Corvese ’15: Is an honors thesis right for you?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

There’s nothing quite like April at Brown, which brings increasingly warmer weather, leisurely afternoons on the Main Green and the countdown to Spring Weekend. But we cannot forget about the less glamorous scenes appearing around campus: hordes of seniors racing to finish their honors thesis projects.

The word thesis connotes numerous meanings: stacks of books, SciLi all-nighters, sweatpants. The end of the process also ushers in new beginnings. As seniors print and bind their honors theses, juniors start to consider if they want to design and undertake their own year-long project.

While the surface-level stress can give other students an idea of what the thesis entails, the wide range of emotions accompanying the process are much less visible: from desperation to elation, from boundless procrastination to working without end. The process can be empowering, but at times, it can be demoralizing.

Writing a thesis can have many outcomes, and the task is more personal than practical. For that reason, prospective writers should seriously consider if a thesis is the right choice.

Unlike a dissertation, people will not call you “doctor” once you finish your thesis. Instead, you gain a single revealing word: honors. While the term can be an ego boost, Brown does not seem to care for this linguistic distinction. On the Dean of the College’s page with information about University honors, the University recommends that students place “greater weight on the act of learning than on external marks of success.”

That doesn’t mean that Brown thinks all merit is worthless. The page also lists the faculty-nominated Dean of the College’s Distinguished Senior Thesis Award for a students who conduct “exemplary” theses, which then awards $500 to top projects across concentrations.  Still, in the spirit of our liberal arts educations, shouldn’t we be working out of passion for our discipline and not for the promise of a check?

Though passion can be a reason for starting a thesis, it is not always the defining factor. The reasons for pursuing the thesis in the first place may be muddled — and they can get even murkier come April’s final stretch.

Completing an honors thesis feels like a culmination of the bizarre culture of obligation that engulfs higher education. At our orientation activities fair, we signed up for every student group imaginable. Some of us attended less-than-fun general body meetings for countless clubs since we had no clue what else to do — or since we felt like we had to. And here we are now, seniors spending our final nights at Brown in the stacks because we felt that our education should end with writing a really long paper.

This is not to say that there are no tangible results from writing a thesis. Writing a thesis might just be a matter of turning results from previous research or lab work into a paper. Exceptional work is likely to be published in academic journals. Some projects even have the potential to advance the knowledge of a discipline.

But at the other end of the post-thesis spectrum comes the fear that it will end up as little more than a unique conversation topic, possibly in the form of the witty, summarizing statements found on the Tumblr “lol my thesis.” For example, a thesis entitled “Processing and functional diversity of plant microRNA” is reduced to “RNA is made of and done stuff” — a comical reduction of a massive project that may be amusing for some but frustrating for others.

The value of the title “honors” must also be called into question. On one hand, it designates exemplary work and an exceptional academic feat. I am confident that the pride my peers and I feel upon completion of our theses will be grand and unprecedented.

But the emotional satisfaction of completing a thesis may not be enough for some — which might prove difficult when a prospective employer cares more about internships and skills than a little word next to one’s degree. While there is no right or wrong way to approach writing a thesis, we should deeply consider the values and priorities of our educational experiences.

Despite all of these concerns, one fact is certain: Writing a thesis is a deeply personal experience. You immerse yourself in a body of knowledge, borrowing bits and pieces to synthesize something new. You read books and journal articles until the words bleed together. You realize you don’t understand anything. You soar with glee when you can finally make sense of the results. Whether or not your conclusions are groundbreaking, you can step away from work resulting from months of rigorous discipline and say, “I did that.”

That process isn’t for everyone. In order to streamline and elucidate this decision for underclassmen, advisors and deans should provide more accessible and detailed information on what goes into writing a thesis besides choosing an advisor and meeting deadlines. Perhaps testimonials from current and previous thesis writers would be helpful. Regardless, all students would benefit if their understanding of writing an honors theses included more than doing research and staying up late.

Overall, was writing a thesis worth it? I’m not sure yet. But I am sure that I’ve grown in ways I didn’t think were possible. To my fellow seniors who have already handed in their manuscripts, I wish you congratulations! And to the rest of us: We’re almost there.

Gabriella Corvese ’15 wrote this instead of working on her thesis and can be reached at

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