How to Write a Dissertation That Doesn’t Suck

When I was living in that dread land of ABD (all but dissertation), I could always spot what poor fools around me weren’t going to make it. If I had wanted to be punched in the face, I would have given them these five tips to help.

1. Have an Actual Opinion

You can gather all the data you want. You can survey 15,978 institutions with a 90% response rate. You can figure out how to interview your dead grandmother. If you don’t use it all to arrive at an actual opinion: It. Doesn’t. Matter. Even better, your opinion should be interesting. It should shed light on something unknown, promote a new idea, disprove a myth—something!
But you should at least have one.


2. Don’t Write Crap Just to Show You Did the Research

It’s been years since you’ve seen the sun. Your children don’t recognize you. In fact, you don’t remember having children. You just know you’ve been staring at your computer so long your eyelashes have cobwebs. Now you’re writing up the Literature Review section, and you’re going to make damn sure each and every book, article, blog post, and bubblegum wrapper you ever so much as looked at is going in there. No one will be able to deny your thoroughness, your pain, or your lost youth. And no one will care, either.

Showing your research should be part of your argument, such as showing there’s a real gap in the literature or demonstrating that your opinion is different from what’s come before. Anything irrelevant must go, even if the article in question were only acquired through an inter-library loan and buying your own microfiche machine.


3. Stop Repeating Yourself! (AKA, The “Argh!” Rule)

It doesn’t matter how many fancy words you’ve learned, how often you change your syntax and tone, or what lovely tables and charts you have. The reader can tell when they’re being told the same thing over and over.

Don’t believe me? Well, the audience for your paper is able to identify the recurrent appearance of the same content multiple times. Moreover, people notice when you repeat yourself!
Say it once, say it correctly, and move the hell on.

4. Write a Dissertation That Makes You a Good Hire

Oh, you found it fascinating that fruit fly genitalia can be counted more readily using the Accu-Scope 3088 Rechargeable LED Monocular Microscope than with the Labomed Sigma Monocular Microscope? Wow. And you wrote 2,432 pages on it? That’s major winner right there.

And now tell me just who you think wants to hire someone who spent a year of their life figuring that out? All that dissertation will get you is a job as a lab minion.

Pick something you can talk about at your interview that makes you sound smart and topical, cutting-edge and valuable. Or lets you fake it.


5. Don’t Plagiarize (AKA, The Dumbass Rule)

Most grad students have figured out by the time they’re doing the dissertation that they must cite even when they paraphrase, must put everything in quotes that’s not their own work, must slavishly follow the writing style down to the last comma in their references, and must refer at least twice to something their professor wrote if it’s even remotely on point.

But remember that the all-holy dissertation is supposed to show you can perform original thinking, or at the least create an original thought, however small.

Be absolutely certain that your whole idea doesn’t revolve around what someone else said. It can be inspired by it, or you can have the idea to disprove it, or you can expand on it in an original way. But if it’s really just a restatement of another’s work, someone on that panel of professors is going to all but kill themselves proving how superior they are to their peers by haughtily revealing that they already read your so-called opinion right here.

Seriously, in academia, it’s better to be new and pointless than incredible but repetitive.

Share this:

When online translators go horribly (and hilariously) wrong

Online translators can come in handy when you need to translate something on the fly. Automatic or machine translation is a quick and cheap alternative to time-consuming manual translation with a bilingual dictionary or a professional translation service. Automatic translators work on a word-by-word basis, which can be useful when you need to get the gist. But they run into problems when there is more than one possible translation for a word, since they obviously cannot ‘understand’ any context that may be crucial to choosing the right one. In these cases, the online translator gives the most common translation (usually the literal meaning of the word), which may or may not make any sense.

Another pitfall is grammatical accuracy. When translating between languages with different ways of structuring sentences, the word-by-word process may simply produce ungrammatical strings of words. These kinds of online translator fails can be found all over the Internet where people poke fun at just how wrong automatic translation can go.

One truly epic fail was the automatic translation from Italian to English of the biographies of all the ministers in the Italian government that appeared on the official website. At the time, the episode was reported by a major Italian newspaper, which also gleefully pointed out the ironic contrast with that government’s promise to boost the “three I’s” in education: Inglese, Internet e Impresa (English, Internet, Enterprise). Here are some of the best bloopers:

• The Italian “Nato a” at the beginning of each bio was mysteriously transformed into “Been born in”, rather than simply “Born in”. Unfortunately, all the ministers’ bios began in the same totally ungrammatical way.

• “Coniugato e con due figli” became “Conjugated and it has two daughters”. In addition to its grammatical meaning, “coniugato” also means “married” in Italian. The poor man was also reduced to an “it” rather than a “he”. Both of these fails were repeated in the ministers’ bios, men and women alike.

• “Ministro dell’Interno” (Minister of the Interior) became “Minister of the Inside”.

• “Ministro dell’Ambiente” (Minister of the Environment) became “Minister of the Atmosphere”.

• “Il portavoce del Presidente” (spokesperson for the President) became “the megaphone of the President”.

• One minister graduated from “Mouthfuls University”. The university in question is Università Bocconi, founded by Ferdinando Bocconi and one of the most prestigious academic institutions in Italy. The word “boccone” in Italian means “mouthful”. “Bocconi” is the plural form, so the automatic translator actually did get that right!

• The Minister of Education found herself with a new first name when “Letizia” was translated into “Joy”.

• A minister was regrettably described as having once been an “Ordinary University Professor”. In the Italian higher education system, the highest level of professorship is “Professore Ordinario”, corresponding to Full Professor.

• As a young man, a minister was a member of the political activist group called “Fronte della Gioventù”, which became the “Forehead of Youth”, rather than the Youth Front. “Fronte” also means “forehead” in Italian.

• The political party “Lega Nord” of one minister became the “Alloy North”, rather than the Northern League.

• A minister’s illustrious mentor’s first and last names were translated from “Augusto Del Noce” to “August Of The Nut” (note the carefully maintained capitalization). “Noce” does, in fact, mean “nut”, so a perfectly logical choice in the ‘mind’ of the automatic translator, even at the risk of offending Mr. Del Noce’s mother.

• The city and province of birth of one minister, Cassano Magnago (VA), where VA is the official abbreviation for the province of Varese, became Cassano Magnago (GOES). After all, “va” is the third person singular form of the irregular Italian verb “andare”, so why not translate that too into its English counterpart “goes”? (in all caps, of course!)

Once the blunder was discovered, the government quickly removed the embarrassing translations and got them done properly. The government also replied to the newspaper that the bios were trial runs with an automatic translator and not intended for publication, and that ‘someone’ had gotten into the system and made them public.

If English isn’t your first language, it’s a great idea to stay away from free online translation software. It still has a long way to go. Even if you use a professional translation service, it’s also a great idea to get a second pair of eyes on your translated copy to make sure your translator did a good job. We offer ESL (English as a second language) editing services here at Edit911, and guarantee your copy will read like a native English speaker when we’re done. Too bad the Italian government didn’t hire us 🙂

Share this:

Stephen King, IT, and The Neighbors From Hell

Stephen King is in the spotlight again. The writer, who turns 70 today (Sept. 21), has a remake of his classic horror novel ‘IT’ in theaters (and it’s getting great reviews!).

For someone who writes such creative and nightmare-inducing tales, King’s day-to-day life is surprisingly quiet and mundane – he splits his time between Bangor, Maine and Sarasota, Florida. King does like some noise when he’s writing; he cranks up the volume on local rock station WKIT (which he owns). But when his writing is done for the day, he likes to kick back and relax.

Photo credit: Betsy Brown

The King house in Bangor is a rambling Victorian mansion that is famous locally for the wrought-iron fence that surrounds the property, parts of which have been used to form the shapes of bats, dragons, and other scary creatures. The house is situated on the west side of town, in a residential neighborhood that is peaceful and quiet – usually.

But a few years ago, the Kings acquired the neighbors from hell. The new additions made noise at all hours, failed to keep up the property, and began doing sheet-metal work in the back yard.

The noise and odor came to be more than the Kings could bear. King called a local realtor. “Go see those people next door,” he said. “Tell them that someone in town is interested in acquiring the property, even though there’s no “For Sale” sign out. But for God’s sake, don’t tell them it’s me, or their asking price will go through the roof.”

The realtor complied with King’s request and paid a visit to the neighbors from hell, saying that an individual who preferred to remain nameless was interested in the property. The man looked at the realtor and grinned. “You tell King that if he wants this place, he can have it – for one million bucks.”

The realtor called King with the bad news. “He knows it’s you, Steve, and won’t sell for less than a million dollars. Sorry the plan didn’t work.”

But the realtor had underestimated just how much Stephen King disliked his noisy neighbors. After a few seconds’ silence, he said, “Tell the bastard he’s got a deal.”

So, King became the proud owner of the house next door. He had it renovated extensively, inside and out. The Kings use it now as a guest house – as long as their visitors promise not to do any sheet metal work during their stay.


Share this: