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)

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