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

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  • 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.

  • What Can I Do with a PhD in the Humanities?

    It’s well-known that academic jobs are in short supply for humanities PhD graduates right now, but the question ‘what can I do with a PhD in the humanities?’ should have less to do with a lack of academic positions than it should the sheer number of career possibilities. That was the focus of ‘What Can I Do with a PhD in the Humanities?’, a 5-week Graduate College workshop run by Derek Attig that I attended last Spring. The workshop covered advice and resources for finding jobs beyond academia, weekly conversations with humanities PhD graduates working in fields like public radio to environmental advocacy, and self-assessments of values and skills. The self-assessments were particularly illuminating, and they allowed each of us to approach the broader workshop questions with a focus on our own goals and interests.

    For me, there were two significant results of this focus. First, the reassurance that in doing my PhD I’m already doing useful work towards a wide variety of careers (and you probably are too). And second, I finished the workshop with a much better idea of what else I could be doing to make it easy to keep my career options open in the future.

    I’m sure I’m not the only PhD student to occasionally worry about falling behind my peers in the workplace. So it was a relief to learn just how many transferable skills I’ve gained in the process of my PhD already. In other words, the PhD is work experience. Take, for instance, your field exam, or prelims. On the face of it, nothing could seem more academically-focused. But the exam also demonstrates your ability to quickly learn and distil a large field of knowledge that can be applied widely to other fields. One Illinois alum with a PhD in English found that this very skill helped them land a data science job in DC. To take another example, teaching demonstrates your ability to explain complex ideas to a range of audiences, create engaging presentations, and provide useful feedback. And almost every guest we spoke to told us that their ability to write made them stand out in their post-PhD jobs. Humanities PhDs already have countless skills; the real challenge, I learned, is to tell a different story with them than we’re used to telling.

    I also left the workshop with a strategy for adding skills and experiences to those I already have, without taking away important time from dissertation-writing. They are small things, which I enjoy – writing short non-academic pieces like this one, and involvement with the GEO, for instance. Depending on your interests, there are any number of small experiences like these that can help you both explore and prepare for a range jobs. In fact, you might already be doing them. For two of the guest speakers, blogs they began for fun in grad school were surprisingly helpful when it came to finding jobs in communications. The blogs were related to neither their academic work nor the fields they ended up working in – they were about fashion and baseball – but they demonstrated the variety and strength of their writing skills.

    With so many options, it can be frankly daunting if you’re not sure what you want to do with your PhD – how do you even begin to narrow down your options? Perhaps this is why, on a recent trip to New Orleans, I gave in to touristic curiosity and had a tarot card reading. When the psychic asked, “What are you going to do after your PhD?” I told him that was the big question. “Well,” he said, gesturing at the cards scattered on the table in front of him, “you could really do anything.” I wasn’t expecting a lot, and it certainly didn’t answer the big question. But then, I didn’t need to go all the way to New Orleans for that anyway. All I needed was the opportunity to take a step back from my research and writing to see it in a new light. That’s what the workshop did for me. And while I haven’t yet answered my big question, I now have the tools and confidence to approach it as an exciting, rather than daunting, prospect.

    Alexandra Paterson is a PhD candidate in English. She participated in the What Can I Do with a PhD in the Humanities? group last spring.

    This year’s What Can I Do with a PhD in the Humanities? Group starts November 2 and includes a field trip to the University of Illinois Press. Get more information and register online.