Students, Professors Share Thesis Tips

No college essay is more daunting than the senior thesis. For many students, it represents the pinnacle of their college careers, requiring intense research, insightful ideas, and seemingly endless pages of writing. While the process may be difficult, take a few words of wisdom from those who have been there, done that, and will soon have the thesis to prove it.

“The beauty of writing a thesis is that you can research and write about any particular topic that interests you, which makes working on it so much easier,” said Lindsay Crane, history major and A&S ’14. “Hours in the library go by much faster when you enjoy what you are reading.”

Narintohn Luangrath, an international studies major and A&S ’14, credited her two Advanced Study Grants and Harry S. Truman scholarship with helping her discover her interest in migration issues.

“While competing for a Harry S. Truman Scholarship as a junior, I was forced to think more seriously about my policy interests and goals within migration and the type of schooling and work I’d have to do,” Luangrath said. The internship she held at Georgetown University doing research on forced migration issues after she won the scholarship solidified her interest, and her thesis is now centered on that topic.

Choosing a topic, however, is only half of the battle. Students must also secure an advisor: a professor who they feel comfortable spending a significant amount of time with during the year, and who they feel will provide good feedback throughout the process of writing a thesis.

“Secure an advisor before heading abroad, or at least before the start of senior year,” said Sarah Malaske, history major and A&S ’14. “Advisors can be hard to find.”

A prospective advisor, however, does not always have to be an expert in your topic.

“Always go with a professor who you know and have worked with before over the professor who is an expert but whom you do not know,” said Mark Hertenstein, theology major and A&S ’14. “The depth of knowledge in general about an area is essential, but the relationship is the most important part of the thesis writing process.”

While having taken a few classes with a prospective advisor can be helpful, more individualized contact is often key.

“Do an undergraduate research fellowship or something similar the summer before you start writing,” said Stephanie Ger, math major and A&S ’14. “If you do well over the summer, that professor might be more inclined to work with you … and it’s a cliche, but go to office hours.”

Ger said that she found her advisor, Rennie Mirollo, because a professor she knew well recommended him.

Similar to choosing an advisor, beginning the research and writing for a thesis should not be held until the last minute either. While finding free time during the year and using weekends wisely is important, procrastination could easily ruin a project.

“Believing that Winter Break will be the best opportunity to start the real writing or analyzing of the research or creative ideas is delusional thinking and the results are often painful,” said Susan Michalczyk, a professor in the Honors Department.

It’s best, then, to get started over the summer, Hertenstein said, when there is more time to do research and more flexibility in terms of what your final topic will look like.

“You will not have that kind of relaxed research time ever again, and you never know what the scope of your project may be,” Hertenstein said. “Mine has grown, and if I had started in September, I would never finish this thesis project.”

In addition to solid preparation, a support network that is not limited to just your advisor can make all the difference.

Elizabeth Graver, a professor in the English Department, said that she usually advises students whose theses will take the form of short stories or novellas and encourages her students to sign up for courses that will inspire them.

“This could be anything from a course in history or biology, to one on the contemporary short story,” she said.

Graver also said that meeting with a small group of other seniors doing similar projects has often been helpful, especially due to the solitary nature of writing a thesis.

“Finding community, structure, and ways to fill the well of creativity can be a great help,” she said.

This support network is especially helpful when the entire project begins to seem overwhelming and you find it necessary to take a break for a little while, which does not necessarily mean that the project has been derailed yet.

“All part of the process,” Michalczyk said. “Be sure to schedule blocks of time throughout the week, so that you can develop a rhythm and strengthen good work habits.”

By the end of the fall semester, Michalczyk said, students should have a well-developed outline, solid bibliography, and some kind of serious written work-such as an introduction, chapter, draft, or collection of data-depending on the project.

“Throughout the process, connect with your advisor and take your advisor’s advice, so that over the course of the fall semester, you both have a good sense of the project and realistic expectations for the spring semester and completion of the thesis,” she said.

In the spring, she said, it’s important to give your advisor enough time to review the project and give advice before the final deadline. Otherwise, the overall thesis could be weakened.

With adequate preparation, a topic you’re passionate about, and an advisor you trust, the inevitable bouts of uncertainty and stress often become less debilitating.

“While it is sometimes hard to balance thesis-writing with everything that goes on senior year, it is not unmanageable,” Crane said.

“If you schedule your time well and keep motivated, it is possible to enjoy your senior year and pass in a thesis that you are proud of.”

November 18, 2013