Reflections on the virtual semester – Fall 2020.

Well, folks, we did it. We survived the COVID virtual semester. I guess.

I hope this post finds you well. I hope it finds you rested and in good company, whether it is family, friends, or your own. I hope you are taking some time off and taking care of yourself.

I meant to be better about posting and such. But, you know, COVID.

I recorded a voice note back in October in lieu of writing because I was tired but I wanted to get some thoughts out. So, I have transcribed it here because as messy as this is, I think there is an important message. So, bear with me and lets’ see where this takes us:

October 21st, 1:00 AM

I’m exhausted and my brain feels like it’s underwater. But I had some thoughts, and I wanted to remember them. I definitely don’t have the capacity to type or look at my computer now so I thought a voice note might be the way to go.

I am tired. I am zoomed out, polled out, emailed out. I literally cannot look at an email without feeling a sense of deep dread in the pit of my stomach anymore.

Actually, when my phone goes off and I see a new email notification my anxiety peaks – I feel a twang in my stomach. I don’t want to open it. Because I just don’t want to have to read all of it. I don’t want to respond to it. And very likely, I will have to read it all and respond, because it’s not a spam email. How I miss the day of spam emails from Sephora or Groupon.

I’ve been thinking more and more about the state of the semester and the state of my mental health, and that of my colleagues, and somethings gotta give. This is not right. And I don’t know what the answer is, but this is not it.

Today the county that my university is in has declared a stay in place order for our undergrads because our COVID numbers are spiking. So, COVID is running rampant in my university, yet we are marching full steam ahead towards finals. This semester has been wild. I don’t think another word describes this semester better than will. Well, I can think of a few but let’s stick with wild. 

It blows my mind how our response to a global pandemic is a semester that is running at lightning speed with an exponentially increased workload for our students, and our GSI’s. And our professors and faculty, and everyone really, but I really feel like the brunt is falling on the students – the undergrads and graduates. And I don’t mean to take away from the faculty and professors who are working so hard, to discount their labor and their time. But honestly, as a GSI and a graduate student, personally, I am one unfortunate event away from a mental breakdown. Or maybe I am there already. I am talking to my phone at 1 AM.

So let’s just kind of, and reflect on the state of things, and look at all the things that are wrong here, shall we?

First, there is the fact that our university is prioritizing money over us, to put it simply it has been made clear many times that our lives, mental health, and well being are not worth more than the all mighty dollar. Great feeling.

So here we are, pretending like everything is ok. Working from our rooms or dorms or wherever we may be. And the ironic thing is that instead of having a slower pace semester as one might assume if you’re going to go through with classes in a global pandemic, we have done the opposite.

As a result, my students are anxious. They are exhausted. They are confused. They are terrified. My students have had COVID! They email me asking for an extension on their assignment because they have COVID. That’s the first thing that pops into their mind when they find out they have COVID.

Like, kid – I am so sorry that this is your train of thought right now. That you have a virus that is killing people. And we have programmed you to worry about your stupid grade so that you email me at 7 pm on a Friday asking for an extension when you should be resting. This is what we have done for our students. And we are doing this to ourselves too because I was just talking to my roommate the other day and honestly both of us were thinking, if we were to get it – get COVID – our first thought in our minds would be “oh my god, how am I going to get through the semester.” That is how we have been programmed by this commercial, consumeristic, capitalistic system. Where we prioritize our classes, our “education” over our health. And that’s really fucked up, to be honest. And I don’t want to blame us really, I blame this system for this, fully.

We have created this system where it’s like a zero-sum game where you either play by the rules or you forfeit. And for many of us, we have invested way too much of our time, energy, and labor into our program to forfeit now. I’ve been in this game for over 8 years now, I can’t quit, I’ve invested pretty much my whole adult life into this – so there is no going back for me. I mean never say never.. but still.

End of transcription.

I did say it would be a mess, but I hope you were able to follow my train of thought, muddled as it was. My point is – this semester was terrible for my mental health, and from my observations, that of my peers and my students. So I don’t think I am over arching when I say this was likely the case for many many others. I am not blind to the fact that it is a privilege to be able to attend school, safely, online from my home. And that many people had to risk their lives daily to go to work to keep the rest of us afloat – I understand that. I merely wanted to reflect on how the academic year progressed and see if there is room for improvement as we move froward – and there is always room for improvement, my friend.

I acknowledge that most universities were laxer in terms of grading and deadlines to accommodate students struggling with COVID or COVID related issues. And I acknowledge that how accommodating individual faculty members are is really up to them, and there is not much the admin can do to ensure that everyone plays by the new COVID rules. I was lucky that my professors were understanding – but I know this was not the case for everyone.

I know that many countries are now rolling out the vaccine but the vaccine is not a miracle cure. It will take time to get enough people vaccinated for us to have some sort of immunity. We still have to be careful about social distancing in the meantime – virtual school may our reality for longer than we want to even think about. And if that is the case, we need to learn from this semester. Because to be very frank, I don’t think I can handle another semester like this.

It is so easy to over book and overextend yourself in a Zoom semester. To agree to another meeting because you don’t really have to go anywhere, anyways. To attend another seminar because its free or because you have a 40 min gap in your schedule. To eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in front of a Zoom lecture. Or to forget to eat all together.

I am not going to sit here holding my breath that all the change needed will come top-down. What I can change however, is how I approach next semester personally. So if you have some advice for setting healthy boundaries and managing virtual learning, please do send them my way! In the meantime, I think the number one thing I will be prioritizing in 2021 is valuing myself and my time more. I was terrible a doing this past semester, and my mental health suffered it greatly.

This does not mean that my approach to 2021 will be avoidance – to check out. I will of course, still put 100 % into everything I do. I will try to be the best student, GSI, colleague, and accomplice I can be. But I will also try to be the best sister, daughter, and friend. And to do any of these things, I need to be a good caretaker of myself – mentally, physically, and emotionally.

So fellow students, as we wrap up 2020 and head into 2021, remember to love yourself more. You will get everything that you need to get done. But remember that to tackle that ever growing to-do list, you need to be ok first.

Peace, love, and positivity.

(And all the sleep.)

An update from your friendly neighborhood Albanian Archaeologist

Well, dear friends. Your friendly neighborhood Albanian archaeologist has gone a bit MIA of late. Why so, you may ask?

Life – more specifically, life in academia. This is more a note to check in than a proper post.  Check-in with who exactly I’m not sure, but if you’re reading this; Hi, I’m letting you know that I will be back soon. With killer content and insight – I hope.

Grad school can take a toll on you, so much so that it envelopes you. There is deadline after deadline. You have to read constantly, you have to publish, you have to attend classes, teach classes, ” do research,” plan research, apply for grants, attend social events, talks, evening lectures, conferences.. the list goes on.  I will be the first to admit, I struggled to keep up with all of this.

On the surface, I weathered my first year of grad school rather well. I got straight A’s in my classes, landed some grants, went to conferences and talked about my research. I even conducted preliminary dissertation research in Albania and Kosovo this summer (a post that is on the drawing boards I assure you).

In my first year, I often felt like I was running as fast as I could but not getting anywhere. As soon as I completed one task, another fell in my lap. You got a grant to fund your summer research? Great. Better start thinking about the next one you’ll apply to. You finished your 20 page research paper? Amazing. Better start the other one you’ve put off until now.

These are the themes that I would like to explore in this platform because I don’t think that I am alone in thinking like this.  The fact that so many graduate students deal with depression, stress, anxiety, and imposter syndrome is a glaring redlight that there is something seriously wrong with the system so many of us idealize. Many of us pursue graduate degrees because we want to further our field, because we want to be creators of knowledge, we want to be academics. But the game has changed, it has become toxic. And we need to have a discussion about this.

I hope you will stick around until then.

Love, peace, and positivity,

Your friendly neighborhood Albanian archaeologist.

Email Etiquette

Email etiquette is one of the most important skills to have in your repertoire as an academic. I know, you’re thinking, really? Emailing? We all know how to email. But you would be surprised.

What inspired this post? I have many friends who are now in the process of searching for an advisor for their Ph.D.’s. And having successfully navigated this treacherous path, many have asked me how I did it, which prompted my previous post “The Grad School Application Process.” However, once you carefully and painstakingly spend hours narrowing your list of programs that you want to study at, with a faculty member with whom you want to work with, comes the “difficult part” – reaching out. This part terrifies people, myself included. While I touched a bit on the do’s and don’t’s of email etiquette in my last post, I feel like this is a topic worth expanding on.

So, a colleague of mine asks how I reached out to professors when I was looking for an advisor. Naturally, she is freaked out about initiating that first point of contact. And rightly so, the first email you send to a potential advisor can set the tone for the rest of your correspondence. This does not mean, however, that you should be incapacitated with fear. Remind yourself that this is a normal part of academia, that professors get emails every day, and it is part of the job description to correspond with potential new students. Returning to my little story – I said I would send her a template of the email I would set out. Into the rabbit hole of my bachelor email inbox I go to find these early emails I sent when I was looking for masters programs. The results were not pretty my friends.

Now you’re thinking: “Ok, so you had terrible email etiquette, and now you’re going to tell us how to write proper emails?” My answer? Hells, yea. Why? Because nothing teaches you like mistakes, and better yet, if I can share my mistakes with you, then that makes messing up the first time that much more worth it since it was a learning experience for all. Shall we dive in?

Let me set the scene for you real quick. A 21-year-old AA is eager to pursue a career in archaeology, and she realizes early on that a bachelors degree on its own won’t cut it. So, she begins searching for masters programs. This is a difficult process in itself, it becomes even more so when your research is so niche, like mine. I began by searching for archaeologists who worked in Albania; I found 3. Excited beyond words, I drafted some emails and sent them off. At the moment I was very proud of myself, I had reached out, I was taking baby steps to making my dreams come true. And honestly, I still am proud of 21-year-old me. But there are some things that I would advise her on, because, let me tell you, re-reading some of those emails made me cringe.

 

Spelling and Grammer

I cannot stress how important this is. This is the first time someone is “meeting you.” What’s more, this might be the first impression you make on a potential advisor. Don’t blow it with typos and poor grammar. Did I do this by the way? Oh yea, multiple times, I even spelled last names wrong. That is probably one of the worst things you can do. Luckily, I wasn’t emailing that professor whose name I spelled wrong, but mentioning that I was considering reaching out to them. Of course, because archaeology is a small world, the professor was corresponding knew the professor I was referring to, and corrected me on my spelling. Woops. Clearly, this is a really big weakness for myself, so what are some tips to avoid such blunders.

  1. Slow down: take your time writing your email, there’s no fire. Check yourself as you are writing each sentence. Fix typos and errors as you see them (not at the very end).
  2. Read your email out loud: this is golden, but many people don’t do this anymore. This doesn’t just apply to emails, this applies to all things written. Assignments papers, responses, text messages… if you’re not sure, read it out loud.
  3. Have someone else look over your email: another golden rule. Our brains are notorious for correcting what we see. So when we have looked at something for a long time, we no longer pick up on typos or errors because our brain automatically corrects them for us.
  4. Print it out: if you don’t have a friend to send your draft to, print it out. I used to do this all the time with essays when I felt like I could not look at a screen any longer. For some reason, editing with paper in hand made me pick up on mistakes that I could not on the screen.
  5. Use a spellchecker/grammar software: there are lots of options available online where you can copy and paste your text to be checked. I use Grammarly for everything, from emails to essays (to my thesis).

 

Timing

This was not a major problem for myself, but I have noticed it in other people. Some people are terrible with emails, they are impossible to get a hold of, they don’t respond, and when they do it’s at 2 am in the morning. My rule of thumb is, as a student, you need to be on your A-Game when it comes to email correspondence with faculty members. This means you respond to emails within a 24 hour period and you email/respond at reasonable times ( I try to stick to Monday-Friday 9-5). Now, of course, certain situations call for exceptions, and if you have already established contact with your faculty member, if you already know them, if the email requires a quick response, then you can judge the situation as you see fit. But in my opinion, you cannot go wrong when you maintain those two rules. This, however, means that you are also checking your email frequently enough so that you don’t miss important emails. A lesson the young AA learned the hard way. I used to be terrible at checking my email until I almost missed an important deadline once. Since then, I check my email constantly. Maybe you don’t want to get my level of obsessive, but you should find a consistency that works for you while ensuring you don’t miss anything important.

 

Content

Aside from your email having impeccable spelling and grammar, you also need to have good content. Especially if this is your first time reaching out to someone you want to work with. My advice here would be to keep it simple and keep it concise for the first email. If they want to know more, they will ask. Introduce yourself briefly, tell them about your research interests and relate how it relates to theirs. A good way to start the email is to simply say ” I am looking for programs to pursue my graduate studies, X stands out to me as a wonderful fit.” If you have an advisor at your current university, lead with that. This can help open doors. Anytime I send an email to someone who I want to work with, I lead with:  “My name is X, I am at the University of X, my graduate advisor is X.” After talking briefly about your research, relate it to theirs. ” I recently read your paper on X…” ‘I noticed that your work is X…” I found an old email I sent to a graduate advisor when I was looking for Ph.D. programs ( 1 year ago, let me remind you) and I just about gasped from embarrassment). It was terrible! It was so long, it had terrible structure and although I did not mean it tom it came off as slightly presumptuous. Which relates to the next topic.

 

Courtesy

Related to content is courtesy. This is arguably one of the most important aspects of email etiquette, and can sometimes make or break a correspondence. If the faculty member you are emailing thinks you are rude or entitled, then why would they want to work with you? Remember that email is a professional mode of communication, hence is it really important that you keep a professional tone. This is really important when you are corresponding back and forth over multiple emails. Of course,  you should sense the tone of the conversation, and you may not have to sign off with Sincerely “your full name here” by email number five. But remember, use full sentences, keep it formal and as always, stay humble. Not everyone you will reach out to is going to respond or be interested in working with you – that’s show biz baby.

If you don’t get a response, I would suggest following up, very politely two weeks after. If you get a  response, and it’s a “no,” you still should respond, thank them for their time and wish them all the best. Remember that academia is a small world. Now, this may be an unpopular opinion, but I’m going to go ahead and say it. Academia is inherently hierarchical, I acknowledge that there are severe problems in our discipline, but at the very macro-level, a difference exists between you, the student, and your advisor. This might be a topic for another post about how the mentor-mentee relationship works. But, the way I see it, is this is a hierarchical, professional relationship. Your potential advisor is not meant to be your friend, they are meant to be academic guides if you will. They are experts in their field (with years of experience), treat them as such. So, in your correspondence with potential advisors; stay humble, stay polite and above all do not appear entitled (no one owes you anything – No one has to work with you). By no means should you sell yourself short, just acknowledge that as a young individual in your field, there is much that you don’t know, and that is fine. Cest la vie, you have a career ahead of you to learn. Seven years into school and the only thing that I know for sure is that I have barely scratched the surface of what I need to know.

 

And there you have it, folks. Some simple things to keep in mind to keep your email game on point. Think of how you would put yourself together if you were going for an interview. You would put on your most professional outfit, you would fix your hair, maybe put some makeup on if that’s your thing, you would show up on time, you would have the appropriate material with you. All the same applies to first contact emails when searching for a faculty advisor (or collaborator etc.): put your best academic face forward.

All this said, remember to be yourself, and take that leap of faith. These words of advice are not meant to be all-encompassing or “the law.” Just some helpful suggestions from someone who has sat in your place not too long ago. And hey, I’m still learning too. I’m also learning that you never stop learning. But now I’m getting metaphysical and philosophical. I also have an assignment I need to finish (yes we still have those in grad school), so its time to wrap this up.

You got this kid, now go forth and email.

 

The Grad School Application Process

I know what you’re thinking. It’s still August, why are you talking about applying to grad school, the deadlines are months away.

Well maybe I’m just an overachiever, but I’ve always found that getting a head-start on bureaucratic type processes, like grad school applications, is always a good idea. These things take longer than you think. And a strong application is one that has been well researched and well thought out, in addition to being well written.

So, without further ado, the AA’s guide to the grad school application process…To be taken with a grain of salt, of course.

The first thing you need to do is to do your research. And to do it well. When I first started the grad school application process back in ’16, I must have spent hours Googling different schools, looking at how they compared to each other in regard to my program. Some of the basic things to look for include program duration, cost, funding opportunities, if there is a thesis component etc. I made a little spreadsheet by hand comparing my top favorite universities so I could see how they compared at a glance – not saying you have to do this by any means. I know I’m my own, special, level of organized. Excel also works great..

The next step is to see if there are potential faculty members that could supervise your research, either as chair or committee members. If you like a program, then take a look at the faculty there. Make sure that there are faculty members that can help you with your research.  Alternatively, if there is someone in your field that you really want to work with you might start by searching for the university where they are employed. Don’t limit yourself by only looking at the faculty members in your department only, there could be several faculty members in related departments that would provide valuable insight on your research. For example, I often would look to the geography or classics departments.

Ideally, you will have 3-4 programs that fit your research interests and that have faculty members that could serve as your potential advisers. The next step is to start getting in contact with the university. The best person to initially contact is the graduate adviser. Typically, they know the program better than anyone else and can tell you relatively quickly if it is a good match for you, additionally, recruitment is often a big part of thier job, so they will be happy to talk to potential new students. In the email, introduce yourself, tell them that you find the program very interesting and are interested in applying. You might want to elaborate on your own research interests in a paragraph or so. Ask if there are any resources that you can look at and if the program is accepting students etc. Usually, the graduate adviser will direct you to a faculty member who is taking students and/or has similar research interests. With some luck, it is one of the people that you had researched.

Then you can contact the faculty members you are interested in working with. This first email is essentially the first impression, so it is important that it comes across professional. Keep it short and respectful, and as always, free of typos and grammar errors.  Again, introduce yourself, tell them briefly about you and your research interests and mention that you find their research interesting and pertinent to yours. Ask them if they are accepting students and if they have any advice about your application.

In my experience, the people I reached out to were usually very upfront with me. And let me tell you, I was rejected many, many times. I often got the “your research is interesting, but not really my niche, but you should contact X” response. Rejection is not a bad thing, if someone is not sold on your research, it is better to know that right away. If you get the “sorry not my niche”, or “I have too many students” response, thank them for their time and wish them the best. If you get the very much sought after “that sounds very interesting, tell me more”, and “I am taking students” email, thank them for their time and let them know how much it would mean to have the opportunity to work with them. Now just because someone says they are accepting students doesn’t mean you are in, but it’s a start.

Email etiquette is extremely important at this phase since this is the primary mode of communication with your potential adviser. So, always be polite and prompt. Don’t take three days to respond to an email, and don’t email at 2 am in the morning. Rookie mistakes.

Once you have narrowed down your top universities with faculty members that are taking students and are interested in your research, you can start working on the application itself. This is where the real work starts.  I recommend keeping it to about 3 applications maximum for two reasons – one the applications cost money and they can be expensive, about $100 each. Two, the less applications the more you can focus your time and resources to making strong applications. If you are an international student, I recommend you start early since it will take you time to get your documents ready. The deadline for most programs is often December -March. I would write these deadlines down and know them by heart. Programs won’t consider late applications.

There are about 7 components to the process:

  • Application (form with your basic information)
  • Transcripts
  • Statement of purpose / Personal statement or both
  • Writing Sample
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Your CV
  • The Tests (The GRE and TOEFL)

To really drive the point home, here is an example timeline (with deadlines) of how the application process unfolds. At least how it unfolded for me. If you want to start in the fall semester, you need to start thinking about your application about a year ahead, usually, this is the last year of your current program, unless you are re-entering academia from the workforce or something along those lines. Regardless, this often means that August is when the process begins.

One: Narrow down three to four schools to apply to and make the first contact with the graduate coordinators, then later professors. (August – September)

Two: Find out the requirements for the programs. (Early September)

Three: Contact previous professors from your school to ask about letters. Ask them early and provide them with the deadlines. The can also help edit your statements of purpose.(Early September)

Four: Start the application process, write-down the login information so you don’t forget it. Figure out what documents you need to send and how; some schools are picky about this. If they want hard copies from the school send them early (September).

Five: Start writing your statements. Look at the website for each program so you can tailor each statement fit the goals of the university. Keep in mind, three applications means three statements since you will have to make them specific to the program. (October).

*This is probably the most important part of your applications as it demonstrates who you are and what you have to offer. It is important that it is well written and shows you are driven and ambitious. Here you can talk about your research goals, what you intend to do with your degree after graduating and how your academic career thus far has prepared you for this next step. Mention that the goals of the university line up with your own, that you feel that you will flourish as an academic there for these reasons. Additionally, mention the faculty members at the university who you would like to work with and why. *

Six: Edit your CV and your writing sample. Make your CV show that you are a well-rounded academic with experience. Find a piece of work you have written for classes that you got a good grade one. One that shows your ability to write academically. It helps to have a friend look them over to catch any minor errors or typos you may have missed yourself (October).

Seven: Take the standardized tests. These are a pain, but they are required by most schools. The GRE is required for all American schools and the TOEFL is required of all international students. As with any test, it helps to prepare. Luckily, there are lots of resources out in the inter-webs to help you study. Most schools will say what their required minimum scores are for acceptance. Now, not meeting this score is not the end of the world, but coming close helps. Especially if there is a lot of competition. However, it is the impression you make on the faculty through your interactions with them and your letter of academic intent that really matters. (October / November).

By end of November, you should have everything ready, I suggest submitting your applications end of November to early December (depending on when they are due, but I did all my applications in one day to get them over with). Everything is done online, including your letters of recommendation. Your professors submit them via a link you send them. You will need their emails and approval when you are filling out your application. When you decide that you’re going to finalize and submit your applications, make sure you give yourself time, it takes a few hours to get everything uploaded, double check everything! I made a folder in my computer for my applications and in this, I made a folder for each school. I saved everything in the folder so when it was time to apply I had everything in one place.

Now, this post may seem like overkill and the deadlines are just suggestions. But I honestly do mean to be helpful. I’m the first in my family (both sides) to go to graduate school. I didn’t have much help figuring out this process, and there were times when I felt overwhelmed. But, I did it (twice), and you can too. Just take it a step at a time, plan it out and start early. Show ’em what you have to offer; be confident, be professional, be you.

How to “Thesis”

books.jpgYour coursework is done, you are now a seasoned graduate student, it is time to begin the ever-daunting thesis writing process.

Regardless of your school or department, most programs have a thesis writing component. I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, but the thought of churning out 100+ pages of academic writing terrified me to no end. Yet, I somehow managed to do it, and successfully at that.

“Thesising” as we began to call it in my department, is not easy, but it shouldn’t be terrifying either. It is just another process you have to go through if you want a career in academia. If you break it down, a thesis is essentially a really big essay. At this point, you should be an expert at writing essays, so what’s one more?

Hindsight is 20/20, looking back on my thesis journey there are many things I would do differently. Not to be too harsh on myself as there are things that I did right as well.  As I toiled through my thesis I started creating a little list in my head of tips and tricks that just might be handy for someone who is about to begin the ever daunting thesis writing process.

 

  • Know what you want to research and get approval from your supervisor

What helped me out immensely was that I knew what I wanted to base my thesis research on before I even applied to Mississippi State. Knowing what you want to study works in your favor since you can gear your classes to help your research (more on this below). However, it is important that you obtain approval from your thesis supervisor if you are coming in with a research question already determined. Your thesis research in not only a reflection of your work but is tied to your university and your committee as well. Your superior will be able to tell you if your research is feasible and ethical. While I came in with a research question in mind, my research design and many important parameters were decided in agreement with my supervisor. However, I’ve noticed that many people do not have a hard and ready research question coming into a graduate program. Most of my peers had general research interests, but not set question. If you do not have an idea question that drives you, the best thing you can do is take on a research question that is pertinent to your supervisor’s research. Chances are your supervisor’s research interests are similar to yours, either theoretically, geographically or methodologically. Additionally, they would be able to provide you with access to the required data more readily, as opposed to trying to secure data from elsewhere.

 

  • Know your topic – Do your background research

You do not need to be an expert, but you do need to know what you’re talking about. When I began my thesis, I knew very little about Albanian archaeology, other than I wanted to study it. I grew up in Canada, so Albanian prehistory was not a high priority in the Ontario Public School Curriculum. However, I was lucky enough to take a Directed Individual Study (DIS) in the second semester of my first year which allowed me to familiarize myself with my topic. I created a list of readings which covered Albanian archaeology, the history of archaeology in Albania, archaeological theory, GIS and GIS in archaeology, which my thesis supervisor amended and approved. I would read my weekly readings, take notes and meet with my supervisor once a week to discuss them. This kills two birds with one stone as it allows you to familiarize yourself on your topic all the while doing the background readings for your thesis proposal. Since a DIS is a class, you will need a way to be evaluated – in my case, I wrote my thesis proposal as my evaluation. This was helpful in moving along my progress in the program as it gave me a hard and fast deadline which I had to adhere to, of course I added significantly to my reading list over time, but this is a good stepping stone to get you started and build up a base of knowledge. As I made my way through my original list, I found more articles by looking through works cited pages. As my proposal came together, I noticed gaps or ideas that I wanted to explore more, which prompted me to consider other resources or articles that I had not considered previously. Additionally, as my knowledge on the topic grew, I was able to search more successfully for new resources since I had a better idea of what keywords to look for. Also, worth keeping in mind is that the research portion of your thesis does not end with your thesis proposal or your literature review. I was constantly reading new articles and expanding my works cited – I found some of my strongest articles 3 weeks before I defended! Never stop reading, never stop writing, and the more you read, the better your research becomes.

 

  • Do not try to reinvent the wheel

Consider why your program requires a thesis in the first place. In my department, they encouraged us to cap our thesis at about 100 pages, excluding graphics and appendices. As a master’s student, you are not supposed to reinvent the wheel. What you are required to do is demonstrate that you have the capability to organize and carry out research, and interpret the results within a theoretical framework.  This means that you should keep your reach question as simple and your research design as straightforward as possible. Take it from someone that had 13 hypotheses and sub-hypothesis – Simplicity is your friend! If you can prove or disprove something with two hypotheses and two sub-hypotheses. DO IT. Keep your research question simple and above all feasible! While it may be very interesting to do DNA analysis on human remains from a Pueblo site, for example, chances are you will not be allowed to do so. When coming up with a research question keep in mind access to data and time and money restrictions. Is your data overseas? Can you access it? How will get access to it?  Are you allowed to publish on it? What about your methods – are they destructive? Do they take a long time? Are they expensive? Do you have access to certain tools and instruments you will need? It took me 5 months to collect and work with my data, and I was working with secondary sources and open data that could be accessed online.

 

  • Use your coursework to help you

I wrote my thesis while taking classes. This can be difficult at times, but what helped me make progress in both my classes and thesis, is that I would use my coursework to aide my thesis research. You have to write a paper for you GIS class, great – write it on the history of GIS in Albanian archaeology. Need to analyze data for your stats class? Great, use your thesis data! I tied my thesis research to every class I had to take, even Middle Eastern Cultures (I wrote a great paper on interconnectivity in the Mediterranean and world systems theory – the main theoretical framework I used in my thesis – WIN!). By the time I finished my coursework, I had written papers on the history of Albanian archaeology, world systems theory and interconnectivity, GIS application in archaeology and Albania and done multiple projects using my thesis data for both my GIS and my stats classes. Using your data for classes is so useful as it allows you to really get to know your data, and facility with your data is key!

 

  • Deadlines and progress

I remember being in my first semester of classes and thinking about my thesis as if it was some monster. It was overwhelming, how does one get to a polished, bound, approved thesis in just two years. The answer, dear friends is to break it up into manageable chunks. This is how I broke down my thesis:

  1. Background reading
  2. Thesis proposal – Literature Review, Methods and Materials
  3. Collect data
  4. Analyze data
  5. Interpret data
  6. Write results
  7. Conclusions, limitations

I gave myself deadlines to adhere to for each part outlined above. They were not set in stone, and they were sometimes unrealistic, but they helped keep me on track. My deadlines were often super early, so even if I missed them, I would still be on track. I am a very visual person, so once I had an approved thesis proposal I create this board for myself. I know, sounds lame, but I swear to you this thing kept me from going crazy.  I went to Walmart, got a cork board, some push pins and cue cards and sat down on the floor of my room one September day and planned out my thesis writing process. At the very center of my board when my thesis statement. This was not an original idea. I remember from my professionalization class, Dr. Zuckerman telling us to write down our thesis statement and to put it over where we will be writing. Having your thesis statement direct over your head as you are writing is a great way to keep yourself on topic, and helps keep your writing concise and to the point. The next for que-cards around these statements consisted of important information that is pertinent to your research. I had the descriptions of my categories up; my time periods, site designations etc. Finally, were the posts with deadlines and progress.  I gave myself hard and soft deadlines and made note of things that I had completed. The latter was helpful for morale – even through my to-do list was very growing, seeing the completed list grow as well always made me feel a little better. The most important deadlines, however, where the department and program deadlines. Write these in BOLD RED. Know them, live them, have them memorized. Do NOT miss these deadlines.

 

  • Don’t take it personally

One thing that I quickly learned is that when you have a complete and approved thesis proposal, 1/3 of your thesis is done! Your proposal consists of a problem statement, a literature review, methods and materials, those are the first few chapters of your thesis. Of course, you will have to add and edit certain parts, but a big chunk of your thesis is ready. Once you have a first draft you really are past the hard part. Now all you have to do is go through the rounds of edits with your supervisor and committee. There are some things to keep in mind during this part of the process. First, draft one will never be perfect, so get ready to edit a ton. And two, thesis edits are not to be taken personally, they are meant to make your work stronger, so if you committee suggests you change or add something, my advice would be to do it. I added entire sanctions to my thesis to meet the requirements of my committee and I am so glad that I did because now I think I have better and stronger thesis.

 

  • Love yourself

This became my motto and words of advice during my last semester. I finished my program in two years but it is designed to be three. Most people take courses for two years and then write in their third. I, however, had classes, TA’d, volunteered and wrote and defined my thesis in one semester. And while I did it, I sometimes think my mental and physical health suffered for it. Of course, there have been people before me who have done the same, and there will be many people after me who will successfully defend in two years. This is something that is determined between each individual and their committee. But my advice to everyone who asked me if they should do it in two years is to think about why they want to finish in two years. Do you have a job lined up?  Do you have another program to start? Do you have family or someone waiting on you back home? Does your supervisor think that you can successfully complete the program in two years? If the answer is yes, and you yourself want to finish the program in two years, then do it. I know you can. Otherwise, love yourself more, and work at the pace that you’re comfortable with. Remember, it is not a race and you are not competing with anyone, the impotent thing is that you do good research. Also remember that it is ok to take breaks, to cut yourself some slack and to love yourself. Believe it or not, it will get done, it always does.

 

  • You are not alone

Cheesy as this sounds, you need to remember that you are not alone. You have an entire department behind you. Your supervisor and committee have a vested interest in you succeeding, after all, your success reflects positively on them. I cannot count the number of times I had to go to my supervisor for help when I was stuck on a method, when my data would not process or when my stats were wonky. And every time, my supervisor sat down with me, walked through the problems with me and helped me come to a solution. We ended up changing major parts of my thesis by the end of it, and my thesis is only the stronger because of it.  Aside from your committee and your supervisor you also have your peers. There were countless times when I would sit up and talk theory or methods with my colleagues. What I loved most about my department is how much we care about and help each other. One person’s success is all of our success. My colleges and I would help each other find resources, edits drafts of our work, and even just be there for moral support. I remember I was so stressed one time that my roommate went out and brought me a little “happy” bag filled with my favorite chocolates and kombucha and a fuzzy blanket. Some of my best memories are of paint nights in with my friends to celebrate finishing a chapter or getting back thesis edits.

Now take this with a grain of salt, I am not a professional and this little list is not meant to be exhaustive. But the point is, writing a thesis does not have to be a terrifying task. If you come at it with a clear and simple research question, break it up in manageable parts, and chip away at it consonantly, you can get it done. After all, it’s just another essay, and you’ve written hundreds of essays by now.