grad skool rulz #27 – wrapping it up

Previous grad skool rulz.

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Maybe you got a job. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you just decided academia isn’t for you. Regardless, there comes a time when you have to complete the dissertation and move on with your life. This is how you do it.

  1. Tell your adviser and other faculty mentors that you are ready to finish up. This usually comes up around the time you accept a job offer. If you aren’t going into academia, you will want to have a heart to heart with your adviser. Your professor may not be ready to let you go, but be firm here. If academia isn’t your career goal, there’s no point in wasting time. Just politely say, “I have chosen another career path and I would like to complete my degree before I do so. Can you help me out? What do I need to do?” Repeat as necessary.
  2. Go to the graduate chair and/or secretary and ask for the university, college and dept rules concerning dissertations. You should have gotten the written rules by now, but if you haven’t get them.
  3. Ask about the informal norms of the department and discipline. Ask recent grads and profs.
  4. Prepare a complete draft of your dissertation. Nothing succeeds like success. People will have to graduate you if you submit a competent and complete document, even if it’s imperfect. And if you are a control freak, just let it go. By this point, the dissertation is a pedagogical exercise. Just get it done.
  5. Give every committee member a complete document, or as close to it as you can. Do this about 2-3 months before you need to file your dissertation with the university. It should also be at least a month or so before the dissertation defense, if your university has one.  Directly ask them: “I would like your feedback.” Get this feedback in writing.
  6. After about a month or so, gather all written and oral comments and make a long, detail memo explaining how you responded to every comment. Then, give the revised & complete document to everyone again, a few weeks before they have to sign off and/or have the dissertation defense.
  7. Most universities, though not all, will require a committee meeting to discuss the quality of the dissertation and approve it. Start scheduling this about 1-2 months before it needs to happen. Faculty are traveling and have conflicting schedules. It can be tricky to get everyone in the room, or on the conference.
  8. If you have a defense meeting, then you show up and give a summary of your research. That will be followed by Q&A. If you gave everyone the chance to write comments, there will be little surprise by this point. If you wait to the last minute to give the dissertation, there may be surprises. You will be asked to leave the room. There will be a discussion. When you come back, you will be asked to revise the document. The final revisions are usually negotiated between the dissertation director and the PhD candidate.
  9. If you don’t have a meeting, then you usually have each faculty member sign off individually. Just make an appointment and get their feedback. If you get conflicting instructions, just ask your chair and it’ll get cleared up.
  10. Once the final document is settled upon by student and chair, it must be submitted to the library. Yes, that’s right. The library. For the rest of eternity, your dissertation will be available to scholars. With ProQuest, it can be downloaded, just like any book.
  11. For that reason, the university will not let you graduate until the library has accepted the document. Therefore, you should take at least 3-4 weeks before the deadline just for formatting. Weeks? Yes. Libraries are very, very fussy. They will reject your document on details like margin width, paper quality, and footnote format. They want all documents to look the same. You can do it your self, or pay someone to format it. Either way, it’ll take a few weeks to get it all right.
  12. Since dissertation submission is very fussy, many university libraries or graduate schools will have an office where you can have the document examined. Take your dissertation in a week before or so. Thus, if you have to fix something, you have time. DO NOT WAIT TILL 3pm ON THE LAST DAY.
  13. You’re done. Get a life.

Sample time line. Let’s say you settled on a job around Feb. 10.  Here’s what graduation may look like for you:

  1. Feb 15: Thank your advisers and raise the issue of filing your dissertation.
  2. Mar 1: Start settling on an approximate time for filing. Say June 1.
  3. Mar 30/April 1: Start giving sample chapters, or the whole dissertation, to the committee. Start negotiations for dissertation hearings.
  4. April 21: Give revised document w/memo to everyone.
  5. May 1: The hearing happens. They ask for some final edits.
  6. May 10: Your adviser gives the final sign off.
  7. May 17: Bring the final, final document to the library/graduate office.
  8. May 21: You get a phone call saying you screwed up the margins. You have to redo the whole document.
  9. May 25: You stay up all night and reformat the whole thing and bring it in. They take it.

As you can see, it’s a very legalistic process. So prepare and give yourself time. Especially in “long clock” disciplines that aren’t used to quickly graduating people after the job search.

Dissertation defenses:

  1. The dissertation defense is a European ritual. The idea back then was that anyone could challenge your work in public. So some departments have public defenses still. People show up. Often your friends and family show up. Other department members show up, etc. In modern times, many universities have private defenses. It varies.
  2. The modern defense tends to have the same format. Before the meeting, they have a 10-20 minute discussion of the work. Then you are invited into the room. At that point, you usually give a summary of the research.
  3. After the summary, the faculty speak. Sometimes, it’s critical. Other times it’s friendly. Let them talk. Often, the chair takes notes, as does the student. Usually the discussion starts with the shortcomings of the work as discussed in private. How would the student fix these problems? How does this dissertation push a scholarly agenda? If it’s public, the chair will allow interested audience members to ask questions. Unless they are a specialist in this area, people rarely ask questions.
  4. About an hour later, the chair summarizes the discussion. In modern times, people rarely “fail” the dissertation hearing. Usually, you are done or you have to do revisions, which can sometimes be extensive. Either way, you’re good. The revisions are essentially a contract that says “if you do what we ask, you are done.” Congratulations, doctor!
  5. Failure: Even though I’ve never been witness to this, dissertation defenses sometimes go very, vary bad. The cases I’ve heard of usually fall into a few categories. Unseen flaws: If you are doing some sort of very technical work, someone may spot a logical flaw that undermines the whole project. For example, if you are a math student, a flaw in your proof may be spotted in the defense hearing. Goodbye super cool theorem. Shoddy/Rushed Work: The other case is that you didn’t show your work to the committee and you never had a chance to work out the problems. In that case, they are justified in keeping you back. It’s true that dissertations are imperfect student projects. But it’s also true that they must meet the minimal standard of competence in science. If it is just badly done, you can fail. Mean advisers: Some professors seem to enjoy torturing graduate students and tanking them in hearings. No matter how good you are, they will throw up their arms and claim that you haven’t done anything.
  6. Countering failure: The “unseen flaws” scenario is the easiest one to work with. Yes, you’ll graduate a little later than expected, but you will finish. Just take the summer or the fall to work on another project, or remedy the problem in the current project. You’ll be be done. If you rushed the job, it’s your own fault. Period. By this point, you should have gotten feedback from multiple advisers.  You should have given them copies of the work a month or two before hand. So gather up your energy and do things the right way. If you prepare and work hard, you’ll be done. If you have a mean adviser, who just sprung on you, then you will need to be extremely patient. Have multiple meetings with the person. Get everything in writing and revise your dissertation. Send out the revisions to all people on the committee. Get advice from the graduate chair. You can usually deal with the mean adviser with sun light. If everyone knows that you have done all humanly possible revisions, then they will likely over rule the chair and let you graduate.

What if people don’t want to graduate you? There are departments where people take forever to graduate. Rather than seeing the dissertation as a student exercise, it has to be perfect and groundbreaking. So they make students write these endless documents. Other departments are wracked with apathy. Even if you produce the document, professors can’t be bothered to read or respond. In each case, get the rules, follow them, produce chapters, and get feedback.  In all cases, document everything and show that you did your best. If people refuse to budge, then you can justifiably approach the chair/graduate dean for grievance and advice. “Look, I gave everyone my revisions and nobody has said anything in 8 months. Help me. What do you think I should do?” In most cases, a well documented grievance can give the chair or dean something to work with and you will get done.

Overall, finishing the dissertation is usually pretty routine. Most of the time, you do the work, they tell you to revise and you are done. But it helps to know about the whole process. You don’t want to pay another semester of tuition because you formatted the dissertation incorrectly. And of course, if there’s a rough patch, you’ll know how to come up with a solution.

Written by fabiorojas

July 27, 2010 at 12:42 am

2 Responses

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  1. I’d like to offer two other pieces of advice for the defense: ask a trusted friend to take notes or ask your committee if they would mind if you audio record your defense. It is one of the few points in your career where you will have a conversation with several really smart people about your work but you want to be able to be engaged in the conversation, not frantically trying to write every nuance of every comment. Having a friend take notes for me (in addition to my notes on the big things that I wanted to make sure that I wrote in my own words to go back to) was really valuable.

    The second piece of advice that I can give: enjoy it! You worked hard to get there and see above about the opportunity to talk about something that you care about a whole lot (hopefully, since you just spent years of your life thinking about it) so enjoy the moment!



    July 28, 2010 at 11:10 pm

  2. I have two questions both of which would fit within a post-grad skool rulz, should such a series exist:

    1. To post-doc or not to post-doc? Is this an option in the social sciences? Is it wise to pursue this option? Or does one only pursue a post-doc if there are too few professor job openings in a given year?

    2. Grant writing: Do new professors in the social sciences face a similar pressure to pound the pavement for grant money as do those in the life and physical sciences? If so, would you be willing to share with your readership a little bit of what that kind of competition is like?



    July 29, 2010 at 1:28 pm

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