Saturday, August 27, 2011

lit review days

Today and tomorrow are lit review days. It's amazing how far I've come in that regard. A few years ago, I'd moan and groan over a paper with a 20-source requirement, then struggle to find 21 sources to write about (gotta go the extra mile, you know, haha). One thing I've heard a lot from friends and others is "I don't think I could ever write more than 10 pages about anything." I was in that camp myself. Paper's now about 85 pages long and I can probably double that before it's due. And there is no page requirement, or source requirement. If I could say all that I needed to say (to make it legit) in 5 pages, they'd pass it. John Nash (the scientist who inspired the movie A Beautiful Mind) wrote a doctoral thesis of less than 30 pages in length.

The point is that whatever you're doing, you're doing it thoroughly. When you cross that threshold between 'what's required' and 'what's enough,' it's hard to decide when it's enough. But generally I find that if I have to ask myself "is that enough?", it won't be.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

reality-check, feedback style

I've done a lot of work on this dissertation. In recent weeks, I've become more confident with stats and I put a considerable amount of time in to the results section. Then I emailed the draft to my advisor with a quick request: "Can you skim the results to see if I'm reporting them properly?"

What I received back was a fully read, fully digested document. He had made comments on everything. Change this, change that. Move this. Talk about this. Don't talk about that. I didn't ask for this depth of commenting (or any review of the rest of my paper at this point), but I really appreciate it. It saves me a ton of work in trying to figure out which things need refining. Much of it, I had planned to refine anyway (like I said, I only asked him to look at the results; I hadn't really worked on the rest much in several months!). But some of it I would not have caught. So that's great.

Some of the comments were really big though. Things indicating that I may need to re-run my stats, consult with an expert on these matters, etc. My sample sizes don't match. (An example of this would be if you did a survey and got responses from 2 women and 20 men.) This means the stats might not be reliable. My results are like this on a lot of different facets. (So as an example: I would have 2 women and 20 men. And among them, 5 have brown eyes but 17 have blue. And 1 is black but 21 are white.) Basically, I cannot (reliably) say that my stats necessarily say anything accurate about how these groups of people differ. (Actually, I don't know what I can and can't reliably say--that's why I need to talk to an expert.) This is one example of the 'Big Scary Comment.' There were several Big Scary Comments in this thing. Several. Time-consuming, re-do all-my-hard-work comments. And, to sound like a broken record: time is something I don't have a ton of. If I want to feasably graduate in december, I need this whole paper out the door in less than 2 months.

This means many things, but one thing it means is that all of the hours and hours and hours of work I put in to doing the stats, organizing them, combing through them for significant results, and writing up those results may have been a waste. My advisor wasn't harsh or anything; I know he's right. My doing this stuff now will save me from being eaten alive by the committee later.

After I read his comments, I was ready to chuck the computer right out the window. I had tears in my eyes, thinking of the wasted time. The effort. What I thought was a good job I was doing. What I thought I understood, but actually don't understand very well.

It's a massive blow to the ego. Like when I failed my comps last fall. It makes me feel lost.

If there's one thing I can say for my Ph.D.-related activities, they are challenging. Not a lot truly challenges me. But this does, and I'm not used to it. I've been spoiled by the ability to usually rise to the occasion easily. My master's wasn't too challenging for me; I passed with no revisions and very little issue at all. This... this is challenging. I have to try and fail. I have to do it again.

I am starting to realize that there is nothing to do except take it in stride and make the changes happen. Maybe walk away for a little bit and do something to make myself feel better. (Chocolate, anyone?) But then I have to do it, even if I don't want to, and even if I don't know what steps to take first. Last I checked, dreading something did not cause it to magically get accomplished while I'm sleeping. I have to 'get back on the horse.' I can't afford to spend days or weeks brooding over it, pouting about how "It was really good already. I should NOT have to change it." Regardless of the 'shoulds': I have to do the task at hand or I'm not going to graduate.

If I ignore it and sulk, it'll still be there and I will have less time to fix it. So suck it up, buttercup. Delete, and redo it, this time, with feeling.

Friday, August 05, 2011

graduation day!

Today is my husband's graduation day.

Today was supposed to be my graduation day, too. For the past 3.5 years, I had my sights set on August 2011. Back in April though, I accepted that today would not be my graduation day. I reset my sights on December, reworked my plan, and got over the fact that I will not be graduating in the same ceremony as my husband.

If you're keeping track, husband was admitted to his Master's program last year at this time. It took him less than 12 months to complete a Master's degree--from a respectable, accredited institution--in a very technical and complicated field. Not only is he extremely smart, but he is fiercely determined. He's stubborn, driven, and he knows what he wants. I think I work hard, but husband works harder. He took all of his required classes, did his research, wrote and defended his thesis (with no revisions!), studied-for and passed his comprehensive exams (and was one of the only ones who did pass), waded through the paperwork and trivial bureaucracy that is graduate school, and continued to be successful at his full time job (which is much more demanding than my own job). All of that in a year, and with excellent grades too. Everybody told him he couldn't do it. I didn't even think he could do it--mainly because I didn't think the timelines set in place on campus would allow it (class offerings, forms, deadlines, etc). But he did it anyway. (Like I said, stubborn!)

This is a man who--when I met him--was not exactly the epitome of study skills and academic drive. I'd like to take credit for molding him in to the School Accomplishing Robot SuperHero he is today, but I can't. All I can say is that I have tried to be supportive. Because I do support his goals and I am so, so proud of him for accomplishing this one so swiftly. Keeping his goal in mind, I know he had many sleepless nights spent worrying, trying to work out the details. Stressed about his ability to complete the work, but moreso about being able to persuade administrators, his committee, and departmental types to believe in his motivation and allow him to work at this pace. There were days he got up before 6 to get a jump on his massive to-do list. There were days he didn't go to bed until well after midnight. There were days (weeks? months?) he missed family events, turned down invitations of friends, and refrained from doing anything unless it was related to this goal.

He is a very humble person. He'll read this post and shake his head repeatedly because he doesn't think he's smart, accomplished or anything special. But it'll be harder for him to argue against my position now that he'll have a Master's degree on the wall! (And in a few weeks, he'll begin his Ph.D. program...never a dull moment for us!)

So off I go to iron his robe and velvet hood. We're having a little backyard BBQ for a few family members and friends who will be at the ceremony. I have a pile of food chilling in my fridge, calling to me from my counter tops, and generally tempting me to just munch a little one will even know, right? I took today off to prep for all of this, and to enjoy celebrating this milestone with my husband and our friends and family.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

when countdowns are a bad idea

Recently I was reading a blog and came across a neat online counter widget. It lets you count down the days--right down to the minute--until your important event. "Oooh," I thought! "I can count down the days until my Ph.D. graduation!" So I entered in my date and even the time of the ceremony. It said 140 days. Hmm. That didn't really seem like a lot. I changed the date then, entering in the date the dissertation needs to be done and filed with the department in order to allow me to graduate. 115. Oh my.

This thing has been a cloud following me from place to place--raining on my every parade--for months now. But never has it felt so heavy and burdensome as it did when I saw that number. (The numbers are less than that now, by the way...) In those days remaining, I have to finish my analysis. I have to write it up. I have to do more data collection and analysis, and write that up. I have to finish chapter 2 (lit review), update chapter 3 (methodology), and write chapter 5 (discussion). Chapter 4 (results) has a really long way to go too. I also have to have these things all read and reviewed by my committee, and I expect they'll have many suggestions for changes and additional things they'll want me to cover. There's also the defense, but I'm good on my feet and I am not terribly concerned about that provided that the paper is solid. Obviously it's a huge deal and I'll be nervous, but when I get to that point I'll have a lot more done than I do now.

A timer, at this point, is not a countdown to relief. It's a threat. I needed to know, but I didn't want to know.

Last weekend I finally shelved my pride and asked my husband for help. He sat with me all day on Saturday and we worked on the stats. He helped me learn to read the output, and helped me interpret it too. He also got 'into' my project, getting excited about significant results and what they might mean. His contributions to this are so valuable. Without him, I'd still be nervously thinking "Oh man, I need to figure this out." (I'm still thinking that, but not with as much terror at least.) Instead, I feel more invested in the project, and a little less inept. Because of Mr. N, I understand stuff like upper and lower bounds, estimated marginal means, and post hoc tests. (Like I said before, I've taken several stats classes, but somehow this stuff never stuck.)

So that's where I'm at. With 105 days before the dissertation needs to be approved for defense, I'm nowhere near close. But I met with my advisor today and he's still pretty confident that I can make it happen. The issue is time. I only have my nights and weekends, and what do people do on nights and weekends in the summer? Have parties! I have a high school reunion, a housewarming, a baby shower, a wedding, and several other weekend and weeknight events. House projects are mostly on hold, but some outdoor things must be done before winter. I don't have any vacation time from work I can take on this (I've used it all until I earn some more.) This kind of research/schoolwork really goes smoothest if I have several hours of uninterrupted work time, yet instead I'm doing this in terrible, barely-productive spurts. In between loads of laundry, trying to keep some semblance of a tidy home, going to work, and trying to be supportive of my friends' and families' milestones as they celebrate them (on my precious night and weekend days...).

I know a lot of my writing is about me being stressed or not having enough time. Sorry. I know I chose to get a degree and I know I chose to do it without quitting my job. Therefore, I chose to be this busy/conflicted/stress-loaded. This is what it's like for me, right now. Enjoy.