What grad students dream about

Last night I dreamed that I had to present my thesis to my readers orally—all 87 pages of it. Everything was going well until the end of chapter 2, when I came across a bunch of dummy text and references to tables and figures that I had never heard of. I slowly came to the realisation that in my dream I had incorporated the dummy text into the end of chapter 2 to get an idea of how much I would have to write to reach my desired word count, and forgot to replace it with real text before submitting it. All the professors and classmates who came to hear me speak started laughing as I flipped through the next few pages of my thesis, to see how much lorem ipsum I had padded my thesis with.

Two, three, four … eight pages. When the meaningless padding was removed, my thesis was only 79 pages long—one page short of the minimum required length.

I tried to explain to my readers that the next chapter was where it got interesting, and that I needed to finish with my thesis to start my next academic programme, but by that time, they had already begun walking out.

Apparently this is what grad students dream about. Well, this and dinosaurs. I drew a picture of that dream.

I submitted my thesis today

ACCO-Press bound thesis
ACCO-Press bound thesis

When I woke up this morning, I was three steps away from submitting my thesis:

  1. Get French translation of my abstract
  2. Print thesis
  3. Get my supervisor’s signature

Well, it turns out my translator’s computer crashed, and so I didn’t get the French version of my abstract until exactly 12h today.

I printed my thesis—all 87 pages—bound it in ACCO-press binders, applied the necessary stickers, packed everything up and then wondered why I hadn’t heard back from my supervisor. He’s generally very fast at responding to emails, and last night he offered by email to sign my thesis submission form this afternoon, so it was surprising that he hadn’t got back to me.

I called his office. I called his home. I sent another email. I decided to do a stakeout at the Biomedical Ethics Unit and see if I run into him. When I was putting on my shoes, I considered for a moment whether I should put on my running shoes or my regular shoes. I had this nagging feeling like somehow I would end up sprinting to the James Administration Building at the last second, and that I would be happy to be wearing running shoes. Then I dismissed that thought. All I had to do, after all, is get my supervisor’s signature and then walk across the street and submit it. Putting running shoes on would be silly.

I put my regular shoes on and went to the Bioethics Unit to look for my supervisor. I ran into the administrative assistant who informed me that he was having a terrible day. A few seconds later I got a phone call from him.

Apparently my supervisor had a minor car accident and spent the morning in the emergency room. He invited me to his house to have the forms signed. This would not normally have been a problem, but Villa-Maria station (where he lives) is closed until September 6, and so I went to Vendôme station and hired a cab to get me to his place.

I saw the back of his car when I arrived. There were indentations that I’m sure were never intended by the manufacturer to be there. My supervisor and his family are all right, I think, but understandably this has been a bad day for them.

The forms all signed, I sprinted to the nearest Bixi station and decided that it would be fastest to just ride the Bixi all the way to campus. This may or may not have been the case, but I made it back to campus in 25 minutes, which is probably better than what it would have taken to get to a métro, wait, transfer at Lionel-Groulx and then walk from station McGill to the James Administration Building.

On arrival, I was hot, sweaty and breathing heavily, but I still had the presence of mind to turn on the Voice Memo app on my phone, so that I could secretly record it when the person in the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies office said, “Yes, everything appears to be in order.” (Thank goodness for iPhone headphones that have a built-in mic for clandestine voice recording.)

I guess I’m paranoid because I’ve recently had two separate experiences where I handed in everything on a document checklist only to receive a mystifying message later on, indicating that I failed to submit all the required documents. I don’t plan to use this recording for anything but soothing my own nerves, for the record. It just feels good to hear someone say that I submitted everything.

So after all that, I have now made initial submission of my thesis. Hooray!

Thesis abstracts in both English and French

Well what do you know? I have to write a French version of my abstract for my thesis.

This means it’s time to go out and buy some Newcastle beers. I have a friend who’s a translator who enjoys Newcastle beer, and if I’m going to exploit my relationship with her for my personal gain, I might as well make it worth her while.

There’s no way I’m going to risk writing my own thesis abstract in French. In French, I’m most confident in my ability to discuss whether pineapples can talk:

Catch-22: the final test of my master’s degree

In order to graduate, I must submit my thesis.

To submit my thesis, I have to hand in my Nomination of Examiners Form, available from Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies as a fillable PDF. In the top-left corner, it reads, “this form must be typed.”

If you look at the fillable PDF, you’ll notice that I can’t fill in the form completely until I know who my internal reader is.

I spoke to the Philosophy Department, and they told me that they would inquire as to which professors would be able to serve as my internal reader after I hand in the Thesis Submission form and the Nomination of Examiners Form. I’m not allowed to contact professors myself to ask them to be my internal readers.

This is my final test.

University applications

In a previous post, I was very explicit about just exactly how I feel about applying for university programmes. Today I will continue that rant.

First, I would like to point out that McGill’s website was updated this week to reflect the documents that I sent them in mid-January. That is to say, my application was due a month and a half ago. For this application, all the supporting documents on the checklist were sent two and a half months ago. For those of you who are counting, that means that the supporting documents were a month early. And it is only this week that they are bothering to let me know that the documents were received.

Further, I was emailed two days ago by the person who is processing my application. She told me that I was missing a document!

This shocked me, because there was a checklist on the McGill website that I followed very closely, and I made sure to do every single thing on the list that I could, even to the inclusion of vaccinations and starting to investigate CPR courses. I had a red pen, and I checked off everything on the checklist when I did it, and I got it all done well in advance of the deadline.

Somehow, I was expected to know that another document (a table indicating which science prerequisites I have fulfilled) was required, even though McGill provided a checklist, and this document was not listed there. In their defence, the table is available on their website, but really, if you’re going to provide a checklist of required documents, in a PDF labelled, “Application Instructions,” I think you forfeit the right to complain if one of the applicants fails to submit a document that is not mentioned on that checklist.

Maybe I’m just in a bad mood because I had surgery on my face two days ago, but does anyone else think that I’m being unreasonable to expect that the “Required Documents” checklist on the “Application Instructions” PDF for a university programme be an exhaustive list of required documents?

I was given until the 30th to hand it in. It took all of 15 mins to gather the information. I put it in an envelope and hand-delivered it to the address myself yesterday. I’m still kind of frustrated, though.

I wonder why there aren’t any economic pressures keeping this sort of thing from happening. I mean, if a normal, private, for-profit business was run with this sort of efficiency, it would never survive.


My entire thesis so far could fit on a single 3.5″ floppy diskette.

That includes the final PDF, all the .tex files used to generate it, my bibliography, my style files, and a few PDFs of important articles that I make reference to.

I’m kind of tempted now to try to find a floppy diskette and an old computer and see if I can write my thesis onto it, just for the retro appeal.

LaTeX, BibTeX and ibidem

Apparently, having been trained in the philosophical tradition, I’m unused to citing sources. My supervisor says that a typical attitude for a philosopher to take toward sources is that if your bibliography has 6 citations, that’s 5 too many. So, on the advice of my supervisor, I have been trying to include more references to published sources in my thesis. As he puts it, “think less; read more.”

Having done that for the last chapter or so (I’m going back later to add lots and lots of citations to the other chapters), I realised that the citations were taking up way too much space on the paper. So, I put them all in footnotes. They still took up a lot of space, and they were hard to read down there.

So, I decided that I should change my citation style, so that when I have multiple citations from the same source, the second, third, etc. citations after the first one would just be “ibid.” (From Latin ibidem, meaning “the same place.”) This would have been a time-consuming and mind-numbing task, going through my entire thesis and picking out all the citations where there’s two or more in a row and replacing all but the first one with “ibid.

Fortunately, I use LaTeX and BibTeX (and OS X front-ends called TeXShop and BibDesk) for writing my thesis and citation management.

I found a great package, called inlinebib that does just that. It actually took a bit of digging to find a bibliography style package for LaTeX that worked the way I wanted it to, with ibidem and all. But once I found it, all I had to do was put inlinebib.bst and inlinebib.sty in my project folder, then write \usepackage{inlinebib} in my document preamble, and it worked just fine!

Backing up, backing up, backing up, backing up

What do you use for backing up your computer files? I’ve had a number of close calls in my academic career, and so I compulsively back everything up. Here’s how I do it:

First, I keep multiple revisions of my thesis in folders on my own personal computer. So I have the first revision of my thesis in a folder marked with the date I started it, and then when I make changes to it, I just copy the whole thesis folder and change the date. That way, if I really mess it up somehow and then push “save” by accident, the previous version is there, at least.

The next level of backing up is my periodic Time Machine backups. At the risk of sounding like an Apple commercial, I do actually like the way that my computer backs up my files. I just plug in the hard disc, and click on the little clock in my menu, and then it backs up all the files on my computer. This particular piece of software has saved me a number of times that I can think of. It is, in fact, one of the top five reasons why I would be reluctant to switch to Linux as my main computer of choice—there just isn’t any really comparable backup software that I could find.

That said, if someone wants to enlighten me as to some software for Ubuntu that does what Time Machine does—backs up the computer’s entire hard disc onto an external hard disc, and gives a nice interface for restoring old files, only backs up files that have been modified and doesn’t do anything weird—then please leave a comment!

What’s nice about using the Time Machine backup is knowing that even if someone were to steal my computer while I’m at the library or something like that, I would still have a copy of it in my backup at home.

The highest level of paranoia that I reach is that every once in a while, when I remember, I compress the most recent revision of my thesis into a .zip file, and then upload that to my Google Documents account.

This way, even if my apartment were to burn down and both my computer and external hard disc were destroyed in the blaze, my thesis would be alive and well, in the cloud.

Do you back up your files? How? Four points for anyone who has a more elaborate backup scheme than me!

Variations on my name

This is something I forgot to mention while I was marking exams. Apparently my students don’t know what my name is. They were asked to write their TA’s name on their exam book, and when I received them, I got so many strange and fun variations!

A fairly standard one was “Benjamin Murphy,” which is understandable, but incorrect. “Murf” was a common, but charming mis-spelling. The most mystifying one, though, was “Ben Carsdale.”

I should have left that exam for Ben Carsdale to mark. Good grief.