Friday, March 23, 2012

no news

Nothing big yet from the committee. I can't believe it's been 10 days since I turned it in. (I know, that isn't a lot of time, but in the course of our agreed-upon timeline, it's significant.) Our timeline--which they're aware of--stated that if they have changes they would like to see completed before any signatures are given, they should have those changes to me by March 30th. (Today.) It would give me a few days to make those changes and get the paper back to them for their review prior to the form-signing deadline of April 12 (my hearing is the 10th).

So this could be good news or bad news.

Good news, if they have looked through it and they don't see anything significant wrong with it. That'd be great. Bad news, if they have not looked through it yet, but when they do they MIGHT find significant things. (This is more likely the case. I know people are busy and it's a long paper. While the March 30 'deadline' was a courtesy/safeguard my advisor built in for me, it is not a real deadline and can certainly be ignored without any repercussion to the committee members.)

If they have not looked through it yet--but when they do they find issues--this is not automatically bad news for me. The university rules are that they can still sign the forms for approval on the good faith that I will implement their changes and/or address their concerns prior to the defense (which will potentially be at the end of the month). However, it is up to each member whether they want to extend that 'good faith.' You might recall that in the fall, they did not.

So it all comes down to "we'll see." Patience is what I have to have. And because I can't stand downtime, I applied to a research fair. If I get accepted, I'll be presenting my research in a poster session. (You make a poster of your findings, then stand in a room with a bunch of others who have done the same, and everyone walks around and looks at each other's.)

I also need to make a 20 minute powerpoint presentation & speech about my dissertation. I will give it at the preliminary approval hearing. That's a weekend project, I suppose.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

to the committee!

I feel like we're back in November. Let's do it again, shall we?

My advisor turned my overhauled and re-polished dissertation over to my committee today. (Now with more pages! Lucky them!) Two of them wanted to have a printed copy, so here I am on my way to drop them off, about an hour ago.


Lots of pages, right? I feel like the work I have done since November was much harder and much easier than it was in the fall.

Harder, because:
  • I had banked so much hope on being done a few months ago. How does one continue to persevere when their hope has been snatched up? I was supposed to be making a quilt or reading books or cooking meals or something this spring. Not hunching over MS Word with my behind asleep and my eyeballs burning, subsisting on Doritos and whiskey.
  • While I understood the reasons for the revisions and agree it made the paper better, I still poured so much energy in to making it great back in the fall. Tearing that work apart was tough.
Easier, because:
  • I already had probably 85% of the content written; this was about rearranging and clarifying.
  • I have read so unbelievably much about this topic, it's become quite a bit easier to locate and evaluate additional sources.
  • I made up my mind to have a better attitude about it.
That last one was absolutely key. Many of the things that have run through my mind haven't been the least bit useful or productive. My 'better attitude resolution' helped to shush that useless stuff. I tried harder to be a little less doom-filled.

Did I learn a lot more from the process of failure (not failure actually, just postponement)? I believe I did. Was it worth the extra toil to endure the shitty feeling of missing my goal? Bigger Person me--who always considers the long run--says it absolutely was. Of course, petty me is still whiny about having to delay graduation until May (or possibly August--we'll see what the committee thinks, won't we). But you can't live your life on couldas and shouldas, can you?

So, onward and upwards. Here are the dates if you're interested.

Committee needs to sign the approval form by April 12.
I need to defend by April 26 (But have an exception allowing me to do it on the 27th.)

Now, I hope that this time, the paper (and by extension, my research) are solid (and uh, maybe even a little impressive)

Monday, March 19, 2012

why this is so hard for me

It concerns me when the occasional grad student (or potential grad student) comments here and says that my journey through all this scares them, or they don't think they could handle grad school, or have the drive that's necessary (and they're equating this to the drive I have displayed). But here's how I think my experience differs from most graduate students' experiences.
  1. Neither my advisor nor I are really superb at managing time in the 'big picture,' or conceptualizing time as it relates to productivity and turn-around time.
  2. Husband and I are both working and both in school, each taking more than a full time class load.
  3. I'm first to reach this point, in a new program.
  4. I have this personality flaw wherein I become obsessed with anything I take on, and have to finish it. Now.
More detail.

In reference to (1), both my advisor and I are busy. Me with my job and life, him with his job and life. At different times throughout the year, we each tend to out...for a long period of time. Too long. Last year (summer especially) was bad that way. We don't realize how much time has passed, we forget that it's our turn to be doing something with the dissertation, etc. This happened in February: nearly 2 weeks went by and I hadn't heard from my advisor about the changes; turns out he didn't realize he had it in his inbox. That's a human thing to do.

For (2), all I can say is that it's motivation to get done. Two people in school costs money, time, and health. Money is obvious. Time because we don't get to spend any together and neither of us has any to spare for free time with friends, family, etc. Health because no one has time to cook, exercise, or otherwise be healthy (and mental health...heh...that's overrated, right?!!).

For (3), being first in this program means that no one has gone through a lot of the things I'm going through, yet. (And by no one, I mean no other student in my program, and I also mean my advisor and committee members. They've all advised/had PhD committees before, but not in this program.) No one (including me) wants to do something wrong. But mistakes have been made and intentions misunderstood, and the reality that anything I do sets the path for what other students do weighs heavily, both on me and on everyone else who has vested interest in the success of this program. I have to do all the right things and am supposed to do them perfectly, yet the process is still being developed (based on each step I take). It's hard to live up to. Sometimes it's crushing and other times it's invigorating. It's always humbling.

The last item on the list (4) can be filed under "sounds like a personal problem to me." I can't NOT finish something. This could be something like a little craft project, or something big (like a PhD). If I start something I have to finish it, and I do not drag my feet because my mental state is rocked by unfinished business. I have trouble functioning when there is a half-finished project on my plate. You won't find any unfinished scarves or partially painted furniture in my house. It's done or it hasn't been started. When I do a project, I throw myself all in and finish it. Even if I decide I don't like it half way though, I have to finish it. It's my nature. My mom will testify that I used to do my homework on Friday after school, so I wouldn't have it hanging over my head on the weekend. I'm still the same. My advisor knows this, and has told me I simply can't work that way on a dissertation--you can't write it all at once. This is true, but it's draining for me. This is the unfinished project that WON'T GET DONE. It follows me around and presses on my "get it done" nerve. It needs to get done.

That's why I'm "in such a hurry." (People keep asking.) Working on it bit by bit, for years, works for some people. No one would judge me for doing that, my husband has a couple of years left in his degree, and I have a job, so it isn't like I'm prolonging the slovenly life of a graduate student (the one where you sit around in coffee shops in the middle of weekdays, apparently, in your yoga pants, and eat bagels and drink tea and peruse literature). I don't have that life, and I haven't had it since the first semester of my master's degree program (I quickly got bored with it and got a job!). But I could take a few more semesters and do this slower because, why not? I have the time, while Mr. N is working on his. My answer is: because I don't want to. I know myself, and taking longer would NOT be better for my mental health.

When all of these things collide:

Half the time, I'm exhausted, strung out, highly caffeinated, hair on fire, feeling like I might just explode. Half the time, I'm idle and don't know what to do with my evenings and weekends, since my advisor or committee has the dissertation. (I usually mill around the house, cleaning ALL the things...) Sometimes I'm numb and I just don't care at all. Occasionally, I'm really angry. I'm confused much of the time, my confidence rises and falls with the day, and my unfinished degree follows me around like a black cloud, raining on my personality every time I try to relax or have fun.

So to rid myself of all of this, I make short term sacrifices that 'sane' humans probably would not choose to make. Like these stretches where I take a few very long days (nights? both? whatever) to make the amount of revisions or additions that most graduate students would take a few weeks to do. I can't allow myself to take those weeks because I can't let this degree continue to be unfinished. Plus, I usually rationalize it by telling myself I need to make up for time I or my advisor zoned our way through at an earlier date. ("Ok, you have to do 2 weeks worth of stuff in 2 days now, but remember that 2 weeks you spent last year doing absolutely nothing? This is the payback!")

I wrote over 40 pages of new material between Thursday night and Saturday afternoon. Is this typical or expected? No. But for me and my situation, it was necessary.

I guess I'm writing all of this because I want you to understand that my situation is the way it is because I made it that way. My circumstances contribute to it, and so does my personality. Nobody is forcing me to work 18 hour Saturdays and Sundays on this stuff. That's just my thing because I make myself do what I think is necessary. Your situation probably isn't/wouldn't be this way. Of course graduate school is stressful for everyone, but it affects everyone differently, and at different points in their program. I've made some nutty (or, if we're being polite, ambitious?) choices and set some lofty goals, but in this situation, that's how I function best. It just gets me into trouble every so often (and I write about that here).

Thanks for following my journey. Things are picking up, I think, and I'm feeling very excited, nervous, anticipatory, and oh so anxious. Mostly, everything feels really FINAL. I did not have that feeling in the fall, and I hope it isn't misplaced now. I hope I'll have more to report soon.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


5 minutes ago, I emailed my 301 page dissertation, "final copy," to my advisor.
(4 minutes ago, I texted him to tell him to check his email.)

Now he's going to review the changes I've made over the past week and (I hope) approve it to go to committee. He's promised me that he will do this by Monday, as Tuesday is the day we'd like it to go to the committee.

This last round of revisions was really rough, full of ups and downs.

The biggest of those "downs" occurred on Tuesday evening. I was at Hardees buying a Frisco burger (my diet's going well, glad you asked) and my advisor emailed me his requested changes for chapters 3 and 4. There were a lot. That's OK. What wasn't OK was one thing, in particular. I had made a really big error in my statistics, all starting with some improper data entry. I described what I had done in my methodology chapter, too.

I called him and said, "so, you mean, this is a limitation? Something I need to keep in mind so I don't make the same mistake in future research?" That isn't what he meant.

This couldn't be allowed to slide, and I was going to have to re-enter that data, re-run all of my analyses, redo all of my results. This means all of that statistics-ese, M = this, SD = that, f(something, something,) p = whatever, and so on. And my graphs, charts, figures. All were to be redone. Tedious. And then I'd get to see whether the new, corrected results would still be significant in the same places (and if they weren't, my conclusions and discussion (chapter 5) would be different).

I had until today to get this done, along with a ton of other revisions that were time consuming enough as it was. Plus, the data entry and stats analysis process had taken me weeks in the summer and I hadn't done anything in SPSS in nearly 6 months. But I put on my brave face and decided that it had to get done.

Still I was feeling seriously disillusioned, exhausted and lost in this work that I would never ever be able to finish in time even though I was working what felt like round-the-clock on it. After doing a bunch of the other revisions that were laid out in the document, I finally sat down to do this horrible bad no good deed on Thursday night, and this is where we go back "up."

When I sat down with my big binder full of surveys and started to correct the first one, I thought "that's weird, it's already correct." Then I checked another, and another. 20 spot-checks later, I realized that I had done the data entry (and hence, the analysis) correctly all along.

What had happened was this. I kept a research notebook throughout my dissertation research. In it, I wrote every decision I made so that I would later be able to write them in to my methodology section of my dissertation. I made a (poor) decision about the data entry somewhere along the way. Some time after that--but before I actually entered the data--I must have talked to my advisor and he set me straight. So the poor decision was never put in to action, and I entered the data correctly right off the bat... but I didn't change what I'd written in my notebook.

So when I feverishly copied all of that methodology stuff out of my notebook in the fall, I copied that poor decision--the one I never actually carried out--right into my dissertation chapter.

Moral of the story is that I had to change one sentence, not all my data analyses and a whole chapter of results and possibly discussion too. Sweet relief. I emailed my parents, I texted my advisor, and I had renewed motivation to just DO EVERYTHING and do it right.

So, I did. I seriously got 'in the zone' and the words just flowed, the ideas made sense, the revisions were easy an all was right with the world. So 5 minutes ago (well, more like 20 now), I made the last change, saved it, closed it up, and emailed it off.

I was about to step away from the computer, but I thought this was pretty blog-worthy. This isn't "certain victory," but it's a milestone indeed. I turned in my dissertation and it's almost, almost, almost done, I hope.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

the last push

(Is probably not the last push, but who's counting? Really, how many last pushes have there been? heh.)

Last Tuesday, I received the first half of my final "major" revision from my advisor. This was the step where he went through it with a fine tooth comb and caught everything from comma problems to improper use of words, to a few lingering logical confusions. He has continued to work on the second half it and I've been told I will have those by the end of the day today.


In the meantime, I've been doing all that final stuff, like alignment, proper headings, checking compliance with style guides, writing acknowledgements, and dedications, etc. When you can't write your acknowledgements page without bursting in to tears, you know it has to be close, right? A lot of people cared along the way.

Everything feels very... final... this time, even though it's going to be right down the wire, just like last time, and we know how last time turned out.

I also ordered my gown, tam, and hood, which I think is a very superstitiously inappropriate thing to do at this point, but they do have ordering deadlines so I had to do it. (If I don't make it, it's the same gear I'd wear in August, at least.)

I need to get those changes done by Friday, and I'm honestly a bit worried about the workload (but I know I can do it - who needs sleep? I've proven that I don't). Although it's spring break, I do have to work, so I predict some late nights ahead. But like I said, last push! By the weekend, I will have turned in a finished, polished, shiny dissertation to my advisor, and then... we wait.

Push indeed. Push me right over! I've received chapters 3 and 4 now (he's still working on 5, but I'll have that tomorrow). I knew there would be a lot of work because these chapters have received a lot less focus...until now. And I was right, it's a LOT of work. It's rewording and reorganization. It's more logic and more examples. It's more data and more specifics, more percentages, more charts. It's things I lazily omitted 10 months ago because I didn't know the answers, and hoped no one would notice/ask. He noticed, and he's asking. Crap! It's going back to my surveys and re-entering several bits of data because I naively entered them incorrectly in the summer... and then re-running all of my analysis because they're based on the wrongly-entered data. These are the kinds of changes that would be show-stoppers if I was anybody but me, and if my advisor was anybody but him. We're back to the point where I'm feeling like I'm on a kamikaze mission. This is where I prove that I can handle whatever's thrown at me, right?

Thursday, March 01, 2012

cliffhanger and leap day luck

So, here's that update I was promising.

The options weren't looking very good for me graduating in May, due to conflicting committee member schedules. The option I was favoring--doing the defense on the deadline date-- wouldn't work at all because of the flight schedule of one of the traveling committee members. (This person wouldn't be back until after hours that night; I had hoped they could hop off the plane and go directly to my defense.)

The other workable option was to defend by April 11--before the other committee member left--and get it over with. This would have been very difficult for me and my advisor though, since we'd need to get the paper to the committee RIGHT NOW and it isn't ready yet. That's the option I'd be after right now though, if not for a miracle of miracles... Leap-day luck, if you will.

I have to say, when I woke up on February 29th, I saw a lot of Facebook posts about Leap Day Luck. Feeling cynical, already, I commented a few times that Leap day is historically unlucky, as-a-matter-of-fact. Today was to be the day I'd find out I'm not graduating until August. Plus we were supposed to have a snow day, but we didn't even have any snow on the ground. And while I love teaching my class, I was in NO MOOD for it.

When I got to work I decided to take some advice from my husband I had brushed off the previous evening though. He had found a vague statement on our PhD student checklist, saying defenses must take place by 2 weeks prior to graduation day. This conflicts with their published defense deadline. If you want to get technical (and believe me, I do), the published deadline is actually 16 days before graduation. So a defense taking place the day after the published deadline is still a valid defense date if going by the info published in the checklist. 15 days is more than 2 weeks from graduation.

So I called the person in the graduate department that deals with this stuff, and explained my situation.

I told her--before I even started to explain--that I realized this was probably a shot in the dark. Along with every other grad student, I know that this department simply does NOT budge on deadlines. Not at all. And I told her I respected their need to be stringent, but asked her to please hear me out. Then I told her my story. I tried to stick to the facts, but explained the problems in the fall, the problems scheduling in the spring, the people going out of town or out of the country, how I was trying to be proactive in scheduling early, but it just won't work out for them during those dates, and finally ended with the 'two weeks' statement my husband found in the checklist.

And... she said my request was acceptable! And that she would make a note in my file of this exception!

I couldn't even believe it. This just doesn't happen. I've heard of people being denied graduation for being only minutes late turning in various things. I've since asked her for a written/formal proof of the exception, just to cover me as I move forward. She said she would email it. She emailed it. I still can't believe it.

So then I sent an email out with the new defense date. Then I realized that the day we had wanted to do the preliminary approval hearing is actually Good Friday, a campus holiday. So we have to move that. I sent another email. I hate sending so many emails to my committee. I'm sure it's bothersome and probably not professional either, or following protocol. Too many emails means you should just ignore them and not read them, right?

Then I got a call from my advisor, wondering what was the deal with the freaked out text message I sent him the night before. (I believe the actual text said, "I'm freakin out. Chex your email")

Turns out, he had seen none of the emails -- not the ones from committee members with conflicts, and not the ones I sent in the morning. He was having trouble with his email program. Once he got that fixed, he received all of the emails at once. He politely suggested I simmer down on my email frequency. Haha. At least most if them were only addressed to him.

I explained to him all that had happened. He took control and sent another email requesting the committee pick a good date for preliminary approval ASAP, and asserting that we MUST do the defense on the new date I secured. He requested that the committee members confirm today. At 3:48 pm, after a very long day of limbo, the email came in.

Solid dates, solid times. For both meetings.

In another surprising emotional display, I sat at my desk and sobbed. I sent my advisor back an email and here is what it said, and I quote: "!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

But life goes on and I had to teach my class at 4, so I had to get it together.

That was my leap day. Made my own luck, yes I did. Now let's hope it sticks. Nobody told me that so much drama would be involved, but I guess that's expected when emotions cone in to play. Tonight though, I am thrilled.