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Editorial: The other senior scramble

As most seniors are well aware, the University places a great deal of emphasis on the idea of a senior capstone project — a thesis, independent study, performance, internship or other major undertaking that punctuates a student's four years at Brown. The Dean of the College's website remarks, "Some of the most satisfied graduates at Brown spend a portion of their senior year hard at work on an independent project of their own design." And in August, seniors received two e-mails from Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron encouraging such work. We have no doubt about the value of a senior project or the capability of seniors to do an excellent job. However, we do wonder whether the University's advising system is doing enough prior to senior year to set students up for successful and rewarding experiences.  

The process of arranging to embark on a capstone project can be difficult, and students will likely have questions without obvious answers. Is my idea for a topic something that could feasibly blossom into a piece of serious scholarship? Who in the department would be best to help guide my work? Should I write a traditional thesis or consider some other medium through which to present my project? We imagine that for more than a few seniors, Dean Bergeron's August e-mails touched off a scramble to find some good advice.  

Simply put, pre-project advising must begin as soon as possible. Some departments already do a good job of starting early and shepherding students along. The Department of History, for instance, notes on its website that writing an honors thesis is "normally a three-semester process" that begins with a workshop class taken during junior year. However, we would like to see all departments push concentration advisers to help students with advance planning for capstone projects.   

For starters, concentration advisers should hold office hours in the late spring devoted to junior advisees considering a thesis or other major undertaking the following fall. These office hours could then lead to dialogue over the summer between students and professors, allowing seniors to return to campus with more concrete ideas and get to work right away on substance. Advisers could also encourage students to take a look at recently completed capstone projects and speak to graduating seniors about their experiences over the past year.  

Perhaps the most difficult part of preparing to do a capstone project is finding a unique and doable topic, and we hope all faculty members are constantly keeping an eye out for students who might have stumbled upon a good idea. We've occasionally heard professors remark that a student's question in class merits further investigation, but we'd like to hear it more often. Undergraduates are still relatively new to conducting independent research, and we need as much guidance as possible when it comes to knowing what could be worthwhile.  

The University is providing a lot of support for students who are already working on a capstone project. The University Keystone Project gives seniors a chance to participate in workshops on how to present and communicate their work. And the Theories in Action Conference provides a forum for seniors to showcase their final product. These initiatives are important, but they should be complimented by a renewed focus on helping students through the earliest planning stages of their projects.  


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