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The Lady with the Ruler

Character content: Formatting maven Martha Khan is a dissertation reality check


Martha Khan (right), records officer at the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, checks the formatting on the dissertation of doctoral candidate Amy Mertl (GRS’09). Photos by Robin Berghaus

“Characters with character” is one concise way to describe a popular journalistic subject around here, and stories about such characters never grow stale. This week BU Today checks in with some favorites from the past academic year, seeing old friends, reminiscing about inspiring encounters.

Martha Khan’s ruler goes back — way back.

“Notice the fine patina,” she jokes, turning over the 12-inch piece of buttery wood.

With her trusty measuring stick, the records officer at the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences has scrutinized the margins of thousands of dissertations and theses. Since 1978, she has been a gatekeeper for graduate students and doctoral candidates on their way to degree-dom. Khan checks a student’s academic crown jewel not only for proper spacing, but for font consistency, pagination, table accuracy, even effective titling, and walks candidates through the final steps of submission, from proper signatures to proper paper weight.

“I don’t think people anticipate the amount of time that’s spent doing the format,” Khan says. “They’re concentrating, and rightly so, on content. But formatting can be a little tricky. People are better at it than they used to be, but there will probably never be a perfect dissertation. Just like anything written, there’s bound to be an error somewhere.”

A completed dissertation or thesis must adhere to style manuals and be approved by readers in the candidate’s department of study. Once green-lighted, two copies of the work are submitted to Mugar Memorial Library — one to archive, the other for circulation. Dissertations are also microfilmed. The library is the last entity to sign off on the manuscript, ensuring a student’s degree eligibility.

It’s Khan’s job to help suss out errors that might result in that dreaded phone call or e-mail asking for revisions or even a full reprint.

“The library is a little more strict on things,” says Khan, who has worked at BU for 43 years. “I like to review the dissertation, rather than have the student printing it out on the final paper, turning it in, thinking they’re finished, and then it goes to the library and they have a lot of revisions.

“To me, that’s not a great way to end your career and a lot of hard work. I’d rather go through it and make suggestions for changes. Even though I don’t check every page, I can tell if it’s in reasonable condition.”

Brendan McDermott, the University’s thesis and dissertation coordinator at Mugar, scrutinizes some 700 manuscripts a year (about 200 come through Khan’s office). He says about 10 percent require revisions. Misspellings, particularly on the title page, are the most common error.

“They rely too much on spell-checker, which doesn’t look at words that are in full capital letters, which is what they all are on the title page,” says 10-year veteran McDermott. “I’ve had 13 or 14 cases where people have misspelled their own name. University is commonly misspelled. I haven’t had anyone misspell Boston yet.”

Checking dissertations is just one of Khan’s responsibilities, but it is the most visible to students and (despite the wicked end-of-semester rush) the “most enjoyable” for Khan; she still receives e-mails from former charges announcing weddings and births.

“It’s a small sideline to what I really do, which is oversee registration and certify people for graduation,” says Khan. “From the time a student first registers to the time he or she graduates, my assistant, Jessica Caruso, and I handle every single thing, whether it’s grade changes, dropping and adding, sending out exams, or scheduling the dissertation defenses. Fixing problems is what we do mainly.”

Doctoral candidate Amy Mertl (GRS’09) is meeting Khan for the second time, which is not unusual. Her dissertation, Species Richness, Community Structure, and Social Organization in Amazonian Pheidole, explores the ecology of ants in the Ecuadorian rain forest.

“I knew there was a ‘ruler lady’ you had to meet with and get your margins measured, but that’s about it,” says Mertl. “I wasn’t really nervous. I thought I had completed all the requirements correctly based on the formatting guide I got from the graduate school. But the first meeting was much more detailed than just checking the margins. There were a lot of other small formatting points she went over with me and many corrections I had to make.”

This time around, Mertl feels confident.

“Nothing’s going outside the margins?” Khan asks.

“No,” Mertl replies.

“OK, looks pretty good,” Khan says in a reassuring tone. “No missing or extra pages to your knowledge? And your references are all repeated in straight alphabetical order, not by chapter, correct?”

Mertl nods.

Khan hands Mertl several forms to submit with the final copies of her dissertation. “This one indicates how you want your name to appear in the University library card catalog. However, it should be the same as how you have it on your title page. And remember, if the library or graduate school finds something that needs to be changed, respond as quickly as possible.”

Always check printer settings, Khan advises Mertl on her way out the door, especially if you’re using a computer lab, and print a few test pages to check margins and pagination.

“I always think the appearance of the dissertation should reflect the quality of the work and the research that’s gone into it,” Khan says. “Everybody thinks it’s a little fussy. But when they leave here, I want them to have a good feeling and experience — and to know that they’re finished.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

This story originally ran April 30, 2009.


One Comment on The Lady with the Ruler

  • Anonymous on 08.10.2009 at 12:29 pm

    Martha is always helpful not only with formating but also in all aspects of graduate study experience.

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