Posts Tagged ‘Dissertation’

October 23, 2013


Exhausted, Relieved, Elated, Happy, Drained, Ecstatic. Defended. De-Fend-Ed.

At 4:11 PM my dissertation committee wrapped up their discussion. I had passed with “flying colors”. It was surreal hearing those words. I expected to pass as all grad students who finish their theses are conditioned to expect. What I wasn’t sure on was how my thesis stacked up against the expectation, or how much work my committee would request I do before signing off on it. I was not expecting to walk out, title page in hand, with two signatures already and a third (remote) member ready to sign once it arrived to him. I was hoping, but not daring to expect.

My plan for the day was to go to bed early – no later than 11 pm. I’d drop off Nicki at daycare, then Domingo and I would drive down to Santa Cruz two to three hours before my actual defense at 2 pm. I’d have time to pay the filing fee when I arrived, do a full run through of my presentation before my defense.

The actual day turned out very different.

I’m a believer that impressions matter, and wanted to wanted to project a professional image so I decided to dress “business casual.” I had read everything from full suits required, to not to worry about appearances. Computer science tends to be a very causal field as far as attire goes, so I opted for the “dress one step above your interviewers” (or in this case committee members) rule. When we were packing last week for our move, I made sure I had an outfit I liked, that I could feel confident in. The trouble is, I didn’t set it aside. I expected to be unpacked by now (ha!). That outfit? Buried in one of my suitcases. So at around 11:30 I was madly searching for anything that fit the bill and wasn’t too wrinkled. Luckily I found a pale pink shirt and dark gray sweater that were relatively wrinkle free.

The last step before bed was to print my thesis. I had read that the committee may have specific questions about specific figures, and having a hard copy makes things easier. (My committee did have such questions.)

Last time I tried to print my dissertation it took 54 minutes, 25.9 seconds. Yes, I timed it. I’m a PhD, we do weird things like that. That was back when it was 172 pages, these days it’s 200 pages. That’s a rate of about one page per 18 seconds. At the time I thought the problem was my cheapie printer running out of buffering space. It turns out it’s my laptop and my laptop is dying. It’s having memory corruption errors. I know this because it blue screened of death on me TWICE while trying to print, and hung once and required a full disk check on boot up. After trying for over an hour I abandoned the idea of having a printed copy. But I couldn’t just go to bed at that point. I had no other presentation device. I needed to know whether my laptop would boot or I would be making an emergency run to BestBuy in the morning. That meant I had to wait through the full check disc process. It turned out that as long as I didn’t attempt to print, or open up a web browser, my computer had enough memory to give my presentation. I went to bed a little after 1.

Then Nick decided it was time to get up at 4. And again at 5:30. And finally at 6:30.

Daycare drop off went a little longer than expected. Nicki is handling the switch like a boss. The recommendation was four visit days. The second day she was content to play by herself away from me for twenty minute intervals. The third day she was good for a few hours. Her teachers have been so impressed by how quickly she’s been adapting. No Tears! Still I wanted to wait until snack time to leave, since she’s usually sufficiently distracted by tasty goodness that she doesn’t notice my exit. Snack time was a little delayed, and apparently I have been a little too consistent in my exit. Nicki noticed the pattern. She started to walk off in the direction of snack, but then changed her mind and came flying back into my arms. Little kids are excellent at deducing patterns when they want to be!

Back at home Domingo had not only managed to print my thesis in under five minutes, but had swung by target and picked up brownies and cookies for my committee. Have I mentioned before how absolutely amazing and what a life saver he is?

I finally found the phone number to order coffee for my committee members, a quick shower, and it was time to leave. Despite everything we were still making good time and would be on campus two hours early.

About 15 minutes into the journey to campus traffic stopped. There is exactly one route through the mountains to UC Santa Cruz – highway 17. There was a brush fire and the right lane was closed. Traffic was backed up for miles. We arrived at campus with less than an hour to go. A quick bite of lunch, a few minutes to set-up and it was go time.

September 24, 2013

Thesis Truths

As of 1:01 PM my dissertation draft has been mailed off to my committee. Six years of work written down onto 200 pages. Yes 200, exactly. It feels surreal to not be working on it right now. I have been consumed with writing, proof reading, and re-writing for the past month. This is what I learned about thesis writing that everyone told me, but I didn’t quite believe until I sat down to write my one myself.

My thesis when it was 172 pages, just 3/4″ tall. They grow up so fast, don’t they?

It will take at least six months to just write your thesis.

I figured using excerpts from a few polished papers as the bases for my thesis would help cut down on the time it takes to write the thesis, but it read like excerpts from separate published papers. It takes time to combine ideas behind several papers into one narrative.

I had a sketch of my thesis last winter. It may sound silly, but I would occasionally spend time tweaking my table on contents to make sure my thesis narrative was clear. I wanted my committee members to be able to gleam not only the problem space and my approach, but also my contributions from the table of concepts, like one might from an abstract. The last few weeks I focused on the cross references, and making sure the hypothesis brought up in the conclusion section of one chapter would be explored in another.

Solid writing isn’t a replacement for solid content. Poor writing, however, can make it difficult for your committee to understand your contributions. It takes time to write well.

A Thesis is Never Done. But it can be done enough.

One my mentors at Microsoft told me that at some point you just have to decide it’s done enough. It can always be better.

A dissertation is supposed to represent very deep knowledge in a single problem. You want to address questions your reading committee might have before they have a chance to have them. When ever you reach a conclusion, you try and think of the implications, the holes. What are the questions my committee will ask? You then come up with experiments to address these ideas, but that begets new ideas and new conclusions that warrant further exploration. There are always more avenues to explore.

One of my committee members suggest writing a “sufficient” thesis, one that is good enough to graduate and not to stress about making it perfect. Her thinking: conference papers and journal articles are more likely to be read, and a good published thesis trumps a near perfect draft.

It’s not about intelligence, it’s about tenacity.

Once you have the green light to write from your adviser you will graduate if you stick with it, it just may take time.

When I started writing my thesis I wasn’t certain that I would graduate. The whole process just seems so daunting. It wasn’t until I was about two thirds done that I really started appreciating all the work that had lead me to this point. At some point during the writing process it just sort of dawns on you that yes, you really are the expert on this topic.

Your committee members will undoubtedly have ideas on how to improve your thesis, and they may want to see changes before they are willing to sign off on it. If you’ve reached this point, however, it’s just a matter of sticking through to the end. You will graduate. I will graduate.

August 18, 2013

A Draft

Who has two thumbs and a complete thesis draft?
Who has had an average of 4 hours of sleep a night and feels loonier than a ‘toon created by the brothers Warner?

My stress level has been probably the highest it’s been in over a decade. Last week I had a near constant stress induced migraine. The stress wouldn’t let me sleep, making me more and more tired, but the fatigue was preventing me from being as productive as I needed to be and I’d fall farther behind and stress out more. Last Wednesday I went to bed a little past midnight and could not fall asleep until 6:15 in the morning! Enough.

I ended up changing my approach to my thesis. I had been trying to perfect each chapter at a time. I kept thinking about all the unfinished sections, and I think that was contributing to my stress level. So I decided no more worrying about writing well, just write. I have some sections that are pretty rough, but I have a draft!

My current thesis draft by the numbers
– 111 References
– 135 Pages (92 are the actual thesis, the rest are references, boiler plate and appendices)
– 8 Chapters
– 2 Appendices
– 14 Figures
– 11 Tables

I know it’s those numbers are rather meaningless, it’s the quality of the content and not the quantity of content, but they give me a sense of accomplishment. Not that long ago my thesis was only 122 pages, and before it reached 135 I dropped it down to 106 by removing extraneous content and tangential references. I want from 72 references, down to 61 and back up to 111 in a couple of weeks, and I have more to add! I have accomplished a lot, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. And if I can do all that, surely I can finish.

And now, I’m off to what I hope is the first of many good nights of sleep.