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Laura Gladstone | MIT | USA

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Graduating, part 2: Final Thesis Revisions

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The doorway to the registrar’s office where the final thesis check takes place

I took an entire month between defending my thesis and depositing it with the grad school. During that month, I mostly revised my thesis, but also I took care of a bunch of logistical things I had been putting off until after the defense: subletting the apartment, selling the car, engaging movers, starting to pack… and of course putting comments into the thesis from the committee. I wrote back to my (now current) new boss who said we should chat again after I “come up for air” (which is a pretty accurate way of describing it). I went grocery shopping, and for the first time in months it was fun to walk around the store imagining and planning the things I could make in my kitchen. I had spare creative energy again!

Partly I needed a full month to revise the thesis because I was making changes to the analysis within the thesis right up to the day before I defended, and I changed the wording on the concluding sentences literally 20 minutes before I presented. I didn’t have time to polish the writing because the analysis was changing so much. The professor who gave me the most detailed comments was justifiably annoyed that he didn’t have sufficient time to read the whole dissertation before the defense. It worked out in the end, because the time he needed to finish reading was a time when I didn’t want to think about my thesis in any way. I even left town and visited friends in Chicago, just to break up the routine that had become so stressful. There’s nothing quite as nice as waking up to a cooked breakfast when you’ve forgotten that cooked breakfasts are an option.

There were still thesis revisions to implement. Some major comments reflected the fact that, while some chapters had been edited within a peer group, no one had read it cover-to-cover until after the defense. The professor who had the most detailed comments wrote a 12-page email detailing his suggestions, many of which were word substitutions and thus easy to implement. Apparently I have some tics in my formal writing style.

I use slightly too many (~1.2) semicolons per page of text; this reflects my inclination to use compound sentences but also avoid parentheses in formal writing. As my high school teacher, Perryman, taught me: if you have to use parentheses you’re not being confidently declarative, and if you ever want to use nested parentheses in a formal setting, figure out what you really want to say and just say it! (subtext: or figure out why you don’t want to say it, and don’t say it. No amount of parenthesis can make a statement disappear.) Anyway, I’d rather have too many semicolons than too many parentheses; I’d rather be seen as too formal than too tentative. It’s the same argument, to me, that I’d rather wear too much black than too much pink. So, many of the semicolons stayed in despite the comments. Somehow, in the thesis haze, I didn’t think of the option of many simple single-clause sentences. Single-clause sentences are hard.

I also used the word “setup” over 100 times as a catch-all word to encompass all of the following: apparatus, configuration, software, procedure, hypothesis. I hadn’t noticed that, and I have no good reason for it, so now my thesis doesn’t use the word “setup” at all. I think. And if it does, it’s too late to change it now!

And of course there was the matter of completing the concluding paragraph so it matched the conclusion I presented in my defense seminar. That took some work. I also tried to produce some numbers to complete the description of my analysis in more detail than I needed for the defense seminar, just for archival completeness. But by the time I had fixed everything else, it was only a few hours until my deposit margin-check appointment (and also 2:30am), so I gave up on getting those numbers.

The deposit appointment was all of 5 minutes long, but marked the line between “almost done” and “DONE!!!”. The reviewing administrator realized this. She shook my hand three times in those 5 minutes. When it was done, I went outside and there were birds singing. I bought celebratory coffee and a new Wisconsin shirt. And then started packing up my apartment for the movers arriving the next morning.

During that month of re-entering society,  I had some weird conversations which reminded me how isolated I had been during the thesis. A friend who used to work in our office had started her own business, but I’d only had time to ask her about it once or perhaps twice. When we had a bit of time to catch up more, I asked how it had been during the last few months, and she replied that it had been a year. A year. It just went by and I didn’t notice, without the regular office interactions.

I’d gotten into a grove of watching a couple episodes each night of long-running TV shows with emotionally predictable episodic plot lines. Star Trek and various murder mysteries were big. The last series was “House, MD” with Hugh Laurie. By coincidence, when I defended my thesis and my stress level starting deflating, I was almost exactly at the point in the series where they ran out of mysteries from the original book it was based on, and started going more into a soap-opera style character drama. By the time I wasn’t interested in the soap opera aspects anymore, it was time to start reengaging with my real-life friends.

A few days after I moved away from Madison, when I was staying with my parents, I picked up my high school routine of reading the local paper over breakfast, starting with the comics, then local editorials. I found (or rather, my dad found) myself criticizing the writing from the point of view of a dissertator. It takes more than a few days to get out of thesis-writing mode. The little nagging conscience doesn’t go away, still telling me that the difference between ok writing and great writing is important, more so now than at any point so far in my career. For the last edits of a PhD, it might be important to criticize at that level of detail. But for a local paper, pretty much anything is useful to the community.

At lunch Saturday in a little restaurant in the medieval part of the Italian village of Assergi, I found the antidote. When I can’t read any of the articles and posters on the walls, when I can’t carry on a conversation with more than 3-word sentences, it doesn’t matter anymore if the paragraphs have a clear and concise topic sentence. I need simple text. I’m happy if I can understand the general meaning. The humility of starting over again with Italian is the antidote for the anxiety of a thesis. It’s ok to look like a fool in some ways, because I am a certified non-fool in one small part of physics.

It’s not perfect of course: there’s still a lot of anxiety inherent in living in a country without speaking the language (well enough to get by without english-speaking help). I’ll write more about the cultural transition in another post, since I have so many posts to catch up on from while I was in the thesis-hole, and this post is definitely long enough. But for now, the thesis is over.

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