and tired of this whole thing.”  Probably not the exact words of any contemporary American grad student, and most likely not always true about all parts of the undertaking.  For example, in the case of my dissertation, the literary texts I’m writing about are, to me, endlessly fascinating and enjoyable.  But let’s face it: even re-examining stuff you like can eventually become draining.  Outside the context of language and literary research, important supporting tasks like tabulating results, running statistical tests, or transcribing interviews can each get tedious.  Any project requiring long stretches of deep thought, creativity, intense focus, and adherence to standards and guidelines inevitably leads to exhaustion.

Some Solutions

OK, so what to do about all this?  Among the many possible courses of action, the following three seem eminently achievable:

Revisit work that brought you to your project.  Look back at previous studies or research relevant to your current doings—or at things not directly related to them.  This experience may help remind you of what drew you to your project in the first place or point out approaches to it you may not have considered yet.

Talk about your project.  Although your ultimate aim is to arrange your ideas in writing, talking them over with others can help you maintain momentum and flow, rediscover what excites you about your project, and see what others find interesting in it.  The first person to turn to is your director, who knows your project well but is still one step removed from the composition process and, therefore, able to rekindle your sense of its strengths and significance.  Certainly you can also approach your committee readers for similar feedback.  Friends and family members can be good sounding boards, even if they’ve already heard a lot from you about your various compositional ups and downs.  Also consider the benefits of sharing your project’s aims with new acquaintances in your department, across campus, and at academic conferences.  I recently traveled to a large national conference, where I presented a portion of my dissertation research, attended several panels on topics relevant to it, and took in few that were distantly related.  The trip was a brief but helpful break from the writing.  It gave me welcome chances to meet and talk about what I’m doing with grad students and faculty from other institutions.  I came back refreshed and reenergized.    

Take regular breaks.  Needed diversions from your largely indoor endeavor should be regular and clearly distinguished from your main tasks at hand.  Getting outside, especially now that the weather is turning sunnier and warmer, can do wonders for your writing, thinking, and overall enthusiasm for your project.  Such sessions of “meditation on the move,” a term writer and runner Joe Henderson has applied to recreational long-distance running, will be explored in a future post on taking your writing outside.  Look for it in the coming weeks.  Until then, happy writing!     

Meditation on the Move, Southwest of the NIU Campus

Friday, April 21, 2017

A First-Generation Academic

"First-Generation College Student" is a label proudly worn by many undergraduates at NIU. These students used to be the minority. But since the twentieth century's Civil Rights movement and resultant anti-discriminatory provisions ensured everyone a fair shot at education, and since increased government funding and loans enabled more and more students to eke out some tuition, students from all walks of life have flocked to universities and community colleges to do better than their parents did. As an instructor, I am aware of their unique challenges. And I am also aware of their unique advantages; they bring to the culture of the university a fresh outlook and a profound appreciation for the opportunity to learn.  However, their challenges sometimes outweigh their eagerness and talent, and many do not complete degrees.

While this is a big problem for first-generation students, it is an even bigger problem for first-generation academics.  Those of us who come in as first-generation, complete that bachelor's degree, and then stick around for more degrees... well, we are not only entering the realm of university life without much direction, we are entering a culture in which a very small percentage of Americans ever participate.  Academia is its own beast. So the stick-tuitive-ness that got us our bachelor's degrees is not necessarily enough to finish a masters thesis, and certainly not enough to push us through the drudgery that is Ph. D. work and dissertation writing. We need a special kind of help. But no one really knows what to do for us.
But...we're so alone!

Scores of extensive, longitudinal studies have been done on the first-generation college student. Those kids have been around for some time! But the first-generation academic is still a somewhat rare anomaly. Also, the amount of time it takes to produce one of us (years upon years of coursework, going back to school after taking breaks, part-time work while having kids, etc.) means the data just isn't there or hasn't been collected yet, that is, extensive data on who finishes, who achieves success in academia, and what kinds of services, attitudes, or funding, got them through all of it.  This is something that needs to be studied, both for the success of these students and for ensuring that the future fields of technology, education, health, and others, can benefit from an increasingly diverse pool of talents. 

Quite frankly, I think that first-generation academics are the key to revitalizing the stagnating university model. We can innovate how we do research in a budget crisis. We can engage with the community outside of academia and bring our discoveries to bear on the "real world." There, I said it. Academia needs us! Or it might just perish.  Nowhere is navel-gazing stronger than academia, a group that can cut itself off from the struggles of the world (and of their students) by living, working, and socializing among their university bubble. But this phenomenon of the academic enclave does not apply to blue-collar and low-income academics. I take offence when any blue-collar type tries to accuse me of being out of touch, just because I'm doing a Ph. D. ...Sorry, guy, I'm living in your "real world" every damn day. And I can also think abstractly! :D

While the studies are lacking, the stories are not. In fact, our Thesis Office Director, Carolyn Law, published a book entitled This Fine Place so Far from Home, a collection of personal accounts and essays from first-generation academics working in the 1990s.  The pieces range from opinionated, to irreverent, to poignant.  You can check it out here, at Temple University Press.

Think about it -- college is a defining experience for many people. But a decade of college and then a *life* at the university is, well, your entire life! When no one in your family or inner circle has any experience with college, let alone designing experiments and writing monographs, this can mean that not only is your college journey a lonely and confusing thing, but so is the life of the mind to which it leads you. Even the most supportive families can only offer hollow messages of encouragement -- they literally have no idea what we're doing.  Blue-collar scholars, like the ones in Law's book, speak of not being able to fit in anywhere -- afraid of being found out at the university, afraid of getting made fun of at home. (And of course, saddled with the debt of climbing out of the lower classes.) How do we address this? What can universities do to help us find a balance? And, perhaps more importantly, what can they do to ensure that our unique voices are not drowned out by the ideas of the privileged, established scholars?

Let us know in the comments of anything you've read on this. Or tell us about your experience!

Yours Truly,
Daughter of a Truck Driver, M.A.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Writing Happens Step by Step, Day by Day


“So…how’s that writing coming along?”  It seems the longer you’re engaged in your project, the more often this question—or one like it—finds a way into conversations with colleagues, friends, and family.  For insights on writing progress and occasional writing delays, below we share a few sources of wisdom from a little beyond the well-traveled paths.
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“Avoidant Syndrome”?
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Writers sometimes hit snags.  Perhaps you find yourself lingering over getting a part of your project started—or, even after starting on it, getting stuck and staying that way for a noticeable while.  Are you avoiding pressing tasks at hand?  Maybe.  But not all writing delays simply boil down to avoidance.  Writing can slow or come to a stop due to multiple factors, some beyond the writer’s control.  Yet if you experience a lengthy writing block that feels closely bound to thoughts of dodging criticism or rejection of your work, perhaps you’re flirting with what some call The Avoidant Syndrome.

I’m adapting the above terms and ideas, by the way, not so much from experience as from information about writing stoppage found on the detailed Website of A.R.T.S. Anonymous, an organization I hadn’t heard of until very recently.  As you might guess from their name, they’re a support group for creative people modeled on organizations that guide members as they follow a twelve-step program to recovery—the acronym in their name stands for Artists Recovering through the Twelve Steps.  OK, quick disclaimer.  My aim here is not to promote or question A.R.T.S. Anonymous (or any similar twelve-step programs).  Instead, I want to point out some of the principles that inform the way this support group treats the creative process and creative blocks, which share a few things in common with the writing process and writing blocks.  These principles can be of some use to anyone working toward completing a thesis or dissertation, perhaps the longest and most vexing writing project a grad student may ever face.
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Useful Insights
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Process, Not Product:  A.R.T.S. Anonymous outlines a path toward creative success in their list of Twelve Talents for a Good Life.  Item 11 in the list stresses that the creative process itself—rather than the product eventually created—is the artist’s (or writer’s) most valuable reward.  Useful for writers of all stripes, this principle is especially helpful for writers in the final composing phases of a master’s or doctoral program.  One of the biggest reasons such writers sometimes experience stoppages may be that the aimed-for product is so highly esteemed.  The thesis or dissertation is a mark of academic distinction that propels its author (you) through the beginning stages of the post-degree career.  It’s hard not to contemplate that weighty fact as you work on your project.  But heeding the principle of process over product healthily encourages you to defer such reflection until the most appropriate moments, which likely come after, not before, the process of writing the whole thing is complete.  

Setting Goals: In guidelines they provide for their initial meetings, A.R.T.S. Anonymous suggests that participating creators draw up a simple plan of tasks with projected completion dates.  The list they have in mind should be structured something like this:
Task 1 ______________  To be completed by ______________
Task 2 _____________    To be completed by ______________, etc.
Such a scheme is commonsensical and calls to mind the project-based angle on completing the thesis or dissertation, which this blog touched on last November in a review of the book Writing the Dissertation: A Systematic Approach.  Yet two bits of advice stand out in the A.R.T.S. Anonymous view on goal-setting: (1) you do need to jot down a projected completion date, but then (2) you shouldn’t feel pressure to complete the tasks in the order you list them or on the exact date you set.  At first glance, these tips seem contradictory, but they mesh with their process-over-product principle.  The essential message of A.R.T.S. Anonymous, once again, is that you must constantly engage in your creative endeavor.  Process is primary.  Time taken and final product are secondary concerns.  It’s a message that can certainly be of help to some of you in the thick of writing a thesis or dissertation. 

Daily Five Minutes:  A.R.T.S. Anonymous calls this 5 Alive, and it’s fundamental to their program.  The idea behind this potentially transforming practice is simple: devote five full minutes each day to your project.  Consider how just five minutes per day gradually adds up: after one week, you’ve put in 35 minutes, and after one month, nearly 2 1/2 hours.  Yet surely that short daily session can easily turn into a longer one, leading to more productive weeks and months.  And that’s the idea.  If you commit to a firm but manageable daily schedule, you’ll not only stay productive but often find yourself exceeding original expectations for your progress.  Writers sometimes employ similar schemes for individual composing sessions.  For example, the ten-minute freewrite: put pen to paper or hands on keyboard and write anything and everything that comes to mind, nonstop, for ten minutes.  No matter how unrefined or choppy, the text you compose in a freewriting session nearly always yields a phrase, sentence, group of thoughts, or some combination of these that you can build on as you work toward shaping your ideas in writing.  And last December, this blog detailed ways to organize a chunk of writing into four 25-minute sessions, a so-called Pomodoro.  But setting aside five solid minutes each day to your project is by far the simplest and most achievable benchmark we’ve come across.
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Routine is Key
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In summary, several ideas from A.R.T.S. Anonymous deserve consideration as you keep your writing going.  Most important is to make time for focused engagement with the writing process every day.  One last bit of related wisdom, which eloquently stresses some of the points raised above, especially the importance of daily writing: a short but powerful piece penned by detective and mystery novelist Walter Mosley, which appeared in The New York Times.  Happy Daily Writing!


Image Source: Wikimedia Commons