As we wrap up this year, I find myself at the midpoint of independent work requirements: post-JP, pre-thesis. From such a position I offer opinions, advice and thanks gathered from my experiences. First, I share what I’ve learned about the thesis so far and how I gained that knowledge. Then, I make recommendations to rising juniors and seniors regarding the thesis process.
I. An Introduction to the Thesis
There is – I believe – an interesting phenomenon surrounding the senior thesis, it has a sort of ‘you know it when you see it’ quality. In theory, we are all familiar with what it means to write an academic paper. We have both read and written many throughout our years in academia. And yet, the senior thesis is built up to be a task of quite a different nature. It is expected we will want to reduce our course load to accommodate it; we will want to bind a copy as our own keepsake; it will be the penultimate accomplishment of our college years. It is immediately unlike anything we have ever done before and, as such, unfamiliar. We are led to question what in the process or content of the writing makes it so different.
When I first began at Princeton I was not at all unfamiliar with the independent work requirements that would, in time, greatly shape my academic career. I was, however, wholly unable to grasp what a “thesis” was. The notion of a thesis as a posited idea to be tested or proved or as a proposition from which to launch a process of dialectic reasoning was the idea I held in mind. But in these instances it was a sentence, a paragraph at most. Not much gold stamping or binding to be done there. My conception was clearly off. How was one to turn such a thesis into a veritable book?
I have to say it was not until this — my junior — year that I developed a clear and complete picture of what a thesis is. This came not from a simple advancement in age, class standing or proximity to my own thesis but from a proximity to seniors and their theses. Each day I sat around breakfast tables, listening to how they inched or bounded along in the process. From the initial “What am I writing about? Who will advise me?” to the first stabs at writing, to the drafting and finally to submitting, I witnessed the entire thesis process. What had previously been an idea I couldn’t even materialize in my imagination was now on display before me.
II. Gaining Familitary with Thesis Writing
It is not just the process of how to write an extensive paper that makes the thesis a difficult concept to grasp. It is also the nature of the writing itself — the caliber of ideas, the style of language, the appearance of formatting. All these things too were unclear to me until I became more intimately acquainted with the senior thesis. Through the same avenues by which I learned how the thesis progress worked, I found myself involved in the process itself. By editing and encouraging the work of seniors around me, I gained familiarity with the content of the thesis. I could visualize not just the process of moving from proposal to binding, but the words that existed between those faux-leather covers.
III. Advice for Rising Juniors and Seniors
From these observational findings, I conclude that some best practices recommendations can be made to those who will soon find themselves in the position of junior or senior.
To juniors, find a way to become involved in the thesis process of one or many seniors. I found the tables of my eating club to be the best venue for this, but the experience is readily transferable to whichever informal gathering place you inhabit. Knowing what to expect in terms of how the year will play out and what the final product will look like has been infinitely beneficial in my own planning for senior year, and especially in my ability to generate the self-confidence and assurance that I can in fact succeed in this assignment.
To seniors, reach out and share with the juniors around you. Certainly this is an independent project. But that doesn’t mean that it needs to be an isolated one. By including juniors in our process we help to prepare them for their own senior thesis experience while gaining the benefits of a soundboard to our ideas, editor to our prose or sympathetic ear to our anxieties.
The senior thesis is a capstone to the Princeton curriculum and surely meant to be personally enriching for seniors, but it may also be enriching for non-seniors. The senior thesis could become a unifying academic endeavor, uniting those of upperclass status within and across departments to assist in the thesis process. Departments and advisers alike ought to encourage seniors to reach out to the juniors in their department, perhaps even provide assistance in pairing students with similar interests. Both seniors and juniors will benefit from the process, and the University as a whole gains a stronger system of mentorship and advisement, as well as academic community.
I’d like to thank all the seniors who allowed me to witness and participate in their thesis experiences. This column — and my future thesis — has benefited greatly from your contributions.
Lily Alberts is an economics major from Nashville, Tenn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.