Aguirre Dissertation Monkey

The inspiration to “get that monkey off your back” can come in many forms. For some, long term projects come easily; for others not so much for any number of reasons. For University of New Mexico Dean of Students Tomás Aguirre, the inspiration came in the form of simple sock monkey.

Aguirre has over 18 years of higher education experience with specialty areas in student conduct, residential colleges, finance, assessment, as well as student leadership, development, counseling and advocacy.

At the time, Aguirre, an El Paso native, was attending the University of Southern California where he earned his master’s degree and struggling to complete his dissertation about “Equity Gaps in Higher Education.” It’s a problem that exists everywhere in the country Aguirre says. Aguirre himself was a first generation college graduate from a large family.

One night back when Aguirre was working on his doctorate, his six-year-old son Diego saw him yelling at his computer screen “I’ve got to get this stupid monkey off my back!”

As the story goes, Diego’s great grandmother had a tradition of giving all the grandkids and all the great grandkids homemade sock monkeys. Little did Aguirre know at the time, that Diego had a surprise for his dad that helped provide the inspiration and motivation to help Aguirre finish his dissertation.

“There was one night when I was writing one of the chapters for my dissertation where I got really frustrated,” Aguirre recalled. “Actually, I got frustrated all the time, but this one night I said ‘I’ve got to get this stupid monkey off my back.’”

The next day when Aguirre went back to the computer, Diego had taken his sock monkey and taped the word ‘dissertation’ on the chest and gave his dad his sock monkey. It was his way of helping dad.

“It really touched me because up to that point, another part that really frustrated me was nobody really understood what it (earning your Ph.D.) was all about,” Aguirre said. “People understood that you were going to go AWOL on them. The dissertation became a negative thing. My son would say, ‘oh dad, you’re not going with me to the beach today because you’re working on that dissertation.

“That to me put it all together because it was that understanding that he was making a sacrifice. But now, he was willing to sacrifice something of his own; something that was dear to him. He was at that point in his life that stuffed animals were his comfort blanket. He had like 20 or 30 in his bed and they were his friends so it was really special to me that he was giving it to me and that he was trying to understand even though he didn’t really understand.”

“I had one day I’ll never forget where my chair kept sending me edits. There must have been 20 edits she sent me so that by the end of the day, I felt like she was editing her edits. It felt like institutionalized hazing to me. So I would post that on Facebook and say, ‘the monkey is laughing with glee.’”

UNM Dean of Students Tomás Aguirre

Receiving the sock monkey is only part of the story. The pursuit of a dissertation is a process where sacrifices need to be made. In Aguirre’s case, those sacrifices involved his family.

“When I went back to get my doctorate, I really just did it because I knew I wasn’t going to move up anymore within higher education without my doctorate, but I already had two kids then,” Aguirre said. “Immediately, I realized this is not going to be just my sacrifice – the whole family was going to have to sacrifice). I’m not going to be able to go to the beach as much; won’t play ball as much. My wife was going to have to step it up as a mom because I was going to have to get it done. It was the worst experience of my life.”

The Dissertation Monkey (Createspace, 2015).

While Aguirre was completing the process, the sock monkey became a storyteller. The stories were both positive and negative, and served as additional motivation.

“I would post something positive on Facebook and I would say, ‘Oh, I just finished chapter four and the monkey is screaming with anger,’” Aguirre laughed. “Or when something bad happened – I had one day I’ll never forget where my chair kept sending me edits. There must have been 20 edits she sent me so that by the end of the day, I felt like she was editing her edits. It felt like institutionalized hazing to me. So I would post that on Facebook and say, ‘the monkey is laughing with glee.’”

Aguirre finally finished his dissertation at Humboldt State, where he had taken a position as associate dean in higher education. He attended graduation with his little inspirational buddy, the sock monkey.

“When I graduated I sat through the ceremony with the sock monkey,” Aguirre said. “I even took the monkey with me up on stage to get cloaked, which is a very traditional ceremony. It probably upset some of the faculty because they didn’t think I was taking it very seriously. And I probably wasn’t at that point. I’m like ‘hey, this is a process and I’m going to get through it and it’s going to serve a purpose.’”

After obtaining his Ph.D., Aguirre’s focus was on getting published. Several of Aguirre’s friends suggested he write a book about the sock monkey.

“When you’re getting your doctorate, everybody talks about getting published – you got to get published, you got to get published,” Aguirre said. “So I was like, alright, I’ll do it.”

He wrote a children’s style picture book about the dissertation process. The book’s main character? The sock monkey of course. The Dissertation Monkey is a beautiful one-of-a kind children-styled picture book for anyone who is or knows someone that is thinking about or pursuing an advanced university degree.

UNM Bookstore hosts booksigning with Aguirre

Who:  Tomás Aguirre

What:  Booksigning  featuring “The Dissertation Monkey”

When:  Thursday, April 30, 2 p.m.

Where:  UNM Bookstore, 2301 Central Ave. NE at the intersection of Cornell and Central

More Info:  Rachel Humpton at 277-1388 or

Aguirre wrote a book about the dissertation process featuring his sock monkey. Aguirre created a story board, while a student of his at Humboldt State who was an illustrator, did the cartoon images, which are very colorful illustrations throughout the book.

The book essentially tells the story of Aguirre pursuing his dissertation and what it takes sacrifices and all.

“It maps out the dissertation journey by telling about the history of a dissertation – it demystifies it,” Aguirre said. “It tells you what to expect in terms of cost and the time it takes. It’s a cute play on it.”

There’s one picture in the book that says ‘at some point you must defend your dissertation because you always have to do a dissertation defense.’ 

“Earning your Ph.D. is a really stressful process, and in that image, it’s me and the monkey and we have swords in our hands and we’re battling all these evil monsters that are my dissertation committee,” Aguirre said.

Other pictures show his family heading to the beach, the dedication it takes and the support needed from friends and family. Of course, in the end, Aguirre is celebrating with his sock monkey after getting cloaked.  

Aguirre finally got the book published in 2014 and it’s starting to sell pretty well. Now, he wants to help other graduate students.

“What I’ve done is gone back to the dean of the graduate school Julie Coonrod, and I told her once the book gets a little more momentum I want to setup an arrangement where the college will get a percentage of the sales so the money will go back to graduate students and help them out with their journey.”

In his spare time, Aguirre enjoys spending time with his family including fishing, camping, hiking, cycling, and any and all university activities and events.

And the sock monkey? He lives on in Aguirre’s book, The Dissertation Monkey.