In some departments, as many as one-third of the students who begin the laborious process of writing a senior thesis don’t finish, while other concentrations see virtually no attrition. Though most administrators and students agree that thesis writers need strong relationships with their advisers in order to complete the project, it is unclear whether the pre-thesis seminars required in some departments or the extra layers of advising in others help students write theses.
‘It wasn’t worth the stress’
The Department of Economics has seen an uncharacteristically high amount of thesis attrition this year — 11 of the 33 students who began the process have now dropped out, said Sriniketh Nagavarapu, assistant professor of economics and the honors and awards adviser for the department.
“This year, we wanted to make it easier for people to do an honors thesis,” he said. The department offered a new fall course for thesis writers that was meant to be a “forum for students to develop their ideas,” to help them learn about economic research and find an adviser.
“Because the course was offered, there were a lot of people who took it,” Nagavarapu said. Normally only about 10 students attempt honors theses, and all of them finish, he added.
“They didn’t realize necessarily what they were getting into,” he said of the students who dropped, particularly because many of them lacked the statistics background they would need to complete the thesis.
In response to the high attrition rate, the department is offering a new, “strongly suggested” course this spring for juniors to introduce them to economics research, Nagavarapu said. So far, 21 students have signed up, he said.
The honors program in the Department of International Relations has a comparably high attrition rate, Assistant Director and Concentration Advisor for International Relations Claudia Elliott PhD’99 wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. Despite a relatively rigorous application process — including a research proposal submitted junior year and course performance requirements — about one-fourth to one-third of the students accepted into the honors program drop out, she wrote. About half of these students decide not to write theses before they start senior year.
The department added new advising and support systems for concentrators in 2007.
Thesis writers in international relations do not take a preparatory junior seminar.
Caitlin Feehery ’10, who three weeks ago decided not to complete her biology thesis, said that her department and adviser did everything possible to support her and keep her in the program.
“I think I wasn’t fully aware of what I’d have to do,” Feehery said. After completing research in an evolutionary and developmental biology lab, she discovered that she would need to learn computer programming and computational biology in order to synthesize all of her data.
“It would have involved doing a lot of extra learning in a very short period of time,” she said.
“I just decided it wasn’t worth the stress.”
‘Wide and varied topic’
Thesis attrition is rare in biology, according to Marjorie Thompson, associate dean of biological sciences.
“Almost 100 percent of our concentrators who file for honors do complete,” Thompson wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.
The biology department has no pre-thesis seminar for juniors.
“I think it would be kind of difficult to tailor it to our needs, because they’re so different,” said Michael Yokell ’10, a human biology concentrator. He said that while the department did not tell students how to proceed if their thesis research did not confirm their original hypothesis, he did not think a junior seminar would have helped him with his thesis.
Tyler Lucero ’10, who is double concentrating in geological sciences and history but will write a geology thesis, echoed Yokell when he said that a junior seminar on research methods would not have been useful to him.
“Geology is such a broad system,” he said. He thought that because students do such varied work within the department, a single course could not easily “address all the kinds of skills that might be needed” for the different types of research.
Development studies is a similarly “wide and varied topic,” according to concentrator Claire Williams ’10, but she said that the seminar she was required to take last year for her thesis was “really helpful.”
Getting feedback from someone with different research interests and backgrounds in the seminar helped Williams improve her research methods and writing, she said, especially when she had “moral and ethical questions.”
All development studies concentrators are required to write theses, though only students who write exceptional papers are nominated for honors.
Environmental studies concentrators also face a thesis requirement, though students graduating after this year will be able to choose between a series of capstone projects and papers. The department will continue to require that its concentrators take a spring course, intended for juniors, with a syllabus emphasizing methods of collecting and analyzing data in order to complete group research projects and prepare an individual research proposal.
“Ideally, you make the proposal this spring for the thesis you’ll write in the fall,” said Noah Fisher GS, who assists Professor of Sociology J. Timmons Roberts in teaching the course.
Patti Caton ’92 MA’02, the administrative manager for the Center for Environmental Studies, said that when the thesis was required, she only knew of two students who could not complete it and therefore dropped their environmental studies concentration.
“I honestly don’t see that happening,” Caton said of students leaving the honors track in order to write a standard, less demanding senior thesis. She said that of the 22 environmental studies concentrators who graduated in 2009, all 13 of the students who intended to complete honors theses did so.
“We have a lot of support for our thesis here,” Caton said, emphasizing the “close interaction” students have with their advisors and frequent, department-wide deadlines.
A community for concentrators
The Department of History will also change its requirements for seniors next year. Its junior research methods seminar will no longer be required, though Professor of History Ken Sacks expects that most prospective thesis-writers will still enroll.
Sacks, who has taught the course in the past, said that it helps students determine their interests and identify professors with whom they can collaborate to complete research.
“It is extremely rare that anyone drops,” he said of seniors who begin writing theses. But he estimated that two or three students out of the 25 who enroll in the junior seminar decide not to begin the project.
The junior research seminar helped history concentrator Evan Pelz ’11 commit to a topic and decide how to go about his research, he wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.
“First and foremost, the class forced me to think about my history classes at Brown and specific interests, and solidify what I want to write about,” wrote Pelz. He added that the class “provided a great community” for history concentrators.
Williams said that her development studies seminar also provided peer support and camaraderie that made the process much more manageable.
Sacks said that the history department will closely monitor the success rates for senior honors theses over the next few years, once the requirements change.
In the past, the honors program has been self-selecting, and students who cannot put in the time and effort required to write theses do not usually begin them.
“A senior thesis is a sacrifice,” said Sacks. “It is agony.”
“Your senior year gets very busy,” said Jordi Torres ’10, a comparative literature concentrator doing a literary t
ranslation for his senior thesis. He said that the paper “can become a really unmanageable burden.”
For Feehery, that burden just “wouldn’t be worth it.”
Already accepted into a graduate program, she did not see the point of putting too much effort into research she “wasn’t all that interested in doing.”
“I don’t have to really pad my resume anymore,” she said. “It’s definitely not the end of the world.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Department of Economics had instituted a summer course for rising seniors interested in writing theses. In fact, the course is being offered this spring to juniors. The Herald regrets the error.