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



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.


Friday, March 10, 2017

Engaging with the Writing Process



Over the past few weeks, several advanced grad students have contacted us in the Thesis Office to check on requirements and deadlines they need to meet now that they’ve passed exams and are moving on to the thesis or dissertation.  Congratulations to all who’ve reached that point!  Heading toward completion naturally entails reengagements with the writing process, a process that involves five stages: prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading.  Each stage deals with important but discrete sets of activities, and it’s worthwhile reviewing them.  Noting how writers move back and forth between the stages can help you set goals and prioritize tasks as you work on the different parts of your project.

Stages of the Writing Process

Prewriting:  Many activities before (and even after) you sit down with pen and paper or face keyboard and screen are parts of prewriting.  Prewriting is likely one of the longest stages of a thesis or dissertation project.  Ideas for your project likely begin to form as you take courses, complete other program requirements, and prepare for your qualifying exam(s).  For some writers, ideas have been forming over a period of many years.  As you turn to the writing project itself, prewriting involves focused idea-generating activities like listing, clustering, freewriting, and outlining.  

Drafting:  Composing with a plan.  The word plan distinguishes drafting from activities that belong to the stage before or after it.  When you’re producing text from a plan based on outlines, notes, or texts you generated while prewriting, you’re drafting.  If instead you’re staring at a blank page and don’t quite know how to move forward, you’re still in the prior stage and need to engage in prewriting activities until you can form a plan for your draft.  On the other hand, if you’ve drafted a considerable amount of planned text and feel it’s time to make changes to it, you’re progressing to the next stage.

Revising:  Literally, looking back at an accomplished draft.  But more than just looking back, revising involves rethinking and changing the “big picture” of what you’ve drafted: reorganizing sentences or paragraphs, deleting passages, or adding new content.

Editing:  Making changes to textual details.  The phrase textual details anchors the answer to the question “What’s the difference between revising and editing?”  But in truth, revising and editing often overlap.  The nature of the changes you’re making helps distinguish the two stages.  If you’re reordering sections of a draft, adding substantial amounts of text to it, or cutting out large portions, you’re still involved in revising.  If instead you’re more concerned with word choices or word forms, fact checking, and confirming that your in-text citations match your end references, you’re editing.
 
Proofreading:  The final stage.  Proof is a publishing term for a nearly-finished piece that needs final checking before going to the printer and out for public viewing.  Final checking involves careful, methodical, line-by-line reading and correcting of textual mistakes to ensure accurate punctuation, spelling, and formatting throughout the document.

Embrace Each Stage: Advice for All Seasons

As you progress through your project, a sound piece of broad advice to take on board: embrace each stage of the writing process in nearly equal measure.  Prewriting is needed to get you started in the right direction, and drafting is essential.  But revising, editing, and proofreading are also vital to a successful finished product and deserve plenty of attention and care.  If you seek help or guidance during any of these stages, but particularly with prewriting and drafting, remember that the University Writing Center is a fantastic resource.  If you have questions or concerns with revising, editing, or proofreading, be sure to contact us here in the Thesis Office.

Good luck in all stages, happy spring break, happy writing!     


Friday, February 24, 2017

A Thesis Office with a Mission


The Thesis and Dissertation Office at Northern Illinois University is focused on student success, offering resources at every stage of the thesis or dissertation writing process, and operating on a unique peer-advocate model for informing and motivating graduate students.

Comprehensive, service-oriented thesis offices exist at a few grad-degree granting institutions throughout the nation, it’s true. But they are not common, and at many schools the thesis office is focused only on guidance through red tape and the managing of documents.  While NIU’s Thesis and Dissertation Advisor, Carolyn Law, can help students navigate the most tangled red tape the graduate school can dish out, we like to think that our holistic approach to thesis and dissertation assistance is a unique one!

Not Just Information

The Thesis Office is the definitive source of information on how to get through the process of finalizing a thesis. But we are not just here to inform. We are here to help.

Some services we proudly offer:

  • One-on-one formatting and documentation assistance
  • Workshops on tricky thesis issues, such as page numbers, tables, and citations
  • Brown Bags and social media for meeting (online or IRL) other grad students and maintaining contact with people who understand your life situation
  • Writers’ meet-ups to help you hold yourself accountable for getting the writing done
  • Presentations on how to do the things we explain on the website (in case you need to see it and not just read it!)
  • And coming soon: Instructional videos on the toughest formatting bugbears 


So, as you can see, we offer a lot more than just telling you what to do!  We believe that this holistic, student-centered approach to guidance throughout the entire thesis process (you can visit us whether you’ve never written a word, or if you’ve written “AAAAALL THE WORDS!”) will help graduate students complete their goals in a timely manner, saving them money, headache, life crises, and preparing them for the job market. (In fact, as a department of the NIU Graduate School, we are committed to the Graduate School’s express mission of student professionalization.)

Another key to our approach is, as I mentioned above, our peer advisors.  Two graduate assistants are always employed by the office, to help you help yourself. I am one of them! (Robyn) The other is Fred. But whether you meet me and Fred this year, or Bob and Joe two years down the road (because Fred and I plan to finish our dissertations and get out of town…), you will come into contact with graduate assistants who know your struggle, and share in it every day.  We are living through the thesis process with all its highs and lows, and we also happen to be experts on how to get it done. (As well as on formatting, grammar, documentation, and everything else you would expect from English majors). In fact, part of our job requirement is that we get it done! So, the graduate student advisor helps students feel like they are not alone and provides a great connection for networking, as well as being an approachable authority in the Graduate School.

We do think we are special. While comparable missions are expressed by the thesis offices at Purdue and UT Knoxville to name a couple, we think we are hitting it out of the park.  Indeed, we would like to see this type of thesis office mission become a ubiquitous goal, especially among state institutions that often grant degrees to students of diverse and non-traditional backgrounds, while operating on limited funding… and working with students who may have limited funds themselves!

In fact, that is certainly one font from which we draw inspiration for the mission of the Thesis Office: our diverse student body of international, non-traditional, low-income, and returning students. That said, we are here for every grad student.

As you can see, we are a Thesis Office with a mission. We want graduate students to succeed, so our goal is your goal. We want to provide you with every resource (or at least refer you to one if we don’t have it) so that you can finish your thesis or dissertation with confidence and expedience.

Come see us in beautiful Adams Hall during the week, or call or email anytime!
M-Th, 10-2
thesis@niu.edu
815-753-9405

Happy working!
--Robyn


Friday, February 10, 2017

Thesis Office Outreach: Presentations, Workshops, Brown Bags

Two weeks into February, and here at the Thesis Office we’re ready to deliver our spring presentations, workshops, and brown bag sessions for writers at any stage of the thesis or dissertation process.  Below we give a rundown of what’s on offer over the next several weeks.  We look forward to seeing you!

Basic Info
Our programs are free.  Brown bags meet Wednesdays from 12 to 1 p.m. in Adams Hall, Room 103.  Workshops and most presentations will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. in the same location on Tuesdays or Thursdays, but note that two presentations (Writing a Dissertation in Education and Demystifying the Submission Process) will take place on different days and at different times and locations—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.  Register early! 

What to Expect
Plenty of important information.  Many who experience these events walk away a bit surprised at the intricacies behind things like meeting various deadlines, submitting the proper paperwork to the proper place, or formatting the long document.  Expect thorough coverage of common concerns as well as ample time to address individual questions.   

Presentations
Thesis Essentials
Tuesday, February 21 (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.
  
Dissertation Essentials
Wednesday, February 22 (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.

Writing a Thesis in Engineering
Thursday, February 23 (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.

Writing a Dissertation in Education
Saturday, February 25 (9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at NIU Naperville, Room 162)
This one-day program 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.

Demystifying the Submission Process
Wednesday, March 8 (5 to 7 p.m. in Wirtz Hall, Room 104)
This presentation is for graduate students preparing to submit a thesis or dissertation to the Graduate School for May 2017 graduation.  Carolyn Law, Thesis/Dissertation Advisor, will walk students through the steps of the process: defense, electronic submission, and final approval.

Workshops
ASME Documentation
Tuesday, February 28 (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.

Problems in Theses/Dissertations: Tables/Figures/Pagination
Wednesday, March 1 (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.

Brown Bag Sessions 
Committee Relations
Wednesday, February 15 (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.

Breaking Through Writer's Block (and Other Obstacles)
Wednesday, February 22
(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.

The Balancing Act: A Life in Grad School
Wednesday, March 1
(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.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Eventually, Your Program Will End (So Plan Your Career Now!)


Some of you are in the first phases of your graduate degree program, others somewhere near the middle, and still others are fortunate to be nearing the end.  One thing we all have in common is a yearning to see what the world looks like from across the finish line, yes?

Well, below we present a voice from that hallowed spot.  Last December, Mike Yetter, one of the founding bloggers here at Project Thesis NIU, completed his doctorate in English with a dissertation on the 20th-century author John Dos Passos.  Congratulations, Mike!      

Now that I’ve graduated, what’s next?

Well, it felt like it took me forever (upon reviewing my transcripts, it did in fact take me forever), but I made it! I admit that during the graduation ceremony, I did stand a little taller, my smile was wider, and I was breathing a lot easier, having relieved myself of an immense burden of my own design. Most important, my children, my committee, my former co-workers, and my old boss – everyone who supported me through my doctoral education – were present at the ceremony, and I could tell how proud of me they were. I stood for pictures, exchanged hugs, etc. And as soon as the ceremony was over . . . BAM! I was hit over the head with a 2 x 4 with a note attached that said: “So now that you’re on the job market, what are your plans?”

Michael K. Yetter (far right) being hooded at the Graduate School Commencement, December 2016

This has inspired the following guest blog to pass on some important advice: Before you finish your master’s or doctoral program, sit down and speak with someone in your department about your future outside of graduate school, because it will come to an end. There were times when I was convinced that I was never going to graduate, and that the English department and NIU were conspiring to keep me in graduate school forever, but that really is not the case. The only person keeping you from finishing that all-important thesis or dissertation is you. Once you do finish the work (and with the help of the Thesis Office, you will finish the work), you need to know what it is you want to be now that you’re all grown up.

Before you get to this point, plot out what will come next for you

I’ve always gone from job to job. I never sat down to give serious thought to a capital C career. Not to mention, I thought the point of graduate school was to avoid such a tedious subject. Now I am in the position where it is time for me to think about the dreaded word. It turns out that I am not the only person in this boat. Some graduate students already know what they want to be when they grow up. Many, though, aren’t entirely sure what they want to do with their degree or their lives after school.

Awhile back, I attended a seminar on jobs in the publishing field. Never did I dream that I had the background, education, or experience for such a career. After speaking with the people who ran the seminar, it turns out that I do. I’ve been an English instructor for so long, life outside of academia never occurred to me. I never planned on being an English professor; I just happened into it. Over the past decade, I’ve discovered that I really enjoy teaching, I’m pretty good at it, and I’m getting better. I know now that I want to remain in the world of academia.

My point is this: because I took the time to attend that seminar, I learned that there are other opportunities available to me career-wise that I never before considered. It reminded me of some of the things that came up in numerous conversations I had with professors, my committee, or dissertation director: “Hey, why didn’t you apply for such-and-such fellowship?” Well, I didn’t know I was qualified or eligible for such-and-such fellowship. Why didn’t you tell me?

I realize now that I should have made more of an effort to think about my ideal career; I should have taken the time to speak with a career-guidance counselor; I should have set aside time to sit with my director, have a cup of coffee, and discuss career prospects.

Is this a conversation you should have the first day of your graduate school journey? No. But it is an important conversation that you need to have at some point, with someone whose opinion you respect, preferably BEFORE you write your thesis or dissertation. Believe it or not, knowing the answer to this all-important question just might influence your choice of graduate courses, not to mention your topic for your thesis or dissertation.

Michael K. Yetter

Friday, January 13, 2017

Coming Soon to a Thesis Office Near You


Warm Greetings and Happy New Year!  A quick hello to let you know what's to come this spring at the Thesis and Dissertation Office:

Video Tutorials
This past week our office shifted to production mode and put together our first pair of video tutorials on common questions and concerns about document preparation and formatting.  Soon-to-be available attractions include a short video on formatting leader dots in tables of contents (or similar lists) and a slightly longer one on the sometimes tricky business of formatting page numbers in a thesis or diss.  Stay tuned for further updates!

Spring Presentations and Workshops
We start these again in early February.  Check the NIU Events Calendar for details.

Ongoing Assistance with Your Thesis
Remember--we're available for personal consultation Monday through Thursday from 10 to 2 in Adams Hall, Room 104.

And coming at the end of January to this blog: a guest post by former Project Thesis blogger and recent Ph.D. graduate Michael Yetter.