Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Building Your Tribe (Again and Again)

If you're an average-aged grad student or older, you're a full fledged grown-up by now, whether you like it or not. Like me, you've probably realized that making friends as an adult is not like making friends as a young person. When we lose the easy friendships of our high school tribe, our college tribe, or even our bar-going, concert-going, or [insert any 20-something activity here] buddies, the road to a graduate degree can get lonesome. The sobriety of adulthood and of the graduate journey are two strikes against us as friend material.

What I've realized is that adults, especially in our line of work, need friends with common interests and similar goals. The exuberance of youthful friendships and the energy of their bodies and minds (and their staggering amount of free time) makes friendships of all kinds enjoyable and sustainable.  We can still have our old friendships. But as graduate students, we have a specific goal shared by a small percentage of the population. Not only that, our most passionate interests are only interesting to an even smaller, infinitesimal percentage of the population. It seems like we need to bust out the Venn Diagrams to figure out which of the people we know should still put up with us as friends!

The First Tribe: Get One!

When I say we need similar people in our lives, I don't mean vaguely similar. Like "We are both success oriented and outgoing!" similar. I mean SIMILAR. Like, "We both study the genome of a rare species of Bolivian rat!" similar. ...I'm kidding. But students in your department who share the same journey are the first place to look for camaraderie, if you are newly doing the grad thing. Attend lectures, talk to people after class, join a group, go out for drinks. At first it will be awkward. But we're all old enough not to care about being "cool"! So try really hard just to soak it all up. Be observant, and don't be competitive.  You are all in the same leaky boat.

In the English Department at NIU, we had a broad core of classes, no matter our focus, and I met many like-minded people. Among the TAs in particular, our shared experience of teaching composition to freshmen created a strong bond. (Working on campus and being a part of the department is priceless.) The coursework experience, and the combined experience of the first few years of teaching with people I also studied with, won me a new tribe. I can only hope that coursework and GA work is such a social boon for all early career grad students.

End of Coursework, End of Social Life?

That tribe disappears, all too soon. The MA students were gone in two years. I miss some of them a lot. PhD students who entered ahead of me, core members of my tribe, are off dissertating, locked away from social interruptions. Some have finished and moved far away.  I stopped driving to campus for the drink nights that used to be so easy to attend when they were right after class. Today, I have the solid support of my office, and the vague support of my family who have no idea what I'm doing. But I haven't much in the way of comrades. I feel like I'm writing all alone.

All I can say is don't let that happen. The involvement will diminish, but the time spent together is still important. At the stage of the thesis or dissertation we need so much more than commiseration and shop talk. We need support, strategies, hope, and human connection. We spend so much time with our research and our laptops. It's odd, really. But you know who won't think it's odd? The other people who do it.

Facebook groups (friend everyone!) are a great way to plan events and stay in touch, even when you hardly see each other in person anymore. Part of the reason I dropped out of the tribe was lack of transportation.  Well, I've got a new car! Writing this post has given me the urge to get back on social media and find some real-life social activities to do.

Other Ways to Connect

I know I just said you need grad student friends. But there are other kinds of specifically like-minded friends! That's my main thesis here --  we are not the best friend material right now.  So we should seek friendship that is as supportive as possible of our unique situations.

I have a social life outside of school, almost solely because I'm in rock bands. This is another way that I surround myself with people of very specific interests. Do you play? If not, you're probably not someone I see very often. It sounds bad, but we only have so much time, and we need to fill it with the right kinds of stimulation.  So in addition to your efforts on campus, finding a hobby and focusing on it can round out your social life better than aimless bar-going or online dating. Most of us can't turn our brains off, right?  So find something that stimulates a different part of it.  Art, geo-caching, gaming, hiking, whatever. A specific thing to share.

Someday We'll Be Normal (Sort of)

Someday we will finish our theses and dissertations. We can nurse neglected friendships, balance our lives out, and maybe even start eating real food again! I'm not arguing at all that high-achievers have no use for broader social circles and diversity among their friends. I'm just saying that right now, you need grad school friends. And the best way to find the ones who will help you along your journey is to simply look around at your fellow travelers.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Thesis and the Dissertation: Peas in a Pod

We call the document for the master’s degree a “thesis,” and the longer one for the doctorate a “dissertation,” and perhaps you wonder why.

Well, many thoughts on the nature of theses and dissertations have been buzzing through our office lately. Over the past four weeks, we held our fall slate of presentations, workshops, and brown-bag sessions for students working on one or the other kind of document. Several of our programs cover important details behind the Graduate School’s document-formatting requirements. When we look through these requirements closely, it becomes clear that they’re nearly identical for either a thesis or dissertation.

So, then, if the format looks nearly identical, what distinguishes the thesis from the dissertation? A glance at the histories of the two words makes for an interesting way to highlight some differences and similarities between these two important writing projects.

"How do I put it?"

Thesis writers, do you sometimes find yourself wondering how to put your ideas in writing while working on your project? If so, you're not only human (nearly all writers, at some point, wrestle with how to put thoughts on paper or screen) but also hinting at some of the history behind the word "thesis." Like many terms in academia, the words “thesis” and “dissertation” come to us from Greek through Latin. "Thesis" originally derives from the Indo-European root *dhe-, which had the meaning of ‘to set’ or ‘to put.’ The root later formed the central element in the Greek verb tithenai, meaning ‘to place, put, or set,’ as well as the noun thesis. In Latin, thesis referred to the unstressed and later the stressed syllables in a line of poetry. (Stress for thesis writers today is usually of a different nature!) In the English of the late 1500s, “thesis” began to refer to a statement to be proved through logic—in other words, a thesis statement. By the next century, the word’s meaning broadened to include what we in the twenty-first century think of when we speak of a master’s thesis--the formal document presented for the master’s degree.

Scholars at a lecture. Engraving by William Hogarth, 1736
"Contrary to what others have said, I argue that…"

Dissertators, when you explain your project, do you sometimes linger around that point where you need to arrange your thoughts to emphasize how your work stands apart from previous scholarship? Such efforts invoke something of the original spirit of the word "dissertation." It's rooted in the Latin verbs dissertare ‘to debate, argue, examine, harangue’ and disserere, a combination of dis- ‘apart’ and serere ‘to arrange.’ The etymology zeroes in on the general task doctoral candidates must carry out today: arrange an argument based on original evidence as well as on an examination of the surrounding scholarly debate, write it out clearly and convincingly at length, share it with the world, and live to tell about it. (Long sentence, longer ordeal!) The word began to refer to such a thing in the 1650s, around the same time "thesis" began to refer to a similar piece. According to the OED, the meaning of "dissertation" began to be restricted to the monograph produced for the doctorate in the 1930s.

Peas in a Pod

Thus, once established in academic circles, the terms "thesis" and "dissertation,” along with the documents they refer to, grew up alongside each other. No wonder, then, that their format requirements overlap and that we sometimes speak of these two types of documents in the same breath. But in addition to the etymological and historical hints at what these documents do, universities usually separate the two by degree and kind. The thesis is shorter and is a kind of knowledge display. The dissertation is longer and is a kind of original research and significant new contribution to a field.

Of course, the Graduate School also offers clear and succinct definitions for a thesis and a dissertation. Check them early and often. And you can always turn to us if you seek further information or guidance. We’re happy to help!

In case you missed one of our fall programs, note that we’ll be offering presentations, workshops, and brown bags once again at the start of the spring semester. In the meantime, we’re available through email, phone, or walk-in. And remember that our writing group for thesis and dissertation writers, Write Place/Write Time, meets on the second Thursday of every month from 6 to 9 p.m. in Founders Memorial Library (4th Floor East). Look for us there this coming Thursday, October 13. Happy writing!   

Source for the above images: Wikimedia Commons.