Advising Senior Theses

Every thesis writer and thesis project is unique, and arguably the single most important thing that you can do as a thesis adviser is to get to know your student well and to be supportive and attentive as they work towards their spring deadline. The amount of structure that different concentrations offer their students can also have a significant impact on how you think about your role as an adviser. In some cases you may feel like an extension of the department’s undergraduate office, encouraging your student to follow its well-articulated pathway towards completion and nudging your student to heed (albeit perhaps with some discretion) its recommended proposal or draft deadlines. In other cases you may be the one responsible for translating the concentration’s somewhat vague guidelines into an actionable roadmap of recommended thresholds and dates. It’s well worth establishing a healthy line of communication with the concentration’s undergraduate office (and with anyone else involved in advising your student’s academic work) from the start of your advising relationship.

Regardless of the precise structure and obligations surrounding your position as an adviser, there are a number of things which you can do to help just about any student have a meaningful, and successful, experience with the senior thesis. Here are five key contributions which you can make:

Manage expectations

In an ideal world, every student would enter the thesis process fully prepared for every aspect of scholarly work. They all would know how to ask an analytical question suitable for a 60- or 100-page paper, how to find relevant data, how to draw lucid figures, how to format every footnote or methods section, … . Likewise, we might wish that every thesis topic lent itself equally well to the particular constraints of Harvard’s resources and academic calendar. If only that essential cache of Russian manuscripts existed in a published English translation in Widener! If only this experimental protocol took two weeks rather than four months! In reality, however, every thesis involves some compromise—perhaps significant compromise. One of your most important jobs as a thesis adviser is to roleplay your student’s future audience, and to help your student understand that the most successful theses ask questions that are not only meaningful, but that can be answered at least somewhat plausibly by the set of skills, resources, and time that is available to a Harvard undergraduate. Insofar as a student is determined to tackle a dissertation-sized question, the adviser can at least remind the student that it will be important to frame the results as a “partial” answer or a “contribution towards” an answer in the introduction.

Encourage self-knowledge

As with the previous point about managing expectations, it is important that an adviser be able to remind their student that the senior thesis is not, and will not be, the moment when students magically become “better” people than they already are. Students who have been night owls during their first three years of college are unlikely to transform miraculously into the type of scholars who rise at 6am and write 1000 words before breakfast—no matter how much they yearn to emulate some academic role model. Students who have participated actively in a sport or other extracurricular are unlikely to be able to simply recoup those hours for thesis work—cutting back three hours/week at The Crimson is at least as likely to translate into three more hours spent bantering in the dining hall as it is into three hours spent poring over the administrative structure of the Byzantine Empire. The point is that students can benefit from being reminded that they already know how to do the kind of work expected of them on the thesis, and that it may be counterproductive—if not downright unhealthy—to hold themselves to new or arbitrary standards.

Motivate to start writing early

With relatively few exceptions, most of the writing projects assigned in college are sufficiently modest that students can wait to start writing until they have figured out the full arc of what they want to say and how they want to say it. It’s possible, in other words, to plan and hold the entirety of a five-page essay in one’s head. This is simply not true of a senior thesis. Theses require the author to take a leap of faith—to start writing before the research is done and long before they know exactly what they want to say. Students may be reluctant to do this, fearing that they might “waste” precious time drafting a section of a chapter that ultimately doesn’t fit in the final thesis. You can do your student a world of good by reminding them that there is no such thing as wasted writing. In a project as large as a thesis, writing is not merely about reporting one’s conclusions—it is the process through which students come to figure out what their conclusions might be, and which lines of research they will need to pursue to get there.

Model strategies

While academic research and writing can and should be a creative endeavor, it is also undeniably true that even professional scholars draw upon a relatively constrained set of well-known strategies when framing their work. How many different ways, after all, are there to say that the conventional wisdom on a topic has ignored a certain genre of evidence? Or that two competing schools of thought actually agree more than they disagree? Or that fiddling with one variable has the power to reframe an entire discussion? Students may struggle to see how to plug their research into the existing scholarly conversation around their topic. Showing them models or templates that demystify the ways in which scholars frame their interventions can be enormously powerful.

Keep contact and avoid the "shame spiral"

As noted above, the senior thesis is a long process, and while it’s rarely a good idea for students to change their work habits in an effort to complete it, it is important that they be working early and often. Occasionally students do become overwhelmed by the scope of the project, and begin to feel defeated by the incremental nature of progress they are making. Even a good week of work may yield only a couple of pages of passable writing. Ideally a student feeling overwhelmed would come to their adviser for some help putting things into perspective. But for a student used to having a fair amount of success, the struggles involved in a senior thesis may be disorienting, and they may worry that they are “disappointing” you. For some, this will manifest as a retreat from your deadlines and oversight—even as they outwardly project confidence. They may begin bargaining with themselves in ways that only serve to sink them deeper into a sense of panic or shame. (“I’m long past the deadline for my first ten pages—but if I give my adviser a really brilliant fifteen-page section, he won’t mind! Surely I can turn these four pages into fifteen if I stay up all night!”) One of the best things that you can do as an adviser is keep contact with your student and make sure to remind them that your dynamic is not one of “approval” or “disapproval.” It is important that they maintain a healthy and realistic approach to the incremental process of completing the thesis over several months.