Friday, October 13, 2017

Video Tutorials Are Here!

You'll find a new page at our Thesis and Dissertation Office website: Video Tutorials!  Robyn and Fred spent the summer designing step-by-step guides to some of the most frequently used Microsoft Word tools for theses. Here, you'll find videos on:
  • Page Numbering: Proper pagination (creating page numbers and hiding page numbers) in your document
  • Leader Dots: Creating rows of leader dots (......) to build a professional-looking Table of Contents and other tables
  • COMING SOON, Landscape Pages: Working with landscape pages to accommodate your tables and figures

Don't get as frustrated as Fred! Watch our videos!
We use on-screen help plus live video of real people (us!) to guide you through every step of these processes. Watch the videos at full speed, slow them down, or watch as many times as you need to in order to learn the processes. Also, we have carefully captioned each one so you can watch without sound. We chose the videos we made based on what we've seen come through the office -- page numbers out of control, margins obliterated by big tables, and Tables of Contents with MS Word weirdness everywhere. When we see these problems, we sometimes have to tell a student the last thing he wants to hear: "We need to start from scratch." With these videos, we're trying to nip bad formatting in the bud. 

Fred's award for his blockbuster,
"Page Numbering"
We try to have a sense of humor to help lighten up what can be a boring and lengthy process. We don't love formatting either, but we'll help you learn to like it just a little better!  As one of our recent graduates said after spending weeks formatting his dissertation, "I should get a degree just for that!"

So before you throw the laptop out the window, avail yourself of these new videos. And if that doesn't work... come see us! We'll be glad to help in person, too. (No autographs, please.)


Friday, September 29, 2017

Brown Bag Recap: Committee Relations


Committee Relations.  It’s a topic of great importance to grad students, and one that covers a lot of ground.  Last week in our office—on Wednesday, September 20, to be precise—we held a Brown Bag discussion on various issues that come up when working with a director (or, as some say, advisor) and committee members on a thesis or dissertation project.  Below we share some of the big takeaways.

Committee Formation

The Grad School has certain requirements concerning who can serve on a thesis or dissertation committee.  We talked about these requirements and noted you can find plenty of information on composition of committees and other facets of completing your degree via the Grad School website.  But we really wanted to talk about the process of choosing committee members, especially a director, that is, someone to chair the committee.  We noted that the form you need to submit once you line up either a thesis director or dissertation director helps to contextualize the situation.  But how to approach a professor about all this?  While running through various scenarios, both clever and clumsy, we noted that sometimes a professor will approach the grad student about working together on a project.  In any case, we firmly agreed on this: keeping in touch with faculty whose work you admire and/or whose courses you’ve taken and found especially relevant or inspiring is especially important as you progress through your first semester or year in your program.  We also agreed that once you have a director lined up, a good procedure for filling out the rest of the committee—if you’re unsure about this part of the process, which can also be tricky—is to ask your director for suggestions.  In the case of at least one participant in our discussion, the director was very glad to help with this important matter.

Working Together

Once everyone is on board, then of course you have to move forward, together.  Some tips for working with your committee members that we found especially useful:

* Plainly and simply, make a schedule.  That is, a semester-long schedule for you and your committee.  Think of it like a course syllabus.  Plan dates for completing drafts, submitting drafts, and meeting with members in the same way you would when sequencing assignments over a semester.  Distribute the schedule to your committee at the start of the term and ask if they have questions.   We considered making such a schedule to be a constructive way to help initiate and keep communication lines open with committee members at different stages of the project.  Another reason for a semester-long plan: many of us, in the course of the big endeavor, end up needing to make changes to the overall schedule of completion as outlined in the proposal.  A shorter schedule can take such changes into account and inform all committee members about them clearly.

* Send updates to your committee.  Think of these as progress reports for the benefit of all involved.  Praise yourself and your committee for work you’ve already completed.  “Look how far we’ve come,” or effusive comments of that sort, can pepper emails and/or face-to-face meetings.  We noted that by sending updates, you can also reassert your role as one of the principal actors moving the project forward.

* Use “I…” statements when corresponding/communicating about submitted work.  Such statements contrast with the all-too-easy hedging questions you might already be using with members such as “Can you please see about possibly responding to this draft within, say, a few weeks or so?” or even the slightly more direct “Please respond at your convenience.”  Better results are likely when you politely state your needs.  For example, “Our schedule has me starting on this next chapter next week, so I need your feedback on the last draft on. . . .”  You get the idea. 

What if…?

The last phase of our discussion on committee relations touched on some of the things that can go right but centered on things that can possibly go wrong.  Let’s say, for example, you need to make a change to your committee—the main thing we thought of in terms of things going wrong.  Sometimes a member leaves to take a position elsewhere, must bow out for personal reasons, or for other reasons turns out to be not quite working out.  What to do?  Our biggest takeaway here: tread lightly but firmly.  The Grad School does have procedures in place for working through committee changes and has form to use if needed for a thesis or a doctoral committee change.  We also noted that a committee change usually won’t happen all of a sudden.  Likely a series of events, signals, or impressions will lead up to it.  In the end, we reemphasized the importance of keeping lines of communication open between you and all committee members.

Final Thoughts

We have a few more Brown Bags scheduled this fall—one of them planned just for faculty and staff.  We also have more formal presentations and workshops happening over the next two weeks.  Check out the details in our previous blog entry.  Email us for more information or to sign up.  We look forward to meeting you and helping you finish your project with flourish.  Now: take a few minutes away from reading, writing, or revising…and wish your committee members a happy fall!

 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Announcing Our Fall Programs

Adams Hall, home of the Graduate School
and the Thesis and Dissertation Office.
Welcome to fall 2017!  In September and October the Thesis Office will once again offer brown bag sessions, presentations, and workshops for NIU grad students at various stages of the thesis or dissertation process. Some brown bag sessions are also open to faculty, and one is geared for faculty and staff.  We look forward to seeing you!

Basics
Brown bags will start in the second week of September and meet Wednesdays from 12 to 1 p.m. in Adams Hall, Room 103.  Presentations and workshops will start in the last week of September, and most will will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. in the same Adams Hall location on a Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday.  Note that two presentations meet at different times, locations, and/or days.  For details on each program, see below.  

Registration
No registration required for brown bags.  Registration is required for a presentation or workshop.  Register via email at thesis@niu.edu.  Include the name of the presentation or workshop you want to attend in the subject line or message.  We do have space limitations for events in Adams 103 (12 seats maximum).  Register early!

What to Expect
Plenty of important information regarding completion of your graduate degree.  After running these programs over several semesters, we’ve learned that most students who attend presentations and workshops are blown away by how much they didn’t fully know about meeting various deadlines, submitting the proper paperwork to the proper place, or formatting the long document.  At all our events, expect thorough coverage of common concerns as well as time to address individual questions.

Brown Bag Sessions 
Breaking Through Writer’s Block (and Other Obstacles)
Wednesday, September 13 (12 to 1 p.m. in Adams Hall, Room 103)
Informal discussion on common obstacles that slow or entirely halt progress on one’s thesis or dissertation.  Carolyn Law, Thesis/Dissertation Advisor, will facilitate the discussion and offer practical strategies.  Students only, please.

Committee Relations
Wednesday, September 20 (12 to 1 p.m. in Adams Hall, Room 103)
Informal discussion on choosing committee members, creating productive working relationships with them, maintaining good communications, and managing feedback throughout the process.  Graduate School policies regarding committees will be reviewed.  Faculty and students welcome.

Robyn Byrd leading a brown bag discussion
in Adams 103.
Writing the Proposal
Wednesday, September 27 (12 to 1 p.m. in Adams Hall,
Room 103)
Discussion will address typical characteristics of any strong thesis or dissertation proposal (sometimes called a prospectus) as well as aspects unique to proposals in various disciplines.  Faculty and students welcome.

The Balancing Act: A Life in Grad School
Wednesday, October 4 (12 to 1 p.m. in Adams Hall,
Room 103)
Informal discussion on the complexities of managing life as a graduate student, balancing family responsibilities, personal health, outside work, and the pressures of a dissertation or thesis.  Session will be facilitated by Thesis Office GA Robyn Byrd, doctoral candidate and mother of two.  Students only, please.

Faculty Q & A
Wednesday, October 11 (12 to 1 p.m. in Adams Hall, Room 103)
(Grad students, you might want to bring this one to the attention of your director or other faculty members in your department.)  Carolyn Law, Thesis/Dissertation Advisor, will introduce the functions and services of the Thesis Office and answer questions about Graduate School requirements and standards for theses and dissertations.  Faculty who are directing a thesis or dissertation at NIU for the first time are especially encouraged to attend, but all faculty and staff are welcome.

Presentations
Carolyn Law presenting on the submission process in Wirtz Hall.
Demystifying the Submission Process
Tuesday, September 26 (5 to 7 p.m. in Wirtz Hall, Room 104)
This presentation is for students preparing to submit a thesis or dissertation to the Graduate School for December 2017 graduation.  Carolyn Law, Thesis/Dissertation Advisor, will walk students through the steps of the process: defense, electronic submission, and final approval.

Dissertation Essentials
Monday, October 2 (2 to 4 p.m. in Adams Hall, Room 103)
Designed for all doctoral students enrolled in 799 in any department.  Staff will walk students through the Graduate School’s specific requirements for dissertations and cover a wide range of the most troublesome issues dissertation writers frequently encounter.

Thesis Essentials
Tuesday, October 3 (2 to 4 p.m. in Adams Hall, Room 103)
Designed for all master’s students enrolled in 699 in any department.  Staff will walk students through the Graduate School’s specific requirements for theses and cover a wide range of the most troublesome issues thesis writers frequently encounter.

Writing a Thesis in Engineering
Thursday, October 5 (2 to 4 p.m. in Adams Hall, Room 103)
Designed specifically for thesis writers enrolled in thesis-credit hours in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.  Staff will walk students through the Graduate School’s specific requirements for theses and cover a range of issues that students in engineering fields often find troublesome.

NIU Naperville, venue for Writing a Dissertation in Education.
Writing a Dissertation in Education
Saturday, October 14 (9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at NIU Naperville, Room 119)
This one-day program at NIU Naperville is designed specifically for dissertation writers enrolled in 799 in the College of Education.  Staff will walk students through the Graduate School’s specific requirements for dissertations and cover a wide range of the most troublesome issues dissertation writers in education frequently encounter.

Workshops
Tables/Figures/Pagination
Tuesday, October 10 (2 to 4 p.m. in Adams Hall, Room 103)
This hands-on workshop is designed to help writers comply with the Graduate School’s requirements for tables, figures, and pagination.  Students should bring their work in progress on their own laptops.  Staff will cover the specific format requirements, demonstrate helpful techniques and short-cuts in Microsoft Word, and allow generous time for individual troubleshooting and one-on-one consultation.

ASME Documentation
Thursday, October 12 (2 to 4 p.m. in Adams Hall, Room 103)
This hand-on workshop will teach the documentation style of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, known as ASME journal style.  Using real-word examples, students will apply the principles in real time to their own writing.  ASME journal style is ideal for research documentation in all departments of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.


Friday, August 18, 2017

Professional Development for NIU Grad Students


It's a buzz-phrase you might see a lot in department emails, on university and corporate websites... and The Graduate School at NIU is no exception.  They are riding that "Professional Development" train!

I want to talk about some ways to professionalize yourself, i.e. gain work experience, while you're here -- some of these opportunities are through the Graduate School, and some are within your own department. (In all likelihood, your department is riding that train too.)

Graduate School Programs and Resources

So many programs!
The Graduate School at NIU has recently increased their offerings for professional development programs, including mentorships, workshops for teaching assistants, internship opportunities, and assistance with developing a teaching portfolio. Their goal was to centralize your professional development experience by using Grad School tools to track progress and find resources. Their redesigned home page has a "Professional Development" drop-down menu, under which you can find links to workshops and programs. Here are a couple important ones you should look into:

Individual Development Plan
An individual development plan can address your specific goals for graduate study. For those studying in healthcare, an IDP is mandatory.  But anyone can create one! The plans helps you bring together all your own programs, workshops, and degree progress, to get a sense of what your strengths are and what else you need to do before you leave us. Attend a workshop to see if an IDP is right for you.

Future Professoriate Program
According to the Grad School:

"The Future Professoriate Program was designed for two purposes:
  1. To recognize the efforts of doctoral students who prepared to enter the professoriate.
  2. To supplement on-going training and mentoring efforts."
Doctoral students with any kind of assitantship are eligible. You must attend workshops and work with a teaching mentor, and the program earns you a Certificate in College Teaching. The program provides excellent support for teachers in training, especially for those whose departments might not be as involved with their TAs. (You likely won't find a long-term teaching mentor in the department! Why not sign up for one who is dedicated to you?)

Workshops
Numerous workshops are going on at the Grad School, every week. Learn about ethical research, how to work with a mentor, how to do lunch with professionals, and even how the heck to write a dissertation. Some workshops are formal while others are discussion based. There is even a suite of research workshops that will grant you a certificate in Research Integrity. (And some of them offer free pizza. Always a necessity.)

Thesis and Dissertation Support
The Thesis and Dissertation Office (that's us!) should be your go-to for thesis and dissertation support. While we may refer you to an admin or to someone in your department, we know who gets what done. And we are staffed by graduate students who are currently writing dissertations!  We offer a unique peer perspective that administrators cannot, when it comes to everything from cutting through red tape, getting the writing done, and navigating the thesis/life balance. What's that got to do with professionalization? We are the last stop on the way to your degree, and we are the ones who will help you produce that final document, and make it look awesome.

Departmental Development Programs

While the Grad School has a noble goal (and a sound program) for devloping NIU's future innovators and teachers, don't forget that specialized career development is important too. What does professional development for a graduate student look like within the department? Well, it has to be cobbled together dependent on availability of opportunities, and on department resources. It can range from being a humble participant, to being in charge of something bigger than yourself.

For me it looked like this:

  • Attending and presenting at conferences on literature (my subject), and on pedagogy.
  • Attending and presenting at my department's "First Fridays," where we shared lesson plans and classroom ideas.
  • Co-Chairing (organizing, planning, choosing presenters) MCLLM 2014, the NIU English department's annual international conference.
  • Being a GA "junior" committee member running the 2014 International Virginia Wolf conference.
  • Mentoring new TAs.
  • Producing artwork and graphics for conference literature and department book covers.
  • Serving two years on the First-Year Composition Committee and the assessment sub-committee.
  • Editing and publishing two editions of Y1 Writes: A Journal of First-Year Composition Essays  (after being editorial staff for a year prior)
  • Teaching, teaching, teaching! (Here as a TA, elsewhere as an adjunct, doing summer camps...)
This list may seem Herculean, but I've been here six years. You can see that much of my professionalization happened within my department. However, the activities I did were quite varied in nature: publishing, assessing (the behind the scenes of university outcomes, metrics, etc!), creative services, and more. And of course, teaching. You should absolutely teach or run a lab, if that's at all possible for your GA duties. The best way to make sure you know how to do something is to teach someone else how to do it. 

A final note: 

MA students: The Graduate School's programs are well-supported and goal-oriented. If you only have two years here, lean on the Grad School for your professionalization, and dabble in the department. Your career goals are likely non-university, and being professionalized is probably more important to get to within those two years! 

PhD students: If you are doing a dissertation, you have plenty of time here (trust me... you have plenty of time). Look into what Grad School professionalization programs work best for you -- especially the Future Professoriate Program --  but lean on your department for opportunities and guidance. If you are sticking with academics and researchers, the department is where to find them and learn to be among them.

Go get professionalized!
Me teaching a poetry lesson.
After six years, no classroom fears!





Friday, August 4, 2017

Writing Services Ahead: Proceed with Caution


“I’m thinking of hiring a writing service.”  Imagine hearing those words from a fellow grad student who’s highly stressed about their thesis or dissertation.  “Riding service?” you ask.  Then you quickly realize your colleague isn’t talking about Lyft or Uber.

Actually, the service in question is likely a person or business that offers—for a price—various types and levels of help with a writing project’s potentially stressful components: planning, revising, editing, proofreading, or formatting sections of the document.  But then there are shady services that even offer to “help” with the writing by employing ghost writers to compose texts for paying clients.  That’s taboo!  Submitting academic work as one’s own when that work was actually made (entirely or in parts) by someone else is unacceptable.  Words to the wise: if you’re thinking of paying for help with aspects of your writing project, beware of so-called writing services.  (But, in some cases, you might want to consider working with an editing service.)  If you wonder why we pass these words along, take a look through the comments sections at the ends of our blog posts.    

Writing Services Galore

We’re well aware that numerous paid writing firms exist because posts to this blog regularly attract brief comments with dubious hyperlinks to a wide range of such services.  Consider the murky details behind comments received over the past two months:

- On July 15, in response to our July 7 post about ProQuest blogs, a few bits of generic praise came our way from someone at an eerily sparse blog.  A hyperlink in the comment leads to the sketchy homepage of a UK-based company that entices the visitor to enter personal data and information about a writing project in order to receive an estimate on how much it will cost to have the firm do the work.  Not wanted!

- On July 5, in response to our June 16 post about services for international grad students at NIU, we received another short bromide, this time from someone whose “name” is a link to site featuring a disturbingly glowing review of an online firm that offers academic ghost writers for hire.  We’re not interested!

- On June 19, in response to our June 2 post about taking writing outside, someone sent nice feedback with direct references to topics we wrote about.  But then the letdown: the comment has no author’s name but is instead represented by a link to a website in Australia offering essays for sale.  We want nothing to do with such sites!

- Finally, on July 21, in response to our May 19 post about facing the fear of the blank page, we received a positive comment from someone appearing to represent another essay-writing service.  But this time, the attached link doesn’t lead to such a business but instead, oddly, to a 2015 article at The Huffington Post about the increase of undergraduate and graduate students paying to have papers written for them.  The article points to an alarming trend.

At Project Thesis NIU, we don’t endorse paid writing services.  When doing routine blog maintenance, we eventually delete comments with hyperlinks to such services.  In the past we’ve been inclined to let a comment with a suspect link stay as long as wording in the comment is remotely related to ideas we write about in a post.  But now, after digging deeper into the above recent comments, we plan to delete anything associated with a writing service.

Editing Services: Wheat from the Chaff

Aside from essay mills, many places offer student writers ethical and professional editorial assistance.  Fee-based editing services tend not to publicize through brief comments to our blog posts.  But they sometimes approach us.  Several months ago, for instance, our office received a promotional piece in the mail from Editors for Students, a Minneapolis firm that specializes in academic editing, proofreading, and formatting.  On their website, they mention that they have connections to academic institutions and are “committed to working within the legitimate boundaries of academic honesty.”  Perhaps worth a look, if you’re interested in paying someone to review a draft.  In addition, note that our office maintains a List of Freelance Formatters and Editors who work in the DeKalb area and who are equipped to assist thesis and dissertation writers with NIU Graduate School guidelines.  We can confidently refer these local freelancers to writers whose documents may need extensive help with matters of grammar and punctuation in addition to things like formatting of tables, figures, page numbers, citations, or end references.

Free NIU Services

Also remember that NIU student writers can get constructive help with no extra fees attached.  The University Writing Center is a free consultation service for students at all levels.  We’ve heard that most of their clients in recent years have been grad students.  Finally, come see us in the Thesis and Dissertation Office!  We provide free editorial assistance and expert help on formatting your important document.  We’ll be happy to hear from you.

Images Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 21, 2017

Working through Summer

That one time I rode 70 miles RT to NIU
and back, because I didn't have a car.
I coulda gotten a ride, but what fun is that?
Nothing else going on in summer...
On weekends when my kids were with their dad, I'd ride my bike up to the boat ramp and meet a friend who taught kayaking classes. I was the sweep, the person who kept everyone together and made sure they weren't upside-down. I could even rescue them if I had to. (Though none of them ever believed me when I told them this. I'm short and 115 lbs.) All those weekends behind the paddle earned me huge arms and dark shoulders, and about $40 a class. Not enough to pay the bills, but enough to have a taco afterward. The waitresses knew I'd sit outside, stinking from the river as I was. And maybe after that I could ride the bike to get bread and milk ALDI.

This doesn't sound like the work life of someone with a master's degree. But it was. In the six summers since I began that degree, and now the doctorate, I've kayaked, waited tables, sung in a band, taught little kids to read, lifted boxes at a home improvement store, wrote product descriptions, designed industrial soap bottle labels, and tutored high school kids in creative writing for extra cash. Actually, for ALL the cash. There was no other cash in the summer, except for the coins I'd collect in a coffee can, and the occasional fifty my dad would mail me to put gas in the car. And sometimes, there was no car.

As a graduate assistant at a state school, most of us don't get paid for about 3 1/2 months in the summer. And neither do most adjunct professors, anywhere. With most contingent academic contracts, the pay runs through the academic year. Every May 15, my stipend would dry up, and my adjunct paycheck would stop coming. And then the work stopped too. People stopped depending on me. Kids stopped accidentally calling me "professor." It hurt.

One may think, "Well now you are freed up to get another job!" But it's not that simple. Losing the academic and teaching work hurts some of us just as much as losing the money. I want to discuss a few things about "working through summer," give my two cents as a veteran grad assistant, and solicit ideas from you.

I think of summer as three things at work:
That was no fun, that job.

Working for Money: Maintaining your income (or at least part of it) is tricky, and finding a job that fits is even trickier. I did not tell Menard's that I had a master's degree. I will not put teaching kayaking or even teaching little kids to read on my resume. So, should I do something that I can add to my C.V., like try to teach college summer school? Should I suck it up and put my little self to work in a warehouse and sock away normal workin'-(wo)man wages all summer? Or should I rest, and live out of the coffee can? The best summers I've had have been spent resting, with intermittent work.

As you put some summers under your belt, there will be more and more opportunities for summer work, and even assistantships that span the year, or are summer GA gigs. Stay informed about opportunities on your campus. Ask your Graduate Director, and read the email newsletters. I am now, after all those miserable summers, on a 12-month contract thanks to a recommendation from the former Grad Director! (It doesn't make up for lost adjunct work though...the coin can abides.)

Working on Scholarship: The summertime blues are further complicated if you are writing a thesis or dissertation. You HAVE to keep working on the school stuff all summer. Even if two-thirds of your committee is away in another country for two months (my actual current dilemma!). The library is not open late like it usually is. You are not on campus all the time, surrounded by other working students, your advisors, and the general productive buzz of the university. You lose touch with your tribe. It is easy to get out of every good habit that your work and social environment gives you.

But you HAVE to keep at it. The whiteboard is my summer friend. I list everything I need to do, every day. (I make schedules on paper for the bigger picture.) Use methods like Pomodoro or "5 minutes a day" to ensure even the tiniest steps are being taken toward your goals.  This is a lonely, lonely time in the writing of the dissertation or thesis. Exercise, connect, read, or do whatever you need to to keep yourself grounded and healthy. But keep at it. You can pick up with advisors in the fall, and they will be happy you have something to share. Unlike with coursework and teaching work, professors (and the university) do expect you to be at work on the thesis or dissertation year-round. This is so hard, I know. But don't forget about it in your struggle to keep food on the table and keep the kids in pool passes.

Three summers ago, this is
literally what my coin jar was for.
Working on Yourself -- the Professional Identity Crisis:
I have a few colleagues of quality who do not experience this, and who are happy to "live out of the can" and rest for a long spell. That seems like the sane thing to do! But many of us grad students are driven in a way that can't be powered down. It's a blessing during the school year, and a curse during breaks. Personally, when I lose my titles (instructor, "professor," committee member, etc.), I lose a little bit of myself. I wear cut-offs around town and quick-dry shorts to kayak and no one addresses me with anything like deference. I become a nobody, and a poor nobody. Taking demeaning jobs, as I sometimes have, only reinforces this. If I had the pay or the position I might be happy to lounge around and dress like a slob for awhile. Who cares what anyone thinks? But when you are still crossing the impostor syndrome threshold, have $7 in your bank account, and realize that it's your former student putting milk and eggs in your cart at the food pantry (that happened), life is hard. And you're not sure where you fit. Don't forget that this is only temporary. You are working through summer for a very good reason.

In conclusion

I will make it through, like so many of my colleagues before me. And you can too! I'm looking at a May 2019 graduation with a Ph. D. (It will take me a year longer than it will take most of my cohort. I'm the only one with kids, and that's my standing excuse.) That means I have less than a summer and a half remaining of squeezing by, wallowing in existential crisis, rolling coins, and forcing myself to work alone.  As painful as it has been to work through all these summers, now that I can see the end of it coming, I know it will all be worth it. I already have great memories of pool time with the kids (paid for in sweaty cash), bike rides to the ice cream shop, and my daughter's August birthday parties. Look at that! I'm already forgetting the terrible jobs and summer insecurities.

Now if I can just make it till Tuesday when I get paid for my band's last gig...

To misquote T.S. Eliot: August is the cruellest month. Let's survive it, let's work through it, and let's all look forward to September's welcome return.

How do you work through summer?

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.
.
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

Composing al fresco, Shabbona Lake State Park

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

Friday, March 24, 2017

Doing Grad School with Kids

One afternoon as I stood outside the elementary school, waiting for the doors to open and pour out little screaming humans (including my then second-grader), I overheard two Midwestern moms in active-wear talking about a mutual friend.

"Did you know she's going back to school? I mean, GREEAAD school!"

"Really? She's gonna be so busy, oh my gosh. That's just too much, GREEAAD school, with kids and a house..."

"Yeah I think it's just selfish to go to GREEAAD school like that. I mean, she's got her bachelor's why not just stay where you're at..."

I was in my second year of "GREEAAD school," and in addition to the stinker I was waiting for at the elementary school, I had a toddler at home.  Their words didn't hurt me, but they made me chuckle a bit. While graduate study isn't for everyone, who are these judging women to assume their friend isn't an awesome person who can handle the "triple burden" of school, work, and home?  If I can do it, other women can too. They were selling even themselves short, I thought.  (Maybe they just really loved staying all day in yoga pants that much, I thought snidely.)

So what do we do, as parents in graduate school, to keep ourselves emotionally afloat? And conversely, how do we know we're doing what's right for our kids? Support and understanding is probably thin on the ground, whether you live in the affluent suburbs where success = $, or in a crowded city (or empty rural area) where people are just struggling to get by and don't care to make head or tails of what strange thing it is you do at the Local University. Even seeking out other students like us is hard. I've met a few couples and single parents at the school I attend, but just having kids is not a guarantee that you will have anything else in common to talk about.

I argue that we look to the source of our seeming "burden" for some relief: look to your children. 

Early Childhood: The smallest children can understand that you are in school, that you are smart, and that you are atypical. They may even cutely brag about you to their classmates. (Once I brought my son to class with me and he told all my students how smart I am. He was only 7, so he got away with it.) It's an early model for doing what you love, and working independently. Since early childhood, my son and daughter have never doubted that they can achieve what they set their minds to, or that mothers can have important careers.

Middle Childhood: Going to school brings them the ability to share in what you study! You can enrich their school experience by sharing what you know with them. My son always impresses his teachers by his background knowledge. Having grown up with a mother who does school for a living, he knows a thing or two.  (Since he could talk, I have answered honestly, and in as much detail as was appropriate, every question he asked me. I've been told I'll spoil his imagination! Baloney.)

And here's the best part: School-aged children can also start helping around the house, not only because they should anyway, but because you have enlisted them in your campaign! The family is going to benefit from your degree. They can contribute to you getting it done, whether it's by loading the dishwasher or playing quietly on Saturday mornings. You can all earn that degree together.

Adolescence: Tween intelligence and attitudes bring a whole new level of give-and-take into your relationship with your children. Children this age need to be reminded that you are spending so much time on your schoolwork because it will make you better. If it makes you better, it makes the whole family better.  With their growing sense of self, they should be able to understand why they don't always come first. Raising independent kids is important if you plan to have an intense career life and to have a life of the mind. And they will thank you for it. My son still proudly tells people what I do (though bragging wouldn't be cute from a 12-year-old), even if he can't remember exactly what I study.

Teens: If you are in grad school with teens, you probably have not been in grad school their whole life. They may have to get used to it. I don't have a teen (yet) so I can't comment. I will be done before then. :P  But what I have said about balance, independence, and team effort still applies.

2010: Holding my Bachelor's degree,
while 7 months pregnant with kid #2.
There is a myth that children will resent parents for "neglecting" them for other pursuits. It's nonsense, and those moms I overheard were just perpetuating it. Doing what you need to do for yourself, and fitting that in with your family life is not neglect. It's balance. Your busy and interesting life will complement your child's own busy and interesting life. It will certainly not detract or distract from it.

So, if the university parent meet-ups and attempts to befriend non-student parents haven't worked out, turn to those who already know you, and whom you already have a lot in common with. You can't lay all of your problems on them, and you can't make them your confidantes.  But you can draw from their endless energy, contribute to their own lifelong learning, and go in as a family team to kick this degree's butt.  You will all come out very different from most of the people you know. But that is not a bad thing. This journey enriches all of our lives, and paves the way for our children's future successes.

Finally, a word about the advantages of doing grad school with kids. Many of us can point to our little imps as the impetus for doing school in the first place. And what made us want to do it for ourselves is that having kids makes us want to be the best people we can be!  I didn't really go "back to school" until my son was 9 months old. After five years of undergrad, three for an MA, and four more of PhD-ing... well, he's 12 now and he's never seen me do anything else. To stop now would be to abandon a goal as old as my first best creation (him). While, again, we can't rest our goals and fears on their little shoulders, we can certainly look to them as a major source of inspiration, a cornerstone that child-free grad students do not have the benefit of building upon.