Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I don't think this is going to turn out well.

I was having a lovely phone conversation with a friend of mine who, once upon a time, did an undergraduate thesis in psychology. It went a little like this.

Me: "Yeah, so, my thesis defence is on Monday, and I think it's going to go alright."
Friend: "I see. Well, what are they going to ask you about?"
M: "Hmm. That's a good question."
F: "You... you mean, you didn't have a mock defence with your supervisor already?"
M: "What's a 'mock defence'?"
F: "That's when you and your supervisor sit down and run through what a thesis defence is like. In mine, I totally got raked over the coals, and I had to really rethink how I approached the actual defence, which was pretty awful itself."
M: "Eeep."
F: "I take it you haven't had one?"
M: "I haven't talked to my supervisor, face to face, in over seven months."
F: "Well, you'd better email him now."

So I did. (Gee, you'd have thought that my supervisor would've had a "So, You're Defending Your Thesis: Here's What You Should Expect" blurb all ready to go, copy-and-paste, send it off to the poor student. Nope!)

Me: "So, could you tell me what sorts of things the questions are going to be on? Are you more interested in my lit review, methodology, results, conclusions?"
Supervisor: "Yeah, it's all up for grabs. Basically, this weekend, go through your thesis and ask yourself, 'What might people ask me questions on?'"
Me (to myself): "Thanks a lot, Professor Obvious."

If you'll kindly recall, I was about a week away from going to a defence in August, having not really had much substantive feedback from my supervisor on, well, anything I'd written: the form, the conclusions, the writing style, nothing. (At the last minute the Grad Supervisor stepped in and said, "Well, hold on, let's push this thing back and let him fix it up. Here are some ideas for revisions.")

So, now that the written piece is all done, I'm about to saunter into an oral defence of my work, not really knowing any of the key questions they're going to ask me? That's like giving my students a Physics test, and when they ask what sorts of things might be on it, I'd respond nebulously, "Oh, just read the textbook, it's all good."

(For the record, I always go over key problems/scenarios with them to make sure they're up on their stuff... e.g., when doing the E&M fields unit with my Grade 12's, I make sure they know parallel-plate capacitors up, down and sideways, along with what happens when a charged particle gets shot into a magnetic field.*)

I thought about this a bit more, and I was left with this conclusion: however this turns out — and I get nothing but "You'll do well, plenty of people have done this before!" messages from my supervisor; but, remember, he was the one that was going to let me go to defence in August — I will have done 99.9% of this totally on my fucking own. Sure, it was nice of my supervisors to chip in with some ideas about how to re-phrase things, and maybe a half-dozen actual, solid questions (e.g. Q: "Why didn't you interview parents in your study?" A: "Because, if you read the title of my thesis, I'm looking at what schools and teachers were doing.").

But, when I hear about how other people worked closely with their supervisors, had weekly meetings, were given advice on which authors to look up, had to hand in a chapter here and there and then they went over it together to see if it was alright... nope, none of that. And hey, I appreciate being able to go out on my own and figure out what I need to know on my own a bit... but, you know what? I don't pay tuition for the good of my health, and I certainly don't pay it to use any of the facilities on campus, which have been 300 km away from me for the past seven-plus months. I pay it so I can get help and advice from my supervisor, and you now know how much I've received. I've never had to put together original research before, write 106 pages of academic text before, go to an oral defence before, face ethics reviews before; none of this is anything I've ever done before. Not even remotely close. (I did a Physics degree, which is a 4-year degree in vector calculus, and did my B.Ed., which is all practical... and taught crazed, horned-up teenagers for four years. When did I ever have to fit in anything like this?)

So... yeah. Little help?

* If the charged particle's velocity is perpendicular to the magnetic field, it's a pretty simple case: the force it feels is the cross product of the velocity and magnetic field vectors, and is proportional to the charge of the particle, the velocity and the strength of the magnetic field. In short, FM = qv×B; the result is that the particle goes into uniform circular motion.


'nee said...


Sorry. I'm becoming one of those people. I end up as a little old lady who argues with store clerks over expired coupons. But I used to hate conflict, and I'm learning painfully that nobody cares until you force them to care. Loudly. And that it sucks, but if you do badly on your defence your supervisor won't be the person taking the blame, even though the support and feedback and prepration that should should have received was completely absent.

I would (well, I'd like to think I would) complain to the Grad Supervisor beforehand, and then write a big fucking angry letter afterwards explaining in detail the uncommunicative, unhelful, uncooperative behaviour of your supervisor -- and suggest in no uncertain terms that he or she never again be allowed to supervise a thesis.

Do it as a favour for all the other poor saps who are probably in the same boat, or will be. And let me live vicariously through your bold actions, because in reality I'm a total pussy.

Anonymous said...

Rule 1) Don't sweat the small stuff.
Rule 2) It's all small stuff.


Anonymous said...

Well 'DB', I don't think a masters thesis defense constitutes 'the small stuff'. Its the culmination of 2 years of work and serves as a milestone in one's academic or professional career. To have it crash and burn at the end because some douchebag supervisor couldn't be bothered to do his job is not fair, especially if JTL ends up looking bad. This cockgobbler needs a good shanking before he ruins future grad students' academic experiences. Damn the man.