Writing a thesis is a large responsibility. That is why during junior year, many students spend a lot of time weighing the pros and cons and deciding whether or not it is worth it to them to do it. A thesis signifies something different for each major. The typical image of a thesis is a really big paper. For some majors it also involves lot of lab or field-work. Some theses take a whole year and others only take spring semester plus winter study. The number of students doing theses in each of the last five years has ranged from roughly 90 to 140. Based on winter study registration, the number for this year was 108.
One reason for tackling a thesis would be to graduate from Williams with honors. Although this is a nice quirk, most students write them for reasons other then academic prestige. “The decision for me sprang partly from a desire to continue to engage material in the setting of academic freedom that I learned to love at Oxford,” said Nat Roland ’99 who wrote a thesis on political theory this year. He was introduced to some authors that he had not read at Williams and wanted to continue studying them independently.
Jon Kravis ’99 also found an author that really intrigued him. He has known he wanted to study Kierkegaard more deeply ever since he first read one of his works in Religion 101. Kravis had another important reason for wanting to write a thesis. “I was very excited about the opportunity to work with Profs. Taylor and Fleischacker who are both very, very smart,” he said.
The personal challenge is critical in some students’ decisions. Rebecca Atkinson ’00 has decided to write a geology thesis next year. For her, the more she is challenged, the harder she knows she will work. “College is about challenging yourself and taking advantage of everything it has to offer, especially academically,” she said. She is also noted that prospect of hands-on, summer fieldwork appealed to her.
Once the process of writing begins, students are sometimes surprised by what it actually turns out to be like. “I have perhaps learned more than I expected to learn. I did not realize that what I learned writing my thesis would carry over as much as it has into other aspects of my academic life and life in general,” said Roland. Kravis did not expect that most of the reward from his thesis would not come from finishing it, but from the process of writing it.
A good advisor can be key to having a successful experience writing a thesis. An advisor is a professor in the major who guides students along in the process and sometimes works along with them. “Choose your advisor carefully, not only on the basis of what he or she knows about the proposed topic, but also on the basis of that person’s personality and advising style,” recommended Roland. Regardless of how much a professor has to offer in terms of expertise, if the student and the professor cannot work well together, the process will be much more of a struggle.
Kravis agreed with Roland, finding the advisor choice to be particularly important in the humanities and social sciences. “My advisors were brilliant and demanding and willing to make time to work with me,” he said.
Possibly the most difficult aspect of writing a thesis is the time commitment. Particularly as it gets down to crunch time, other time commitments have to be sacrificed to the thesis. Tara Crowley ’99 decided against writing a thesis next year for this exact reason. She runs track, tutors at the elementary school and does community service, among other things. “Although I know that there are great benefits and rewards, I don’t think that I would be able to do it justice since I have other commitments that I don’t want to give up or not give enough time to,” She said. Tara has decided to do independent research with one of her professors instead.
Roland had a busy first semester because he was a TA and involved in the process of applying to law school. Balancing everything was difficult. “I am glad I did it, although I wish I would have been better at the beginning of the year about keeping on schedule with my research and writing,” he said. The thesis is an independent project, so it takes a lot of self-discipline.
The decision to write a thesis is a very personal one, and it is not for everyone. Kravis believes that being passionate about the subject is key. “If you haven’t found a topic that grabs you â€“ and there is nothing wrong with not finding one â€“ then a thesis is probably going to be more of a hassle than a pleasure,” he said. He added that if you do have an idea “that tugs on at the back of your mind when you are supposed to be doing work for other classes” and you are willing to make the big commitment, then a thesis might be 100 percent worth it. He also pointed out that a thesis can give students a glimpse into what academic life is really like and help them to decide whether that is what they want for the future.