September 01, 2003

Adventures in thesis completion

Wednesday night, I was intending to get a printout of the thesis on thesis paper before going to sleep, to make getting the signatures all I had to do on Thursday; I could then go to my 3:30 appointment early to fill out the fiddly little exit questionnaires they make you fill out.

Early Thursday morning, I decide to just finalise the draft and print it in the morning.... I go to sleep and get up a few hours later, getting in to the department around 9:30 or so. I fiddle with the printer for a bit, but while I can print out the "copy" (single-sided on regular printer paper) I can't figure out how to manually feed the thesis paper. So I decide to go ahead with getting the signatures. Might as well try to get Mark's before I head up to Boston; Eugene isn't around.

Mark is in his office. I'm carrying with me the signature pages and the "copy" version of the final printout. He tells me: "I think it's a little unreasonable for you to expect me to sign this without reading it first." He WHAT? What the fuck has he been doing for the last three weeks with the drafts I've been making and sending him and everyone else? "Ok, um, can you read it today then and sign this afternoon?" "Well, that doesn't give me very much time, does it? There's really not much point in getting signatures if your reader doesn't read the thing first." Again, I'm thinking, what about all the drafts I've been sending out, including one from almost a week earlier that I said was final unless I got further comments? Well, it turns out, he hasn't been reading anything I've sent out for a month, because they've all been watermarked with "DRAFT" and the date they were latexed---obviously, it couldn't really be final until everyone signed off on it, and I didn't want multiple nearly-identical postscript files floating around. That's the whole point of putting a draft watermark on the thing. But he hadn't read it until I (interpreting his silence as assent) finalised the thing. He asked about some stuff that they had asked me to add at the defence, which I had in fact added about a week earlier, a two-and-a-half page section. Which he didn't think would be enough; he asked about another aspect of this, which we had decided was more work than it was worth. And he said, "It would be nice to have numbers from that in the thesis." Great, but I don't. Did he want me to implement, debug, test, and write up a whole new set of experiments? I was fuming at this point, so I said, "look, whatever. Here's my current draft, I need to drive up to Boston right now to get Michael's signature." Mark's response? "Are you sure he's going to sign it? Really? When did you last talk to him?" What, did he not believe me? I walked out.

I was literally shaking with anger at this point. What could I do? I certainly couldn't force Mark to sign the thing; and I really have no direct argument against him, because I think the signature should mean something, and he should read the thesis before signing it. Nevertheless, it's not my fault he didn't, and (not being above a little social engineering) I sent an email to Eugene saying I'd be back from Boston around 2, "not that it is all that urgent since Mark just told me he's not going to sign it today". And I left for Boston.

The drive up to Boston was fairly pleasant, and gave me time to come to terms with the situation. One thing I'm very good at is calculating worst-case scenarios, and then figuring out why they aren't so bad. In this case, the WCS was that Mark would never sign, and I'd never get my PhD. However: my job at Knox was not technically predicated on getting my PhD---my title and salary would change, and at my second-year review I'd essentially have to be rehired. But the other two CS faculty aren't PhDs, and if my teaching, research, and service records are all good, I'd have a fairly good shot at it. A slightly more realistic WCS would be that Mark would only sign if I did a bunch more work, that I could do later this year, still get the PhD next May; that's not so terrible at all.

As I get onto I-93, I call Michael to get directions to his place. He wasn't at the office because he was moving that day, so I was just going to meet him at his new condo. Problem was, he could only give me the name of the neighbourhood and the street; he doesn't drive, so he couldn't give directions! Well, I'd manage somehow (I sort of let him think that I knew the neighbourhood pretty well, to cover for my poor planning on not calling before I left). I vaguely knew that Beacon Hill was next to Back Bay and close to downtown, and more importantly, that it was a well-known area that I could surely get directions to.

As it happened, I managed to take the most direct route possible, quite by accident and serendipity, parking as close as possible to the actual place without actually knowing where it was. It is a fourth-floor walkup in Beacon Hill, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Boston; the stairs are narrow and each step unusually high. He has the entire fourth floor of this townhouse; and the fifth; and a cupola on the top. This cupola has---literally---the best view I have ever seen from a private residence. It is 360 degrees, higher than most of the rest of the area, and grants a view of all of Boston and Cambridge. Absolutely amazing. He must have paid a fortune, but then, being a single, heavily-recruited CS professor at MIT would give one some options in this regard, I suppose. (On the other hand, I'm thinking the four flights of stairs would get pretty old after a while...)

Anyway, he signed the thing and we chatted for a while. I was apologetic for having interrupted his moving, but he was apologetic for the actual moving, suggesting that in other circumstances we could've hung out for a while. Let me just say that it was pretty weird hearing that---when I started grad school, his parser was (still is, really) a big deal and one of the best in the field, the major competition for Eugene's. So Michael has always been a bit larger-than-life, and here he was treating me as essentially an equal... heady stuff. Anyway, he couldn't and I had to get back to Providence.

When I got back, I checked my email. About twenty minutes after my email to Eugene, Mark had sent me a message saying he'd sign (and grudging that I hadn't given him more time to read it). Whatever. I went straight over there; he was with someone, so he couldn't lecture me further on not giving him extra time, which was fine by me. He signed, and I cleared out of there. Back at the CIT, Eugene was also with someone, but signed the page, mentioning, "by the way, something you did really pissed Mark off." I explained about how he hadn't been reading my drafts and was upset that I hadn't given him a chance to read it, and thanked him for intervening. Which in fact he hadn't, although he would have if it had taken longer for Mark to cool off on his own.

Those of you following along at home will note that at this point I have all three signatures! All that remained was procedural stuff. Unfortunately, it was at this point 3:00, and everyone knows that printers simply do not work under that kind of time pressure. Especially when you need them to do something complicated, from an unfamiliar OS---I needed to print from Windows, it turns out, if I wanted to use the manual feed tray to print onto thesis paper. About 3:15 I gave up (Zeno strikes again), printed a "copy" (i.e. on printer paper), and headed to the 3:30 appointment I'd planned to be very early to, actually arriving about 3:27.

My first comment: "I meant to get here early to fill out the exit questionnaires." Response: "Ok, just take them home tonight and bring them in in the morning." My second comment: "Which brings me to the larger problem of not actually having my thesis." I continued with a brief synopsis of my reader refusing to sign and the ensuing difficulties. Response: "Not a problem, we'll go through the other stuff and you can just bring the thesis in the morning with the exit interviews." Now, there's a rumour that floats around the grad school that the lady you turn your thesis in to is outrageously picky, whipping out a ruler to measure your margins and rejecting your thesis on the slightest technicality. Don't you believe it. Barbara Bennett is really nice, very accommodating, and is good at calming down the massively stressed-out grad student trying to perform their last act as a student. She went through my materials, accepted the signature pages (two originals, signed in blue or black ink), title pages (three extra copies, dated next May), abstracts (two copies), bursar's clearance (no outstanding debts except for the upcoming semester's tuition, which will be cancelled), and cashier's receipt ($50 fee to turn in your thesis---claimed to be for "binding costs"). All that remained were the four exit questionnaires and the original and copy of the thesis. (The copy I had with me was no good because I'd accidentally double-sided it... stupid printer. She actually agreed with me that the single-side requirement was dumb, but there it is.)

Of course, under no time pressure, the printer worked just fine. Back at the CIT, I filled out the four questionnaires (career services: "did you use our services? Was it good for you?"; graduate school: "how did you find your six years of grad school? Was it good for you?"; U of Chicago: thesis title and area, previous post-secondary education, demographics; and a release to allow UMI to publish the thesis), and the thesis printed just fine. I finished at 4:45, which was just exactly too late to have time to walk to the grad school and turn it in.

But I did that the following morning. Having done most of the fiddly stuff on Thursday, this only took about five or ten minutes, and as of 10:47am EDT on Friday, I am now entitled to call myself "Doctor", and to put the letters Ph.D. after my name. Pretentious, huh?

"I've lodged countless emails with Ms. Shidle over the years. I think I'm at about an 8% response rate. You may wish to try the phone." --Joe Shidle

Posted by blahedo at 11:03pm on 1 Sep 2003
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