Monday, August 27, 2007

Delusions of adequacy. (I am lacking them.)

I now have all my feedback on the dissertation back from my committee members. The last lot came in this morning. And I am concerned.

None of them have given me much at all beyond formatting and editing suggestions (pointing out typos, tables needing fixing, references that are in the wrong format, and the occasional ambiguously worded sentence). There is a handful of comments that are a little more substantive, but nothing I can't fix in five minutes (1 x "This argument unnecessary and can be left out"; 2 x "more detailed glossing needed on these foreign language examples"; 1 x "add in another paragraph of background to this section").

I was expecting many more, and more major, revisions. And no matter how often I tell myself (or other students tell me) that if my committee thought it were necessary, they would have told me so, I can't suppress the anxious goblins of paranoia that whisper:

"Maybe they just didn't read it thoroughly."
"Maybe they think fixing it would be more work than it's worth."
"Maybe it's unfixable, so they don't even know where to begin."
"Maybe they all assume that [main supervisor] will address the substantive problems, and perhaps she thought the others would bring a fresh perspective."
"Maybe they just don't care."

Finally I caved in and wrote the following email to the committee member who provided the least feedback (seven small points), and who I was expecting to get the most revisions from, since he is one of the world experts in a topic very closely related to mine.

Dear [Committee Member],

Thank you very much for the feedback that you sent this morning. I have to say, though, I'm a little surprised that you suggest so few revisions (you and the others too, actually). I guess I should assume that means you are generally happy with the content and structure and think it will pass. (Alternatively, of course, it could mean that you think the whole thing is an unfixable disaster, but I'm enough of an optimist to hope it's the former explanation!)

Anyway, I'll get on to making those changes in the next day or two.


And this is the reply I got:


Glad to hear the others didn't have many revisions either.

[Committee Member]

Did he just not hear the barely disguised plea for reassurance? Or did he think I was fishing for compliments and deliberately failed to come through?

I don't need compliments. I just need someone to come out and say unambiguously that the dissertation is adequate. Just a little bit adequate. The PhD process has made me too insecure to read between the lines.


BrightStar said...

Congratulations! I would say that it's the case that only those sorts of changes are the recommendations of a committee who believes the thesis is in good shape and who believes you are ready to be done! I agree that it would be nice of them to tell you this explicitly, though.

Mentor said...

Maybe he was happy that he wasn't the only lazy committee member making superficial suggestions/remarks.

Or he thought that someone from NZ wouldn't notice (if he's from another country).

This said, when nobody seems to say anything "serious", it's a pretty strong sign that your work is OK. Which means you can go skiing. Of course, it's frustrating to not have feedback that actually provides food for thought. Sometimes, it means people don't have anything to add to what seems to them something very professional.

All you have to do now is wait in thesis-post-submission-limbo until you graduate. Spooky.

I'm being sadistic because I'm sure you don't mind. Also because I'm going through something quite similar myself.

By the way, if you're using LaTeX, how can people complain about tables not being right?

Dr. Brazen Hussy said...

I agree that this is likely a good sign. I had a somewhat similar experience, and I was absolutely terrified going into my defense. (Especially because years before, I had failed my dissertation proposal defense after being assured by my adviser that everything was fine.) But it seems to be the case that if your dissertation is in bad shape, they generally won't let you get to the defense in the first place. My defense went surprisingly smoothly, and I look back at the experience fondly.

RageyOne said...

Sounds like the diss is pretty adequate to me! Woo-hoo! Do those revisions suggested and know that you have done an excellent job! Congrats!

paideia said...

I feel [felt] your pain, I really do. After the slam-down, sadistic rituals of graduate school, it's hard to believe something you've done-- especially something as big as a thesis-- could be ok. But I'll bet it really is.

I was lucky to have some committee members who gave extensive feedback... and a sponsor who gave very little and thought the diss was great.

In the end, if they say it's ok: it's really ok. I didn't believe people when they told ME this, but they won't let you get to submission/defense(in the states) etc unless the diss is ok. I totally didn't believe this until I was on "the other side" [all of a month ago!] but it's true.

I know it's a strange feeling to put a ton into something and not get substantive feedback, but I'm learning that my peers are often the best readers [and they're the ones who will be in the field with me in the long run.] The senior people are just v. busy.

In the end, in the states, the dissertation is just a draft of the book. So you make it as good as you can, but it's going to require revisions for publication anyway--- later.

physics*chick said...

I'd say Congrats! If they were concerned they would have indicated it SOMEHOW... maybe at least talked to your supervisor? Take it as a good sign, and soak up the awesomeness.

I bet it's amazing. ;)

Acre said...

Oh, god, I totally feel your pain on this one. I find myself more fearful of few comments than of many, and I feel particularly pathetic when I feel like I'm dancing around wanting some definitive statements of the goodness of my work.

I have noticed that there seems to be a general rule amongst professors around here not to give in to the need for reassurance. I find this troublesome on one level. I need reassurance, damn it! But I often think that when someone blatantly ignores my requests for it (as your e-mailed committee member did) that it's their way of saying, "Hey, this is your work. You should be convinced of its worthiness to the point of being willing to fight for it. I can't give that to you. You have to generate it for yourself." Which is, of course, true. A lack of negative feedback (so much less satisfying than positive feedback) is a sign of the good of the thing. Even if it feels really weird.

Kelly said...

I'll chime in - I agree with everyone else - since they didn't give you any substantial negative feedback, accept the positivity in the process and prepare for graduation (or your defense, anyway)! Go skiing!

Have you submitted yet, or were you shopping your thesis around to your committee before submission? Do you have the same long (3-6 mo) defense wait we do in NZ?

P.S. You used LaTeX? I thought only hard-core engineers and mathematicians used that. :)

Jana said...

I think your thesis must be wonderful. Congratulations!

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Yep, I think you're in good shape too. (Embrace your adequacy!) If they caught ambiguously worded sentences, they're reading closely enough.

I try to remember these moments when I'm grading my own students' work, because I go on the same assumption that if it's right it doesn't need pointing out - but that can be terribly frustrating to the writer who gets no feedback beyond those minor corrections. It helps to point out the good stuff too!

WhatLadder said...

He heard. He just kindly glossed over the panic because he understands a) the panic itself and b) that you might later look back at this moment and cringe with embarrassment. (From an objective standpoint, your email might possibly be read as fishing for a compliment.)

As someone who has read tons of theses as an editor I know that students and examiners' expectations and levels of perfectionism are sometimes wildly out of sync.

Looking at it from a more cynical perspective, your committee has absolutely no vested interest in letting something crappy go forward for examination. That would reflect poorly on them. If they think it's fine, then it's fine.

EA said...

Oi! Would it be too much for one of them to just say, "Hey, this is a good enough piece of work, but about paragraphs 5, 60, and 120..."
Ha, what was I thinking, it seems like the whole purpose of graduate school is to keep students off-kilter until the day the book is published!
Despite that, I have every faith that you will come through shining.

StyleyGeek said...

Thanks everyone.

Mentor, the problem with the tables is that they are full of text, not numbers. And Latex doesn't handle that well. I have specified the width of the columns (otherwise they run off the page), but then it automatically justifies them. My committee wants me to left-align the text inside the tables instead, but I haven't worked out how to do that inside a table with specified widths (yet). I assume it's something simple like putting the text in an mbox or something.

Kelly, it's pretty much like NZ. Except no defense! So once I've made these revisions, I then submit officially, and it goes to three external examiners (basically anonymous reviewers), and we see whether they think I should pass.

StyleyGeek said...

Oh, and I meant to reply to Paidiea too In the end, if they say it's ok: it's really ok. I

The problem is that no one has said it's okay. It's a bigger step to assume that if they don't tell you it's bad, it's really ok. :)

Kelly said...

(falls off chair) No defense?


Geeka said...

I am also astounded at the no defense.

(and my captcha is ikhea...humourous, no?)

Kate said...

It's true that with a dissertation, if there are few comments you really are ok. But that doesn't excuse the fact that it seems like they didn't make much of an effort in the direction of making the diss an even more exciting piece of work, and that when the committee member had the opportunity to reassure you, s/he didn't. I'm not saying I'm a fan of handholding or constant reassurance, but refusing to engage in that stuff is like intentionally screwing with a grad student.

At least the comments are in, you're in fantastic shape, and you're practically done. Congrats!

wwwmama said...

I agree with what Acre said in terms of what profs are probably doing with the lack of feedback thing, but I think you also deserve a "This is more than adequate!" high five. But maybe your external reviewers will do that in some form? If you get more feedback from them than "pass," that is. In the meantime, congrats and enjoy the lack of revising work.

Lucy said...

One of my housemates just defended and when he apologised to a committee member (the only one who wasn't also his advisor) for only giving him a copy of his dissertation the day before, the committee member said "that's okay; it saved me having to read it".

Maybe he was glad that the others agreed with his assessment that you didn't need to make many changes.

potentilla said...

Long-time lurker and parrot fan.....I'm wondering whether your university might tell advisors not to make "I think his is pretty good" type comments to candidates, because of the external examination. You would only have to have one candidate who had been told his/her dissertation was great but had then been failed by the external assessors and had made a big fuss, for everyone to be once bitten twice shy, even if it hardly ever happens. (Whereas I understand that with a more traditional defence, one or more of your advisors would most likely be involved anyhow).

What your advisor wrote sounds to me like it could be code for "I think it's fine but I've been asked not to tell candidates this".

StyleyGeek said...

Good theory, but I don't think that's it. I know a few other people who graduated since I have been here who got plenty of comments from their committee to say that the thesis was strong and well put together. (And, of course, others who were told that it wasn't up to scratch.) That's why I was expecting to get a clear statement of what they thought one way or the other.

Stewgad said...

As unsettling as this may be, it seems like a dream come true to me! Congrats!