As December comes to a close and I am now officially at the halfway mark of my undergraduate research thesis, I feel that I’ve been able to formulate my own opinion regarding this particular academic path. Considering the many questions and concerns that I have heard from students in their second and third years, who are curious about the thesis option but unsure of the realities of undertaking such a project, I wanted to share my personal experience thus far. To offer some context, I am a fourth-year student specializing in biochemistry. Depending on what program you’re in, the nuances of the thesis may differ, so keep this in mind.
Preparing to Apply:
A year ago, I had asked several of my seniors in my current position what their thoughts had been on doing a thesis: the difficulties, the advantages, the academic rigours. Based on the generally positive feedback I’d received, as well as the fact that I’d had summer research experience prior, I made the choice and began going over the list of professors and projects that were available to choose from. With research, one of the most important aspects to consider is the actual interest you have in the project you will be working on. Research is inherently unpredictable and demanding of patience – this is something that cannot be emphasized enough. Consequently, the more invested you are in the outcome of your work, the more driven you will be to put in the time and effort to fuel its progress. Compatibility with the lab environment and group members should also be taken into account when selecting a lab to become a part of. After all, the space that you will find yourself in anywhere between 12-20 hours a week should be one that you feel productive and comfortable in.
Changes and Challenges:
In all honesty, my most recent school semester containing a thesis has been markedly different from all my previous university semesters, which had only been occupied with classes. Studying for midterms and completing assignments has been more difficult to find time for, because instead of the large chunks of time before or after classes that I was used to, I now have to plan my life and deadlines around the hours I spend in the lab. Of course, once I had gotten my footing, I found that there are were also many opportunities to accomplish school work in between experiments. Aside from the newfound time management challenges, it is worth pointing out that a thesis requires you to be personally responsible for staying on top of your project, to be proactive when it comes to troubleshooting and asking for help, and accountable for overcoming the roadblocks you will face along the way. A thesis is certainly not a ‘bird course’ and ‘easiness’ should not be the motivation for pursuing one.
There are several, strong reasons why a thesis may be of great use to you and your life after undergrad. If you’ve always been on the edge about graduate studies, the thesis is the most obvious, and probably the most practical, way to get a taste of what may lie ahead for you. The more independence you strive toward in the lab, the more that your thesis will replicate that of a master’s student. However, even if you have decided to not build a career around research, the fourth-year project makes still amounts to a wonderful, enriching academic experience that you can speak to in interviews and applications. The kind of creative problem-solving skills you are bound to develop will be inarguably useful for any job that is searching for imaginative, resilient, and driven individuals. From a separate, more social perspective, with the thesis you get the chance to join a new group of people that you can learn from and become friends with.
While an undergraduate thesis is not without its stresses or unexpected challenges, it is an incredibly rewarding opportunity that is truly worth the consideration. You are not promised to finish the whole ordeal with an abundance of publication-worthy results, but you are sure to grow in ways that are quite frankly unique. I was told by a graduate student in my lab that you get out of your thesis what you put in – this I believe to be absolutely true.