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A behind the scenes look at the graduate experience at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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  • New Year - New Thesis Goals

    To read more classic literature.

    To go to the gym every day.

    To only drink one (ok, maybe two) cups of coffee a day.

    It’s February and your New Year’s resolutions have started to become habit… or fallen by the wayside. Fortunately, there’s still 11 months in the year to make your thesis a priority. The start of the new year and the new semester is a great time to think about what direction you would like your thesis work to go and to make plans accordingly. Below are five tips to help you set (and stick with) thesis-writing goals.

    1. Be SMART about your goals. 

    While this acronym might seem a little corny, the message is spot-on! 

    Specific: Make sure your goal is not too broad. “I want to write my thesis” is a great goal, but it’s also pretty broad. You might modify your goal to be something like, “I want to complete a draft of two chapters of my thesis by [this date].” Then, think about smaller steps you need to take to get there (for instance, outlining sections, compiling a literature review, writing the introduction, etc.).

    Measurable: Basically, you should set goals that have a clear and measurable end point. While writing, you might measure your success by the number of pages or words you have written. If you are doing lab work, you might measure by each experiment completed or if you are doing archival work, you could measure by each archival box you’ve sorted through.

    Achievable: The key here is to determine if the goal you would like to complete is realistic. As you plan, make sure to consider if there are any skills you need to develop (such as learn a language or complete training) or resources that you need access to (such as lab equipment, archives, or people). Keep in mind that the ideal goal is one that you can easily complete, and also one that pushes you so that you can grow as a scholar.

    Relevant: Focus on the tasks that will help you achieve your goal. When you are working on your thesis, it is easy to get wrapped up in the details—and in the moment, every single detail seems important! Try to differentiate what you have to do vs. what it would be nice to do. If you have trouble distinguishing, try talking it through with your adviser.   

    Time-limited: Try to plan small daily and weekly goals that you can easily complete. The goal “to write Chapters 1 and 2 this week” might be a tall order. Instead, think in smaller terms, like “I am going to write ten pages about this topic by the end of the week” or “I am going to write the introduction to Chapter 1 today.” 

    2. Find a fixed deadline and work backward.

    One technique to try when setting goals is to plan backward from a fixed deadline, which will help you think through and visualize the steps needed to achieve your ultimate goal. For example, the dissertation and thesis deposit deadlines are fixed near the end of each semester, so you might use this as a starting point. Then, figure out all of the events that need to take place before that date and schedule them (see a sample calendar here). Take a look at our website to read more about the thesis process and to learn about the required deposit items.

    A few things to keep in mind as you plan:

    • Make sure your schedule is not too rigid or way too ambitious. What if you get sick or have an unexpected family obligation? By planning extra time in your schedule, unexpected events won’t put you too far from your goal.
    • Always plan time for a break. Remember, time away from your project is just as important as time working on your project. Give your brain a rest!

    3. Make your writing and research a habit and a priority.

    Working on your thesis when you happen to have a little time or when the mood strikes is probably not the best way to meet your goals. Instead, develop a daily schedule or routine. If you work best in the morning, set aside some time after you’ve woken up (and maybe with some coffee) to write. If you’re a night owl, plan a few distraction-free hours in the evening (maybe also with coffee). To help you prioritize your research, identify a few tasks you would like to accomplish and write them down. Buy yourself a fun planner and some pens or block out time on a Google or Outlook calendar to help you manage your time and tasks.

    4. Hold yourself accountable.

    One of the best ways to hold yourself accountable is to talk about your goals. You might find an “accountability buddy” who you periodically check-in with and who gently pushes you to stay on task. Or you could create a writing group that meets regularly to talk through research and writing goals. If you would rather not meet with someone face-to-face, set up an alert on your phone or computer, post your goal on Twitter or Facebook, or write a blog that chronicles your progress.

    5. Celebrate any goal (however big or small) that is met.

    Plan something fun to do after you have reached your goal. Go to the movies, make an ice cream sundae, or throw a roller-skating party! Having something to look forward to will motivate you to keep working.

    As you move forward on your thesis goals, keep in mind that the Graduate College has a number of resources to support you. If you want even more practice with goal-setting, come to one of our GradMAP workshops, which will help you identify SMART goals and connect you with resources to achieve them. If you are working on your thesis, our Thesis Tools workshops and office hours are a great way to get your formatting and deposit questions answered. You can learn more about many other opportunities on the Graduate College website.


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    Emily Wuchner is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.

  • Grad School 101: Get to Know the Scholarly Commons

    Are you a grad student (or the type of undergrad who reads the grad college blog) looking for a new favorite library? Are you looking for a place where you can get help with pretty much any problems involving data, technology, and finding ways of doing research better? Does any of the following sound like your life right now:

    • ArcGIS has you feeling lost?
    • Interested in finding ways to let more people use that research you spent so much time and blood sweat and tears on?
    • Looking for a place where you can work with a scanner, OCR, and Photoshop to digitize materials for your research?
    • Want to use something better than Excel to conduct statistical analyses?
    • Feeling overwhelmed by the possibilities for research that open up when computers can read thousands of books in the time it takes to go from here to Espresso Royale to grab a snack?
    • Trying to get some feedback on your data management plan before you send it off to the program officers at NSF or NIH?
    • Want to beef up your business plan and get an edge on the competition by incorporating census and other government data?
    • Wondering if the website you created is actually as user-friendly and accessible as you intended?
    • Want to bring the past back to life by displaying your archival findings in an online exhibit?
    • Still puzzled over whether the HathiTrust logo looks more like an elephant or a particularly exotic scorpion?

    You’re in luck. Visit Scholarly Commons Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. or online anytime.

    The Scholarly Commons is located on the third floor of the Main Library, across from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (seriously, take a look at a Sumerian tablet or a Shakespeare folio before you leave this place), the Lincoln Library (in case you forgot you were in Illinois), and down the hall from International Area Studies Library (their North Korean Children’s Literature collection is a must even if the only Korean you know is from rapping along to Gangnam Style).

    During open hours, the Scholarly Commons provides the technology and digital scholarship expertise you need to succeed in your research. We’re also a quiet comfortable study space where you can sip your coffee and use software like STATA, Photoshop, and SAS. Come to our workshops during the school year and go from Regular Boring Researcher to Savvy Researcher.

    And this is truly your library: we appreciate your feedback and have added new software, like JMP, due to popular demand. Did I mention we have friendly librarians and staff who are there to help you figure out what will work best for your project?  If we don’t have the person on hand to help you, we will find someone on campus, or help you find the books and online resources that will get you off to a great start. There are so many resources here for all kinds of students so please make the most of your university experience and stop by the space, get some work done, and remember we are here to help you with your research questions!

    Jasmine Kirby received her Master's of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Illinois. She now works as a librarian at Iowa State University. While at Illinois. she worked as the Scholarly Commons Pre-Professional Graduate Assistant. Keep your eyes out for some future posts about research techniques and resources from the Scholarly Commons.

  • Grad School 101: An Insider's Guide to Acing Your Thesis Format Review

    When writing a thesis, most students are focused on the content – and rightfully so! You want to make sure chapters are well researched and well written, the citations are placed correctly, and all of the data is recorded and analyzed. Formatting is probably one of the last things you think of. But paying careful attention to the overall look of your work is a key element to creating a polished and professional-looking thesis. The Graduate College Thesis Office is here to help!

    As thesis coordinator, I’ve reviewed thousands of theses deposited at the University, and I’ve developed a list of five recommendations to help you create a well-formatted thesis that should easily pass through our thesis format check.

    Download a title page template and submit it to the Thesis Office for review. 

    Many of the errors I catch when reviewing theses are on the title page. In fact, nearly 50% of the theses deposited in the past year had an issue with the title page. I get it—the spacing is a little strange and there is a ton of information you need to fill in. To help with this, download a title page template from the Thesis Office website. Then, before you give your completed thesis to your adviser or committee, email your title page to for a pre-check. We can communicate any changes to you, which may save time later on!

    Use the full-document template and other online formatting resources. 

    One difficulty some students encounter is inserting page numbers in the right style and setting up a table of contents. To help with this we’ve created MS Word templates to help you organize your entire document. You can download one of our templates. Make sure to also check out our sample thesis pages, which offer further guidance on our format requirements. If you are still having trouble, take a look at our Formatting FAQ page, which provides links to help with common formatting issues.

    Keep your table of contents simple.

    I once met with a student who remarked at how badly he wanted to create an extended table of contents that included four levels of subheadings because “it looks really cool.” But he ultimately decided against it because it could introduce more errors. He’s right! The more information you include in your table of contents, the greater possibility of mistakes. I often request revisions because there are spelling errors, incorrect page numbers, or missing headings. By just including the chapter title in your table of contents, you give the reader enough information to understand the outline of your thesis, and you reduce the number of errors introduced into the document. You can check out a sample simple table of contents here.

    LaTeX users take note: While LaTeX does help you to produce beautiful documents complete with an automatically generated table of contents, errors still do find a way of creeping in. Gasp! Though (admittedly) this happens less in LaTeX than in MS Word, I have still encountered spelling errors and incorrect page numbers in the table of contents. Don’t solely rely on LaTeX—make sure to read through your table of contents! 

    Carefully select which numbering scheme you use for the figures and tables.

    The Graduate College formatting requirements outline two different ways to number the tables and figures in your document:

    Straight Numbering: The numbering should be continuous (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.) throughout the document. Do not start over again for each chapter! 

    Decimal Numbering: The first number indicates the chapter, while the second indicates the placement of the figure/table within the chapter. So, if you had three figures in Chapter 1, they would be numbered: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3.

    I once reviewed a thesis with 70 figures in it—all numbered in the straight numbering scheme. The author accidentally skipped figure 14, so they had to renumber virtually all of the figures in their thesis. I can imagine this was pretty stressful for the student. I know it was stressful for me as the reviewer! That’s why I recommend using the decimal numbering scheme—it’s easier to fix if you accidentally misnumber a figure or table. I suggest that you only use the straight numbering scheme if your thesis has fewer than 10 figures and/or tables in it, or if you are not planning to number your chapters.

    Create your own style guide for your thesis. 

    Your thesis is a massive project that you have been working on over a long period of time, which makes it easy to lose track of how you have formatted the different components of your document. That’s why keeping track of the formatting decisions you have made is so important. I often see theses with headings that are inconsistently, page numbers that are inconsistently placed, or figure/table captions formatted inconsistently across chapters. As you can see, the key word here is consistently. We are open to many (if not all) of your formatting decisions—just as long as you are consistent. Some questions you might consider when developing your style guide include:

    • What do you want your chapter titles to look like? (think about font, size, style)
    • Will your headings be numbered or unnumbered?
    • How do you plan to distinguish between first-level and second-level headings? (think about font, size, style)
    • Where do you plan to put your page numbers?
    • Where will your figure captions be placed?
    • Where will your table captions be placed? 

    I recommend recording the answers to these questions and hanging them near your desk or workspace so that you can format your document as you write. You can download a free sample style guide here.

    The Thesis Office webpages have a wealth of information to help you with formatting questions and the thesis process in general. Be sure to check out our workshops for opportunities to learn more.


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    Emily Wuchner is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.