Welcome to the 2015/2016 year in the School of Graduate Studies at the Schulich School of Education, Nipissing University!

If you are just beginning this journey with us, we are so thrilled to have you as a colleague. I’m confident you’ll find our online program to be comprehensive, challenging, and responsive to your needs. If you are continuing with your studies and are beginning a new term of research or coursework, I hope you’re as excited as I am for another year of learning, growth, and opportunity.

Make no mistake; graduate level studies are designed to prod, provoke, and problematize your thinking, which frequently leads to temporary periods of discomfort and discontentment. However, rest assured that it’s worthy work, and that you are not alone throughout this rewarding process. Though we may be separated by geographic distance, know that your classmates and professors are only an email, phone call, or Skype away. We are all in this together; never feel afraid to reach out for support.

Over the past year, my colleagues and I have wrestled with Impostor Syndrome, attended conferences, gone through the process of thesis approval, engaged in field research, attended group research discussions, built critical friendships, and balanced the demands of coursework with our familial, professional, and personal obligations. Through all of this experiential learning, I can reflect upon my first year in the program, and offer a few tips for success that I’ve clumsily accumulated by stumbling through the challenges presented by the rigours of my chosen route.

If you have anything to add to this list, please feel free to do so in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.

  1. The Medium is the Message, and the Process is the Product

Paying homage to Marshall McLuhan’s theory, the process of graduate work is simultaneous a process, and a product. In other words, it’s the journey, not the destination. The process through which you go through your studies and research work is also an incubator for complementary skills that will be essential to your long-term development; time management, academic writing, reflection, resilience, adaptability, and criticality. The medium (the route your graduate work takes) and how you engage with it will ultimately shape your message.

What does this mean?

Be kind to yourself: mistakes are a necessary part of the process, inherent to your experience. I’m currently listening to transcripts of when I was out in the field researching, and sometimes I cringe at mistakes that I make. Congratulate yourself for being brave enough to go outside of your comfort zone, take the lesson you need from the mistake, and move on.

Another tip? Experimentation. Play around with your scheduling (as best you can), figure out your peak reading and writing times through trial and error, and be willing to try again. It’s taken me a year to make peace with my own internal clock, but now I can be much more responsive to my state of mind and energy levels. When I first started and was focused on coursework, I’d be on the discussion boards from 7am- 11am, and again from 7pm-9pm, to respond to what had been said during the day. That worked really well for me. However, I had to completely shift this schedule when I started working on my thesis. If you’re working full time, you may not have as much of an option, but you may find that waking up at 5am to complete your work for the day is preferable to beginning your work at 6pm. Trial and error, friends…trial and error.

Reflect: do frequent check-ins with yourself. Due dates coming up? Research proposal coming down the pipeline? Neglecting any other areas of your wellbeing? Any “aha!” moments? Write in a journal, go for a long walk or run, and allow yourself the time and space to reflect on your work.

  1. Chose your route as soon as you can

We have many posts on the three routes and the differences between the three, but knowing from the get-go what my path was helped me to hit the ground running. See this post for more information about each route. Start a conversation with your Faculty Advisor as soon as you’re able so that you can feel confident moving forward, even if you chose to focus solely on coursework and the research project and seminar. Knowing from the star that I wanted to do a thesis helped me make decisions, keep an eye out for opportunities, and tailor my coursework so that I could incorporate the research I performed for class credit into my thesis. I basically just had to tweak my research proposal from Research Methods in order to be approved for thesis, while keeping a copy of my ethics paperwork printed and by my side to complete them all simultaneously. Work smarter, not harder.

  1. Recognize your distractions

I’m a news junky, and am frequently on Facebook to see what headlines come up on the various news sources that I like and follow. As a result, I’ve had to install blocker software onto my computer to prevent me from accessing both it and YouTube. I use Self Control, it’s free and has helped me more than I’d like to admit.

Just this past month, I realized that I could get distracted by random thoughts and ideas that floated through my head (movie titles, a book that I just remembered that I had wanted to read at some point, I wonder what ever happened in season 6 of The Vampire Diaries…etc.) and suddenly I’d look at the clock and I’d been on Wikipedia for an hour. So I created my official Distraction Journal (it’s an orange moleskin). When I’m working and I get a thought that is starting to itch, I just write it down, so it knows that I’ll get to it when I’m done my work. Then it can stop bugging me and I can keep writing. It’s a simple fix, but it’s very effective.

Image credit: xkcd

Image credit: xkcd

  1. Back. It. Up.

This past October, I spilled a travel mug of tea all over my keyboard of my Mac, which then proceeded to turn itself on and off, until it turned itself off and was unresponsive. I put it in rice, and brought it into tech services, who were fortunately able to resuscitate my poor baby. Since then, I’ve been backing up my hard drive once or twice a week. All of my important documents are additionally backed up on Google Drive.

Back it up. Then back it up again. Have you backed it up yet?

  1. Be present

Physically, this might be a challenge, depending on where you’re studying from. But our bi-weekly graduate meetings offer a Skype option. If the timing doesn’t work for you, try writing a post for the blog, or consult with your faculty advisor or supervisor about a conference near you that you can attend or present at. The more time you spend as an active, present member of the community, the stronger your resolve will be when the going gets rough, because you’ll feel the invisible bonds of community.

Is there anything I’ve missed? Sound off in the comments, either below or on Facebook. Good luck, everyone!

Relationship Building

This post comes to us compliments of Melissa Corrente. Melissa is a part-time instructor of Health and Physical Education studies at the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University, North Bay. She was one of the 30+ representatives from the Nipissing community who went to Ottawa to present at the 2015 Canadian Society for Studies in Education (CSSE) national conference. We’d like to thank Melissa for her excellent piece highlighting the value of both presenting at and attending conferences. 

I am slightly embarrassed to admit that the end of May marked the first conference I have ever attended. “The Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE) is the largest organization of professors, students, researchers and practitioners in education in Canada. CSSE is the major national voice for those who create educational knowledge.”[1] I am puzzled as to why I didn’t I attend or present at any conferences during my MEd journey. My thesis is a piece of work I am still incredibly proud of; I have, however, never shared it with a larger audience. I guess it’s never too late to revisit it, or reflect upon it with a new lens.

Getting back to the conference, I felt very anxious and nervous about presenting my paper in a roundtable format. Would I be able to answer all the discussants’ questions? Is my purpose clear enough? What kind of atmosphere will there be? After getting over my self-doubt, other logistical concerns started to surface. Is my Aunt’s house baby proof? How will I fit the stroller, baby gate, high chair, and play pen in the car? What will my husband and 14 month old son do while I am at the conference? Will there be too much morning traffic to commute from Kanata to Ottawa? All the minor details worked themselves out as I left Saturday morning with my husband and son in tow. After driving for three and a half hours, we arrived at my Aunt’s house. She was out getting groceries when we arrived, so I changed and fed my son on her front porch as curious neighbors looked on. Financially, I am very grateful to stay with family because it adds up quickly when you factor in hotel, travel, and meal expenses.

Sunday morning marked the beginning of my CSSE conference experience. After registering and donning my nametag, I toured around the congress expo to browse through the variety of literature for sale. Feeling a tad bit overwhelmed about what to do or see next, I decided to find a table and sit down. All the tables were occupied, so I asked a woman sitting by herself if I could join her. She was very friendly, and we started chatting about where we were from and what our research interests were. She mentioned that she recently defended her dissertation and was presenting her results at the conference. Upon explaining my interest in researching graduate student mothers, her eyes lit up! She was so excited as she described that one of her colleagues started a graduate mother support group on her campus. A group of graduate mothers would meet at a local coffee shop and would write for 45 minutes uninterrupted. Once the time expired, they would share their writing and support each other with constructive feedback. I had only been at the conference for 10 minutes, and I already developed a wonderful relationship with someone I am definitely going to keep in touch with. After saying goodbye to her, I realized the true value of relationship building while at a conference.

On Sunday afternoon, I attended a wonderful multi-paper session. I left this session feeling inspired and reassured that my topic is valid and important. I developed a great connection with a presenter who is also a graduate student mother. Her presentation and research were well articulated, and after chatting we discussed collaborating on a piece of writing down the road.

Monday morning, the day of my roundtable presentation, arrived quickly, and I ran around my Aunt’s house trying to pack up my belongings before heading to the University of Ottawa. Instead of preparing for my presentation, I was feeding my son while simultaneously trying to remove two cats off the kitchen table. After packing and preparing food for the trip home, I realized it was already time to go. Luckily the morning rush hour traffic only lasted for part of the trip, because I wanted to arrive early for my roundtable presentation.

Once I located the correct building and walked up two flights of stairs, the room was not what I had pictured in my mind. It was very small and the tables were not set up, let alone round in shape! Once all the tables and chairs were organized, most people gently nudged their way through the organized chaos. I found table #16 and met the other two presenters and the faculty and graduate student discussants. The woman I had met the previous day even came to attend my presentation, which I genuinely appreciated. The room was buzzing with energy and ideas; everyone was tightly packed into the room like a box full of crayons. Each person at my table was unique with their own research colour and contribution to the greater whole just like the crayons.

One hour and fifteen minutes was the time allotted for all three graduate students to present while leaving room for discussion. I had the luxury of being the middle presenter, so I adjusted my plan based on my observations of the first presentation. My plan was to talk for 10 minutes, and dedicate the remaining time for feedback and discussion. The first presenter was extremely passionate about her research; however, there was no time left for discussion. When my turn came to present, I started with a brief autobiography to help everyone understand what influences my work. The idea of a research puzzle resonates with me so I handed out four puzzle pieces to represent my paper with photos on the back. Overall, I felt good about my presentation, and I enjoyed sharing my paper with an academic audience.

The feedback I received was invaluable! I plan to make changes to my paper to further my thinking and improve the quality of my writing. The time flew by, and our whole table admitted that we could’ve discussed each paper for much longer. There is something to be said about interacting with other academics face-to-face. This human connection and relationship building was a very worthwhile and rewarding experience. Skype and email are fantastic communication tools, but personally sitting down with a group of people and engaging in face-to-face dialogue wins every time. If you have the opportunity to attend or present at a conference, I highly recommend taking advantage of the opportunity. You have nothing to lose; in fact, you will gain valuable relationships and feedback to help move your scholarship forward.

Happy Building!

[1] http://www.csse-scee.ca/about/


Critical Friendship

The following is a dialogue between Laura McRae and Marianne Vander Dussen, both in their first year of the Master’s program. We decided to build our blog post to capture the conversational quality that has enabled us to act as critical friends and editing partners.

MVD: In my first term, I noticed that Laura was in all three of my classes, which I thought was a fun coincidence. Initially, her posts intimidated me; she always had her responses ready right at the beginning of the week, and reflected a high level of writing ability and critical thought. After a few weeks, the isolating effect of working alone in an online program was starting to take its toll on me, and I was desperate to connect with other students. I reached out to Laura to see if she would be interested in partnering with me on an assignment for our Research Methods class, and I’ve been working with her as my accountability partner and sounding board ever since. It was a little scary… I was afraid she’d say no!

LM: I was definitely thinking along the same lines as Marianne. Her posts were always exceptionally insightful and thought-provoking, and almost poetic in style. She is an excellent writer, which intimidated me at first! I was very happy when she reached out to me, as it gave me a chance to get to know her as a real person rather than to keep seeing her as another paragraph on my screen – a side effect of doing an online program that I am still not 100% comfortable with. Having Marianne to bounce ideas off of and to share learning experiences as well as frustrations with has definitely helped me feel more connected to my learning environment, and has helped me be accountable to more than just myself (which, personally, I need in order to remain on-task and on-time).

MVD: I agree. The accountability piece is huge. We worked together to set deadlines for each other for drafts and final pieces. Knowing that I had someone who I respected who was waiting to review my piece made me much more inspired to push through and get the work done. It meant that through my Fall and Winter terms, I was able to stay on top of my work and not allow it to pile up. It was also very helpful to have another set of eyes, in terms of catching APA errors, and noticing where there were gaps in the logic or in the supporting research. I would always look forward to her feedback, because I would much rather have a critical friend alert me to inconsistencies or areas of need than discover it after reading the grading professor’s comments!

LM: Agreed! Style was a big part of it too. Knowing Marianne would review my work without judgment made it much easier to ask about specific spots in assignments that I was having trouble with stylistically. I also enjoyed having an insider to work with – a new perspective on what our professors were after, if my work reflected the course expectations, and how she thought our professors would react to my work. Obviously we would never approach an assignment from the exact same perspective, so reading her assignments, and getting thorough feedback, helped me gain new perspectives, new ideas (which we sometimes shared) and a better understanding of course material. I wonder if we had ‘graded’ each other’s work (like we did in our Research Methods course) if we would have come out with more from the experience of working with a critical friend?

MVD: I wonder what that would look like… what we do with each other is so completely subjective. Although we both work within the context of the assignment structure whenever we’re swapping our work, our viewpoints are always tempered by the fact that it is completely and totally our own thoughts and opinions. I think that provides a layer of safety; when I’m giving my piece over to Laura, I’m not expecting her to take on any responsibility whatsoever for its academic success. Having another set of eyes is really just for my own improvement and betterment; she’ll ask questions, note areas where clarification is required. She’s incredibly thoughtful and thorough. But we’ve both released each other from any kind of responsibility about the paper’s grading once it’s been submitted. Our work is just that… our own, even though we’ve had the opportunity to share, tighten, and hone.

LM: I completely agree with this, but I also feel that Marianne’s comments and suggestions have always helped me to achieve better grades (even though I never held her accountable for my grades)! I also feel that having Marianne as a critical friend has helped me overcome a lot of my anxieties about taking Master’s level courses, specifically in relation to ‘impostor syndrome’. When I started my first semester, I felt overwhelmed and like I was not keeping up academically – when Marianne reached out to me as a critical peer, I gained confidence in my position in the program and insight into the mind of another new graduate student. I think the EGS blog offers a lot of the same social benefits of having a critical peer – in that it helps connect students to the program, but I would definitely suggest going a step further and finding a critical friend. I definitely would not have had as much success this year without Marianne’s insight and support!

MVD: As we move into the next stage of our Master’s work (we’re both pursuing the thesis route) it helps to know that we’ll both be there to empathize with each other’s struggles, and also be willing to unconditionally celebrate successes. The level of detachment that exists, since we haven’t ever met each other in person, serves us well on the more objective front whenever I want honest, clear feedback, but in many ways we’ve overcome those barriers of distance because we’re able to share our stories with each other without fear of judgment. Earlier this week, I was sharing some of the challenges I’ve come up against as a researcher; I’m nearly halfway through my data collection, and sometimes when I listen to the recordings of my research sessions, I get embarrassed or down on myself because I didn’t facilitate as well as I could have, or I allowed a conversation to drift on too long before redirecting it. Laura reminded me not to be too critical, and suggested envisioning myself as a third party listening to the research as opposed to being thrown off by my own voice. It was solid advice, and helped immensely. I think the secret to our success as critical partners is empathy. We’ve both independently selected almost identical courses (5 out of 6 were the same), we’re both choosing thesis, and we’re both pushing through our own respective life challenges. Her ability to manage her workload is an inspiration, and helps me break free from moments when I’d rather watch cat videos than do actual work.

LM: I couldn’t have summarized our partnership better! Marianne is lighting the way for me as she collects data and does field work, while I am still in the process of acquiring a thesis supervisor and team… Knowing she will be there for me as I begin to research and collect data is comforting – it will be a long process for both of us, and yes, cat videos are tempting, but we will keep our course!

MVD: Moving forward, I think anyone who needs ongoing support (and really, who doesn’t?) would benefit from finding a critical friend.

What we would personally look for is:

  • Someone who completes work at a pace that matches yours… were they the first to comment? The last? Find someone who has similar working speed to avoid frustration.
  • Someone whose writing style speaks to you and engages you.
  • Someone who is able to take a critical approach in discussion, while remaining tactful.
  • Someone whose interests parallel or complement your own – (i.e., literacy and FSL complement each other, or with a similar preference for methodology)
Avoid this problem...find someone in your area of interest!

Avoid this problem…find someone in your area of interest!

Evolution of the Thesis – Part 1

This post is written by Marianne Vander Dussen.

Further to the Demystifying the Thesis post, I wanted to share some of the things that I have learned over the course of the past six months that may help in your own considerations of whether or not to pursue the thesis. I will be providing more information for a part 2 follow up after my data collection has commenced.

This post is grounded in personal experience, and is not meant to be a universal how-to, but rather to provide a contextualized perspective with the goal of making the thesis option more accessible.

If you have any questions whatsoever about what the thesis route entails, beyond this post, please contact your faculty advisor, or Michelann Parr (Graduate Studies Chair) at michelap@nipissingu.ca.

Thesis 2

I have always known that I would pursue the thesis route in the Master’s program; but initially, it was because I didn’t actually realize that other pathways even existed! Several of my friends already have Master’s degrees under their belts, and had discussed their thesis work at length, so I assumed that thesis research was a necessary component of acquiring the MEd degree. However, even after I learned that there were two other routes (Major Research Paper (MRP) and Research Project and Seminar (RPS)), I remained committed to the idea of pursuing a thesis.

This was mainly due to my positioning and my long-term career goals.

I am a full-time student living very close to the Nipissing campus, where I have ongoing access to both my supervisor and other professors with knowledge in my field. I acknowledge that this is a privilege that most students in Nip’s online program will not have, and while it has certainly smoothed the way for taking the necessary steps required for thesis, it is still definitely doable for distance learners.

In terms of my long-term career goals, I wanted an opportunity to develop as both an academic writer and researcher, which the thesis route facilitates. I am very interested in eventually pursuing a PhD, and many universities require a demonstration of research work prior to admission and making decisions about funding. Plus, I knew that the Master’s was the ideal place to try doing research for the first time to decide if I even enjoyed it…if I couldn’t do a Master’s level thesis, would I even be up for doing a full dissertation?

If you ever intend on working as a faculty member at a university, ongoing research and contributions to the academic community are mandatory, and the earlier you develop your research skill-set, the better. I’ve had conversations with several people (who are outside of the university) who were under the false impression that once you scoop up a PhD, your research work is over, and then you can get yourself comfortably situated in a postsecondary institution, delivering lectures to the admiring hordes while resting upon your laurels. Nope, although that sounds lovely. If anything, the research gets more complex and longitudinal, so the Master’s is the perfect arena to experiment and get a little messy.

That being said, there are many who equate research with number crunching and staring at graphs, which is a method, but not the only method. I’ve just received ethical clearance on my research project, in which I have chosen narrative inquiry and participatory action research as my methodology, and it’s purely qualitative. This essentially means that I’ll be working directly with my participants as we create, explore, and converse. There may be some interviews as we progress, but they are guiding the work, and it will be an organic process. The methodology matches my experience and passion; I love storytelling, and so I get to use it as the tool through which I collect and disseminate my data. Qualitative is a recognized, valid, and respected approach to research, and it’s entirely possible to do a thesis through interviews, observations, and stories (so long as you’re able to provide a theoretical framework to support!).


The ethics process itself was a little daunting, and it took me approximately one month to get the form to the point where my supervisor and I felt comfortable submitting. If you’re thinking about doing a thesis, I’d go to the website and print off the form, just to keep a copy by your desk. You never know, as you’re working through your courses, you could jot down an idea or two in the appropriate boxes, making it easier for when you need to go through and fill it out.

After I submitted to ethics, I received recommended revisions by email approximately one month later. It is unheard of that someone makes it through ethics on the first round, so do not have any expectations about being able to immediately start your research. Allow yourself a buffer zone. It took about a week or two to make the recommended changes (mostly because I just needed to take a few hours, sit down and focus on it), and I resubmitted. I received conditional ethical clearance one week later, pending the school board’s approval, which has its own separate procedure for approving researchers. You may wish to investigate this prior to applying to the Research Ethics Board, as you may be able to kill two birds with one stone in your applications.

Forming the backbone of your ethics application will be your research proposal. In all likelihood, you have one from your mandatory Research Methods course. For the purposes of submitting to your supervisor, second reader, and the Chair for approval, this will likely need to be fleshed out in order to meet with their expectations.

Whoa, wait, what? Second reader? Chair?

When you write your research proposal, you will require both a supervisor and a second reader. Usually, the second reader is another professor with experience in the field you will be researching in, allowing them to provide you with additional references, suggestions, and ideas that will be applicable to your work. Your supervisor or faculty advisor may have suggestions for who to approach to be your second reader.

Once both your supervisor and your second reader have approved your research proposal, it goes to the Chair (or to the Dean if the Chair is your supervisor). He/she will offer suggestions, revisions, questions, etc. Once you have passed through this process, you will be able to register for the thesis course, and you’re off to the races!

The process can be incredibly stressful, and sometimes seems about as clear as Mississippi mud water. I’ve done my fair share of fretting, worrying, and complaining. When I think about entering into the school in less than a month to meet and work with my participants, I feel like I am entering into the proverbial lion’s den, and I’m terrified. But I also have enough trust in myself to know that I will be fine, and that the path I’m walking is well-tread. Because I am passionate about the nature of my project, I’m allowing myself to be nudged along by the belief that it will all be for something.

While doing a thesis may not be for everyone, and that’s perfectly fine, it’s definitely the right decision for me. Don’t be discouraged by the idea of a defence, or feel dissuaded from investigating thesis options because you’re doing distance learning. Now that I’m past the first set of gates, I can see in retrospect that it was a series of small steps, as opposed to the gargantuan goliath-beast that I had initially conceptualized. Contact your school/school board (if you will be working in a school). Prepare your research proposal. Fill out and submit your ethics forms. Revise everything based on feedback. Resubmit. Receive approval (hopefully). If not, revise again, and that’s okay. You’ll be there before you know it.

For the MEd thesis handbook, including a step-by-step breakdown of the thesis process from start to finish, please visit here


The Dreaded Research Question: What to Do if You Don’t Know What to Do

This week’s blog post is written by Amanda Carvalho, who is currently working towards her PhD. We’d like to thank Amanda for being able to so neatly unpack a fear that so many grad students share at both the Master’s and Doctoral levels.  

Oscar Wilde

Allow me to begin with a story. This past July, I attended my first on-site summer residency for Nipissing’s PhD program in educational sustainability. In the thirty minutes before my first class, I sat outside in the parking lot reading and rereading the program of study I wrote for my admissions application, almost certain that I would be asked to share my research topic. I walked into class and sure enough, within twenty minutes I was staring at a handout that asked me to chart my interests and methodological intentions. When we were asked to turn those charts into research questions and to write them on large chart paper in permanent marker, I felt more worried about the style of my question than I did about my topic. After all, I had already applied to the school to study one topic; surely I could not change it now. When we were finished, our questions were taped to the wall of our classroom.

You might be wondering why I am sharing a story that makes it seem like I knew my research topic from the first week of my program. Well, I’m sharing it because after being invited daily to stare at our research questions, an interesting thing started to happen. By the second week of our course, our neatly written questions, that only a week before stood as signs of our commitment, started to feature scribbles in other coloured markers. Words were substituted, omitted, added, and in some cases, even the content was slightly altered. By the third week, most of us had either slightly revised or completely changed our questions. A few of us even changed topics drastically. When we reached out to our professors and other PhD students, I was surprised to hear that almost all had gone through a similar process, and, more importantly, felt positive about the outcome. They made me realize that changing your interests, whether slightly or drastically, is to be expected in the face of being exposed to so many new ideas and approaches. After all, course work is a mandatory part of a graduate degree for a reason.

So, for those of who a) do not have a topic yet; b) are thinking about changing your research focus or topic; or c), have completely changed your research focus or topic, you are right where many other graduate students are or have been, and likely your professors would say, “You are right where you should be.” I am certainly no expert on this topic, but I wanted to share what worked for me.

  1. Continue to explore new topics and approaches through your course work. 

For me, being uncertain of what I wanted to research was a blessing in disguise; it allowed me to keep an open mind during my course work. I am currently set on conducting critical narrative research, a methodological approach I did not even know existed before I began my program.

  1. Dig deeper when something interests you.

For a course presentation, I was assigned the introductory chapter to a collection of essays edited by the authors of a work called Women’s Ways of Knowing (1986). Their research intrigued me, so I decided to read their original work. I can say without embellishment that reading that book changed my path forever. It not only helped me to understand my true passion for the field of education, but it showed me a way of conducting research that I did not know was possible.

  1. Don’t be afraid to talk through your research plans (and doubts) with your colleagues.

I would stake money on the fact that most graduate students know what it feels like to feel unsure about their research plans. I can’t imagine a more sympathetic audience than that. You may not be in a physical classroom with your peers, but you can always use the course discussion forums to strike up conversations that allow you to explore your interests. Even if your interests don’t necessarily seem related to the content, challenge yourself to make connections and see where the conversation takes you.

  1. Practice writing (and rewriting) a research question for each topic that interests you.

There’s nothing like seeing your question (and topic) staring at you every day to make you really consider whether or not you want to follow through with studying it. But, how do you get to a research question in the first place? The best advice I got was to choose three or four words that represent topics or phenomena that really interest you. Write them down in separate bubbles and start to look for the connections. How do the topics intersect? How are they different? What do you want to know about these topics? For example, my three words to start off with were a) vocational education; b) student experiences; and c) online education. As I learned more and continued to look for connections and differences, it became clear to me that online education was the piece that just wasn’t fitting. I took it off my list and through more reading and course work was able to add something that made the other two fit together in a way that made more sense to me.

  1. Finally, remember that there is a difference between getting sick of your topic and not feeling passionate about it. You’ll hear often, “You’d better love your question as you’re going to spend a long time with it.” Believe it and choose accordingly! 

Though rewarding, research (and preparing for research) is not easy. It involves more work than at times feels healthy, and there is nothing like being knee-deep into books and articles on your topic to make you second guess your choice. Just remember to really reflect (or talk through) whether you are feeling a bit saturated with your topic or if you are not interested in it at all. There is a difference.

Realistically, there comes a time when we have to commit to a topic. That time will be different for everybody, depending on whether you have a set deadline for submitting a proposal, or for finishing your degree. Until that time, however, enjoy the process and remember that you are not alone. What happens to us during the time between applying for our programs and submitting research proposals is significant and worthwhile. I say celebrate the transitions and the expanded viewpoints gained along the way.

Rainer Maria

Lessons from Parenthood: Graduate Studies in 2015

This post comes to us compliments of Melissa Corrente. Melissa is a part-time instructor of Health and Physical Education studies at the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University, North Bay. Melissa will be contributing an additional piece in the new year about preparing for the comprehensive exam at PhD level. We’d like to thank Melissa for her outstanding contribution to our community.

A new calendar year is upon us, and this prompts us to set goals and make New Year’s resolutions. Some people strive to eat healthier, exercise more often, or spend more time with loved ones. I have made personal resolutions in the past, however, this year I want to switch my attention to a few academic resolutions. My PhD coursework is now complete; my next goal is to prepare for the dreaded comprehensive exam. I want to finish the comprehensive exam in the spring of 2015 so my summer is open for submitting ethics. I will compose another post specifically focusing on the comprehensive exam later; for now, I will share with you what motherhood has taught me about graduate studies so far.  New Year

My baby boy is now 9 months old, and he is growing and changing so much each week. I wanted to share a few lessons he has taught me about graduate studies in no particular order:

  1. Sleep is important – this one seems like common sense, however I didn’t realize until after having a baby that I don’t function well on little to no sleep! Going to bed earlier has helped me become more productive in the morning as my little one doesn’t sleep in.
  2. Let passion guide you – children aren’t afraid to spend time doing what they enjoy. When choosing a topic to research it’s wise to choose something you are passionate about. When I wrote my MEd thesis, the topic was close to my heart and therefore my motivation to keep writing never wavered. For my dissertation, I have decided to write about motherhood and academia because I want to alter the negative discourse about combining both spheres.
  3. Don’t be afraid to play – my baby boy has taught me that it’s important to play and explore. I love watching him discover different rooms in our house, as everything is new and exciting. I hope to bring this same curiosity to my research and writing by asking questions and searching for multiple perspectives.
  4. Enjoy each moment – children live in the moment and are focused on the task at hand. I relish the time I spend with my baby boy and focus solely on him without any feelings of guilt. The same is true when he is napping and I switch gears to read and research for school. Each sphere is part of who I am, and the quality of time spent in each is more important than the quantity.
  5. Read often – I love reading for pleasure with my baby, he enjoys turning each page and laughs when I make different voices or silly sounds. Although reading peer reviewed literature is an important part of the research process, it’s nice to read a variety of material for a variety of reasons.
  6. Make yourself a priority – this one can be tricky especially when you become a parent. You automatically put your children before yourself. I am a better mother when I take time for myself and go for a walk, do yoga, or have a hot bath because when I return I feel refreshed and ready to tackle the next adventure.
  7. Laugh and smile everyday – I am grateful to have such a smiley and happy baby because his laughter is contagious. I laugh and smile a lot more now. When I start to feel stressed or anxious about my lack of progress, having a positive attitude definitely helps.
  8. Changing a diaper is like changing your research topic – it happens frequently, it can be messy and it feels better afterwards! Enough said.
  9. When you fall, pick yourself up and keep trying – over the last month I have watched my baby fall many times as he learns about balance and gravity. I am amazed at how proficient he has become while standing on his own. When I have writers block or feel disappointed with the way something turned out, I look at how resilient and persistent my baby is. Academia by nature involves a lot of rejection, whether it is a conference proposal, a chapter in a book, or submitting an article for a journal. The important lesson is to learn from the experience, not take it personally, and keep trying.
  10. Children are our greatest teachers – if we kept the curiosity, creativity, imagination, innocence, and honesty from our childhood, the world would be a better place. Never forget that children have a lot to teach us, if we take the time to stop and listen.


Whether you have developed New Year’s resolutions or not, I wish you all the best in your studies this year. Enjoy everything 2015 has to offer!

Melissa Corrente

Demystifying the Thesis

So you’re interested in a thesis! Perhaps you see yourself pursuing a PhD down the road, or a specific area of education speaks so loudly to you that you feel intrinsically nudged towards investigating and developing it. Something I have learned as I have been preparing to begin work on my thesis is that you must be passionate about it; you are going to spend countless hours reading articles, sorting ideas, writing proposals, and performing research, and the only thing (aside from caffeine) that will keep you going is your inner passion and motivation. Make no mistake, the thesis route is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re up for the challenge, it can also be immensely rewarding, both personally and professionally.

Note: if you are considering PhD down the road, it is strongly advised that you consider taking the thesis or MRP route. Many PhD programs will not accept students who have chosen the Research Project and Seminar route, as it does not demonstrate the skillset required at the PhD level. Alternatively, they may ask you to submit a Qualifying Research Paper in order to demonstrate the skillset.

Setting out from the Shire

My journey towards a thesis began before I even began my courses. Knowing that I was interested in pursuing graduate work, I began researching topics of interest nearly a year before beginning the MEd. Initially, I thought I was going to be investigating students who are gifted, and I read through several prominent books to get a snapshot of the current educational landscape. However, as I soon learned, there is a certain organic quality to research, and nothing was really speaking to me in that field. Shortly afterwards, I read a particular article linking gifted students to another field, and I happily switched tracks.

I met with my supervisor in April 2014, and was given several articles and books to read to help prepare myself over the summer. Having done this, I strongly recommend early research for anyone considering thesis. Some great books to start with are listed below. Touch base with your faculty advisor ASAP, and begin reading about your chosen area of interest. The sooner you begin reading and internalizing the theories and methods that will inform your research efforts, the better. I have had experiences while preparing for ethics where I’ve said, “Wait a minute, I just need to find that article I read back in May about such and such, and it’ll all get neatly tied together!” There is so much theoretical history to any given topic, and the depth of your knowledge will shine through in your writing.


Michelann recommends familiarizing yourself with a few websites and texts that will help you make the ultimate decision of whether to write or not write a Thesis or MRP:


**Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. New York, NY: Routledge.

Murray, R. (2011). How to write a thesis (3rd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Open University Press.

Oliver, P. (2014). Writing your thesis (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

**Roberts, C. M. (2010). The dissertation journey: A practical and comprehensive guide to planning, writing, and defending your dissertation research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin: A SAGE Company.

And once you’ve made the decisions, check out these websites (in addition to our great blog!) for support:

American Pyschological Assocation gradPSYCH: A digital magazine aimed at graduate students.  Available at: http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/index.aspx

GradHacker: A collaborative blog and ‘bootcamp’ program that spans universities and programs.  Available at: http://www.gradhacker.org/about/mission-statement/

Dymystifying Dissertation (Inside Higher Education): A series of articles designed to move you from the initial stages of brainstorming to putting the final touches on your dissertation.

Available at http://www.insidehighered.com/career-advice/demystifying-dissertation#sthash.de12O0NI.dpbs

The Thesis Whisperer: A blog newspaper dedicated to the topic of doing a thesis edited by Dr. I. Mewburn, Director of research training at the Australian National University. Available at thesiswhisperer.com

Don’t forget to come up with an organization system for your readings so you can quickly access them later. I have them saved in my computer both under specific file folders and also in Mendeley. Mendeley is a great citation tool and organizer for your references, and is available for free as a desktop and mobile app.

Encounters with Ethics

Don’t let the ethics form fool you … it may look like a simple check-box system with a few paragraphs for writing, but it is a very rigorous process. It took me about a month to put together my ethics proposal, and that was with the literature review and research proposal for my methods class already complete.

Once you submit, you have to wait 6-8 weeks for it to be returned with revisions…if you make those revisions within 24-48 hours, you’ll likely make the next deadline for submission. Even experienced, tenured professors have to go through several rounds of revisions, so anticipate waiting several months before you are able to proceed with your research.

If you are performing research within a board of education, make sure that you have the go-ahead before entering ethics, and take a look at some of the board-specific forms you are to sign.Thesis2Financial Considerations

Woo hoo, thesis work! That means I don’t have to buy books for courses!

Hang on there, sparky. Now that you’ve budgeted several months worth of time for the ethics process, have you budgeted your resources for once you hit the pavement and start your data collection?

Unless you have a grant, or are working with an organization providing funding (which would need to be disclosed for ethics), you will be paying for your thesis out of your own pocket.

In my case, the board where I reside is not currently accepting new research, they’re already saturated with researchers and they can’t allow any more projects. So I had to look elsewhere, and the school in which I will eventually be working in is approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes away. Not only do I have to consider how this will impact the frequency of my data collection, I also have to consider vehicle rental costs (as I don’t currently own a vehicle). It’s a balancing act … too few times at the school could mean I don’t get enough information, but going down too frequently would drain both my energy and my finances. This is where my passion comes in; ultimately, I think the work that will arise out of this project is worth the cost of my time and money, so I see it as an investment as opposed to simply expenditure.

Waiting in Limbo

Now that my ethics proposal is submitted, all I can do at this point is fine tune my research procedures, continue to read up on my topic, and savour the excitement of starting new courses in the winter term. It’s also the perfect time to practise something that grad students are particularly poor at: self care. Although I still have some research commitments, this month I’ll be able to relax, get caught up on sleep, exercise, and hopefully try to start putting a health routine together (just in time for ethics to come through and completely derail it). For me, balance doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m providing ongoing self-care when I get super busy, but it does mean that I allow myself the luxury of a few days entirely to myself as a reward for when I finish.

On that note…

This blog will be taking a Holiday Hiatus. Have a beautiful, merry, and light-filled holiday season with your nearest and dearest, and we’ll see you again in January!


Written by Marianne Vander Dussen, verified by Michelann Parr.

Which Route? Three Pathways to the Master of Education

“So are you doing thesis, major research paper, or research project and seminar route?”

The first time you hear this question as a grad student, you may have the urge to panic, run away, or play dead. Many graduate students enter the program unsure of their area of interest, let alone if they wish to pursue that area of interest down the long and winding road to a thesis.

Although initially intimidating, being able to choose your path to the Master’s is ultimately a sheep in wolf’s clothing; it may seem frightening at first, but the ability to customize your path to the MEd is designed to serve your long-term career plans. Are you interested in eventually pursuing a PhD? Or are you acquiring your Master’s to attain a new level in your chosen professional field, with no plans to further your academic studies? Knowing this will help you determine the best route for your lifestyle and goals.

Which door will it be? 1, 2, or 3?

In order to attain your Master of Education degree, you must complete the equivalent of 30 credits, and complete the two designated mandatory courses (Research Methods and Understanding Education). Each course is worth 3 credits. However, if you choose to pursue the thesis (worth 12 credits) you need only complete a total of 6 courses. If you choose to pursue the major research paper (or MRP, worth 6 credits) you will need to complete 8 courses. Choosing the research project and seminar route means taking a total of 10 courses, with a research component within the context of a directed course.

Thesis and MRP

Image credit: XKCD comics

Image credit: XKCD comics

If you have any plans or interest whatsoever in pursuing your doctorate down the road, it is strongly advised that you consider the thesis or major research paper (MRP) routes. Many doctoral programs will not even consider granting admission, let alone any kind of funding, without published work under your name. Alternately, they could ask you to submit a qualifying research paper as part of the application process.

PhD work is incredibly rigorous, and proving you’re already capable of focused research and advanced technical writing will demonstrate to prospective programs that you’re ready for the challenge (and hopefully deserving of some funding).

Even if you’re not 100% confident that you do want to consider PhD right now, contact your faculty advisor to discuss your options. You don’t necessarily need to know what you want to write about in advance, but odds are high that you can puzzle it out through consultation with a Nipissing mentor.

What’s the Difference between a Thesis and MRP?

On the surface, very little: were you to go to the library and pull both a thesis and MRP, aside from the different coloured bindings, you probably would have a hard time telling the difference. The different lies in the scope; a thesis is very specific and concentrated in nature, while an MRP can be broader. Pursuing these routes will require fulfilling all the necessary steps to proceed with research; this will include ethics submissions, research proposals, establishing contact with potential research participants, and a lengthy data collection/analysis process.


Research Project and Seminar Route

That being said, many students choose to pursue the research project and seminar route, which allows you to complete your degree through ten structured courses, one of which guides you through the research proposal process. For some, the Master’s is the only graduate degree they wish to pursue; an MEd often opens professional doors and enables you to pursue higher positions in your career. Depending on lifestyle, or limitations such as remote locations or time, courses provide the opportunity to become exposed to a wide range of professors, teaching styles, and information. Perhaps one course will speak to you and capture your attention and passion, develop a relationship with the professor, and deepen the work you’re submitting to be able to count towards the research project and seminar component of your degree.

For more information, see the degree requirements page of Nipissing’s Graduate Studies’ site, and look under option e.

Image credit: Bill Watterson

Image credit: Bill Watterson

Written by Marianne Vander Dussen; validated by Michelann Parr .

Calling All Presenters – The Conference Proposal

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 10.25.33 AM

Over the past year, I have had multiple conversations with my daughter, a PhD student in the Neuroscience Department at Queen’s. Each conversation seemed to be on the tail end of a conference presentation (and she’s done many!). She would begin with, “I’m tired. I’m jetlagged. I’m not getting any research done. I’m never going to finish. There is another proposal due next week. Wait, let me get a glass of red wine.”

Re-energized, she would recount her conference experiences. She would tell me about prominent researchers in her field who had attended her presentation, the same ones who have now invited her as collaborator at their host institutions, the great questions asked, and the insights gained.

Our conversation inevitably turned to the need for us, as researchers (emergent and established), to understand that conference participation is a critical component of the research process. Presenting reduces the isolation that we often feel as researchers and offers opportunities to defend our research and build our research identities. Even more importantly, discussion and questions (formal and informal) force us to widen our lenses as we consider perspectives beyond our own.

Getting there, and being comfortable presenting takes time; importantly, it requires that we have fully considered our options, understand the proposal components, and the dos and don’ts of writing a great proposal.


Have I fully considered my options? 

Typical conferences offer you multiple ways of presenting your research; you can choose what fits your style based on both your comfort level and the topic you are presenting.

Multiple single-paper sessions are often grouped together by conference organizers. Three to five papers on similar themes/topics are presented followed by audience participation or a question and answer session. A moderator is often assigned for timing purposes and to facilitate. A powerpoint or keynote often serves as cue cards for the presenters. You’ll often be asked to bring your presentation on a USB key.

Symposium or panel sessions allow of in-depth examination of a topic or theme. These are often organized by multiple presenters and suggest their own moderator who will facilitate audience participation. For example, as graduate students you could each bring together your views on isolation as graduate students – some onsite, some online, some in Canada, some overseas. Although you are bound by your graduate student experience, each of you has a different piece of the puzzle.

Workshop sessions often engage the audience in a hands-on experience to deepen their understanding of a particular topic or approach.

Small round table sessions allow presenters to informally discuss their papers with a small group of audience participants interested in that particular topic.  There are often multiple tables set up in an area with a timed rotation allowing participants to move from one to the next, allowing presenters to discuss their papers on multiple occasions.

Poster sessions allow informal discussion featuring the use of a poster or multimedia materials. Participants wander through the poster hall, stop at posters that interest them, and ask questions individually. If you are interested in this type of session, check out the YouTube how-tos. Also, know that you can have your poster printed out (facilitated by Powerpoint or Keynote) at the print centre here the university.


Do I understand the proposal components?

What we need to know about the proposal often lies in the call for proposals. Print it out, highlight it, look at the mandatory components, and adhere to them. Proposals that don’t meet the minimum requirements (or those that exceed the word limit) are often those that are rejected right off the bat. If you are unsure of how to construct a proposal or what it looks like in its final form, ask a faculty member to share a successful proposal or two.

The Title. Make sure that your title fits the word limit and summarizes effectively what you intend to present. Although we like catchy, gimmicky titles, they often detract from the content of the proposal. Find a healthy balance and try to write a title that hooks the audience’s attention.

The Abstract. A formulaic approach does not work well for most of us – it’s hard to fit the square peg of our research into the round hole of a template. Pay attention to the word limits – they can be as few as 75 and yet at other times, they are the crux of the proposal. Essentially, your abstract is a summary of your presentation. Begin with a description of your problem/issue/question and why it is important. Introduce the context of your study including participants. Briefly describe your project including methods, strategies, and techniques used.  Provide an overview of your results and lessons learned. Conclude with a statement of significance or implications for your research. Remember: Ultimately, it is your abstract that will attract your audience.

abstract madlibs

The Body of the Proposal. The proposal will typically include headings such as:

  • Objectives/Outcomes – What will the audience know by the end of the session? What are your goals for the session?
  • Purpose/Research Questions – What were the purposes of, or research questions, that drove the research? Setting this out at the beginning of the proposal allows the reader to gain an understanding of what you hope to do.
  • Perspectives/Theoretical Framework/Brief Literature Review – What peer-reviewed research have your reviewed that is informing your presentation and ultimately your project? Make sure to cite salient references in your field, and lead you reader to a gap that you have identified – typically the theme of your session.
  • Methods – What research methods, procedures, or techniques did you use in the completion of this study?
  • Data sources – Where and how did you collect data?
  • Results/Conclusions/Interpretations – What can you offer? If it is preliminary data, then say so and that you anticipate offering a more detailed explanation at the conference.
  • Significance of the Study/Implications – Why is this research important? What does it bring to the field? What will it offer over the short-term and long-term? What are the potential benefits to society or the educational community?


How do I write a great proposal?


  • Read through abstracts of years gone by. Familiarize yourself with tone, writing style, language use, themes, topics, etc.
  • Find a critical friend to review for you. This will ensure that you have been clear and explicit in the description of your ideas.
  • Avoid overly critical views and/or unsubstantiated claims. Be honest and be clear, but be humble.
  • Make every word count. Reviewers appreciate someone who is clear, concise, gets to the point, and does not use excessive jargon.
  • Be explicit and specific about your topic and the question/issue/topic you intend to explore.
  • Use the template, if one is provided. If one is not provided, then follow closely the headings given.
  • Use APA formatting (typically in education), even if it not called for.
  • Ensure that your conventions are near perfect – this includes spelling, grammar, punctuation. etc.
  • If in doubt, reference. Include ‘classic’ and ‘cutting edge’ references – attend to the limit you are given (often a single page at the end of the proposal).

Do not…

  • Go over your word limit or page limit. If it says double-space with 1″ margins, follow it!
  • Have a vague title or a title that does not reflect the content of the proposal.
  • Have an unbelievable premise or present unsubstantiated views.
  • Present an abstract without adequate description.
  • Attempt to do too much in the short time period you are allotted.

academia (high res)

Additional Resources



Thanks to today’s blogger and facilitator of the discussion:

Michelann Parr

October 31, 2014