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)