Do's and Don'ts of Writing Your Senior Thesis (from someone who's almost done)

In about a week, I'll be defending my thesis on Wuthering Heights. This is one of the biggest projects I've ever completed; and I'm proud of the fact that I managed it. It's been over a year since I whipped up a proposal. It's been a lot of work. In some ways, the whole thing has been tougher than I expected; in other ways, it's been easier. I don't think there's any way to describe what this experience is like; you just have to sit down and do it. When you get to the point that you're dreaming about Emily Bronte, you know it's going to be a long process. Even with one week before my defense, I still feel like I have a lot of work to do. The funny part is that I'm still almost afraid of it. A thesis sounds so grown-up, so intellectual. I sit down at the keyboard and ask my self: "what are you doing? You're not smart enough or old enough to be doing this!" That's when I turn up the radio and drown out that little voice. I don't know if it's just me, or if everyone has these feelings. But I've come up with a list of things I wish I had known or paid more attention to as I wrote my thesis.

1. Make sure you read the handouts from the Registrar and the Coe Catalog; those deadlines sneak up on you very quickly!

 From the very beginning, I had a problem with keeping straight the deadlines for my thesis. I didn't realize I had to turn in a proposal until maybe a week before it was due. There was a girl in my Literary Analysis class in the same situation who decided not to even attempt to write a thesis. After the proposal deadline there's about a year where you don't have to worry about the official deadlines. But it might not be a bad idea to make up your own schedule of what's happening when (whether or not that happens is another story). As the end of your senior year approaches, make sure you look at the guidelines for when your thesis has to be defended and when it has to be turned in to the Library. And remember to leave enough space between those two dates to do some revising in case your committee has a lot of changes they want you to make.

2. Use your time!

 I had the best intentions to do some work on my thesis over the summer before my senior year. Somehow, those three months just ran away before I had a chance to do more than read a couple of books. Then came the fall semester. I had an independent study to work on my thesis, so I felt like I had a lot of time. I was surprised to find out how easy it was to tell myself that I'd work on it later, but then later never arrived. A week would go by and it would be time to meet with my advisor again, but I wouldn't have nearly enough work done. If I'm going to be brutally honest here, I'd say there was a space of four days a week when I'd work like a madwoman to write a chapter or even fifteen pages. The other three days I might pick up a book or read an article, but still thought I had plenty of time later to write. Thinking back, I wish I had the disciple to force myself to sit down and write even three pages at a time.

 Well, if you think that was bad, J-term rolled around. My advisor, Wendy Bashant, went to England, so I really had no one beside myself to keep me going. Not taking any other classes, I left like I had all the time in the world. And my lack of discipline told me it was okay to sleep another half hour or go watch a movie. After a little of this, I realized what I needed was a good, swift kick in the pants to keep moving. Two guys and I decided to form what we dubbed the "Thesis Club." We met every week (well, we tried to) and worked. The agenda was simple: we found an empty classroom where we could talk and write all over the whiteboards. Each week every member would set a personal goal. No one could go home until all three of use had completed our task. There was something about sitting in a room with two other people working that made me more focused. Plus, Andy and Chris were going through the same process and having problems similar to mine. We would talk about our topics and discuss what was causing difficulties. It was like one huge conference...or a support group.

 What I'm trying to say is this: force yourself to write. You can always cut the crap out later. If you're like me, find someone else to be your "thesis buddy." It's like working out; you're always more likely to do it if you have someone to go with you. And when you get stuck, there's someone to help you through the rough spots.

3. Don't beat yourself up for what you should have done!

 Let's face it, it's easy to slack off and not do what you're supposed to--especially as a senior. As long as you get back on track, there's no reason to continually berate yourself for what you could have, should have accomplished. There's more then enough time to work. (Unless you're only halfway done and it's May 1st...then you might want to go talk to your advisor.)

4. Procrastinate effectively!

 One night when I was supposed to be working, I decided to organize the twenty million articles I had on Wuthering Heights into one big binder. I separated them into categories and theories, and then labeled each section. I highlighted important sections and marked in the margins which chapter each pertained to. Next I got a smaller binder and put what I had written in it so I could see what I had done. Finally, I went thought my chapters and spell-checked them. Actually writing went much smoother! All of this killed about an hour and a half. Then it dawned on me that I needed to do some other homework and get some sleep, so I put away the 'ol thesis. At first I left guilty, but then I realized I had actually done something productive. And if you don't agree with me, reread #3, okay?

 I wish I had more words of wisdom for you. But I don't know what kinds of problems you'll run into, or what lies ahead for you and your thesis. This is just what I've learned in the past year. I've loved it and hated it. Wendy once told me that a thesis is like a relationship. At first, everything is new and fun; you love researching and writing--the honeymoon. After a while, your thesis sits there, neglected and taken for granted. You can't sand it anymore and think about throwing it all away--who needs it! It's like the first fight you have with your boyfriend or girlfriend. After you kiss and make up, you find that you can keep working on it; you're even still interested. Sometimes it's the only think you want to work on, ignoring all your other homework and commitments. Then you get to the point where you're almost done. And for some reason, it's kind of sad...for such a long time, this thesis has been a part of your life. But you know that it's over and have to accept it. Just think of the good times you had together and how much you've learned. And while you're finished now, you'll always have the memories.

 In spite of the hard work and the times I wanted to throw my roommate's computer against the wall, I'm glad that I decided to do this. It would have been easy to just opt for the two English seminars or not to graduate with honors. Since I'm a nerd at heart, I've enjoyed the whole process of writing my thesis. I'm sure it will help me tremendously when I go to grad school and have to do even more of this kind of work. But for now, I'm just proud of the work I've done. It's time to stick Wuthering Heights and my thesis on the shelf for while, and maybe pull it out just to impress my parents when they come down for graduation.

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E-mail Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.