Senior Theses

Doing a senior thesis is an exciting enterprise. It’s often the first time students are engaging in truly original research and trying to develop a significant contribution to a field of inquiry. But as joyful as an independent research process can be, you don’t have to go it alone. It’s important to have support as you navigate such a large endeavor, and the ARC is here to offer one of those layers of support.

Whether or not to write a senior thesis is just the first in a long line of questions thesis writers need to consider. In addition to questions about the topic and scope of your thesis, there are questions about timing, schedule, and support. For example, if you are collecting data, when should data collection start and when should it be completed? What kind of schedule will you write on? How will you work with your adviser? Do you want to meet with your adviser about your progress once a month? Once a week? What other resources can you turn to for information, feedback, and support?

Even though there is a lot to think about and a lot to do, doing a thesis really can be an enjoyable experience! Keep reminding yourself why you chose this topic and why you care about it.

Tips for Tackling Big Projects:

Break the process down into manageable chunks.

  • When you’re approaching a big project, it can seem overwhelming to look at the whole thing at once, so it’s essential to identify the smaller steps that will move you towards the completed project.
  • Your adviser is best suited to help you break down the thesis process with field-specific advice.
  • If you need to refine the breakdown further so it makes sense for you, schedule an appointment with an Academic Coach. An academic coach can help you think through the steps in a way that works for you.

Schedule brief writing sessions at regular times.

  • Pre-determine the time, place, and duration.
  • Keep it short (15 to 60 minutes).
  • Have a clear and reasonable goal for each writing session.
  • Make it a regular event (every day, every other day, MWF).
  • There are many good reasons to put brief writing sessions into your regular schedule; here are just a few:
    • time is not wasted deciding to write if it’s already in your calendar;
    • keeping sessions short reduces the competition from other tasks that are not getting done;
    • having an achievable goal for each session provides a sense of accomplishment (a reward for your work);
    • writing regularly can turn into a productive habit.

Create accountability structures.

  • In addition to having a clear goal for each writing session, it's important to have clear goals for each week and to find someone to communicate these goals to, such as your adviser, a “thesis buddy,” your roommate, etc. Communicating your goals and progress to someone else creates a useful sense of accountability.
  • If your adviser is not the person you are communicating your progress to on a weekly basis, then request to set up a structure with your adviser that requires you to check in at less frequent but regular intervals.
  • Commit to attending Accountability Hours at the ARC on the same day every week. Making that commitment will add both social support and structure to your week. Use the ARC Scheduler to register for Accountability Hours.
  • Set up an accountability group in your department or with thesis writers from different departments.

Create feedback structures.

  • It’s important to have a means for getting consistent feedback on your work and to get that feedback early. Work on large projects often lacks the feeling of completeness, so don’t wait for a whole section (and certainly not the whole thesis) to feel “done” before you get feedback on it!
  • Your thesis adviser is typically the person best positioned to give you feedback on your research and writing, so communicate with your adviser about how and how often you would like to get feedback.
  • If your adviser isn’t able to give you feedback with the frequency you’d like, then fill in the gaps by creating a thesis writing group or exploring if there is already a writing group in your department or lab.
  • The Harvard College Writing Center is a great resource for thesis feedback. Writing Center Senior Thesis Tutors can provide feedback on the structure, argument, and clarity of your writing and help with mapping out your writing plan. Visit the Writing Center website to schedule an appointment with a thesis tutor.

Accept that there will be some anxious moments.

  • Working on a big project can be anxiety provoking because it’s hard to keep all the pieces in your head and you might feel like you are losing track of your argument.
    • To reduce this source of anxiety, try keeping a separate document where you jot down ideas on how your research questions or central argument might be clarifying or changing as you research and write. Doing this will enable you to stay focused on the section you are working on and to stop worrying about forgetting the new ideas that are emerging.
  • You might feel anxious when you realize that you need to update your argument in response to the evidence you have gathered or the new thinking your writing has unleashed. Know that that is OK. Research and writing are iterative processes – new ideas and new ways of thinking are what makes progress possible.
  • It’s also anxiety provoking to feel like you can’t “see” from the beginning to the end of your project in the way that you are used to with smaller projects.
    • Breaking down big projects into manageable chunks and mapping out a schedule for working through each chunk is one way to reduce this source of anxiety. It’s reassuring to know you are working towards the end even if you cannot quite see how it will turn out.
  • It may be that your thesis or dissertation never truly feels “done” to you, but that’s okay. Academic inquiry is an ongoing endeavor.

Focus on what works for you.

  • Thesis work is not a time for social comparison; each project is different and, as a result, each thesis writer is going to work differently.
    • Just because your roommate wrote 10 pages in a day doesn’t mean that’s the right pace or strategy for you.
  • If you are having trouble figuring out what works for you, use the ARC Scheduler to make an appointment with an Academic Coach, who can help you come up with daily, weekly, and semester-long plans.

Use your resources.

  • There’s a lot of the thesis writing process that has to be done independently, but there are also a lot of free resources at Harvard to help you do the work.
  • If you’re having trouble finding a source, email your question or set up a research consult via Ask a Librarian.
  • If you’re looking for additional feedback or help with any aspect of writing, contact the Harvard College Writing Center. The Writing Center has Senior Thesis Tutors who will read drafts of your thesis (more typically, parts of your thesis) in advance and meet with you individually to talk about structure, argument, clear writing, and mapping out your writing plan.
  • If you need help with breaking down your project or setting up a schedule for the week, the semester, or until the deadline, use the ARC Scheduler to make an appointment with an Academic Coach.
  • If you would like an accountability structure for social support and to keep yourself on track, come to Accountability Hours at the ARC.

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