In one of my classes yesterday, the professor talked to us about picking a good dissertation topic, advisor, and just in general how to handle the dissertation process. In my education, I don’t think that I had ever had anyone sit down to discuss this with me. Some of the advice would’ve been helpful prior to my thesis issues. There are many good articles out there on picking your advisor and all, so rather than repeat those ideas, I’m going to contribute what I wish I would’ve known that I haven’t seen offered as much or at all. Most of these things are for the absolute worse case scenario; hopefully, your thesis or dissertation has smoother sailing.

  • Save every single email and piece of correction you receive. This just helps keep track of what you’ve done; hopefully, you find the corrections decrease with time. Also, if things become grave, you have proof of who said what. For organization’s sake, I keep a separate folder in my inbox and have a drawer of my filing cabinet dedicated to paper corrections.
  • Find a support person outside your advisor. Very late in the game, I began talking to other professors to seek advice and support. My thesis process was particularly difficult, even for a process that has its difficulties, and these outside folks helped me in so many ways. Even if they hadn’t directly helped me, they were supportive emotionally. Make sure the person understands the idea of confidential conversation, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up early if things are awry. If your advisor is delaying your finish, treating you poorly, or anything else you think is unacceptable, talk to someone in authority. If you cannot talk to that authoritative person or are still unsure what to do, use your support person to advise you how to go ahead. If the first person you speak to isn’t effective, keep trying.
  • Make sure that all expectations are clearly discussed early on. If your committee wants derivations fully worked out, references aplenty, make sure that’s well known before you hand in what you hope is your final draft. Going back and adding things is painful, particularly if you don’t save all those documents.
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After yesterday’s cryptic entry, I feel compelled to write more about it.

One of the TAs, R, does not respond well to me being in charge. Two people have told me that she complains about me stopping into their labs a few times (the extent of my visits is saying hello, asking how things are, and leaving). I do this for two reasons. One is that sometimes a third person is needed to help. Computers go crazy (on Thursday, because both TAs were busy, I ended up helping some students print), sometimes the equipment breaks in mysterious ways, sometimes 4 groups all need help on a long lab and there are only two people. I don’t overstep my bounds by thinking that they need help, but if the TAs in the room ask me to help, certainly I will.

The second point is to confirm things are running smoothly and to be able to tell my boss, G, that everyone is a good worker. We have gotten student complaints from time to time. I have no idea if they’re legitimate or not; my rationale is that if a student claims so and so is doing something wrong, I’d probably catch it if I’m walking into the classroom 2 or 3 times during a 2 hour session. Right now, I can actually say only nice things about everyone. The students seem comfortable with everyone and are getting it.

I reall don’t understand what R’s issue is. I haven’t yelled at her, told her that she’s done anything wrong, overstepped lines, etc. She was being rather passive aggressive with me yesterday about doing something I had asked; this was after she was behaving bizarrely Thursday (I told her that I’d clean up her lab, because her class was beginning, and she didn’t want me to, although the other TA was fine with it and I didn’t have class). I had a long talk with my advisor, though, because I was upset. R and I aren’t best friends, but I genuinely don’t think I did anything wrong. I don’t feel that I can quit, since my boss would not be happy with that and will remain my boss through the summer. I also like everyone else, and everyone else has been fine.

My advisor, having been in charge of things in his past, said some people simply do not like others in charge and that unfortunate part of leadership is coping with that. He said that some people just don’t like that and that he dealt with even family getting upset with him being in charge of something, even though they were not affected by it. I feel a little better knowing that it might not be me but her; I have put a lot of effort into thinking of how to keep ourselves in our boss’s good favor.

I hope things get better with R, seeing as how I have to teach with her and see her weekly.

I was once told, on separate occasions by different people, that dancers are very insecure people and physicists tend to worry more than anyone else.

In my process of cleaning an image with 235 channels for my thesis, I was thinking about how I feel about all of it. I’m not particularly talented with image processing and reducing the noise in the images, honestly. My advisor was surprised at what I didn’t observe in cleaning the image (a few of the images I thought were acceptable were not).

I don’t think I’m a fabulously talented physics person, nor do I believe I’m an astrophysics goddess, but I was kind of thrown since I thought I was doing okay for someone who had started about a month and a half ago really do something with this imaging (and it isn’t daily). I’m not happy with my progress, as I think I’ve mentioned at other times.

I’ve been beating myself up over this during the weekend. Being of both temperaments (as well as tendency to be dramatic at times), I’ve been wondering if I’m cut out for this. I have these moments in dance as well. The moments where you can’t execute something simple or something everyone in your class but you can. You feel bad, you question whether if all your best efforts are in vain, and so on.

While processing this image, I kept thinking about it. My research isn’t even in a field I plan on pursuing! Then I remembered one of the most important pieces of advice to my life: always keep in mind why you’re there. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, and I know I always change the wording when I state it, but the sentiment is to remember why it is you do what you do. My Bharatanatyam teacher Carla told this to me, and I have carried that in my mind since.

With dance, off the top of my head, I can think of several things I have struggled with. A shuffle in Indian dance (just softly kicking your leg while striking the heel on the floor) was hard. Tribhangi turns were difficult. Upward vertical figure 8s (called taqsims sometimes) were difficult. The hip drops with release were difficult for me not to look bad. And generally speaking with Middle Eastern dance, I’ve had to come to terms that I’m a small girl. I’m short and thin. Belly rolls will never be huge and soft on me. I can’t take huge steps and expect to look remotely graceful. Remembering a turn’s direction is difficult, since it’s different than in Indian dance. I’m a forward turner through Indian dance. By that, I mean my non-weight bearing leg/side goes towards the audience; belly dancers tend to turn backwards.

However, I stuck with dance, because I kept the big picture in mind: I wanted to be a better dancer. Instead of getting caught up on how I wasn’t getting it and other negativity that can fester, I changed my mind’s focus

So for my thesis, I have decided to focus on why I originally picked this advisor/project: because I wanted to be more well-rounded in physics. Because I wanted a challenge. Because I wanted someone who wouldn’t let me get away with bsing it and demand of me quality work. Because I wanted to prove to myself that I can succeed in physics.

I know I’m not the best person at astrophysics and image processing, but I can be better, and I know I can pull this off and succeed.

Watching one of my acquaintances successfully defend his thesis was a great experience. The physics department is small, but the best part of it is a sense of community. We all genuinely were excited for this guy and went to the defense, despite some of us having to drive in relatively far or possibly cutting out of work (I’m lucky; I just TA). It was also worthwhile for me, because this guy is also one of my advisor’s students.

What’s really interesting about a thesis presentation (I’ve been to about 6 undergraduate ones and two M.S. ones) is it’s very much like any kind of performance. You have to be engaging and interesting to really sell it to the folks in the audience. You also have to know the basics and how to present them well, because how else can you bring the audience in? J, the presenter, really did a phenomenal job.

Afterwards, everyone who could went out with J and my advisor to get food and talk. I haven’t interacted as much with my advisor on a personal level, so that was indeed worthwhile. He is quite humorous and personable; I feel I chose well with my advisor. He gave some tips to us for the thesis presentation/defense:

  • Use up all the time you can in your presentation, because the committee will be more tired and won’t ask you as many questions in your defense portion
  • The committee genuinely is curious (I’m not sure if this is true everywhere) and wants to know about your thesis; they’re not trying to stump you
  • Know the basics, because if they’re unfamiliar with the topic, they will most likely ask about that
  • Get two people on your committee who will argue with each other so they use up time and you don’t have to say much 🙂

I think the middle two points are worthwhile for dance, since my performances afterwards always consist of people wanting to know basic information. I’ve been lucky that I haven’t encountered people who have been misinformed about Middle Eastern dance or if they have, they’re also willing to keep an open mind.

Having a mentor is so worthwhile. I see great potential, as my workload for research increases, that my advisor can be that person. From his advisees, I hear he is tough but encouraging, always available, patient, and pretty much everything a good advisor should be. I feel really privileged to have two dance mentors. Danielle here has been an amazing help. Since she’s been dancing a lot longer than I, she has encountered the same situations I have in dance and can guide me to develop myself better. Carla, my first Bharatanatyam teacher, has been incredibly encouraging. I don’t contact her very often but when I do, she always has been able to help me figure out the next step. I believe, though, that the best thing that both of them do is encourage me to be my own individual dancer and not be someone else. I think that is such a worthwhile thing.