As Professor of History Ken Sacks told The Herald last week, writing a senior thesis "is agony." Indeed, in some departments a stunning one-third of students who begin the process drop out. The Herald's recent report on thesis attrition should signal to all departments that they might want to take another look at how they're preparing students for the thesis-writing process.
Most students sign up to write a thesis without knowing what to expect. This is particularly true in data-oriented fields. In the Department of Economics, most students who dropped their theses this year did so because they discovered they did not have the statistics skills necessary for data analysis. In one particularly awkward case, a biology concentrator told The Herald that she dropped her thesis because she realized — only after completing her research — that she would need to learn both computer programming and computational biology in order to run the numbers.
Students have an obligation to prepare themselves for some aspects of the thesis process. They must come up with an interesting and relevant topic and be ready for laborious research, tight deadlines and long hours in the library. But the University has an obligation to give students the tools they need to complete their research. It is counterproductive to usher students through the thesis-writing process when they do not have the skills they need to finish. It is also unfair to students, who may sink time and resources into a project only to find that they are unable to see it through.
Some departments could take a lot of agony out of the thesis process simply by clarifying statistics requirements. Departments like psychology, economics, political science and sociology already require concentrators to take a statistics class, but the basic statistics courses that meet the requirement do not necessarily give students the tools to analyze real data. Data-oriented departments should require thesis writers to take a more rigorous statistics class before senior year. In departments where concentrators can choose from several courses to fulfill the statistics requirement, advisors should be clear early on about which course is a prerequisite for writing a thesis.
All departments should also make more of an effort to introduce students to the thesis-writing process before they embark on their research. Thesis classes for seniors provide morale-boosting camaraderie and some guidance during the research and writing phases, but much of this comes too late. Students should know what they're getting into before they even pick a research focus. A thorough understanding of what goes into academic research in a given field will help students decide whether they want to pursue a thesis. An introduction to research methods and current research themes will also help students come up with viable topics for undergraduate projects.
A number of departments, such as Development Studies and Environmental Studies, offer a thesis preparation class for juniors. Other departments should do the same. And the Department of History, which will make its junior thesis class optional next year, should make sure students who do not enroll still begin the thesis-writing process with realistic expectations.
Let's not forget that, even for students who come in prepared, writing a thesis is hard work. To all you seniors who are typing away in the Rockefeller Library — keep sticking it out, spring break is only four days away.
Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.