FinishLine | Tips Tools Techniques for Completing a Thesis or Dissertation from Dr Wendy Carter

November, 2006spacerVolume 2, Issue 11

In This Issue:

When Faculty Say "X" They mean "Y: Want the Straight Scoop From Faculty? Here It Is!

Effective communication with your mentor, advisor and faculty is critical to your success in graduate school. It’s important to be able to wholly understand everything these critical influencers communicate to you, even if you have to “read between the lines.”

For example, when a faculty member says, “Would you like to change or fix this?”, it’s important to know that they are not actually offering you a choice. What they really mean is, “You need to change or fix this.”

When faculty say, “Have you considered x. y, or z?”, what they actually mean is, “You have missed x, y, and z and you need to include it in your research.”

And when they say, “Make those changes when you can,” what they really mean is, “Make those changes now.”

A frustration I hear repeated over and over again from grad students is that they find it difficult to decipher what their mentor or faculty members really think or want. This newsletter is dedicated to those students!

I recently attended a forum at the University of Maryland at which graduate students were allowed to anonymously post questions to a panel of faculty members. The exchange that resulted was worthy of sharing, because I feel the information could be of benefit to most graduate students. Following are some of the questions that students posed, and a summary of the responses faculty provided. (I’ve also incorporated my own perspective where relevant.) No more need to “read between the lines” … here is the straight scoop, directly from the professors’ mouths!!!

Question: How do you know when a faculty member is pleased with your work? Will they ever tell you outright if you're not doing well or if you're doing a great job?

Answer: You generally don’t get a grade – or any other feedback -- until the end. But regardless of when and how the feedback comes, it’s important to have confidence in yourself and your work, and to develop a “thick skin,” especially at the ABD stage. Always remember that you are more familiar with your work than your mentor is. As an independent scientist and thinker, you need to be prepared to defend your position and fight for your ideas. As such, your first and most critical advisor should be you … and only when you are completely comfortable with the strength and relevance of your work should you seek another point of view from your advisor. And, while it’s important to listen and absorb any constructive criticism offered, it’s equally important to have faith in yourself and your work.

Keep in mind that your mentor isn’t the only source of praise you should have in graduate school. Get additional positive reinforcement and feedback by broadening your circle of friends and professional networks, and bouncing your work and ideas off of them.

Question: When a professor says he or she wants a DRAFT, what does that REALLY mean?

Answer: Keep in mind that every single interaction and communication you have with graduate school professors or advisors makes an impression. Is a first draft the impression you want to make? A professor rarely wants to see an actual first draft, even if that was the “assignment.” Always polish your work as much as you can before handing it over to your advisor. That way they can focus on your concepts, clarity and idea sequencing … not typos and other distracting elements.

Question: When professors say, ‘You are a grad student; you don’t have a life,’ do they really mean it? It seems to me that a balanced life where there is time for family, friends and some social activity should be encouraged, since living in isolation often leads to depression and a lack of productivity.

Answer: Graduate school should be your primary focus, but it doesn’t have to be your only focus. You can take some time to nurture relationships with family and friends and to kick back or let loose every once in awhile. But it’s important not to underestimate the time and dedication required to complete your graduate studies; it will be and should be one of the most difficult challenges you will face in life.

It’s because of those strenuous academic requirements that feelings of isolation are sometimes difficult to avoid in graduate school. You will need to spend a lot of time working or writing, which isn’t always conducive to being with family and friends. Moreover, your academic advisor – every grad student’s primary point of contact – is busy, and even the best advisor doesn’t have the time to hold your hand during every step of your academic career. Your academic advisor’s main commitment is to supervise your research project, not to serve as your friend, therapist, financial aid counselor or marital advisor. As such, you may frequently be forced to spend quite a bit of time alone.

Question: Are there non-verbal actions or a pattern of interactions that give clues as to how seriously a professor takes you or your work? What are the warning signs that it may be time to have a “heart-to-heart?”

Answer: You can decipher most signals that professors send simply by trusting your instincts and applying common sense. For example, if your advisor chaired your Master’s thesis, but declines to chair your dissertation committee, it most likely means that the subject matter isn’t of interest to him, or that he feels you should find another advisor or leave the program altogether. If you find yourself in this or a similar situation, open the lines of communication and have the courage to ask!

Similarly, if a professor tells you that grant money has run out and she can’t find additional funding for you, or that she can no longer afford to “carry you,” it could mean that she is losing confidence in you or your ability to complete research from start to finish.

It’s time to have a “heart-to-heart” if your research is stalled and/or you are thinking about leaving the program. Before making the decision to quit, it’s always best to have a sit-down with your advisor. You might also consider asking for help and input from other senior members in the lab, an author of a paper that deals with your research area, or experts that you may have met at a conference or other academic gathering.

Question: How do you tell your advisor that you feel like your project is going in too many different directions, that it is causing you to feel overwhelmed, and that you don’t feel you are progressing expediently through anything because there are too many things going on at once?

Answer: Although it’s natural to sometimes want someone to tell you exactly what to do, your advisor expects you to be a mature person who can direct your own life. For example, what do you think about your own work? How do you feel you can better focus your project?

An advisor truly expects you to carve out your own research and form your own plans regarding how to accomplish your goals. You must be the one to take charge of your own research. To do so, you will need to map out time points and milestones that will keep you focused and on track. Writing a proposal is a good way to pinpoint what you plan to do in your dissertation and research area. Without a proposal, you could be led anywhere! An advisor can sometimes be like a butterfly eagerly jumping about from the discovery of one neat new flower to the next; he wants to explore and pursue every new idea! A thesis proposal (complete with a “Plan B” fallback plan) will not only keep you focused, but also help to reign in your advisor’s enthusiasm for every new idea and possibility.

Question: When faculty put you on a paper as the third author, why does it seem that you are doing all of the work?

Answer: Multi-author collaborations have produced many new opportunities for researchers to work with colleagues at different stages in their careers, in different disciplines, or even in different geographic locations. But it has also increased the possibility for differences to arise over questions of authorship.

In general, authorship is reserved to individuals who have made a significant contribution to the conception and design or the analysis and interpretation of data; participated in drafting the article or reviewing and/or revising it for intellectual content; and approved the final version of the manuscript.

The significance of the order in which authors are listed varies widely, and can depend on common practice in the field or the policy established by the publisher and/or journal. Conventions differ greatly among disciplines and research groups. Sometimes the scientist with the greatest name recognition is listed first, while in other fields the leader's name is always last. In some disciplines, a supervisor’s name rarely appears on papers, while in others the professor's name appears on every paper generated by the lab. Still other research groups and journals avoid these decisions by simply listing authors alphabetically.

Regardless of the situation, graduate students are generally the “worker bees” on a research project. Although you may feel that you are “doing all the work,” it’s important to keep in mind that you are not the principal investigator who came up with the initial idea for the research. The principal assumes full responsibility for a research project, including the supervision of research assistants and students. You are listed as the third author because, generally, you are performing tasks that any other research assistant could do under the supervision of the principal investigator.

Question: After working on a paper for two years, doing the research, writing the lit review, etc., what should a student do if his or her name has moved from 2nd author to 3rd and then (gulp!) to no authorship at all?

Answer: The allocation of credit can be particularly sensitive when it involved researchers at different stages of their careers, for example, postdocs, graduate students, junior faculty, and undergraduate student researchers. In such situations, differences in roles and status compound the difficulties of according credit. Before you begin working on a paper for publication, it is important as a research assistant that you talk about authorship in advance with the person asking you to participate in the project.

Several considerations must be weighed in determining the proper division of credit between a student or research assistant and a senior scientist, and a range of practices are acceptable. If a senior researcher has defined and put a project into motion and a junior researcher is invited to join in, major credit may go to the senior researcher, even if at the moment of discovery the senior researcher is not present. By the same token, when a student or research assistant is making an intellectual contribution to a research project, that contribution deserves to be recognized. Senior scientists are well aware of the importance of credit in science and are expected to give junior researchers credit where warranted. In such cases, junior researchers may be listed as coauthors or even senior authors, depending on the work, traditions within the field, and arrangements within the team.

In the case of papers with multiple authors, a "corresponding" author must be designated as having responsibility for overseeing the publication process and ensuring the integrity of the final document. 

Email Question of the Month:


My problem is getting started my Research Proposal. The title is "Poverty in my community," Sabah Malaysia. Do you think I can get assistance from your side? and if so how? and how much?
 George G.


Thank you for contacting us at TADA!Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished. You can begin by reading our FREE Monthly Newsletter FinishLine on Writing a Proposal, the link is below. 

Feel free to signup for our monthly newsletter as we deal with topics that help graduate students finish.

You can also begin your research on your topic "Poverty in my community," using our links and resources page, possibly under Sociology or Economics. However, your topic still needs to be narrowed down some more.....much has been written about poverty. They are many aspects of poverty that has already been written about.. i.e. the feminization of poverty, the measurement of poverty, childhood poverty, adult poverty, education and poverty need to be more specific about what aspect of poverty you are really interested in. You can finish you proposal in a short amount of time if you narrow your topic substantially and you already have some knowledge about the subject.

We do not write proposals for graduate students as it is unethical to do so. I hope that I have pointed you in the right direction to get started. I wish you all the best in finishing your proposal and your degree.

TA-DA!™ Graduates —
Congratulations on Your Success

Dr Carter, I receive your online newsletter and I have used it guide me through my thesis preparation. I was able to complete my masters degree and thesis in a record time of less than one year (apparently it has not been done before at my department in my university in Canada ) by simply following your advice of 15 minutes per day. It really works and I can attest to this. ... your general advice has been quite useful.Keep up the good work!!! Anne P.

Anne, Congratulations on completing your degree!!!!!!!!!!!Thank you for your testimony...I always appreciate the feedback it keeps me going. I wish you all the best in the future. Dr. Carter

What TA-DA!™ Users Have to Say...

If you're still wondering whether or not TA-DA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished™ can help you — don’t take our word for it. Take a few moments to read what some of our customers have told us.
See how TA-DA!™ helped them...

Ph.D. Doctoral Students

•  Hello Dr. Carter, I met with you a few months ago. I had an impossible deadline to meet: to complete my dissertation proposal in 6 weeks time. I just wanted you to know that I successfully defended the proposal on October 3rd!! Thanks for your help and encouragement! All the best, Harriette W.

•  How it (TADA) Helped: In many ways but I will mainly highlight two areas for now. 1. The TADA Calender. The main problem I faced before was how to get down and do my work. But with the TADA Calender, I have made a committment and I everyday I have the motivation to fulfill this commitment. 2. The 12 Minutes Tasks. I was never even aware of some of those requirements. Now I feel more confident since each day I know exactly what is expected of me and I can make an exact plan of how to accomplish them. Dear colleagues in Thesis/Dissertation writing. Anybody wanting to have a peace of mind and confidence in whatever she/he does during the whole Thesis/Dissertation writing, you have no choice but to buy the TADA CD. I won't explain what wonders it will do to you, but buy it and experience it." Connie, U.K.

•  TA-DA gave me the incentive to "get the lead out" and finish. The 12 minutes a day has lead to approximately two to three hours. I have really got a lot done, just knowing that the twelve minutes does wonders for the psyche.
Maryjane, Fayetteville, NC

•  The commitment to a deadline and to working 12 minutes a day actually reduces stress. I can always do 12 minutes--even if I'm tired, sick, uninspired or grumpy. Facing a deadline makes it feel like I will actually get done! "I have to do my 12 minutes" we say in our house these days. I've been progressing steadily on my dissertation by committing to 12 minutes, and my husband has covered huge amounts of material for an upcoming professional exam. My friend has committed to completing the annulment papers she has procrastinated on for 10 years, and my father-in-law has started studying Spanish 12 minutes a day. Thanks!
Christine, Seattle, WA

•  It helped me to set goals for my chapters and give me some practical strategies for finishing. Also I believe it's good to list your finish date. It gives you something to strive for rather than letting the thesis become nebulous.
Martha; Albany, CA

•  TA-DA explains the dissertation process and lifts the curtain to a process that seems impossible to accomplish. It provides strategy for selecting the committee and provides timelines that enable accomplishment of the dissertation within a specific time frame.
Randall; USMC Jacksonville, NC

•  The program helped me to understand the dissertation concept much better. I am a visual individual; the tutorial was a great help.
Deborah; U.S. Army

•  Provides helpful suggestions for how to proceed as well as suggesting disciplined and reasonable timelines for completion.
Lawrence; Philadelphia, PA

Master’s Thesis Students…

•  It has helped with the fact that my graduate school does not have a formal format for the proposal. The Journal has helped a lot.
Talia; Naranjito, Puerto Rico

•  This is a great tool for those who will be starting either their Master's Degree or Dissertation. I highly recommend it.
Teresa; Naguabo, Puerto Rico

•  Requesting that I set a goal date for finishing, kept me focused and it was the first step in accomplishing the task. Also, I kept remembering the words; a good thesis is a done thesis.
Gladys; NY, NY

•  It guided me to a fair start. Gracias!
Jess; San Francisco, CA



Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D.

About the Author: As a single mother, professor Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters' degrees and a PhD. Her motto is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done Thesis/Dissertation. She is the creator of a new innovative interactive resource tool on CD—TADA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished. To learn more and sign up for her FREE tips and teleclasses, contact us at Privacy is our policy. TADA™ Finishline does not give out or sell our subscribers' names or e-mail addresses.

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Inside This Issue:

When Faculty Say "X" They mean "Y: Want the Straight Scoop From Faculty? Here It Is!

Email Q & A of the Month

Congratulations Graduates

What TA-DA!™
Users Say

Next FinishLine Features:

Name Dropping, Book Review, or Writing a Literature Review - Part 2





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