Thesis 101: Why Write One?

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The senior thesis isn’t for everyone. In fact, to many, it’s a laughable prospect. If you’re limping towards graduation, the idea of committing yourself to a sixty-page paper seems suicidal. Other students have been planning on writing a thesis all along, and are now only beginning to actually pick and research their actual topic. So, what are the reasons to write a thesis? And how does one write a thesis well?

A thesis can be a wonderful culmination of your entire college education. Caroline Marris, a senior English and history major at NYU, decided to write two honors theses, because she “wanted to do a long piece of work in each major.” Similarly, Miles Watkins, a senior economics major at Wesleyan University, says that he plans to write a thesis next year because “it just seems like a nice capstone experience.” Also, he thinks it will indicate to the research institutions he hopes to work for after graduation that he can do his own “independent and substantial work.” 

This impulse certainly makes sense, and also applies to graduate school. If you think you might pursue graduate school in the future, writing an undergraduate thesis could be an important step in the application process. Not only could it be used later on as a writing sample, but all PhD and master’s programs look on the effort fondly.

At some universities, a thesis is required to receive departmental honors. Rebecca Lipperini, an English major at the University of Pennsylvania, said this was one of her motivations for writing a thesis, as a student at UPenn can only graduate with departmental honors by writing an honors thesis. 

Watkins, Marris and Lipperini were also interested in writing theses because it would allow them to investigate academic territory not covered in class. Watkins says that his topic does not fall squarely in the economics or government departments at Wesleyan, and he is excited to use resources from both departments to investigate his interests. Marris wants to study the late 17th century, but few offered history courses cover this time period, and she plans on using her thesis to focus on this interest.

Lipperini plans to investigate magic in fantastic literature (specifically the Harry Potter series) and “how it responds to current anxieties about medicine and healthcare in the West.” Her untraditional topic made writing a thesis more appealing, she says, because it was the type of material never covered in a class.

If you do indeed find yourself in the thesis boat, the process can seem more than a little daunting. Many thesis programs encourage students to start planning in the summer before their senior year. But what does “planning” mean? First of all, finding a supportive advisor in your academic department is of paramount importance. Preferably, this will be someone who will answer your emails and provide constructive advice and criticism on your reading list and drafts. Ideally, your advisor will be someone that does all of these things, and whom you also feel you can be candid with about the process.

The most important component to thesis writing is staying on schedule. “I think I’m most nervous that I won’t get it done!” says Lipperini. Marris says the word count is not what has her worried, but the primary and secondary reading. Indeed, the marathon reading can be the most challenging part of the thesis. Generally, students read much more than they end up writing about. Make a (realistic) schedule for yourself and stick to it. This way, you won't be a sleep-deprived wreck the week before your paper-to-end-all-papers is due.

Senior > English and German > NYU

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