By Jennifer W. Eisenberg

A senior thesis may or may not be necessary for you to graduate from your school. If you are required to write one, you may balk immediately at the thought that you will be marshalling a massive year to a year and a half of your precious academic energies to a paper that likely will dwarf any piece you have written prior to now. This particular paper, perhaps, will be bigger than all of them combined. Even if you begin with the notion that you could build something out of the wealth of material you’ve already studied, the project may not be viable in the end. 

So–why should you even consider such an undertaking? The requirement to write a senior paper is your first reason, of course. You must turn in the thesis in order to graduate. Therefore, your best play is to do what you have done all through your academic career when the workload was tough. You made a plan and you stuck to the plan. That is how you have gotten this far. Besides, even considering all the potential for struggle, the upsides for this writing assignment can be hard to pass up. You will make invaluable contacts, draw up nearly graduate-level research, and you will think through a serious topic that could occupy your mind and impact your work for the rest of your life. 

You might not do any of those things, and still it could help you organize what you know into a major writing project. 

It should be noted that the trend of capstone projects has become more expected in engineering as well as other areas of undergraduate studies. Such last-semester projects are intended to improve writing and group collaboration. Yes, you get to do a big project with other group members to address a local concern or any number of concerns that will involve layout, design, and/or development.  Typically, the project will require you to balance gathering data, analyzing findings, and collaborating with others to produce coherent goals and findings. Products of these projects may be slightly fewer pages in length than traditional senior theses, but results differ from school to school and program to program. 

You might attempt a pre-thesis inventory 

  • Fairly assess your academic interests strengths and weaknesses. This might best be done with the frank counsel of friends and mentors. 
  • Are your research skills and technical aptitude now sufficient? What do you need to be able to execute the thesis? 
  • How good are you at asking for help and applying advice?
  • What kind of a group member are you? If you tend to run the groups you are in, you will need to prepare for the load of one-sided collaborative work. If you have editorial skills you may be that type of contributor to your group’s work. If you tend to say yes to requests and overcommit, you will need to anticipate how to improve that aspect of your academic persona.
  • Speaking of that persona, you have an opportunity to address your problem areas as a student while also contributing and building on your strengths. This facet alone will be priceless as you plan to enter a workforce, because an enormous element of working is working together.

Other things to consider:

  • Does your degree require a senior project?
  • How does the thesis align with your coursework and schedule?
  • Do you already have a previous paper on which you could meaningfully expand? Does a professor who has commented on your work have any leads for you? That is, not only can you get a professor’s guidance but also vital clues like good current research and colleagues whose advice could make or break a career choice?
  • How much time can you rationally expect to devote to the project? Several advisors suggest not getting bogged down by too much research and subsequent project bloat.

You may be in a school that more or less requires a thesis, or at least you know you cannot avoid it. One benefit of that situation is that you can plan practically from day one. Typically, sophomore year is when to start the research, with the junior year maybe the latest point to really get started. Most schools have a research and bibliography course among the school offerings; typically you will be required to take it. Among the benefits: you can carry the skills in this course with you into pretty much any program, particularly grad school. You should keep track of your bibliographic sources throughout the entire process. This cannot be overstated. You will likely have some manual of style to follow, typically APA, MLA, IEEE, or some alphabetical variant you will suffer to master. For most projects someone will be assigned to advise you on how to put together the type of proposal needed for your department to approve the work before officially beginning upon the senior project. Your department will likely expect regular reports from you on how your work progresses. You will submit a review of the literature at some point and produce a thoroughly annotated bibliography. You will also likely submit an introduction to the full work. Most programs expect a full draft by the beginning of the spring semester of senior year so you can go over issues or concerns with your research and/or data collection. 

Over the course of the project you will likely be encouraged to share your work and help others draft. This could be a source of stress, but you will need to overcome performance anxiety and possible issues of self doubt (i.e., how am I qualified to read others’ work?) that others certainly share and this will be something you will always have to face both as an undergraduate and graduate student.  

Once you have a few candidates for your topic, it will be helpful to consider the scale, expectations, and viability of each. What will you be able to do with a project, once you have completed it? Ideally, you will gain experience with project organization, primary research, and the establishment of your personal style in writing and presentation. 

Be sure to get a clear sense of the expectations of your institution. Read over previous projects submitted by your student predecessors, but try not to absorb them too deeply. You will need to balance the conventional expectations while not slavishly affecting the same process you are reading. Some have found success by contrasting two seemingly unrelated concepts that can be made fruitfully instructive via the comparison. This approach is probably closer to graduate level work, but, especially if you are highly well-read in two different areas, you may find an unlikely and difficult-to-fake thesis approach. The spirit isn’t novelty for novelty’s sake. It’s just that the process lends itself to excessive pressure to produce interesting work. As long as your theory retains value and remains clear in its definitions, goals and thesis articles you should surprise with inventiveness but not obscure with irrelevant or pointless analysis. 

Recall also that along with the need to improve writing that made the capstone project a fairly common expectation for undergraduates, there is the need to improve speaking and group presentation skills. Thus, you probably have to do a singular or group oral defense or project to complement your written work. While few people feel great about public speaking, this is simply a full aspect of most careers where your presentation skills may define you more than your writing. If you haven’t taken a speech class, you probably still have opportunities for practice. It is unlikely that you haven’t recorded yourself on a device and posted your performance somewhere. However, if somehow you haven’t, you will learn a great deal about the differences between your recording and how you sound to yourself. Again, having frank friends and acquaintances you can trust to critique your presentation chops will be nearly as important as the reader(s) you rely on. You will not necessarily be able to wow the crowd at the next comic club open-mic night, but you will improve your speaking skills. 

Length expectations for most senior thesis projects vary greatly, but a typical range is between fifty and seventy pages. Clearly this resembles monograph or master’s length work. You may be surprised to note how much more of it will be cutting down rather than stretching to reach the expectations. Research-based work with five or more source citations a page will add up to a fairly lengthy references page, depending on a format you will have to master, or at least grow proficient with the software that manages such things. 

Supporting documents for individual projects tend to refer to honors theses. Among several typical warnings is the excellent suggestion to not overwhelm with the burden of originality. Doing a good balance of writing and research will make you better-informed on a topic than all but a very few people. How you manage that knowledge will be what impresses the few that happen to know more than you. 

On advisors: 

Perhaps as important as the right academic mentors will be your use of advisors because they will have a crucial effect on how the process will go. Anecdotally, students tend to complain about the first advisors but love their advisors once a major has been decided upon. Regardless of the fairness of this tendency, it’s clear that students benefit from directed, individually-focused advice, particularly in larger state school settings. 

On time management:

Across the board, you will have demands on your time even without the massive document you must produce. From an outside perspective, the differences between capstone and non-capstone students is most evident in the ability to get the little things done. Plus, there is no time for messing around. There’s a notable maturity among those that have committed time and effort beyond the basics of the degree. 

If you already tend to be organized, you may be temperamentally fit for the stages of this process. 

Other support:

Most programs have some level of guidance, often in-person writing coaches or tutors to help, even if you are objectively a solid writer. These folks typically provide aid with organization as well, including tackling and organizing the bibliographic materials.While you may have done fine on your own thus far in your academic career, you almost certainly haven’t tackled anything quite this large before. It’s a perfect opportunity to develop the skills involved with asking for help.

Stages:

(Each element here will have parallel sessions with advisors and mentors.)

Preliminary assessment

Research findings and report (of course, depending on the field you are in, this may be especially grueling). If you are in the sciences you will need to assess your technical strengths and limitations, especially if you are likely to conduct experiments or propose scientifically-viable legislation. 

You may in fact be in an arts program with a demanding senior project as well. Your senior showing or performance will be the product of similar guidance and more practice or rehearsal, obviously. Often a question and answer session follows similarly to an oral defense of a capstone. 

Drafting

Later Drafts. You will possibly get advised to outline/draft/rewrite in a particular way that you have avoided up to this point. You probably know your process better than anyone, and you will likely do what has worked so far. Please consider a slightly new way to organize your writing (and thinking) so that you may get the benefit from a different way of organizing your work. The more sophisticated the work, the more downside there is to putting off significant drafting. It’s possible your night-before explosions were more tolerated than impressive. Further, as noted above, you will be expected to be a collaborative partner more than a lone wolf in this process. 

Please note that each school and each program will have very specific rules to maintain. Be fully aware of these and don’t be afraid to clarify any early (or late) muddy issues. 

Your senior thesis, even if you begin the process by loathing the prospect, has the capability to become a cherished memory. First of all, you will have the finished project, which is essentially your final hurdle to receiving a diploma. The project, a product of countless hours of time and effort, is also a testament to your grit and intellect. Beyond that, of course, are the bonds you have created with collaborators and the personal strengths you have developed or gained. Ultimately, like your class ring, your senior thesis will remain a highly prized possession.