The summer before my senior year, I swore to myself I wouldn’t write a senior thesis. I wanted to spend my final year at Brown making the most of my classes and activities — not stressing over a random 40+ page research paper I had no interest in writing. When I returned to campus in the fall semester, however, all my friends could talk about were their thesis abstracts and research progress and upcoming deadlines. It seemed like no matter whom I spoke with, nearly every senior I knew was doing a thesis. Naturally, I started to feel left out and began to wonder if I was making a mistake…
A few weeks into school, someone asked me why I wasn’t doing a thesis of my own. “Well, I’m a Hispanic Studies concentrator. It would have to be 50 pages in a foreign language,” I explained, trying to defend myself. It was true. Both the length and language requirement were big deterrents for me, among others like the tight deadlines and excessive reading. In response, they asked me why I couldn’t just have my advisor edit my grammatical mistakes. “It can’t be that hard, right?” they asked.
I hate to admit it, but I let this condescending comment get to me. The very next day, two weeks before the thesis abstract deadline, I ran to my departmental advisor, panicking and asking if it wasn’t too late. Believe it or not, I had actually been guilt-tripped into writing a senior thesis. This is problematic and far too common: Even at a school that claims to promote unique and personal academic paths, too many of us end up conforming, undertaking the biggest project of our college careers for all the wrong reasons.
I’m sure that there are many students who choose to write them out of pure passion and interest. But when it comes to senior theses, this prioritization of reputation (or even competition) over interest is not atypical. Among highly motivated and overachieving Ivy League students, it’s inevitable that there are going to be people writing a thesis solely for its value on a transcript or the “honors” status on a diploma. As a result, it’s almost certain that there will be peer pressure to write one. In fact, as I’ve experienced first-hand, there seems to be an academic and social stigma surrounding seniors who choose not to write a thesis or do some sort of research-related equivalent.
But what I’ve learned about thesis writing through my experience is that it has nothing to do with reputation or ability. Every Brown student is perfectly capable of doing a thesis, but that doesn’t mean they have to do one. In fact, in order to get the most out of a thesis and complete it to the best of your ability, the most important thing is not how smart you are — it’s how passionate you are about the specific topic of your thesis.
I was lucky: Despite my initial misplaced motivations, I ended up — in the last waking moment before the abstract deadline hit — stumbling across a topic that fascinated me. Had I not, I doubt the hours of researching, writing and revising would have been worthwhile. The bulk of the work may be reading articles and writing an analytical paper, but passion and interest are what make the final product so rewarding. Without passion, thesis writing becomes an unbearable chore that takes away from the valuable last months of college with only a superficial benefit. As my research comes to an end, I can proudly say that I have gotten so much more out of the experience than just the word “honors” written on my diploma. I’ve uncovered important parts of my family history and learned how to connect themes from a variety of my department’s classes, both of which have enriched and culminated my Brown experience.
Ultimately, I started my thesis for the wrong reasons, and ended up discovering a true motivation and passion for my work. But I don’t recommend taking this route. Before setting out to write a thesis, genuinely consider the reasons why you’re doing it and if you actually care about the topic at hand. A thesis can be of great value to students when they are driven by interest and curiosity, but if they are writing one solely to gain recognition or prove themselves, it is simply a stressful and meaningless research project. If you truly don’t have a topic that enthralls you, don’t feel pressured to write a thesis. There are other satisfying ways to cap off your time at Brown, like picking up an extra class that captivates you or completing an alternative capstone project. By the time we reach senior year, we have had three full years to craft our academic paths and identities. Drawing upon this experience, we should work to be confident enough in our identities as students to make the best choice without succumbing to outside influence.
Samantha Savello ’18 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.