10 Organizational Tips for Tackling Your Senior Thesis

Writing a senior thesis is hard. There are so many moving parts, and it can be overwhelming. Never fear, though: there are measures you can take to keep yourself organized and save precious time later in the semester. I completed my senior thesis in history last year, so I was recently in your position, seniors. The following tips apply to not only history majors, but also to anyone studying the humanities.

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  1. 1. Narrow down your topic before September

    Preparation begins long before you put pen to paper. Professors often say it is not imperative to know your topic before September, but I respectfully disagree with this viewpoint. Not knowing your topic will lead to increased stress during the fall semester, as well as falling behind on research and possibly even writing. Try to at least have an idea of what you want to write about and read books that are broad in scope before you go back to school. I did my background research over the summer, and it was a massive time-saver when October came around. Knowing my topic also reduced my stress levels during the crucial first few months of the thesis process.

  2. 2. Devise a system for keeping track of your sources

    There were so many books, PDFs, and other documents that I could barely keep track of them all, so an organizational system was necessary. I made two Word documents (one for primary sources and the other for secondary sources) and put tables in each of them, denoting the book/article title, author, relevant page numbers, and a brief synopsis of why it was relevant to my thesis. Most people generally use Excel for this, so that works as well.

  3. 3. Take advantage of campus resources

    I met with the Personal Librarian for History, Shannon O’Neill, several times throughout the year, and she was so helpful in helping me track down rare books and organizing my materials. While she specializes in history, she will also help students in other majors.

    When it comes to library materials, take advantage of Interlibrary Loan, which allows you to check out books from university libraries across the country. While the vast majority of requests are fulfilled, some schools may not have a certain book available. This is where Barnard and Columbia’s special agreement with every other Ivy League school and several other well-regarded universities (e.g. Duke University, University of Chicago) is useful. One of the universities in the partnership is guaranteed to loan a book to you if it is available.

  4. 4. Write in a diary or notebook throughout the year

    I wrote in a diary every day, especially during the first few months of the thesis. The subjects varied, from vital new information discovered to a particularly helpful resource to where I tracked down rare books. Having a written record of your thoughts will help you later during the writing process when you need to remember different details. Plus, it was amazing to read the diary when I finished my thesis; seeing how far I had come from September to April was priceless in and of itself.

  5. 5. Meet with your thesis advisor as much as possible

    Building a close relationship with your thesis advisor is crucial. Whether you want to bounce an idea off them, are unsure about an aspect of research and/or writing, or have any other questions, they will help.

  6. 6. Celebrate your victories, even the small ones

    In order to boost your morale throughout the year, reward yourself whenever you accomplish something related to your thesis, even if it’s something small.

  7. 7. Don’t delete drafts of thesis chapters

    I saved every single draft of each chapter, and it came in handy multiple times when I wanted to move material from one chapter to another. I also saved every version of my bibliography so that in case if I deleted a source’s citation but later decided to use the information from that source, the citation was already done.

  8. 8. Set (and stick to) deadlines for the completion of each chapter

    When you are ready to start writing in earnest, consult your class schedule and set deadlines for when each chapter should be done. You don’t want to have a thesis chapter due at the same time as a midterm or essay for another class. Try to stick to those deadlines as much as possible, but if you need to delay a chapter for a week due to unforeseen circumstances, you will have the flexibility to do so.

  9. 9. Don’t work on your thesis during spring break, if at all possible

    In the history department, the full draft of your thesis is generally due right before spring break. I was feeling burned out, so my advisor told me to not do any work on my thesis during spring break. Not only did I recharge, but I was also able to revisit my thesis with a set of fresh eyes and identify issues that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t taken a break. Sometimes, it is impossible to not work on your thesis during spring break, so if you find yourself in that situation, I recommend taking a break for half of the vacation.

  10. 10. Enjoy the process

    For the vast majority of seniors, this is the only time you will have an opportunity to conduct research on such a grand scale, so enjoy it. Not only did I get to be a historian and do what I love, but I also learned a lot about myself throughout the year. I will cherish my senior thesis experience for the rest of my life, and I hope you do, too.