Updating Documentation

Now that there are a few new members of the lab, it’s time to pay attention once more to making explicit some of our expectations and shared experiences.  It’s interesting to watch, and to test, how stories or catch phrases easily become part of a local culture… only to be met by blank stares when a new person experiences it.

“What’s the best dissertation?”  “The one *you* can do in a reasonable amount of time.”

“Is that a title of a song on the album?”

” Delta Pain” (which is a title of a song on the album)

All of these represent elements of tacit knowledge, in that they are shared and understood by people who were in the lab when the event occurred, or maybe in an individual meeting with me, and have learned to experience and internalize the informal lessons of the lab in a particular way.  That’s great for an individual mentoring interaction, but not really good for organizing the productivity of getting a population of students to finish high quality thesis and dissertation documents.  Thus, we have to do some of these things with more explicit intent, and a more focused and determined documentation of elements of the lab’s culture.

Since the beginning of the Spring 2013 semester, we’ve been working on this in the creation and updating of four distinct documents:  A Master’s Thesis outline; a Dissertation prelim outline (oh, even that’s tacit, or at least implicit: the proposal document written in order to describe one’s dissertation so that one can be advanced to candidacy); a Doctoral Dissertation outline… and most recently, a semester-by-semester timeline for progress towards degree completion.  These seem to be very helpful for students, and help to summarize and integrate and transmit my experience in a fairly efficient way.  And why not?  I’ve supervised over 30 MS theses and 12 PhD dissertations, and sat on committees for another 25 or more graduate documents.  Most students, on the other hand, only do this once.  (I did have one of my students complete a second MS with me after finishing a first one elsewhere; no GROUPERs have ever tried to do multiple PhD dissertations.)  Rather than make everything trial and error, or suggest that there is no pattern that leads to increased probability of success, some people (among those are many engineers) would like to have a sense of the path, the rule, the “game plan” of how this graduate experience is supposed to play out.

Does this mean that there is a fixed and rigid procedure that everyone must follow?  Of course not, for several reasons.  One is that GROUPERs are different people, with different skills.  They don’t want to work in the same stream, or using the same data collection or analysis tools, or ask the same sorts of questions.  Fortunately, I’ve worked in a bunch of areas, so my tolerance for procedure variability is fairly high–I can advise a variety of dissertations, because I have done a variety of projects in different areas and methodologies.  (Some people may think of this concept as akin to Ashby’s discussion of “Requisite Variety”; no strict quantification here is implied.)  So, the level of consistency is not at the detailed level of “you must design a three-level, two-dimensional Analysis of Variance studying the influence of…” Everyone is expected to be able to answer, “Why would anyone want to read this thesis / dissertation?”  or “Why do we care about the question, or the work you did to answer it?”

It may also be relevant that one of the recent dissertations now making its way to conclusion is specifically addressing the question of procedure reliability and complexity.  A very often-repeated task, with few new or challenging elements, can have a standard procedure that is rarely, if ever, inappropriate for completing the task as designed.  If you’re developing a brand new task that has never been tried before, it’s highly unlikely that you can write a perfect procedure on exactly how to do it.  Most procedures are somewhere in between, even if we assume the procedure is always right.  At what level should we expect a new procedure to capture all of the experience that we gain in the development of a new system?

As time goes on, all of these documents will need to be updated–not necessarily because we were wrong, but because our knowledge evolves.  (OK, I was explicitly wrong on this item. I forgot to include a version of the well-known advice: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them.  Then tell them.  Then tell them what you told them.”  In other words, the last section of the introduction chapter should include an outline of the organization of the remainder of the thesis / dissertation.)  Even the working of the updating process is a helpful way of sharing the experiences and telling the stories of the lab.  And when we’re done, current and future generations of GROUPERs can know that I won’t get upset if they haven’t taken 15 credits or completed their plan of study or research proposal by the end of their first semester in the program.  Really.


I know, you’re wanting the links to these documents.  They’re still under construction.  Check back when they’re done and posted.