Friday, December 1, 2017

The Drive You Save May Be Your Own


From start to finish, the thesis or dissertation is an arduous journey fraught with highs and lows.  Along the way, many things require special care, including even the computer device(s) on which you save your important work.  For many writers, the principal means of storage is a USB flash drive.  Words to the wise (and reminders to the conscientious): flash drives are a convenient but by no means failsafe storage option.

Nothing Lasts Forever

If you’re like me, you devote much of your attention these days to drafting and revising your dissertation.  You depend on a flash drive to store your work as you go.  You rarely consider flash-drive wear and tear.  But you should.  Think of all the places such devices regularly visit: in between connections to various USB ports, they spend time in pockets or backpacks or on table surfaces alongside other objects large and small.  Drives that hang with keys on a keychain experience another broad assortment of surroundings.  Imagine the bumps and variations in temperature flash drives regularly encounter.  Note that such stresses can gradually weaken the connection between a drive’s plug and its body.
Inside a flash drive

This connection is partly mechanical, partly electrical.  It involves a short row of tiny lugs.  They’re soldered atop the surface of a small internal circuit board.

I became keenly aware of such technical details of the typical flash drive about two months ago when the plug on mine—a drive on which I had been saving enormous amounts of precious data—suddenly snapped off.  In one stroke, recent notes and chapter drafts became instantly inaccessible!  A mammoth tornado swept through Research Avenue and knocked down Dissertation Hall, the home I had been digitally building for over a year on the remarkably vulnerable grounds of a flash memory chip.

Flash Drive Fiasco Headed Your Way?

No, you’re safe.  Clearly you won’t suffer such a catastrophe if you always handle your flash drive with tender loving care and keep it in a special place when not using it.  Or if you regularly back up files on your drive to other storage media (in accordance with the First Law of Safe Computing).  And of course you’ll avoid flash-drive horrors if you never store files on such a device to begin with and instead save everything to your hard drive…and/or external backup drive…and/or the cloud.

Yes, you’re flirting with disaster.  Again, however, if you’re like me, much of your attention nowadays centers on revising and composing your big writing project.  When you’re in the thick of all that and moving from home to office to library and back, plans for a rigorous storage routine fade into the background.  You easily fall back on the familiar habit of quickly and simply saving to the flash drive (and often forget to make backups).  Actually, in the Thesis Office, we’re quite used to working with grad students well acquainted with this habit.  Those who stop by for help with editing or formatting typically bring their working drafts (and many other important files) on what appear to be well-used and fully-loaded flash drives.

Flash Drive Recovery

What can thesis or dissertation writers do if most or all of their saved writing vanishes when their flash drive snaps in two—or otherwise fails?

Closeup of my wreck, post recovery. 

In my case, after it quickly became clear that I myself wouldn’t be able to repair the damage, my first stop was a DeKalb computer shop.  For a small fee, the attendant there soldered the USB plug back onto the drive’s circuit board.  But no luck: now Windows wouldn’t recognize the drive!




Flip-side view.  So much data in one little chip.

Was all my data really gone forever?  He then calmly referred me to an out-of-state recovery service.  I soon learned that data recovery experts can fetch fees that range from the livable to the breathtakingly astronomical.

Eventually I located a different and more feasible service online.  (Details on such services are plentiful on Google.)




Preventative Measures

Save to the cloud.  This well-known and sound advice, noted above, is always worth repeating.  One way to integrate cloud storage into everyday flash-drive usage is to set it up to run automatically.  Look for shareware or software that enables automatic uploading of files from your USB to Dropbox, OneDrive, or other cloud storage services. (Several such options are easy to track down on Google.)

Make regular backups.  You’re likely familiar with ways to configure Windows to perform automatic backups of your computer’s hard drive.  Note that relatively inexpensive software programs exist that also enable you to back up data automatically from your USB drive to your hard drive.

Remove safely.  Obviously, you should be gentle when removing your flash drive from USB ports.  Never remove the drive while a file is being written (or copied) to it.  And despite any optimizations you may have set on a Windows machine for quick removal, always right-click Eject and wait until you see the window that says the device can be safely removed before you unplug it. 

Long Story Short

In the end, I was able to recover all data on my damaged flash drive, but not right away and not without considerable misery and embarrassment.  If you ever face such an exasperating (but largely preventable) dilemma, know that recovery is possible...but not always certain.  Scribe carefully.


Friday, November 10, 2017

The Collaborative Dissertation

Soooo many authors...
Yesterday, I completed the drudgery that is teaching undergraduates how to cite their references in APA format. As we went through all the little details, commas here, periods there, I found myself marveling at how many papers had multiple authors. I always knew this to be the case for papers in the sciences and social sciences, but as I wrote all those names and "et als" out on the board I thought, "Why are scientists expected to write their own solo dissertations? None of these people are writing alone!"

Writing the dissertation can be the loneliest time in an academic's life. In the case of the humanities, it actually does reflect much of the work we will do once we get a job someday (please, please, please...). But in the case of the hard and soft sciences, that isn't so. Researchers in the fields most often work in teams. The American Sociological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science both offer extensive articles and blog posts on collaborating. Everyone is doing it!

So it seems that no one person can or should handle all the moving parts of a major experiment, be it conducting gene therapy on mice, or surveying survivors of assault. Science and social science require objectivity. Placing an experimental project meant to add original material to scientific discourse -- dissertations must be original contributions -- into the hands of an amateur scientist (the doctoral student), no matter how brilliant, seems like a recipe for existential and experimental trouble. Results could be compromised and things could be overlooked or fall through the cracks, when a researcher has to plan it all, do it all, document it all, and write it all up.

More importantly, for the students' sake, placing such a weight on the individual is not indicative of, or good training for, collaborative work that they will eventually engage in. It does them a disservice to expect such a strangely isolated project of them, at a time in their lives when pressure is high, pay is low, and finishing the project is the only thing that lies between them and their career. Weathering this experience as a team, or even as a partnership, could make it far more bearable and fruitful.

Looking at tissue cultures is more
fun with friends!
This is not to say that every science dissertation writer is actually going it all alone. Certainly, collaborative research feeds into students' dissertations and into professors' papers all the time. But no one but the writer is given top billing. Usually, only one student gets the Ph.D. for that dissertation. And where does that leave the others who put long days and nights into the scientific work that created it? Should working on other students' doctoral research grant a junior grad student a master's degree? Or should senior students simply plan and execute the entire project together, as equals?

A search for collaborative dissertations comes up thin. They are catching on in education, where all kinds of collaboration are non-competitive, daily occurrences (give me that lesson plan, eh?). Collaborative dissertations are, according to a 2015 paper, a "disruption" in composition studies. This is odd considering Comp teachers are teachers too. And in the sciences, the co-authored diss is still highly uncommon. However, some researchers and universities hope to change this.

NIU Chemistry students make one of
their colleagues disappear.
In 2014, two students at Saybrook University completed an important study on diabetes -- together! -- as their dissertation.  The dual-authored document is a far better model and far better practice for writing scientific papers for publication. Charlene Conlin and Carlene Phelps offer some awesome insight into the basic requirements of doing such work as a team:

  • Mutual agreement on what the researchers intend for their dissertation, both in process and in outcome.
  • Ego minimization when necessary to achieve the greater good.
  • Organization in the form of intentions, goals, and timelines.
  • Resiliency in the form of drive to keep going until both get to the finish line. (It seems particularly important to have someone else relying on to you to get done!)

You can read the rest of their advice and more about their study here.

Why collaborative dissertations have not caught on, seventeen years into this new millennium, I can't say. We've rethought every kind of document we create, from music to film to the news. But we still think of a dissertation as a monolithic monograph and a rite of passage, rather than a learning opportunity that will prepare students, especially those in the sciences, for a long life of collaborative work and collaborative writing. Why do you think we cling so tightly to an outdated dissertation model?

For more on the future of the dissertation, keep reading!

"I'm not sticking my hands in there unless someone else does it first!"



Friday, October 27, 2017

The Future of the Dissertation Is Already Here

This post was contributed by Carolyn Law, Thesis and Dissertation Advisor in the Graduate School at NIU
James Whiton: "Aren't you jealous?"

How did we get here?
To talk about the future of the dissertation, you must understand a little something about its past. To say the dissertation has changed over the centuries is an understatement.

The first three doctorates in the U.S. were awarded at Yale in 1861. A dissertation was required, but only one of the documents survives today, the notorious dissertation of James Morris Whiton. It was handwritten, of course, entirely in Latin--six whole pages on the subject, “Brevis vita, ars longa” (Rosenberg, 1961).

Today, the average length of a doctoral dissertation in the sciences is hovering around 200 pages. There was a dramatic surge in length between 1950 and 1990 (Gould, 2016, p. 28), probably for a number of reasons. For one thing, literature reviews over time have grown because, frankly, there’s just more literature to review now and that body of literature is more easily accessed by students. Also, new theoretical frameworks, methodologies, and experimental procedures are often more complex, unfamiliar, and difficult to explain in academic prose than in earlier eras.

But much of the change in dissertations over the course of the 20th century was conspicuously driven by technology. A dissertation in the 1950s was produced on a manual typewriter with carbon paper. Corrections were made with a razor blade. I wrote my own master’s thesis on an IBM Selectric typewriter. By the time I got to doctoral study in the early 1990s, computers were available, but not universally used.

Memories...
Big change was occurring in the access chain as well. A dissertation has always been a public document, but until very recently “public” did not mean “accessible.” Dissertations were typed directly or photocopied onto cotton-bond paper, bound, and shelved in research libraries. They were very rarely accessed and many (like two thirds of Yale’s PhD class of 1861) have been lost forever.

In 1938, a little firm in Ann Arbor began microfilming and archiving dissertations, mostly because they were a technology company in search of content and the massive stock of dissertations presented a perfect pool of material. UMI is today known as ProQuest International and it is the largest database and repository of electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) in the world. In 2008, NIU made electronic submission of digital theses and dissertations (in PDF) mandatory. These documents are now discoverable and in some cases fully downloadable anywhere in the world, any time of day or night.

Recognizing the acceleration of technological change in the way research and scholarship are produced and shared in the 21st century, the Council of Graduate Schools convened a symposium in January 2016 on the future of the dissertation, citing “recent controversies about the purpose of doctoral education and the meaning of the dissertation” (Blackwell, 2015, p. 1). What came out of that meeting suggests that the future of the dissertation must include a heart-to-heart discussion of the role of doctoral education in general in the 21st-century knowledge marketplace. That’s changing too. More accurately, it has changed, but graduate education and its grand artifact, the dissertation, are lagging far behind the times.

Where do we go from here?
Graduate schools are just now beginning to grapple with three prominent issues arising in this evolving new-century context: authorship, access, and format. Some of the discussions we must continue to have include:
NIU students collaborating in a study lounge.

Collaboration and Coauthorship 
Most knowledge is created in groups, and in some disciplines the particular skills required to work in teams are absolutely essential to the successful conduct of an individual study as well as the professional development of the student-researcher. Shouldn’t dissertations be allowed to reflect that real-world process?

Open Access 
Knowledge that is not shared might as well not exist, and a dissertation that is not accessible fails to achieve one of its primary purposes. According to Maureen McCarthy (2016), Assistant Director of Advancement and Best Practices for the Council of Graduate Schools, “The idea of the dissertation moving a student from a private to a public phase resurfaced repeatedly” (p. 1) throughout the symposium in 2016. But the public nature of the dissertation in the 21st century is not the same as it was in the 20th. The internet, full-text downloadability, Creative Commons licensing, none of this was even imaginable when dissertations were routinely shelved in brick-and-mortar buildings. On the one hand, such accessibility furthers knowledge dramatically, but on the other hand, that accessibility may run counter to tenure review policies that privilege conventional publication. Shouldn’t dissertation authors choose their own levels of exposure? Shouldn’t students maintain control over their own intellectual property?

Alternative Formats 
In recent years, the idea of the monograph dissertation, an extended discourse on a single topic or experiment, has been challenged. The two most common complaints are that these papers take too long to write and they are not representative of the kinds of writing expected of working researchers. In economics, for instance, the norm now is the “three-article dissertation,” in which the author bundles a series of shorter pieces under a unifying introduction. In other disciplines, the very nature of the “document” itself is being questioned, introducing multimedia, graphical representation, and other digital forms into the dissertation genre. Shouldn’t dissertations be allowed to fly free from the cage of the page when it is technologically feasible and intellectually meaningful to do so?

Dance your dissertation!
These are just some of the questions, not thoughtfully crafted, negotiated policies. But we must ask the questions to arrive at the policies. And we need the policies soon. What do you think? We welcome your comments.








----------------------------------------------------
 References

Blackwell, J. (July 2015). Rethinking the dissertation: An opinion piece. GradEdge [Council of Graduate Schools], 4(6), pp. 1-3. 

Gould, J. (7 July 2016). Future of the thesis. Nature, 535, pp. 26-28.

McCarthy, M. (March 2016). The dissertation’s many futures [summary of the January 2016 symposium on the future of the dissertation]. GradEdge [Council of Graduate Schools], 5(3), pp. 1-3.

Rosenberg, R. (1961). The first American doctor of philosophy degree: A centennial salute to Yale, 1861-1961. The Journal of Higher Education, 32(7), 387-394. doi:10.2307/1978076

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.)
.
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?