Number of seniors writing theses rises across the academic spectrum

The number of senior honors thesis students this year rose across the academic spectrum, particularly in the English and studio art departments. 22 seniors are currently carrying out theses in English, a dramatic increase from five last year, and 11 students are creating studio art theses, an increase from last year’s honors pool of two students.

“This year’s seniors seem to be a very hard working and active group,” Steven Levin, associate professor of art said.

Large numbers of seniors are involved in honors theses in the science disciplines as well. Approximately 30 percent of senior biology majors did honors research last year, and equally high numbers are working on projects this year.

“More and more students are majoring in the sciences,” said Amish Shah ’00, chemistry major. “I like to say on my college tours that the Williams science faculty…are the strongest in the country in comparison to other liberal arts colleges, and I’m glad more and more students are finally taking advantage of them. We have thNumber of seniors writing theses rises across the academic spectrume resources—let the students challenge themselves.”

The process of researching and writing an honors thesis is a long procedure. Students lay most of the groundwork for their senior theses in their junior year, coming up with an initial idea on which they want to work, writing a brief proposal and then finding a faculty member to advise and sponsor them. During senior year students write a more in-depth proposal and begin to set and work towards their deadlines. Students often are required to begin their research the summer between junior and senior year and to continue their work during Winter Study.

Students and faculty see a variety of factors causing the higher numbers of and interest in honors theses.

Passion for a specific subject or issue often pushes students to want to do a thesis.

“If you have an idea, something that really interests you that you’d really like to explore in depth, and that is what compels you into doing a thesis, that’s the best secret,” professor of English and chair of the English department Christopher Pye said.

Combined with this intense interest should be a sense of motivation. “You have to have a personality who wants to work intensely and independently,” assistant professor of economics Jill Constantine, said.

Students may do theses to explore the options of graduate school or careers as a professor or researcher.

“I think too few people know what doing actual graduate or post-graduate type research is like, particularly in the sciences,” math major Virginia Pyle ’00 said. “We have lectures and labs, and sometimes our labs and our problem sets are extremely challenging, but they almost always have answers. Research, especially math research, is a whole new ball game. Things go wrong all the time. I can rarely see what I should do next, or even when I see the way I want things to work out, I have a hard time getting myself there. It’s an extremely frustrating experience, [but] it’s one that I think is good for me to gain insight into before I decide whether I want to go to math graduate school and do research for the rest of my life.”

Senior theses, particularly science research, can give students an added edge when applying to graduate school as well.

“I know that there are a lot of senior psychology majors this year who are very interested in graduate school, and there is definitely an admission advantage if you have done serious research, namely a thesis,” psychology major Stephen Gray ’00 said.

Personal contact with a faculty member is also an instrumental factor as large class size looms as an issue over the College.

“One of the drawbacks of a big major is that it can be a little less individual sometimes,” Pye said. “[An honors thesis] may be a way to get an individual exchange that could be harder with a bigger department.”

The relationship that develops between student and professor is a special and valuable experience.

“I think students realize what a wonderful asset and presence in their lives the faculty can be. I didn’t want to miss out on a chance to work one on one with a professor, who had already had a profound influence on my career here at Williams,” Pyle said, who is working with professor of math Colin Adams.

Although requiring many sleepless nights of reading, research and typing, seniors relish their opportunity to do an honors thesis.

“The opportunity to conduct original, independent research was for me one of the most appealing reasons to be a science major at Williams,” Shah said. “My summer research internships have been some of the most intellectually engaging pursuits of my life. An honors thesis was therefore a natural choice for my senior year mainly because it afforded me a full year with which to pursue such research.”