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Surviving the Senior Thesis

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Sunshine Eversull has spent the last few months holed up in her bedroom, yet she’s had surprisingly little sleep. Her shelves are stacked with library books; piles of journals serve as bookends. Notes spill onto her desk, where her computer is always on, beckoning her to do more.

Blame it on her senior thesis, a requirement for all graduating seniors in the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) Program.“The senior thesis has pretty much taken over my life,” Eversull says with a shrug. 

Sunshine Eversull meets with her faculty adviser, Phillip Thurtle.

Sunshine Eversull meets with her faculty adviser, Phillip Thurtle. Media credit: Mary Levin

Many Arts and Sciences departments require a senior thesis for their honors students, but just a handful require it for all majors. CHID added the requirement 
in the late 1990s.

“We wanted students to have the opportunity to focus on an area of interest in depth,” says Phillip Thurtle, assistant professor of CHID. “We also felt that this would provide closure for their University experience. I think students are hungry for some closure to their undergraduate career. It’s an exclamation point at the end of their time here.”

A senior thesis can mean different things in different departments. A CHID senior thesis might be a lengthy paper—or a film, performance, or graphic novel. In the Department of Classics, the thesis is always a paper (referred to as the “senior essay”), with as much emphasis on writing as content. Seniors in Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) create experimental artwork for their senior thesis, and School of Art ceramics majors spend much of their final year preparing for a solo exhibit in the Ceramics Gallery. 

Although they vary widely in approach, all of these senior theses emphasize rigor. They encourage students to apply what they have learned in previous courses while exploring a subject in depth—greater depth than would be possible in any single undergraduate course.

“I’ve gained a lot of skills over the past few years,” says Peter Brun, completing his senior thesis in DXARTS. “This allows me to apply all that. You start to realize how much you’ve absorbed that can be applied to your new work.”

Planting the Seed

For many students, selecting a thesis topic is the first hurdle. Although some come into the process with a topic fully formed, most spend considerable time—as much as a quarter—pinning down a workable idea. 

“Often it is the first time they are taking on a big project from beginning to end,” says Karen Rosenberg, a Women Studies graduate student who has taught CHID’s quarter-long thesis course, which guides students through the process. “Their questions are big. The problem is never that their topics are not challenging enough. It’s always that they are taking on too much.”

Women Studies Professor Angela Ginorio agrees. Ginorio has taught a year-long thesis course for Women Studies majors for four years; until this year, the course and senior thesis were required. 

“Students joke that my favorite quote is ‘A good thesis is a finished thesis,’” says Ginorio. “But it is important that students choose something they can actually finish. There’s always the balance between the wonderful project that a student has in mind and one that’s actually doable.”

To that end, students in Women Studies spend a full quarter developing their thesis topic, eventually creating a poster outlining the thesis question and the research methods to be employed. The posters are reviewed by peers, who ask questions and offer suggestions.

“When you’re thinking through a project like this, no one person can think of all the challenges and all of the resources available,” says Ginorio. “The help the students get from each other is very useful.”

Faculty advisers also play a key role in helping students choose a topic that is ambitious yet realistic. “We’ve noticed a very strong correlation between consistency and depth of faculty contact and the ability of students to finish their thesis,” says Thurtle. “It’s not just about advising the students; it’s about someone seeing value in the student’s project. It makes the process a little less lonely and a little more confirming.”

Sunshine Eversull selected two advisers for her project: Rosenberg and Thurtle. She thought she had found the perfect thesis topic until Rosenberg suggested paring it down to a more realistic scope. That sent Eversull into “a crisis period” and, eventually, a change of topic.

“I had to ask myself, ‘What am I passionate about that I could think and write about for the next eight months?’” recalls Eversull. She found the answer in her personal struggles. As a single parent and transfer student, Eversull felt “not quite like the rest” in college, like she was always scrambling for resources. “I thought of the implications of that—academically, socially—and how I might help others in the same situation,” she says. “I didn’t yet have a theoretical application, but I had a general idea for my thesis.”

Brun also nixed his first thesis idea. “I realized that it was technically beyond the scope of what I could achieve,” he says. “It took me the whole first quarter [in DXARTS’s Research Studio course] to come up with another idea that I felt I could focus on all year and stay interested and motivated.”

The Gathering Phase

With topics finalized, students turn to the research phase of the project. This might involve reviewing primary source materials or producing original data. Or interviewing subjects. Or none of the above, depending on the project.

“For lots of their college papers, students can think of ideas between classes, get them down on paper, and hand it in,” says Rosenberg. “That spectacularly won’t work with this project. There’s so much more to it. So in the thesis class, we focus a lot on the process.”

The thesis process often includes false starts and unexpected tangents. For many students, that can be distressing. “I have to keep reminding them, ‘This is research. If you knew exactly what you were going to do going in, it wouldn’t be research,’ ” says Thurtle.

Women Studies has dedicated one quarter of its thesis course (now offered as independent study) to data gathering, covering various approaches — interviewing, surveying — and issues such as confidentiality. “This is where reality sets in,” says Ginorio. “Sometimes students underestimate how much information is there. They need to have realistic goals for gathering data so they can finish.” 

Ceramics major Josh Dodhia works on one section of a sculpture that may be in his solo BFA thesis exhibition

Ceramics major Josh Dodhia works on one section of a sculpture that may be in his solo BFA thesis exhibition. Media credit: Mary Levin

For students in the Ceramics Program, research involves tracing the various influences on their art. Students present their findings in a 20-minute “source presentation” for faculty and peers, followed by a question and answer session. The research helps guide them as they prepare for their solo show. 

“It is an extremely self-reflective process,” says Jamie Walker, professor of ceramics. “Some discover, by doing all this research, that what interests them is different than what they had assumed.”

DXARTS students spend one quarter working out the major technical and creative details for their project and creating a model. “We see this almost as a contract of what they will do, no matter what,” says Richard Karpen, divisional dean of research and infrastructure and founding director of DXARTS. “That way, we know they will finish. We tell them they’ll have their whole lives to change their mind. But they can’t change their mind on this.”

Working with Words

As the final quarter of senior year looms, students finish gathering, analyzing, and conceptualizing. Then they must do the (seemingly) impossible: tie it all together into a cohesive thesis.

For many students, this means writing—a lot. More writing, in fact, than they have ever done. 

CHID’s thesis course addresses this challenge by focusing heavily on writing, with students divided into small writing groups for much of the quarter. By sharing their work, they improve their writing and have an incentive to stay on track. 

Taking that approach a step further, Eversull created a CHID Focus Group, “Advanced CHID Thesis Workshop,” for students who had completed the thesis course and wanted additional peer guidance and support. She developed a course syllabus and a structure that requires students to share their own writing and critique classmates’ writing on alternate weeks.

In the Classics Department, writing has always been a central focus of the senior essay, which was introduced in response to concerns that majors were not doing enough critical writing. 

“A large part of what Classics faculty do is write,” says Classics Professor Alain Gowing. “I think we need to do a better job of imparting that skill to our students. And I think we’ve come a very long way in doing that since the early 1990s, in large part due to the essay.”

In the senior essay, students can present a new hypothesis or expand an idea introduced in a previous assignment. They earn credits based on the length of the essay and the number of quarters spent completing it. 

“Length is not a big issue for us,” says Gowing. “We’re more concerned that students apply the skills they’ve learned in the major.” Adds Classics Department Chair James Clauss, “It’s a non-threatening project, and as a result it gets done and students typically report that they gained much from the experience.”

A Big Finish 

Peter Brun works on the circuitry for his DXARTS senior thesis.

Peter Brun works on the circuitry for his DXARTS senior thesis. Media credit: Alex Brun

Finishing the senior thesis is not as straightforward as it might seem. There 
is a moment in nearly every project when completion seems impossible. Eversull admits experiencing “several crisis points that seemed insurmountable.” Brun’s moment of doubt came halfway through the year, when he realized how much he still had left to do. “I thought, ‘Oh man, I wish I could change this and throttle back a bit,’” he recalls. “In fact, I stopped working on it for about a week because I’d regretted taking on so much. But I knew I had to finish, so I got focused again.”

That, says Karpen, is as important as any other aspect of the senior thesis. “This project is about commitment. We want students to understand what you can accomplish with commitment. Not all of our DXARTS seniors may become professional artists, but this will help them become good citizens who know what commitment and hard work is.”

The stakes for completion are high. Students who don’t finish a required senior thesis don’t graduate. And for students in the arts, there’s also the matter of sharing the work with a larger audience in a final exhibition.

“It’s like a performer being on the stage alone for the first time,” says Walker. “When you show your art publicly, you’re really exposing yourself.” 

At the opening of each ceramics solo show, the student presents a talk about his or her work. The prospect of all that attention motivates students to work tirelessly on the thesis project. 

“Our students’ work grows tremendously during their last quarter because they’re spending every spare moment in the studio,” says Walker. “At the end, a common refrain from students is, ‘If only I had worked this hard earlier, my work would have been really amazing.’ Our response is that everything that came before was priming the pump, getting the student ready for this.”

Faculty in other disciplines echo these sentiments. They say that the senior thesis is a true capstone experience, enabling students to apply their considerable acquired knowledge in a focused way. 

The result can be as satisfying for faculty as for the students themselves.
“I’ve watched students go from having an interest in something, to being able to articulate that interest, to becoming scholars,” says Thurtle. “It’s amazing to see that transformation. What happens through this process is profound.”