Wednesday, April 20, 2011

the guinea pig

I'm not sure if I mentioned this before, but I believe I have. I'm the first person to go through this particular Ph.D. program. There are other people in the program now too, but I was one of two people to be admitted to its first cohort. (The other person ended up switching to a different program but will graduate at the same time as me in another program, I believe). A cohort, by the way, signifies a group of students who come in to the program together, take a lot of the same classes, and experience a lot of the same processes at the same times. "Cohort of 1" would be an apt name for me these days!

So like I said, since the other person changed to a different track, it's just me at this stage in my program. And since it is a new program, I've been the first person to take the comps in it, the first to select a committee, the first to do a topic proposal, the first to fill out each form. Even though my advisor has worked with PhD students at other institutions, I'm his first at this school, and the policies here are different than they were where he has worked before. Basically that means he and I are figuring it out together. (I wrote about how we both misunderstood the topic proposal process...Whoops.) It was really inevitable that something would slip through the cracks, and on my birthday (thanks) I received the following letter in the mail.


It seems I could not be advanced to candidacy. The grad school department had not been notified of whether I passed the comps. Last they heard, I'd applied to take them (way back in June of last year). So as far as they knew, I hadn't passed them yet...and thus could not advance.

I knew I'd passed, and figured it was some sort of form I or my advisor had forgotten/not known to fill out. So I called the graduate department on Monday and asked them what needed to be done to correct it. The person on the phone gave me a bit of 'tude and told me if I had questions about my comps I'd need to ask my advisor. But my overly sweet and inquisitive attitude won her over and she soon explained to me that there was indeed a form they were missing. ("But really, your advisor knows this. You should be talking to HIM.") My advisor and I had a chuckle at this when I recounted my phone call to him later.

My advisor quickly found the form in his office, filled out and signed the appropriate places, and gave it to me. I collected the additional signatures I needed and turned it in during my lunch hour from work yesterday. Just one thing worries me a little: the form said it must be received by the department within 25 days of passing or failing the comprehensive exams. That would have been before Christmas. Whoops. What can I say? We didn't know. Since my post-it note strategy worked so well with the IRB, I stuck a Post-It Note Of Genuine Apology For Ignorance on this form. Now I'm hoping for the best!

I really don't mind being the first person to go through the program. It makes my life a little more difficult, but also probably grants me some lenience in the form of people just not knowing what is going on. It also helps that my advisor is easy going and doesn't pretend to know everything, either. He and I are definitely in this together, trying to figure out how to get from point A (acceptance into the program) to point G (graduation!).

Friday, April 15, 2011

he passed!

hurray for my sweetheart!

My husband passed his comps! Woohoo! This is such a load off our minds (especially his!). He was extremely anxious about it, even though he did do a great deal of studying. Taking these exams in his program is very different from my written, three-week time frame exams. For him and his classmates, it's like taking four final exams for courses you took years ago. You take them all in the same, stressful, long day. There is a high percentage of failure (~50% of students fail). If you fail, you don't get to retake it until the following semester. (They don't do them in the summer either, so the next exam date would have been in October.) For someone like my husband, who has his thesis done and plans to graduate this summer, that would be very bad!! Aside from delaying his graduation, there would have been a lot of issues with scheduling and coursework that thankfully, he now shouldn't need to worry about!

Now all that's left is his defense next month. Oh, and he has to finish his spring classes of course!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

on topic approvals and lightning fast IRBs

Wow, I have much to share and I haven't had a chance to share it. (I've been actually forcing myself away from blogging because it is not as important as dissertating.) But today I really want to share the progress I've made on my dissertation in the past two weeks. Whew. So here's the cliff-notes.
  • Remember, I had a really big paper to write. Since then,
  • I finished it and turned it in to my committee.
  • They read it and I organized a meeting.
  • We had the infamous Topic Proposal Approval Meeting (the 'defense' my advisor mentioned) and they all signed the form (woop!)
  • I made the changes they suggested (contingent on their signing the form, they trusted I'd make these changes).
  • I had two IRB protocol changes accepted.
  • I contacted my sample and started scheduling data collection times.
Now I'll explain how all of this has gone down.

I really busted my butt to get my paper done in the lofty 2 day time-frame I had assured my advisor was completely doable for me. It was doable but I definitely did not have a lot of break time (I did not have a weekend to work on I had to fit it in around my work schedule). We had decided I'd hand it in on Friday, so on Friday morning I emailed that 35 page document to all of them. At this point, I was happy with my work but I was worried that they wouldn't have time to read it. Generally you give your committee a month or so. This was a measly one week (including a weekend) and I was asking 4 professors to pick a mutual time to meet on a Friday. This is a very hard request to fulfill and I was very anxious about the possibility that it would not happen. (Normally it wouldn't be a huge deal, but 3 of the 4 were leaving for a big conference the following week. And as that time ticked by, my small data collection period would wane and I would end up in a situation where I couldn't collect data until next spring. (As I explained a while back, it's a tricky situation.) Still though, I was asking a lot for these people to make time for me, when I had given them barely any notice of any of this. My advisor and I had only just made the connection involving the tricky situation very recently, otherwise I would have been prepared sooner.

Amazingly, they were able to pick a time in which they were all available the following Friday afternoon: April Fools Day. Somehow, that felt like meeting on Friday the 13th or Halloween or something. Strange. Now the funny thing is, I totally did not think this meeting was a big deal. Just another meeting, right? I meet with my advisor all the time. This was just a meeting with him and a few others. And then people started asking me if I was nervous. (Um, no?) And if I was preparing. (Wasn't that paper I wrote preparation enough?) People kept assuring me it'd be OK, no matter what happened. (What?) It was after a bit of this odd attention that I realized that this is supposed to be a big deal.

I had a professor at the beginning of my program who was kind enough to walk our class through the steps one takes to get through their doctoral program. One of the steps was a full committee meeting in which students may have their work trampled by their committee. They may have their topic denied or changed to an unrecognizable state resulting in months of extra work. It's not totally uncommon for a student to cry during this meeting. Turns out, this was THAT meeting. And here I was sending out emails like 'hey doods wanna meet??' On one hand, I psyched myself up too much after I drew the connection. I wish I hadn't realized this was such a big deal. On the other hand, I'm glad I knew so that I showed up looking nice instead of in a ratty t-shirt or something.

And the meeting? It went fine. In all my worry and nervousness, I forgot two things. The first is that my advisor is 'with' me. That's his role as the committee chair. He's been working closely with me throughout the entire process, so he's as familiar with it as I am. So it's not like I'm standing there with 4 people across the table from me scowling about my idiocy. It's only 3 people! (Hah.) The other thing I forgot is that I am comfortable with my committee members. I've known all of them for years, and they're all extremely intelligent, but also friendly. So it's not like I'm dealing with strangers. Two of them were on my master's committee. Honestly the meeting was kind of FUN. I'd do it again. It'd be fun to do it over margaritas and nachos also. Topic Proposal Approval meetings need more adult beverages, I think. But I digress.

By saying my meeting went fine, I don't want to misguide you into thinking I didn't have to make any changes. I did have a lot of changes to make. I'm not insulted by change. These people know how to do research, and they know how to solidify a shaky study. We changed everything from the title to the methodology to the sample of people who would be surveyed. After the meeting I had to add a lot, but I also had to delete a lot (entire pages and sections) of the work I'd done a few days ago. Apparently that kind of thing really upsets some people. Not me, I understand that's how it works. (And I didn't really delete that stuff. I just saved it in a different document. I figure it may be useful to me in writing some future paper.)

The best thing about this meeting was to sit there and watch the committee members debate back and forth about MY research. I felt like I was watching from a dream. What makes my silly little school project so important that four Ph.D.s--three of whom head up various campus departments and a fourth who is an impressive researcher with a long CV*--are willing to spend hours of their Friday afternoon arguing about its finer points? Moments like that--moments I recall later as being very special--sneak up on me. It was neat to be in a room with such a wealth of knowledge and experience, and watch (and interact) as that expertise was applied to my work. eally cool.

*CV stands for Curriculum Vita -- It's an academic person or scientist's research resume. Lists your publications, articles, conference presentations, etc.

All that to say I "passed" it. They all signed the Topic Proposal Approval form and I turned it in on Tuesday. The next step is for the graduate school department to approve it. They're kind of the overseerers of all the graduate programs at our university. They have to check you out every step of the way to make sure you really should be at the point you've reached. If they approve it (and I have no reason to believe they wouldn't--the committee signed it and it's all legit), I will be able to "advance to candidacy." This means I'll be able to tell people "I'm a doctoral candidate" instead of "I'm a doctoral student." Otherwise it really makes no difference. Kind of random, but it's neat.

The only problem with the suggestions my committee made (and I agreed with) is that I needed to change my IRB (Institutional Review Board) forms to match what they wanted me to do. I wrote a little about the IRB process a month or two ago. To be brief, the IRB is a board of people who review the research that goes on on our campus. Most (if not all) institutions who do research have one...their job is to make sure you're not doing something stupid like abusing or tricking people during your study. My benign kind of research is pretty easy to approve.

Anyway, the silly thing about IRB and the topic proposal--and I'm sure I've written this in another post already--is that you have to have your research methods approved by the IRB before you can seek topic proposal approval. But your methods may change a lot due to committee member suggestions during the approval meeting (mine did). So then you have to do a "protocol change," which is an addendum to your previously approved IRB. In my case, I had done one protocol change already (approved March 23) and I had to turn in another one earlier this week due to committee suggestions.

I felt apprehensive about this for two reasons. One, it's a real person looking over these. I felt embarrassed turning in two so close together. (Makes it looks like I haven't thought my project through, and I hate to waste people's time.) Two, it takes a long time to get approval! As I mentioned earlier, I really need to collect my data in the next few weeks (and definitely finish collecting before the second week of May). My last protocol change form took about 3 weeks to get approval... and I can't collect data till it's approved. Yeah. Cutting it close. When approved, they send an official letter, but they also put a fancy stamp on all your materials. Any materials you use (i.e. my survey instrument) have to have their stamp on it.

So I finished writing the thing, went through and made notes (highlighting changes), and decided to walk it over to the IRB office in person. I attached a post-it note and wrote something like "Hi, I apologize for two protocol changes so close together; the changes highlighted herein were suggested by my committee and contingent on my topic's approval. My time line for data collection is very tight due to unforeseen circumstances... I would be extremely grateful if you could look this over at your earliest convenience. Thank you SO MUCH in advance!"

I didn't think much about it after that, hoping to hear back in 2 weeks instead of 3. That was Wednesday (the 6th) at noon. On Thursday morning (the 7th), at about 9 AM, I received an email from an IRB staffperson. I figured I'd forgotten something and she needed me to provide more info. Nope. The email said my protocol change was approved. Less than 24 hours. WOW. And. AND! If that quick turnaround wasn't enough, she scanned in and attached PDFs of the materials I needed. She said she'd mailed me the originals, but wanted to make sure I could start collecting ASAP since she knew I was in a crunch. I was floored. I wanted to jog across campus and give her a big hug.

So anyway, I can collect data now. WOO! I've already had a few people respond to help me. I'll describe the process more thoroughly in another post; this one is long enough. But I need to collect data from a group of about 450 students and 50 or so faculty members... in person.. so it is going to be one crazy couple of weeks, especially for this introvert! And balancing this with my job... I could definitely not do this without having a job so close to the data collection site. I'd be traveling constantly.

Monday, April 11, 2011

four more years! (or maybe less)

So like I was saying a few days ago, husband is nearing the end of his Master's program. We needed to figure our what's next. We've been weighing a lot of options, and have finally decided (after months of waffling) that we're staying in North Dakota for his PhD.

What it comes down to is, we have a good thing going here. Good jobs (that partially pay for school, too), a nice home, paid off assets, family near by. My family isn't nearby, and I dearly miss them, but it's unlikely that we would have been able to be a lot closer to them by moving for this degree.

I have to admit, I was definitely pulling for the option of staying put. I still had a twinkle of adventurous hope in the back of my mind though: one of the schools we considered was Dalhousie in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I'm Canadian-born myself, the prospect of moving to Canada (maybe for good, if things worked out) seemed attractive. Expensive though. That was the most expensive school he looked at and the highest cost of living.It would have been an extremely different life for us. (I went there with my folks on vacation when I was 14; it was beautiful.) To move there would have shut us down financially, set us back a decade or more. We'd have gone from an 1800 sq. foot house with a 2 car garage, to a 400 sq. foot apartment that costs the same for month and no off-street parking, laundry, yard or view. (With this option and one of his other options, selling at least one of our cars was part of the plan.) We'd have gone from an established, comfortable life to the bare-bones student scrapings we've managed to avoid thus far. But I have to admit: it would have been fun!

Staying here is just more responsible, as exciting as moving would be. I am sure we'll move in the future, anyway, and we'll be in better financial shape to do so I think. A move this year would have...

  • Put us both out of jobs in an economy where jobs are hard to get in most places of the country (aside from here).

  • Caused me to have to commute here to tie up my PhD.

  • Increased our student loan debt rather than allowing us to keep working to decrease it.

  • Gone against the terms of our first time homebuyer credit.

  • Likely put us in a situation with no family close by--at least several hours of travel away. If Nova Scotia, it'd have involved a longish ferry and customs too!

So here we are, North Dakotans for at least another few years.

Friday, April 01, 2011

a big week in thesis land

When you have both members of your household in school at the same time, it's a real life of academe. If one of you has downtime, some of it is ultimately spent acting as copy editor for the other person's Big Important Paper. Your restaurant conversations sound something like this...

Husband: I have to turn in Form A tomorrow.
Wife: Oh, so I take it you have already completed Form B and the XYZ Meeting?
Husband: Form B? Where did you find Form B?
Wife: It's in Handbook 4. [Paraphrasing] "Candidate must file a notarized Form B at least 30 days prior to submission of Form A and within 10 days of an appropriate outcome of an XYZ Meeting."
Husband: Oh, my department doesn't use Handbook 4. We use Handbook 2, version 7, in conjunction with a program-specific addendum.
Wife: I'm pretty sure The Central Department Head still wants a Form B filed...

We are romantic, interesting people. But what I'm saying here is that we pretty much eat/sleep/breathe coursework, tests, papers and milestones. The flip side of this is that accomplishments don't always get the celebration that they deserve.

Last week, I had to get a pile of work done in a hurry for my topic proposal meeting. I started out this week very stressed about my Topic Proposal Approval Meeting--the first time I've ever sat in a room with my entire committee. I wasn't stressed about the meeting (though I've heard that these can be brutal); I was worried that they wouldn't be able to agree on a good time/date for the meeting. And I really really needed to meet this week.

Meanwhile, my husband was in the culmination of basically the biggest week in his academic life so far. On Sunday, he turned in his Master's Thesis: 5 chapters of work, something he's been working on nearly non-stop for the past several weeks (in addition to his other classes and responsibilities). This is a huge deal, turning in your thesis. The next big step in Master's degree land is the defense. And (aside from any more revisions he might need to make thereafter), that's it.

Except for one other part--his comprehensive exams. I wrote about my comps last September (and October, and November). husband's are very different. He has to take four tests on one day. He only knows very broadly what they'll be about, so he has to study a lot and hope he will pass. He will basically be at the college from the time he wakes up until late afternoon this Saturday, taking these tests.

On top of that, he's also been sick. A bad cold basically, but it kept him out of work a lot last week, and he was miserable. It is really awful to have to concentrate on school work when you're sick. It's happened to me before, and my productivity basically comes to a standstill. So for him to finish his thesis and study for these tests and complete all of his other homework while feeling awful...that's some serious drive.

So in a span of 7 days, husband will have completed two really huge milestones of his Master's career. Turning in his thesis (last Sunday) and writing his comps (tomorrow). I am so proud of all he has accomplished.