Remember the good old days of college, when the most important decisions you had to make were things like what classes to take, who to sit by on the first day and whether or not to blow off your psych lecture… again? Alright, so maybe the early years had a bit more weight than that, but when you have to decide whether or not to write an honors thesis, those decisions seem like child’s play.
Now, you face a new, more daunting question: Do you want to dedicate much of your final year in college to grueling hours of research and writing a lengthy project of your own devising? Depending on your school, the details of what your honors thesis will entail might differ, but typically, honors theses are long papers on an original research topic related to your major. Usually, on top of this, students will have to present and defend their findings to a panel. The bottom line? No matter which school you attend, the process is going to be both tough and rewarding.
So if you’re going back and forth on whether to take on an honors thesis, check out our tips on making sure it’s really for you.
Good reasons to write an honors thesis
There are plenty of reasons to write an honors thesis, but let’s be real – some are better than others. Or, more specifically, some are more likely to lead to success than others. If you don’t want to crash and burn while working on your thesis, here are some reasons to write one that you should listen to.
Repeat after me: you have to be interested in your thesis. You have to be interested in your thesis! Taking on a thesis when you’re not passionate or curious about the subject matter will turn the process into an unbearable chore. Chances are, your shoulders will already be piled high with obligations you’re not excited about – last-minute classes you need to take in order to graduate, the dreaded job search, grad school applications… the list goes on. The last thing you need is another project (especially one so large) that makes you groan.
Instead, look at your honors thesis as a way to pursue something you’re curious about. As a project of your own devising, you’ll have the power to make it more exciting and catered to your interests than many of your previous projects.
“Simply put, you will be smarter,” says Gary Alan Miller, the former senior assistant dean of academic advising at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The depth of work required will truly help you process your world differently.”
Developing skills for after graduation
We’ve all heard of the elusive post-grad “real world” and have joked about how college has left us woefully unprepared for it. Honors theses are a great way to cultivate some skills you might actually use after graduation so you can at feel more prepared.
“While it can vary greatly from project to project, I think the number one skill one can develop during an honors thesis is critical analysis,” says Miller. “Of course, a thesis should also hone your writing skills. But one might also use creativity to discover your topic, networking skills to interact with people who can help and, of course, research skills in developing the work.”
Not to mention, you’ll have hard proof of your abilities to work independently on long-term projects, and what employer doesn’t want to see that?
Even if these skill sets seem particular to some majors and future careers more than others, Miller stresses that a common error in thinking about honors theses is that your major should be a large deciding factor in your decision-making process. In his opinion, students in every major should consider the possibility of writing one.
“One of the great advantages of the university is the generation of knowledge, and there are interesting topics to be explored across all disciplines,” he says. “While there may be some fields that students associate with an honors thesis more than others, it is a misconception that there is more benefit or appropriateness for them.”
Developing a relationship with a professor
If you’re lucky, by now you have at least one professor who you’ve gotten to know outside the classroom. It can be tough, especially with big lecture classes, but it can be done. Writing an honors thesis provides the unique opportunity to take these relationships one step further.
“It was kind of impossible for my adviser and me to not to become friends,” says Beatrice Kim, who recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in psychology. “He coached me through my panic and crisis of wanting to change research topics, and was really a mentor to me.”
You’ll be working one-on-one with your faculty adviser, and chances are, you’ll come out with an even stronger relationship and a mentor whose help will extend past your graduation. That was definitely the case for Beatrice, who scored a job on her faculty adviser’s recommendation.
But don’t just think of the post-grad benefits of this relationship. Having a strong relationship with your faculty adviser will likely enrich your research experience, provide invaluable mentorship and give you an excuse to pick the brain of talented and intelligent professors.
“I am working with one of my favorite professors,” says Rachel Markon, a Northwestern University senior currently pursuing her honors thesis in history. “I was in a class with him last winter and it was the best history class I’ve taken. His work isn’t exactly in what I’m writing about, but it’s within the same concentration, and he’s so generally good at teaching and thinking that I wanted to work with him regardless. It was stressful to ask, but it ended up being great.”
Bad reasons to write an honors thesis
Like we said, there are plenty of reasons to pursue an honors thesis—but not all of them are good. Hint: if the following are the only reasons why you want to write a thesis, you might want to consider your priorities.
Admittedly, the fantasy is a good one. You spend your senior year working diligently on your honors thesis, and the end product is an impressive, 30-page paper that you will be able to brag about at dinner parties to future employers and to potential partners alike. Your research, so impressive and thorough, will be noticed by prominent scholars in your field, and next thing you know, you’re doing presentations, talking on panels, getting quoted in books—
Alright, alright. It all sounds good, but unfortunately, very rarely is the incentive of that fantasy about enough to keep you motivated all year. It might be a warm thought on a particularly rough night that will keep you chugging along, but without personal passion in the topic itself, it won’t be enough to keep your honors thesis afloat.
Beatrice learned that the hard way. “I picked a thesis that I had no interest in because I wanted something that sounded impressive,” she says. “I wound up having to switch halfway through because I just couldn’t get myself to do it. In the end, my thesis was something I was actually passionate about, but I really wish I had picked it from the beginning.”
You feel like it’s expected
Maybe you don’t want to write an honors thesis, but there is pressure for you to do so. Whether you feel like all of your classmates in your major are pursuing an honors thesis and you should too, your parents are breathing down your neck about the prestige or even a professor keeps less-than-subtly encouraging you to take one on, it can be hard to say no.
Sure, we all learned to say no to peer pressure forever ago, but sometimes, turning your back on an extra work can make you feel like your time at school was less than a success. Don’t let it. Choosing to write an honors thesis should be your decision and no one else’s, so don’t be afraid to just say no. All the peer pressure in the world won’t be enough to push you through to the end if you don’t want to do it.
Is writing an honors thesis for you?
Okay, so you’ve done some soul-searching and decided that you want to write an honors thesis. There are still things to consider:
Do you have the time and energy to put into such a project?
We’re not kidding when we say an honors thesis will be a huge time suck, so make sure you consider your schedule and your other goals you have for senior year. You might have to make some sacrifices to fit it in, so think carefully. Your schedule isn’t going to magically expand to accommodate a large project just because you really, really want it to.
Do you have the faculty connections?
While growing close to your faculty adviser is a great perk of writing an honors thesis, you’ll need someone to fill that role so it can happen. Make approaching a professor or potential adviser one of the first things you do and hammer out the details. You don’t want to get attached to an idea only to find that you don’t have faculty support to help you do it.
If you’re nervous about getting an adviser, plan ahead. Rachel suggests going in for a professor’s office hours a few times to test the waters and build a relationship before asking them to help you.
Do you actually have an idea?
Just checking. It’s totally okay if your ideas are still in their incubation period, but sooner or later (or really, better sooner than later), those thoughts will have to move from the abstract to the concrete. Save yourself the headache and make sure you have a few to kick around with your faculty adviser!
Honors theses don’t have to be scary things. Sure, they can be exhausting, time-consuming and a bit daunting, but if you consider all of the above enough to make an informed decision, they can be exciting challenges. Weigh the pros and cons, talk to advisers and give yourself enough time to decide, and then, don’t be afraid to dive right in – and okay, we guess you can indulge in that those post-theses fantasies we talked about earlier. You deserve it.