Tips from a Thesis Survivor


Ah, the college thesis. For some, it’s a proud choice to go above and beyond in the pursuit of academic excellence. For others, it’s a requirement that sneaks up to put a brutal cap on four years of higher education. Either way, the thesis is a time-honored tradition that has required months of sweat, caffeine, and pages upon pages of brilliant (or at least coherent) work from students throughout history.

If you’ve decided to tackle the thesis beast—congratulations! While it was mandatory misery for all liberal arts majors at my alma mater, I can now look back at the experience and say that it was one of the things I’m most proud of from my entire college career. That doesn’t mean I didn’t procrastinate heavily, complain often, and sleep infrequently. About page 35, a desperate case of writer’s block began to creep in, and, like similarly beleaguered classmates of mine, I began to question whether I could actually pull it off. But, two weeks and three printers later, there I was, with a shiny, freshly-bound, all-finished thesis to show for my trouble. 

The thesis comes in many shapes and sizes—long-form academic research, original experiments, or creative writing, film, and portfolios. Within those parameters, pretty much anything goes. My long-form research thesis focused on feminist themes in early New Yorker articles, but I knew people who did everything from sociological theories of Facebook to beer imagery in Chaucer. No matter what your discipline, it’s a chance to take the skills you’ve acquired from your major to the next level. So whether you’re gunning for honors, or just hoping to graduate on time, here are some ways to make the senior thesis experience as pain-free as possible.

Choose your topic wisely: You may think that 40-100 pages is going to require a topic roughly the size of all Western civilization. But a thesis is more about delving into one topic deeply, rather than halfway taking on a slew of them. Talk to a faculty advisor about how narrowly you can define your subject matter. Think about one single topic, one author or time period, or one research niche that your coursework and interests can help you turn inside-out. If you can’t sum up the subject in two or three sentences, you’re probably taking on too much.

And don’t be afraid to pursue your favorite things in lieu of the smartest-sounding thing you can think up. You will be spending months getting to know everything about your subject, so if you don’t like it, you’re going to be in for some long nights.

Paper versus thesis: Your thesis isn’t just a 5-page paper on steroids; approach it the way you’d approach writing an entire book, rather than just the intro-three points-conclusion model that’s served you so well for other work. Think of individual chapter structure as well as the structure of the entire work. 

Start early (seriously): Like everyone else, I thought I was too cool to crack a book before January (despite my early-April deadline). But the more of a head start you give yourself, the more you’ll be able to pace your work down the road. If you’re tackling some original research or experimentation, starting during the summer will afford you quieter lab time and fewer school-year distractions. At any rate, do NOT ignore that nagging voice in your head (or over the phone, e-mail, in person, etc.) telling you to get to it.

Outline your thesis: You could count me among the anti-outliners…at least, until I wrote a thesis. Suddenly, my “let’s just see what happens” approach to papers was inadequate, since I had to make sure there was still something left to say on page 50. The more thorough the outline, the better prepared you’ll be when it comes time to write. Include quotations, details, citations, and other prompts so you won’t have to take time to dig those up later.

Don’t get derailed by the details: Proofreading is important, but getting hung up on one sentence is a recipe for deadline disaster. Unless your thesis is on the importance of comma rules, your main focus should be big-picture—what is your thesis saying? How are you shaping your arguments? After you’ve got the draft, then go back and worry about the mechanics. On the flip side, two hours before the drop-deadline is not a good time to start worrying about the logistics of printing, binding, or publishing.  Give yourself at least 24-48 hours to sort out the final details, which will allow for plenty of time should things go awry.   

Get some fresh eyes: Not for yourself, for your thesis. Because little mistakes you might’ve caught three weeks ago become a blur at 3 a.m.  An outside perspective also helps you evaluate how your thesis flows from a content point-of-view. 

And don’t forget to take a minute to flip through the finished product before heading out to celebrate your academic victory. Savor it.  Then shelve that sucker and hit the town—you just wrote a thesis!

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