Most students write a thesis for a very simple reason: it's required to graduate with honors. In some schools, it's required for all graduates. Even so, the thesis is different from other requirements-more demanding and much more rewarding. Most requirements focus on specific courses, perhaps an introductory course on statistics, social structure, or American fiction. There is not much you can do if the class is at 9 A.M., the subject is boring, or the professor drones on, oblivious to your snoring.
Your thesis, happily, is different. It is in your hands. You will work with an adviser, of course, but you will ultimately select your own topic and do most of the work yourself, independently. You can start at 9 A.M. or 9 P.M., skip work entirely some days, or study straight through the weekend. You own it.
That's the good news and the bad news. To select a topic, you have to think about what truly interests you, and probably meander a bit before you settle on the right path. Once you have decided on a general subject-say, marriage and divorce in nineteenth-century fiction-you need to hone it down to a manageable size. That might be "The Scar of Divorce in the Fiction of Henry James and Edith Wharton." In international studies, your broad interest in America's wars might lead to a thesis on "The Evolution of American Air Power in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq." These topics capture your general interests and encourage you to grapple with them, but they are not too large and unwieldy. They are feasible thesis topics because they allow you to do the necessary research and then enter the conversation with your own ideas.
This reading, research, and writing builds on your previous work: your courses and seminar papers. Together, they lay the foundations for a longer, more challenging project: your thesis. If doing a thesis seems harder than your earlier work, it is also more satisfying. As you select your topic, you can explore issues that interest you deeply. As you move gradually from reading and research to writing and revising, you can develop a real sense of mastery. As you work out your perspective and begin writing, you can develop your own distinctive voice. In all these ways, your thesis is the capstone of your undergraduate education. And it is something more: a vital step toward lifelong learning, where you will always pick your own subjects to explore.
Because your thesis requires independent work, it is useful to have a guide, a mentor by your side. That's what this book is. It is designed to help you and your adviser as you proceed along the trail, from selecting a good topic to turning in your final draft, with a sigh of relief. My goal is to offer suggestions you can use at every stage of your work.
One of the challenges of writing a thesis is that you need to combine a lot of tasks: selecting a topic, reading the best books and articles, conducting sustained research, arriving at your own viewpoint, planning your paper, writing a first draft, and then revising and polishing it, all while managing your own time. This is not a 100-meter dash. It is a hike through the woods, requiring a variety of skills and some persistence.
This book will guide you past the mileposts, flag the main issues, warn you about the stumps along the trail, and give you some brief, practical advice about each aspect of the project. If you want more details on some, I will point you to the best sources. But I will keep this book focused on the main issues so you can focus on your primary goal: completing your own best thesis, one you find satisfying to work on and pleased to turn in.
For now, let me begin with some reassurance, based on years of working with thesis students. You've made it this far, and you can complete your thesis. In fact, you can complete a thesis you'll be proud of. You just need to approach it thoughtfully and stick with it. If you are committed to that, you'll do just fine.
Tip: Be persistent. If you work steadily on your thesis, you'll complete a rewarding project and learn a lot in the process.
That leads me to the most important advice of all: Pick a topic that truly interests you. If you care about the subject, you will pursue interesting questions because you want to know the answers. That, more than anything else, will draw you into the subject, enrich your work, and sustain you for the long haul.
Tip: Pick a thesis topic you really care about.
Chapter TwoUSEFUL NUTS AND BOLTS
Every thesis student has to handle a number of nuts-and-bolts issues, from departmental requirements to picking an adviser. A little advice can ease the way.
WHAT ARE YOU INTERESTED IN?
Well before you start looking for a thesis adviser, you should begin to highlight areas that interest you and start taking courses in them. At this stage, probably in your junior year, you don't need to narrow your focus much. Just pick a field or two to emphasize within your major. In art history, that might be modern or classical art. In political science, it might be international relations or political philosophy. These are broad topics, and you may already have some more detailed interests within them. In modern art, you might be most interested in German expressionists or, alternatively, in American abstract artists like Jackson Pollock. In international relations, you might be concerned with relations between rich and poor countries, but beyond that you aren't sure. That's fine. You will zero in on a specific research topic later, and I'll help. For now, what matters is getting the best preparation, as you fulfill the requirements in your major. In the process, you'll discover some areas that interest you and others that don't.
Two kinds of preparation matter most for your thesis: learning more about your field and learning more about writing research papers.
PREPARING FOR YOUR THESIS BY CHOOSING THE RIGHT COURSES
In choosing courses, the key is to move beyond the basics into more advanced, specialized fields since your thesis will come from these specialized fields. In economics, for instance, you will build on basic micro and macro courses to take classes in labor economics, international trade, or capital markets-whatever interests you. In sociology, you might take advanced courses in immigration, crime, or changing gender roles. You'll be learning what really matters to you (and what doesn't) as you lay the foundation for your thesis research. You will also be doing essential background reading, familiarizing yourself with the debates, and discovering the hot issues. You'll be looking for puzzles and questions that interest you.
Tip: Take advanced courses in your field. You'll explore important issues, learn the best methods to study them, identify research topics, and develop skills for writing a thesis.
As you advance within your major, ask faculty and advisers if you need to take some essential courses in other fields. In economics, for instance, calculus and statistics are extremely valuable-the more, the better. For European history, you might want to take a course in French literature or Enlightenment philosophy. These "extra" courses are important in every field. But you need to ask. The faculty aren't going to search for you. If you want their help, you should approach them with clear questions.
Tip: Ask about courses outside your major that complement your interests.
To get the best advice, you also need to say something about your own interests. If you are concerned with the sociology of religion, for instance, you might take related courses in theology or anthropology. These same courses would be less useful for sociology students concerned with racial segregation. Those students would benefit more from classes on urban education, labor markets, or African American literature. The point is simple. Before embarking on your thesis project, take some advanced courses to deepen-and widen-your knowledge of your specialty. You should continue taking such courses as you conduct thesis research.
SEMINAR PAPERS PREPARE YOU TO WRITE A THESIS
You also want to gain some experience in writing research papers. It is a lot easier to plan and write your thesis after you have written a few seminar papers. You'll know much more about how to conduct research and how to present it effectively. You also learn how to manage your time as you organize an independent project. These skills will prove useful in your thesis. You may also discover that you want to learn more about a particular topic. An interesting class paper might be the basis for an interesting thesis.
Tip: Before beginning your thesis, take some courses that require research papers. They might be the seeds of a thesis project. Even if they're not, they'll give you valuable experience in researching and writing.
Fortunately, most advanced courses require papers rather than exams. Still, some large schools rely on exams, even in upper-level courses, to cope with heavy enrollments. Check out the requirements for specific classes with an eye to doing some research and writing. A few longer papers will prepare you for the thesis project.
By the same token, don't load up with three courses requiring papers the same semester. If they all come due on Tuesday of exam week, believe me, it will be an ugly train wreck. Balance your load.
GENERATING IDEAS FOR YOUR THESIS
As you take these advanced courses, start thinking tentatively about your thesis. By junior year, you will probably be settled into your major, taking some specialized classes and learning which topics you enjoy and do well in. You need not spend a lot of time thinking about your thesis, and none at all worrying about it. Just mull over what interests you and what might be worth exploring further.
Now is the time to start collecting ideas for possible thesis topics. Do it in writing, even if the ideas themselves are tentative and exploratory. Make a special computer file where you can jot down ideas and have a manila folder where you can put handwritten notes and photocopies, marked up with your observations. Lots of professors do this, collecting ideas for their next book or article. You should do exactly the same thing for your thesis.
If you don't have such files set up already, go ahead and do that now, even if you don't have anything to put in them. You will have some ideas soon, and having the files ready to go encourages them. As you add new items to your files, remember that your goal is not to find a single topic but to collect multiple ideas. You'll narrow them down later, and I'll explain how.
Tip: To collect potential ideas for a thesis, set up a computer >le (and perhaps a manila folder, as well).
A happy by-product of collecting these ideas is that you'll begin to write. At least you'll begin to write some brief notes to yourself. They don't need to be anything fancy, just notes for your files, done without any pressure or deadlines. But do make a regular practice of writing down your ideas.
Thinking on paper is very helpful-at least, I've always found it is-and it's important to make it a regular part of your thesis project from the very beginning. The more you write, the easier it becomes. These notes will jog your memory, prompt your imagination, and help you puzzle out the issues.
Try not to censor yourself. Nobody is judging you. Nobody is grading you. Don't worry if your ideas seem vague, a little dumb, or too ambitious. You can always drop them later or combine them with others. At this stage, you are planting a garden, not weeding it. Just write down your ideas as they pop up, before they wilt away. When you think of something, write down a few casual sentences so that next month you'll remember what you were thinking. Don't fret about grammar or style. The goal is simply to generate ideas and begin writing, at least informally.
To begin this file, think over the various classes you have taken. Which issues fascinated you? Which ones did you want to learn more about? Which paper topics were most rewarding to work on? Scribble down your answers. See if you can expand on any of them. Why did these topics intrigue you? Which aspects were most interesting? The more you can write about these questions, the better.
Tip: Remind yourself to keep adding material to your thesis ideas file. Fill it with
Brief notes and comments on articles you've read
Questions that interest you
Any ideas that suggest possible paper topics
From now on, jot down any ideas you might want to delve into. Do it as you take notes in class, read assignments, or write seminar papers. Just add them to your thesis ideas file. That's exactly what professional writers do. They keep a file of ideas for their next project. It's easy, and it works. The only trick is to make it a habit.
Tip: Make it a habit to put notes in your thesis ideas file. A little informal writing is good practice and will develop your ideas. Review these notes occasionally and see if they prompt still more thoughts. Cull the ones that no longer interest you.
Every so often, review your file, see what still intrigues you, and toss out what no longer does. See if your ideas fall into two or three groups, and if they do, organize them that way, under a few major topic headings. If a few ideas keep cropping up-the same basic themes in different dress-make a special note of that. Bounce ideas around with professors and friends. Don't hoard them; share them. Debate them. As you do, you will understand your own ideas better and come up with still more. Write them down, too. It can become a virtuous circle, as your thoughts build on each other. Equally important, it will become easy and natural to write about them.
Behind this playfulness is a serious purpose. One of the most meaningful-and difficult-elements of your thesis project is formulating your own topic. Professors could easily assign topics to students, but they are reluctant to do so for a very good reason. Handing out assignments would cast aside one of the main educational aspects of writing a thesis: picking your own topic.
Choosing your own topic makes the thesis different from any course you have ever taken. All of them define the subject matter for you. Take seminar papers, for example. If the course is about Jane Austen, you can't write about Emily Dickinson. Your thesis is different because you have so much freedom. This freedom is challenging, as freedom often is, but it also makes your thesis the most personal part of your education. You can define the range of subjects that interest you, and then, working with a faculty adviser, select your own topic. Later, we'll talk about how to choose a topic and refine it. For now, what matters is to figure out your interests and generate some ideas worth pursuing.
PICKING AN ADVISER
With your thesis file set up, a few ideas percolating, and some advanced courses under your belt, you are ready to look for a thesis adviser, probably toward the end of your junior year or, at the latest, the beginning of senior year.
Tip: Start looking for a thesis adviser during the latter part of your junior year or, at the latest, early senior year.
So, what makes a good thesis adviser? Better yet, what makes a good thesis adviser for you? Two criteria stand out above all others. Your adviser should know your thesis subfield. And you should feel comfortable, intellectually and personally, with your adviser. Everything else is secondary. Tip: Pick an adviser who is
Comfortable for you to work with
An expert in your area of interest
Your adviser will work with you as a one-on-one teacher: a tutor and mentor. He or she will help you shape your topic, select the best background readings, find the most useful data, and use the right research methods. You, in turn, will come to the faculty member's office every week or two to discuss your progress. Most times, you'll hand in some writing and get some feedback. You'll hash out your latest ideas and leave with directions for the next steps to take. These meetings are often brief, but they are vital.
Just listing all the adviser's responsibilities makes it clear why you want someone who is a good teacher, someone you feel comfortable with and eager to learn from.
Fortunately, it's easy to find out if your prospective adviser is a good teacher. Just read student evaluations and ask other students in your department. What you hope to find is a professor who excels in small groups and one-on-one. That's more important than being a great lecturer, at least for thesis advising. Does she make time for students, read papers promptly, and give helpful advice? Are her interests narrow and her approach rigid? Or does she have an open-minded interest in lots of issues?