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. 


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
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