Monday, January 26, 2009

Q + A with a recent CGU grad


This week we had a special guest speaker, Stephanie McKinney, a Ph.D. in History who specializes in modern war, history, and genocide memorialization. She finished at CGU in December. Her dissertation is titled “Speaking of the Dead: Reconstructing Identity in Post Genocide Rwanda."


Here are some of the questions from the group that Stephanie answered.


Q: Is there any advice you wish someone had told you about the process before you began?

A: “The final stages are really hard," said Stephanie, "I wish someone had said, 'It is not pretty and it sucks and it will be the most humiliating thing in your life.'"


Tanya mentioned how she's noticed that many people she's talked to about their dissertations are all in therapy. The room quickly chimed in about how great the free therapy at Monsour is, and how everyone should be going there.


Stephanie also related a story about attending a recent Halloween party for her kids. One of the other moms said, “I just finished my Ph.D., so of course my self-esteem has never been lower.” Stephanie said she wanted to say, “thank you!” to the woman for expressing the exact same way she felt.


CGU Flame Pumpkin Courtesy of Alexandra Dove, MA History 2006



Q: How long did it take you to write it?

A: “My husband says I wrote the whole thing in five months,” Stephanie said, “ But I had spent about a year and a half researching.”


Leading up to her defense, Stephanie encountered many obstacles. Her initial dissertation advisor left CGU for a position elsewhere. After she returned from research in Rwanda, her youngest child became seriously ill with salmonella poisoning, requiring surgery and a week in the hopsital. Stephanie juggled adjuncting at different universities, raising two children, and trying to power through her dissertatation. And she did it!


Q:Is a 4th reader a CGU requirement?

A: "No. However, the rules about outside readers depends on your school."

Because CGU doesn’t have any European history specialists (Stephanie’s field), she had to look for outside readers to help her through the process. She made connections at conferences and ended up having a few top genocide scholars willing to read her dissertation and help her polish it.


Paula noted that only CGU people are allowed to serve on your quals committees, you have to petition (as she did) if you need an outsider member. Aris noted that in SBOS, you won’t know who your 4th reader is.


Paula also reminded everyone to hold onto the CGU Handbook from the year you were admitted. That is a legally binding contract. As a student at CGU, you have to abide by the rules laid out in the Handbook, but so do the faculty members. So if you find yourself getting caught up in some kind of red-tape nightmare, it wouldn’t hurt to check the handbook and make sure you’ve fulfilled everything they originally said you had to, and that they fulfilled their end of the deal.


Q: Can you defend in summer?

A: The general answer was: Yes. You can defend whenever you can get your committee together.


Q: Was formatting it a problem?

A: "Formatting – so, so important." Stephanie noted that when you’re ready to file, they ask for three copies. But she recommends saving yourself a lot of money and frustration by only printing one copy first, making sure its good to go, and then making the other copies.


“These are consecutive pages, not chapter pages,” Stephanie explained, “You

don’t want to print out three copies of the thing only to find out there’s an error on page 2. Bring in one copy, get it okayed, fix it if needed, and then go to Kinkos and get the next two copies made.”


Q: Did you have to make an appointment with Edris to file?

A: "They sent an e-mail and said, 'This is when we’ll be available.' So I dropped in then."


Please note: Edris Steubner, the Assistant Registrar, is going to be your main contact for filing. She will be coming to the Dissertation Workshop on March 23 to discuss the rules for formatting and submission. Stay tuned!


Q: Are they particular about the margins?

A: “She does take out a ruler and she does measure,” laughed Stephanie, “Serious as a heart attack. Always be nice to the secretary and the registrar, they’ll work for you.”


Q: What do you do when you’re not hearing back from your committee members or you feel like you’re in limbo?

A: “Act like it's happening and keep shoving it forward,” Stephanie answered, “If you don’t, who will?”


Q: What was the sequence of your revision?

A: “I revised it chapter by chapter,” answered Stephanie. “I had one chapter out in circulation and one I was working on. The sequence was: first I’d send a draft to the Writing Center, then I

’d make corrections before sending that draft to my committee, and then I’d make revisions and have my revision draft.”


Stephanie reiterated how helpful the Writing Center was in getting feedback on her writing. As a reminder: you can send up to 50 pages a week to the Writing Center, with a 1 week turnaround, up to 8 times a semester. For more info about the Writing Center's services for dissertation reading, click here.


Q: What happened going into the final weeks before your defense?

A: Dec 12 was the paper signature deadline for January graduation. Her committee told Stephanie, “These are the problems in your dissertation…can you fix them in 4 weeks? Here are the problems. These are what you’ll have to fix for us to sign off on this.” At her defense, Stephanie laid out her strategy for addressing remaining problems in the work.


Q: Do you have any advice about writing proposals?

A: “The proposal saved my butt in the end. I had a chapter that had to be two chapters. But one part wasn’t that good. It wasn’t in my proposal…so that allowed me to take it out completely. I’d added a chapter that was underdeveloped, but it wasn’t in the proposal, so it was easy to pull it. Your proposal changes, but it can also save you.”


Margaret noted that in some fields, there is no wiggle room in the proposal. In other fields (particularly the Humanities) it is quite common to have a final dissertation that isn’t that close to its original proposal.


Q: Did you use Endnote or Refworks?

A: Stephanie answered, "I think you have to start that from the beginning. I wish I’d know about it before I started, but I didn’t, so I just typed my own footnotes and such. It’s easier that way when you know how to do it already. I did get a new laptop during my dissertation…and it did all kinds of things more easily!"


Q: What were your methods of backup?

A: "CGU gives you a free webpage – I put it up there. You can e-mail it to yourself, even the copy you send to the Writing Center will be saved."


Lynda reminded everyone to keep a backup flash drive, but don’t keep the drive with your laptop (if the laptop is stolen or damaged, the flash drive could be as well).


Margaret mentioned SuperDuper, a system recovery resource that makes a mirror image of your hard drive.


Q: I’m writing my bibliography, and it has 500 books! And there are more being published. How do you make it manageable?

A: "You hit the point where you decided you’re done. You know, 'our library doesn’t have it, I can’t LINK + it, it’s $127 on Amazon…I’ll let that one go!' At some point, you have to figure if you get something wrong, your committee will let you know. At some point, you just make an executive decision to stop," said Stephanie.


“My bibliography is about half of what it was at the proposal,” noted Lynda. “The same, same things kept showing up in everything I was reading. I decided that those texts had to be my foundation.”

"You hit the point where you have to throw it out there and see what happens.”


“There was a day when I realized I was done reading,” said Lynda.

“It’s like on Thanksgiving, deciding when you’re going to stop eating.”


Q: How do you decide what goes in the footnotes and what goes in the main text?

A: "That’s where your readers come in," replied Stephanie.


The group brainstormed places to get a quick glimpse of the current work in your field:


Wikipedia (no one will cop up to using this, but there it is)

Amazon lists ("very up-to-date")

Google Scholar

Dissertation Express ("You’ll say, well, if they got that published, I can get mine done.” "You’ll look and be surprised by the ones that aren’t very good. Makes you feel better.")


And remember, no matter how careful you are, small mistakes are bound to happen. “After I turned mine in,” Stephanie admitted, “I realized I forgot to print out the appendix. The dissertation refers to an appendix that’s not there. Oh well, that’s there for history.”


Rainbow over Harper Hall

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