Friday, December 4, 2015

Writing Groups

This last blog before the Christmas break was meant to be a second installment of Dissertations/Theses in the news.

However, I find myself in a rather familiar situation -- prioritizing other work over finishing my dissertation.

I have one last chapter to write -- One. Final. Chapter. And then . . . all I have to concern myself with is reviewing the content with my committee, relying on their feedback as I revise the entire thing, and then submitting all important required graduate school paperwork to defend my dissertation and graduate.

Instead, I am using the little free time that I have grading student papers, making up quizzes, grading quizzes, helping my kids with their homework. . . Okay, that last one does not count. But you know what I mean.

The problem is that it is just too easy to rationalize finishing all of this other work before I focus on my own. And that is when I fall into the all too familiar abyss.

Thus, concerned that I will not use any of the Christmas break to make any progress on this final chapter, I wanted to offer some thoughts about writing groups.

A dissertation/thesis writing group is not some formal gathering of graduate students reading and critiquing each other's work. That is the last thing anyone needs. Besides, you will receive all of the feedback that you need from your director and committee members. Do not let the name "writing group" fool you. This is just three or four people at a coffee shop, a bookstore, a diner, a library, or some other designated meeting space where you can write. Nothing more.

A writing group is a kind of support network. The three or four of you make a formal agreement that once a week -- or once every two weeks, or once a month, whatever your schedule permits -- the writing group will meet at a pre-arranged time at a designated place (and the time and place must be agreed to beforehand and will not be changed for any reason). This time has been set aside from your busy schedule specifically for all of you to write your dissertation/thesis. Not research. Not read sources. Not collect data. But write. Anecdotal evidence and research shows that graduate students prioritize every other aspect of their dissertation/thesis EXCEPT THE WRITING!

Therefore, the second part of the writing group's agreement is that no other distractions are permitted. No texting, no going on Facebook, no checking Twitter feeds, etc. Every member of the writing group keeps the other person on task. WRITE! As Richard Castle's screensaver tells us:

Anecdotal evidence does indicate that writing groups help. Further, the evidence suggests that writing groups are even more effective if the other members of your writing group consists of peers from different fields/departments. This protects individuals from unconsciously evaluating the worth of their own topic in their chosen field to someone else's topic who happens to be in the exact same field. This leads to panic and writer's block, and the next thing you know: another year goes by and, once again, no work done on the dissertation.

You have your topic. You have done the primary reading. You have conducted your experiment/observation. You have your research and data. Now it is time to write.

It still may take a great deal of time to write the entirety of your thesis (see previous post on being a non-traditional student for data on average length of time to complete a dissertation/thesis). At least the support of a regular writing group will help keep you on task.

Feel free to comment on this blog about writing groups. Feel free to share your thoughts about writing groups on our Facebook page. If you want to try and set up a writing group and need help doing so, feel free to contact the office.

Oh . . . and on a related note: There has been some debate in our office about scheduling regular writing days -- perhaps, once a month in our office or in one of the classrooms in the library -- for graduate students who want all of the benefits of a writing group, but cannot seem to put one together. Office sponsored writing days would offer the same benefits -- get together in a quiet, safe space, no distractions allowed, and write. The only difference would be, Thesis and Dissertation office staff would be on hand to help if someone has a question about something in their document. Would you want our office to offer writing days? Would writing days help you plan time in your busy schedule to focus exclusively on writing your dissertation/thesis? Let us know in a comment or on Facebook.

See you all in 2016. Have a good break!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

“I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know.”

The title of this post is a quote from a student who attended our “Writing a Dissertation in Education” Workshop of October 3rd.

We often hear positive comments after our workshops, either through email or in person. Typically, students report that the workshop they attended was very helpful.

So what is it that we do at our workshops?

Well, let me tell what we did at our fall workshops then alert you to some of the changes we have in store for the spring.

Typical Fall Workshop

This fall, we offered workshops for specific discipline areas and departments. Some focused on thesis preparation, and others focused on dissertation preparation. By “preparation,” we mean the actual construction of a document according to the appropriate Guidelines (link to “Thesis Format Guidelines”) found on our website. Content issues are a matter for students and their committees, of course.

A common core at our fall workshops was to walk students through the appropriate Guidelines (link to “Dissertation Format Guidelines”) in great detail, as the instructions do seem daunting at first. Yet these Guidelines are the publication conventions for theses and dissertations written at NIU, and they need to be followed closely.

We explained the rules, such as the correct placement of tables, and illustrated the rules by way of example, after which students better understood what they needed to do and felt more empowered to get it done. Hence, the positive reviews! (Not to boast, but here's another student quote: "Your presentation was fantastic and very much appreciated!")

We also directed students towards important areas on our website and the Graduate School’s website, such as where to find — and how to read — the Graduation Deadlines for Graduate Students.

Finally, we left time for hands-on manipulation of documents where we helped students address specific problems.

Workshop Issues

We found that many of these workshops were too extensive for some students to complete. In some cases, workshops were presented over two or three sessions. We also found that some disciplines require individualized information, while most do not. So in the spring, we are changing things up!

Spring Ahead! 

In 2016, we will split the sessions into A) ones that mainly present and cover necessary material, and B) ones in which students work right then and there on the formatting of their documents.

A) Presentations

Our presentations will be divided into “Thesis Requirements” and “Dissertation Requirements,” and anyone in any discipline can attend either as appropriate to their degree. Each will last approximately 75 minutes and will finish in one sitting. We will still offer a couple discipline-specific sessions, but our general presentations will give all writers a wealth of information in short order.

B) Workshops

Our workshops, which will be held on different dates than the presentations, will address specific formatting issues, such as problems that arise with tables, figures, and pagination. During these workshops, students need to bring their document on a laptop so they can implement format changes. These two-hour long sessions are open to writers of both theses and dissertations. They will be particularly helpful for those nearing their graduation semester. And, the first one is already scheduled!

Schedule of Events

You will find the dates, times, and locations of all of our events through our website (click Workshops and Support) or through NIU’s Events Calendar, where you can also subscribe to our RSS feed “Thesis-Workshops.” We will be listing more soon!

For any questions, you can always call us at (815) 753- 9405 or email us at

Finally, one last student quote: "I will be encouraging all of my peers to attend your workshop in the future." We hope you'll take this student's advice, and we'll see you at one of our happenings this spring! 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Trick and TREAT Yourself to Some Support!

As Halloween arrives, and as you hand out candy or get dressed up for the holiday, think about giving yourself a real treat: find a writing partner or another source to help keep you on track for your study.

In the MOOC “How to Survive Your PhD,” developed by Dr. Inger Mewburn and the Australia National University Online team, the moderators begin the course with a discussion into why PhD students quit (applies to thesis writers, too). As expected, “intellectual isolation” and “stress/exhaustion/mental health issues” were among the several reasons given for quitting. Other reasons, such as “mounting debt” and “being made to do non-thesis work,” were given, but the first two I mentioned can be addressed with a small amount of effort.    

If you are reading this, you probably know that the Thesis Office tries to help with isolation through our Facebook group (NIU Theses and Dissertations) and this blog. However, I’m of the opinion that nothing beats face-to-face interactions, at least occasionally!

And not long ago, a colleague, who recently earned her PhD (congratulations, Professor Probst!), offered me a related piece of advice for making progress. Dr. Probst said she found it very helpful to have weekly meetings with a partner. Here’s how she describes her experience:

“A fellow Ph.D. candidate and I decided to dissertate from afar while we assumed full-time positions. We understood the challenges of writing a dissertation being removed from constructs, particularly peer support, at the university. We planned to continue our regular writing sessions that we began at NIU, but difficulties in arranging our schedules to make time for our dissertations presented themselves. Our weekly meetings held us accountable to write regularly, one of the most important habits for completing the dissertation. Rarely did we review each other’s work—that is not the support we needed. We needed consistency, and a guaranteed weekly opportunity to write meant we had to prioritize that work over other tasks or interests. Furthermore, our meetings encouraged us to write and revise outside these sessions because our writing mindset never lapsed, however tired and discouraged we sometimes felt. We learned that allowing too much distance from the dissertation would make returning to it more challenging. Additionally, the emotional struggles of writing a dissertation are real and can be detrimental, so the emotional support we provided to one another often was more important than carving out time in our schedules to write.”

Wow! I think Dr. Probst’s words offer some good advice!

If you cannot find a partner or cannot work out the logistics, though, NIU offers other resources that might be of benefit.

For instance, if you are experiencing stress, anxiety, or any other condition such as depression, NIU’s Counseling and Consultation Services, located in the Campus Life Building (corner of Lucinda and Normal) Room 200, offers free groups and programs for NIU students. One of their offerings is a “Mindful Monday” group, which meets from 12 – 12:45 for meditation and relaxation, thus reducing stress while offering camaraderie.

They also have therapy dogs every 2nd Monday from 6:00-7:15 pm in Stevenson Hall. See one good dog in the photo to the right!

NIU counselors can get you to an appropriate anxiety/stress management group by referral from a walk-in appointment, available Monday through Friday from 11:00 – 3:30. For more information, see their website or call them at 815-753-1206.

Finally, don’t forget about us, the Thesis and Dissertation Office. We are here in Adams Hall 104 Monday through Thursday from 10:00 am – 2:00 pm, and we have a quiet workshop area in our adjoining room (AH 103) where you can work anytime we are open. Stop in, call us (815) 753- 9405, or email We will be glad to help in any way we can.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Open Access - TED Talks

Once I woke this morning, I reached for my iPhone - my technology addiction may just be a potential topic for a future blog post (i.e. when to stop researching on my laptop and go get lost in the stacks at Founder's Library). I opened my podcasts app and  . . . lo and behold, NPR TED Talks has a new episode devoted to Open Source.

For those of you who are interested in learning about how Open Access (or Open Source) impacted the genesis of the World Wide Web, you should check out Tim Berners-Lee's talk:

If you are studying history or, like me, you are fascinated by history, there is a TED Talk with Clay Shirk about how Open Access started . . . in the 17th century!

If you are studying political science, you may find Pia Mancini's talk interesting. She used Open Access to try and change democracy with the mobile platform Democracy OS:

If you are studying art and architecture, Alastair Parvin has an intriguing talk about WikiHouse:

Finally, for those of you who are engineering students, you may find David Lang's talk about relying on Open Access to build his own underwater robot to go hunting for buried treasure:

Each of these talks are accessible from the TED Talks website.

On the other hand, if you are not sure which talk you may or may not be interested, I can definitely recommend NPR's TED Radio Hour with guy Raz abridged version of the talks (click here).

As always, if you have any thoughts or concerns or questions about Open Access, please feel free to share them by offering a comment on our blog, or post a comment on our Facebook group page.

Happy Open Access week, everyone!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Open Access: Creative Commons Licensing

Attention would-be December 2015 graduates! October 30, 2015 is almost upon us! This means -- for those of you paying close attention to the Graduate School's deadlines calendar -- that the last date to submit the postdefense version of your thesis/dissertation fast approacheth! Well, that and ... it's almost Halloween.

You should know that ProQuest -- the electronic repository for the postdefense PDF version of your thesis/dissertation -- has updated its website. How does this apply to you?

During the (what many NIU grad students have described to me as tedious) process of submitting your postdefense graduate work, you will come across a section having to do with copyright and licensing. As explained in a previous blog on open access philosophy, you will have two options when it comes to publishing/copywright: traditional or open access. For those of you who know that you will be selecting open access, ProQuest will then prompt you to decide on your licensing rights. This is where Creative commons licensing comes into play.

Creative commons offers four options when it comes to licensing your work: Attribution (a.k.a. BY), Share-alike (SA), Non-commercial (NC), and No Derivative Works (ND).  Well, technically, there is a fifth option: public domain.

When you choose Attribution, you are giving your audience the right to copy your work, distribute your work, and build upon your work -- this latter part is especially relevant in the case of scientific research. The person(s) who do any of these actions are required to give you, the original author, credit. They are not permitted to simply pass your work off as their own.

Share-alike means that if anyone copies or builds upon your work (which you allow them to do in accordance with the open access philosophy), then their work is required to have the exact same license that you chose for your own work, which would be the original research in this scenario.

A Non-commercial license stipulates that you agree that the reader can make copies of your work, distribute your work, build on your research, and even display your work (on a website, a poster, a YouTube video, etc.). However, you draw the line at them making any money off of your original research.

Finally, No Derivative works stipulates that the reader has your permission to copy, distribute, and display your original material. However, they may not modify the original materials in anyway. In other words, the individual who reads your work cannot adapt your work into a top 40 hit single or an Emmy winning HBO miniseries. Your work is your work.

You may also choose Public Domain, which simply means that you are allowing your work to be freely available to everyone to do with as they choose - there are no restrictions being placed on the material.

You should know that the ND licensing option is very controversial in open access circles. Many open access devotees view ND licensing as antithetical to the core mission statement of open access publishing. The whole purpose behind open access is to make research widely available to the public and other researchers in order to further scholarship. One way to accomplish such a feat is to empower researchers and laypeople to read your original work and then build off of your theories. On the other hand, many academics and researchers feel that too much liberty is being taken with their  original research. There have been instances where someone's research has been plagiarised or the original author has not been attributed in subsequent derivatives of their original research.

Be aware that even though there are five licensing options, these options can be combined in a variety of ways depending on how "free" you want your original research to be. The most common  combinations include:Public Domain on its own, Attribution on its own, Attribution AND Noncommercial, Attribution AND Share-alike, Attribute AND No Derivatives, Attribution AND Noncommercial AND Share-alike, and Attribution AND Noncommercial AND No Derivatives.

If you believe in open access publishing and you wish to opt for open access publishing when you submit your thesis/dissertation, please please please . . . take the time to review your licensing options. Make sure that you are receiving the credit that you are due. After all, you are devoting a large amount of time to researching and writing your thesis/dissertation. What you need to decide is, how available do you want to make your work to the public and other academics. One issue that may influence the license you choose is whether or not you intend on patenting your work.

Before you submit your postdefense work to the NIU Thesis and Dissertation office, sit down with your director and discuss the best licensing options for you and your work.

A short video explaining Creative Commons licensing has been attached to this blog. It was created courtesy of the Creative Commons organization (click here to visit their website).

Remember, open access and creative commons is not an exclusive publishing domain for students and academics in the sciences. Open access and creative commons can impact and be beneficial for those of us in the humanities. 

Creative commons licensing has become a very prominent legal issue recently. In an age where everyone posts their academic research or creative work on social media websites -- especially, YouTube -- a debate is starting about what belongs in the public domain and what is, or what should be, or what remains protected by strict copyright laws that many people argue have become obsolete in the 21st century. This debate will apply to you. Maybe not now, but in time it will. Remember: your thesis/dissertation represents a significant contribution to academia and some day someone may want to build on your original research.  

As this debate in creative commons continues to receive significant news coverage, our office will try to keep you updated with links to articles on the issue.

Please feel free to share any questions or comments about open access and creative commons licensing on our blog or our office Facebook group. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Open Access: A Philosophy and a Publishing Format

This year Open Access week will be celebrated October 19 through October 25, 2015.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the above graphic, it is the official Open Access logo, originally designed by the Public Library of Science.

Even though there are no scheduled events this year about Open Access on the NIU campuses, I believe that it is important to compose a brief entry about the philosophy behind Open Access.  You may not believe this issue is applicable to you, your field of study, or your research topic; however, I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Remember, after you have successfully defended your thesis or dissertation, the next step is to submit your written work to our office via ProQuest. During this submission process, you will have to choose a publication option for your academic work: traditional or Open Access. Many opt for traditional publication if for no other reason than the fact that it costs you nothing, whereas opting for Open Access publishing does involve a $90 fee. 

Open Access simply means unrestrained access to research -- peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed research articles, conference papers, theses, book chapters, and dissertations. Much of this research is not available in its entirety to the public. You may come across an article abstract or a preview of a scholarly work thanks to an Internet search, but this is not unrestrained access to the entirety of that scholarly work.

A large number of researchers and scholars receive funding -- some of it via government grants -- to conduct research in their field. Once these academics have collected their data, they publish their findings in scholarly journals. The problem is that access to these scholarly journals may be guaranteed exclusively through individual subscriptions to the journal or through pay subscription services online. In other words, this scholarly research, some of which has been funded by government grants -- i.e. your tax dollars -- is locked behind a paywall. People who subscribe to the Open Access philosophy take issue with this and rightly so.  

These online subscription services might not be an issue for students and academics if they happen to be affiliated with a college or university that has allocated funds for the school library to pay for these subscription services. After all, what lay person is going to devote their time to reading some graduate student's monograph? Then again, people who believe in Open Access make the rather compelling argument that many schools -- across the United States and in under-developed countries -- might not have the funds to pay for library subscription services. Another scenario might be that a college or university has limited funds that allows it to subscribe to some scholarly journals or some subscription databases, but not all of them. In these two examples, this means that future generations of academics will have a hole in their education due to the fact that they will not have access to certain texts. The common retort to this argument is that students and researchers can request materials through interlibrary loan. The problem with this is that an article requested by interlibrary loan might have to be photocopied and sent by post, or it might be scanned and sent via email. Then again, the request might not even be fulfilled. If the literature can be shared, however, time might be an issue for the student or researcher who made the request. Open Access can ensure reliable quick access to research. 

The one scenario in support of Open Access that I do happen to find rather compelling is this: outbreaks of deadly viruses.  When a community of scientists and academics can share their work through Open Access, this guarantees the ability to stay on top of recent findings in the medical field. Thanks to Open Access, a doctor in Africa will be able to learn about an alternative form of treatment discovered in Europe that may prove to be more efficient treating patients suffering from some exotic virus in his part of the globe. This doctor can then build on the European research that he was able to access quickly and easily. 

Elizabeth Marincola discusses how science might be advanced with Open Access publishing in her TED MED Talk:

Then again, who is to say that a lay person is not interested in reading the most recent research having to do with green energy? Or Astronomy? Or Physics? If you are earning your PhD in education, there may be legions of grade school and high school educators across the globe who are curious about successful teaching strategies that they might implement in their own classrooms. They might even wish to keep up to date with recent research related to their subject fields. If the research has been done, many people are asking the question: why can it not be made available to everyone, free of charge, via Open Access? 

There is a great deal more that I could write about with regards to Open Access. For instance, there are two categories of Open Access: gratis and libre. There is "green" access and "gold" access when it comes to making your work available through Open Access publishing. There is even some controversy amongst Open Access devotees when it comes to Creative Commons copyright, which is  associated with libre Open Access. There is also the history of Open Access, tracing its founding principles back to the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002.

For now, I simply wanted to introduce you to the philosophy behind Open Access with the intention of inspiring you to consider whether or not you should make your own thesis or dissertation available via Open Access. You may have noticed that a number of the scenarios I have described here relate to the sciences. This is not to suggest that Open Access does not apply to the humanities as well.

In the meantime, if you have questions about the Open Access philosophy or Open Access publication options, keep an eye out for future blog entries or feel free to contact our office  directly ( You can read up on the topic a bit more by checking out and SPARC. I've also taken the liberty of posting a link to a fun video from PhD Comics that is a fairly detailed explanation of Open Access. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts about Open Access in a comment, or post about it on our Facebook group page.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Time is of the Essence

Hello! Today I’m posting a bit about my experience struggling to find time for my dissertation work. I hope to inspire you to think of new ideas to find time for your work, without taking too much of your time.

The idea for this post grew from a recent question asked of our Facebook group (Join here!).
The question asked was, “What is trickiest part of juggling your responsibilities? What do you struggle with most?” I offered several response choices, with an additional write-in option. Of 15 votes, “Finding the time needed” received 5; “Family needs/interruptions” received 4; and “Feeling burnt out/lack of motivation” received 3. “Working too many hours,” “Organizing my time,” and “Getting support needed” each received 1 vote. No one wrote in an additional option.

Obviously, this is not a scientific survey, but I felt moved to address the number one answer, “Finding the time needed” personally, as I have seriously struggled in finding time to write my dissertation, mostly due to financial and family obligations. I’ve known a few colleagues who have even decided to stop pursuing their dissertations for various reasons, a brutal decision to make. (I haven’t known any thesis writers who have stopped, but I’ll bet some have had to move on.)

And stopping is a viable option, one I’ve considered.

But something kept nagging me to continue, even after being in the PhD program for many years. I have always wanted to write about my ideas, but making it happen is another thing.

Here’s a brief rundown of what has worked for me. Though I still have much work to do, I have finally drafted two chapters.

First, I bet you’ve heard plenty of advice on “time management.” You may have heard that you should write for an hour every day, or even a half-hour per day.

I tried that method and hated it. I wanted, felt I needed, at least four hours per session, so I could delve into material, keep my focus, and re-read or research as ideas popped up.

Fat chance on finding that kind of time.

But one day I had two hours free. I told myself I just had to get something done. I wasn’t crazy about having only two hours, but I worked, and … it worked. I got something done. I started utilizing any two-hour slots that came up because of this success.

I was still trying to find longer periods of time for “real” work, however.

However after a while, I discovered I liked the two-hour time frame. I could get a chunk of material done, then I was ready for a break. I guess I got used to it, and perhaps if I try again I might get used to working in one-hour increments, but I’m still skeptical!

This summer, I even wound up with a couple weeks in a row to schedule my writing sessions on a regular basis, and I made progress. The ability to work steadily helped, but the habit was what ultimately paid off since that period was my only chance to schedule such daily time for my dissertation—it was the only time I had vacation from all of my jobs at once without any family commitments! But it didn’t matter because after getting used to the two-hour increments, I was better able to pop into my work whenever I could work.

Of course, another good suggestion you may have heard is to schedule time for writing, as if it were a job; Carolyn Law says this is “paying” yourself to do your work. Advisors also suggest that you go somewhere unique to work; essentially, find a place of employment for your project.

And for me, it did help to go somewhere. I started with The Thesis and Dissertation Office at NIU, outside of my weekly hours. I was lucky to have that space available, but I soon moved my dissertation “job” to my local library because of travel times and gas costs.

I then found that my local library was hit or miss; I could get a lot done, or not much, depending on the day.

Did you know that people bring whining, crying kids to the library? Lol.

I did bring earbuds and started playing white noise—better yet, cafĂ©noise—in the background: one problem solved! But soon I realized that people are quite disruptive in the library; they cough, talk, argue—even sing and laugh out loud, all while using a nearby computer.

So I rearranged my home office to include a designated space for home work and a space for dissertation work. My desk is split apart now, but the arrangement helps separate my tasks.

Finally, I was able to schedule some of my teaching (adjunct) employment hours differently than usual, teaching 12- or 8-week courses instead of 16. For me, no matter how long a course is, the work involved is all-consuming. So instead of trying to find dissertation hours around my teaching schedule, I decided to rearrange my teaching hours to fit around a block of dissertation time. The extra time "off" really helps; I plan to continue being more selective about the course assignments I take. Perhaps you can adjust your employment in creative ways too, no matter where you work.

The main point I’d like to leave you with is to keep trying different approaches—different time increments, various work locations, and creative schedules—until something frees up the time you need. 

I believe we are all busy and must make our own way towards finding time.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Fall 2015 Workshops

The Graduate School is very excited to announce several upcoming workshops for the Fall 2015 semester specifically designed to provide support for thesis/dissertation writers in the following fields:

Engineering and Engineering Technology
September 14 & 21
6 - 8pm
Wirtz Hall room 104

Education (dissertation writers)
Saturday October 3
9am - 3pm
NIU Naperville campus room 166

Humanities and Social Sciences
September 25 & October 2
2 - 4pm
Adams Hall room 103

Education & Health and Human Sciences (thesis writers)
October 8 & 15
2 - 4pm
Adams Hall room 103

Math and Natural Sciences
September 24 & October 1
2 - 4pm
Adams Hall room 103

October 6 & 13
2 - 4pm
Adams Hall room 103

Each session will be conducted by staff from the Graduate School Thesis office and cover a range of issues that thesis/dissertation writers find most troublesome. These issues include English language grammar and punctuation, documentation style and references, specific Graduate School format requirements, and general graduation procedures of the Graduate School. Our workshops offer you guidance, support, and individualized attention, all free of charge!

Space is limited in each of these workshops. Students who expect to graduate Fall 2015 or Spring 2016 will be given priority.

Keep in mind: These workshops will NOT be addressing the electronic submission process that every graduate student will go through once their thesis is ready to be submitted for final approval by our office. Submission guidelines will be addressed in a separate workshop that is meeting Wednesday October 7 from 2 to 4pm in Wirtz Hall room 104. Registration for this separate workshop is not required. All are welcome to attend.

In order to register for the above workshops in your field, visit the Thesis and Dissertation office homepage (click here).

Be sure to keep an eye on the NIU Thesis Office webpage and Facebook group for announcements on future workshops!

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Word from the Ruler Lady: Carolyn Law

It was not so long ago that the mythic figure of the fierce Ruler Lady loomed large in grad school folklore. She lurked in graduate schools across the land, measuring the margins of theses and dissertations with uncanny (some say even preternatural) precision. She could stop the hearts of suppliant thesis and dissertation writers with a single wave of her terrible sword. I mean ruler. The unluckiest ones could expect to be sent away, trembling, to retype—literally, like on a typewriter—whole pages of their precious documents, in triplicate and on expensive cotton-bond paper.

Like all urban legends, there is perhaps a kernel of truth in the basic story, but over time such tales grow to incredible proportions and soon spiral out far beyond the bounds of reality.

I am the Ruler Lady at NIU, but I’m really not very fierce. And I do not use a ruler anymore, although I must admit that for many years I did. In fact, quite a lot has changed in the Thesis Office at NIU since I started out as Thesis and Dissertation Advisor in 1996. For one thing, theses and dissertations are born digital these days and thus the post-defense submission, review, and approval process is entirely electronic now. Other more recent changes in the Thesis Office, however, aren’t so much technological as programmatic.

Starting this Fall 2015, the Thesis Office is delighted to offer a full menu of targeted workshops to assist thesis and dissertation writers in all departments of the university to meet the specific Graduate School format requirements and general standards of quality for academic writing. My hope is that by meeting with students before they defend, answering their individual questions as they arise during composition, I can smooth out the sometimes bumpy road to final approval. To help me with that lofty goal, I have enlisted a couple of excellent GAs to the cause. Mike and Clare, who’ve been blogging in this space for several months, know exactly what you are going through. Their perspective has proven invaluable to me in designing new programs and services, updating our online resources, and creating a more student-focused office in general.

Please check out the calendar of upcoming workshops for Fall 2015 on the website (click here) and look for new offerings and events in the coming months.

The Thesis Office staff is alive and well in Adams Hall Room 104 and we’re eager to help you achieve your goals. Feel free to drop in the office without appointment Monday – Thursday 10 am – 2 pm to see how we may be of assistance to you. And be sure to subscribe to this blog. You’ll receive posts twice a month on a wide variety of topics of interest to thesis and dissertation writers at every stage in the process.

Finally, remember that although I may still strike fear in the hearts of graduate students, I promise to use my power only for good.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Break Time!

We’ve been posting some heavy material in our last few blog entries—so this post encourages you to relax! With many of us about to start (or have started) a new school year or semester, and others working hard in other ventures, I'm excited to tell you about the studies revealing the benefits of taking a break, especially outside. 

On June 23 of this year, NPR’s Patti Neighmond posted an article, “Take a Hike to Do Your Heart and Spirit Good.” In this piece, Neighmond references an NPR study on adult exercise. The poll revealed that about 50% of adults say they do exercise regularly, with walking being the most common activity. Neighmond reveals, however, that many people think walking isn’t good enough exercise, so they may skip it.

Neighmond then reports on studies by Dr. Tim Church of Louisiana State University. These studies show that while walking might not help adults lose actual pounds, it does help reduce belly fat and keeps the body generally healthier.

What does that have to do with writing? Well, Church also found that regular walkers have    
  •     less anxiety
  •        less depression
  •        more energy
So for writers of serious, lengthy research, why not stop for a few minutes and take a walk to recharge--so to speak? And even if you are quite energetic already, there are more benefits of nature breaks...

In April 2014, Ellen Stuart from the Ernst & Young Leadership and Professional Development Center at NIU wrote a post called “Boost Your Brainpower!” for the LPDC Blog. Ellen reports that “spending time outside can actually boost your brainpower”; she references the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which finds that a “20 minute walk through ‘green space’… reduces ‘brain fatigue.’”

These ideas may be second nature (pun not entirely intended!) to most, but I think sometimes we need to be reminded and prompted to actually get outside!

Yet, as I was riding my bike on my favorite path recently, I began to wonder if even the smells around me had a positive influence—including that dank river smell. I did a quick Google search and found a piece that Bonnie Tsui wrote for The Atlantic City Lab entitled “The Smell of Nature Is Almost As Good As the Real Thing, As Far As Our Brains Are Concerned.”


Well, yes. Tsui provides good evidence for using aromatherapy during those times when you can’t get outside. Tsui refers to a study touting the benefits of walking outside done by Qing Li, an immunologist at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School. In this study, Li found that “walks in the woods boosted natural killer immune cells that helped fight infection and cancer,” and he, as I (patting myself on the back), “came to suspect that it was the natural scents of evergreens and other trees that did the bulk of the work." Some countries are now even promoting “forest therapy,” according to Tsui. Read Tsui’s piece to learn about Li’s findings on sniffing cypress scents and more. 

So while I might fire up the aromatherapy diffuser soon, right now, it’s beautiful outside. I’m going to take a walk and view and smell the real outdoors. I hope that you can too.

Friday, August 7, 2015

In the News! (helpful hints)

I stumbled across a three part series by David D. Perlmutter in The Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks ago. The series is titled “The Completion Agenda.” I want to note at the outset that these articles are based in part on Perlmutter’s own experience as a graduate student and a professor, which made the content that much more credible. 

In Part 1, Perlmutter's thesis is the following: Just finish your dissertation. There is no such thing as the perfect dissertation. Perlmutter reminds graduate students that their written work is not a dissertation until it has been defended and submitted. Until you have reached these final stages, your document is nothing more than a word file saved on your computer or USB drive. Do not put off completing the work because you have discovered some new study related to your topic, a new piece of secondary research that may or may not be relevant to your thesis, or because you found out about a class offered in some other department that you think might offer a new perspective related to your field. Simply finish the dissertation! Do all the requisite research, but remember that your dissertation is a work in progress that can be revised and updated over several years after you have completed your graduate school program and moved on to the next phase of your professional life.

In Part 2, Perlmutter reflects on the defense (previously written about on this blog). He shares an entertaining anecdote -- one that, I must admit, reflects the concerns that I have about my own future defense experience:

I recall being startled at the dissertation defense when professors in the young man’s department began delivering scorching assessments of his theory, method, cases, and conclusions. As the incendiaries kept flying I grew concerned about his health. He whitened, started sweating visibly, and several times laid his forehead on the table. When it came my turn to speak, I froze and ended up sputtering, "Well, you have answered all my questions!" and fell silent.

But then something incredible happened: The candidate was asked to leave the room, and the committee briskly and unanimously voted in favor of passing his dissertation with minimal revisions. He was ushered back in to the accompaniment of back slaps, clapping, and exclamations of "Welcome, Doctor!"

Turns out that the scene was a norm in the department, a version of some tribal coming-of-age ritual, except the scarring was mental, not physical. Misery and stress were inflicted to test resolve and fortitude. Survival meant passing.

I read this passage and all I could think was, “Not cool, dude. Not cool.”

Perlmutter does offer some invaluable advice when it comes to prepping for the defense. First, constant communication with your committee. Provide them with copies of the complete dissertation a month before the defense. Follow this up with emails or face to face meetings in order to get each instructor’s reaction to your dissertation. 

Second, Perlmutter’s advice is: “Know your material cold.” Apparently, it is not uncommon for graduate students to walk into their defense and completely blank out. You may know one section better than another, or you may have forgotten some content because it was written a long time ago. Make the time to re-read your own dissertation in its entirety before you step into your defense. 

Third, remember what you learned in your undergraduate communications class – speak clearly, precisely, and provide handouts. Consult with your director and make sure that you know how much time you will have for the defense. Do NOT read from your dissertation. Rehearse. And if you are going to be using technology during your defense, make sure that you have a back-up plan in case the tech does not work the day of your defense. 

Always remember: Defend your work, but do not become defensive about your work. 

Part 3 addresses the post-defense stage. Recall that you will receive one of two responses from your committee – Pass or Fail. If you pass your dissertation defense, you will receive one of two marks on your results form:  Pass: The Thesis/Dissertation Requires No Further Review By The Committee or Chair OR Pass: The Thesis/Dissertation Requires Revisions or Corrections Which Must Be Reviewed.

Perlmutter indicates that this latter response is more likely. Remember, there is no such thing as a perfect dissertation; therefore, do not freak out if your committee asks for additional revisions after the defense.

The article advises that you take detailed notes when receiving feedback from your committee. Make sure that you create an itemized list (if necessary) of changes that need to be made to your dissertation. Afterwards, be sure that the entire committee concurs with the needed revisions. Remember that even after you make these final changes, you will need to show another clean draft of your dissertation to your committee. The question you need to ascertain is: will it be acceptable if you only deal with your director when updating your dissertation? Or do you need to work with each member of the committee individually? 

Most importantly: Do not leave your committee without getting a due date for the final draft of your dissertation. Many jobs will expect you to have finished your dissertation prior to starting your employment. If you are still revising your dissertation as you start your new job, it will be possible for you to fall behind in revising your dissertation as you prioritize projects required at your new job.

One final note: I want to remind NIU graduate students that it is still possible that after you revise your dissertation/thesis for your committee, your document may need further alterations to ensure that your work has been formatted according to publication standards as outlined on the NIU Thesis and Dissertation Office website. If any of the content on our website is unclear of if you have any questions about writing, formatting, or editing your dissertation/thesis, please feel free to contact us or speak with the director of your committee. 

The message that I took from each of the three parts was this: Finish the dissertation. Just finish. That is the hardest part. Finish!

I found Perlmutter's articles to be insightful, easy to read, and they helped me realize that my own situation as a graduate student is not all that different from his own and many others. While Perlmutter's articles focus on doctoral student experiences, I highly recommend master's and doctoral students read each of these articles. Links to the three part series are provided below.

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to post them to the blog or on our Facebook page.
Part 1 (click here)

Part 2 (click here)

Part 3 (click here)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Reviews of Guidebooks on the Topic of Oral Defense

Today, I’d like to follow up on our last post, “The Defense Rests.” After reading Mike’s July 9 post, I felt better about the oral defense that many of us will face (or have faced). Yet I was left with a question: Mike mentioned that all committee members of the defense he observed had paper copies of the student’s dissertation. Since our office only requires students to bring one paper copy to Adams Hall Room 223 (three weeks in advance of oral defense date for the “outside” reader), were the paper copies Mike noted provided to the committee by the defending student? I would guess “yes,” but I also started wondering, what other preparatory tasks exist that we "defenders" might wish to know about?

To find out, I did some research. Below, I’ve summarized what a few of the books we keep around The Thesis Office say on the matter of the oral defense. *Note: most of what follows applies for doctoral students--unless your master's thesis requires an oral defense.

Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing by R. Murray Thomas and Dale L. Brubaker (Bergin & Garvey, 2000 ). 

This book is geared towards students in the “social and behavioral sciences” (Preface), but its chapter on the oral defense could help any presenter. The authors devote 7 of 277 pages to the defense, which may sound short but is actually one of the longer treatments. Thomas and Brubaker begin by pointing out that the oral defense is usually the “penultimate” (257) step to graduation, mentioning that students might still have revisions after the defense, as Mike also explains in his post. The book then delineates “7 cases of concern” for defenders, including issues of study validity and significance; candidates' and advisors’ roles; objections; “committee member debates”; and “inadequate proofreading” (Thomas and Brubaker 257).

The authors then go through each of the above topics in Q&A format, mimicking how an advisor would respond to student questions. The following points sum up the chapter:

              ·  2 and 1/2 pages devoted to validity issues, aimed for defense of qualitative studies
              ·  Preparation for the question, “What does it mean?”
o   offer your take on the different types of “meaning”
o   state which applies to your study (260)
              · Preparation for other situations, including the “intrusive advisor” (261)
o   don’t worry if committee members seem inattentive
o   keep quiet when committee members debate
o   generally, “answer … questions precisely and concisely, and then STOP” (263)

Finally, the authors mention that many students don’t believe that “spelling, grammar, and format” are of main concern, but they note that faculty members are in the “business” of “fostering responsible scholarship” (Thomas and Brubaker 263). The authors caution students to proofread thoroughly before the oral defense to avoid additional revisions.

Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process by Kjell Erik Rudestam and Rae. R. Newton (3rd ed., Sage Publications, Inc., 2007

Another book for graduate students in the social sciences--this one has a positive feel with several examples of tables and figures for students. However, Rudestam and Newton devote only about 2 and 1/2 pages to “Dissertation Orals” (218). They frame the experience as a range from a “congenial ritual … to a more excruciating examination … by an unsympathetic faculty committee” (218). But Rudestam and Newton say, “You can make a number of reasonable preparations to make the experience a positive one” (218).

         Their biggest advice: 1) Know your study and 2) Take control

For example, Rudestam and Newton describe a candidate who arrived at her defense early, rearranged the furniture to her liking, and greeted the committee members as they arrived, as if she “had invited them to an event she was hosting” (219). The book then describes the typical oral defense format, which matches Mike’s experience fairly closely. The authors mention a possible “let down” after the event but hope students will view the defense as a “transformative experience” (Rudestam and Newton 220).

         The Portable Dissertation Advisor by Miles T. Bryant (Corwin Press, 2004

Bryant takes a “pragmatic” (xi) approach in this text, gleaned from his years of working with graduate students. He aims his book more towards the part time or “nontraditional” doctoral student (ix). He, too, devotes approximately 2 and 1/2 pages (of 150) specifically to the defense.

Bryant’s defense section starts with an Oscar Wilde quote:

          “The play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster.” 

Funny guy, that Oscar Wilde. And good choice of opening for Bryant because this quotation encapsulates the scary vibe of oral defenses: the audience, i.e., your committee; how will they be?

However, Bryant reassures that the majority of defenders pass, and here are his main pieces of advice:
o   Have a “plausible answer for every question asked” (140)
o   Speak with confidence and clarity

Bryant then mentions scheduling and room arrangement issues (may or may not be student’s responsibility) as well as reminds to set up and check technology ahead of time. Done! 

Finally, we have another book called Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation by Sonja K. Foss and William Waters (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007 ). This is one of my favorite dissertation guides, and its chapter on the oral defense is like a 14-page How-to (book has 359 total pages). As this post is quite long already, I'll just note that the authors confirm most of what I’ve already reported and what Mike found in his experience, but they also give several example responses, and they list several ways to work with your main advisor and practice for the event. If you want a one-stop source of advice (albeit one that's a little wordy), I’d suggest that you check out this guide. 

Anyone have other helpful remarks? Please feel free to comment!