Should I do an undergraduate honors thesis?
July 31, 2013 10:09 AM   Subscribe

I'm entering into my final year of undergraduate studies. As an Honors College student, I have the option to complete a thesis this year. I've already made it through the preparation semester and had my proposal accepted, but I'm not very passionate about the topic I selected, and I'm not sure if the effort of continuing with the project will be worth the reward. Details inside.

I spent my proposal semester with the same predicament described here. I had lots of big ideas I was interested in, but had a lot of trouble narrowing them down into manageable topics. I finally managed to get something down on paper for the proposal. I was excited when I submitted the proposal, but over the past few months I've pretty much lost all interest in my topic, and I'm dreading the idea of spending the next 8 months with it.

Furthermore, because of maximum credit hour reductions, I'll have to pay overload fees to complete the thesis, which will total $2200 out of pocket. In addition, I will probably have to drop my second major (or turn it into a minor), and have to resign my position as editor of the Honors College's annual publication, which I was really looking forward to.

I've spoken to others about their theses, and I'm just beginning to realize how much time I'll need to invest for it to be good. In my spare time, I had wanted to learn to code and speak another language this year. If I do the thesis, it looks like those goals will probably have to be put on hold.

The thesis is *not* required to graduate with honors. It is required to graduate with higher levels of honors. If I forego the thesis, I'll have the opportunity to do two independent studies instead, which sounds both more manageable and more enjoyable.

I guess I've only listed negatives so far, so in the interest of fairness, here are some positives of doing the thesis. First, I'll get a (hopefully) great letter of recommendation from my advisor. We worked well together last semester, and she seems pretty enthusiastic about the project. Second, I could potentially graduate with a higher level of honors. Third, I'm assuming that the research experience will benefit me when applying to grad schools. However, I plan on going to graduate school for something completely unrelated to my current majors, so that may not be entirely true.

As far as my future plans go, I'll be taking a year off after undergrad. I plan on moving to another city and working a few jobs and/or internships to get a better idea of what I want to do with my life. I'm planning on going to graduate school after that, because my undergraduate experience was not what I hoped it would be. In case its relevant, I'm majoring in Geography and Architectural Studies at a fairly average, but steadily improving state school. My primary interests, however, are in programming, physics, economics, and journalism.

What do you think? Will doing the thesis pay off, or would my time be better spent doing independent studies and learning some new skills on my own?
posted by rensar to Education (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Don't do it. I wrote a thesis. I didn't have a choice in mine, but given the choice I WOULD do it again, but only because I really enjoyed my topic. Did I write a good thesis? Fuck no. Did I write an interesting and entertaining thesis? Yes. But there is no way in hell I'd write a thesis if I wasn't jazzed about the subject.

You don't need to, you have other wonderful, fulfilling ways to spend the time. See if your advisor would be amenable to working on a smaller project with you, perhaps for that independent study project.

Learn to code. That will serve you well. If you can code well you'll pretty much always be able to find a job.

Having a thesis under your belt, achieving doubleplusgood honors, etc--that's not going to matter to anyone except maybe grad school. What's going to matter much, much more is the relationships you build. Stay friends with your advisor. Spend that thesis time working on a project with him. Do not stop being the editor of whatever thing that is. Keep your second major.
posted by phunniemee at 10:24 AM on July 31, 2013

The only benefit to doing a senior honors thesis at this point is to see if you have the chops to be a graduate student: the self-discipline to follow through, the writing ability to explain your ideas and the intellectual curiosity to explore a topic that will be fascinating to you at some times, deplorably boring at others.

I wouldn't do it.
posted by Liesl at 10:26 AM on July 31, 2013

Best answer: This depends in part on what field you want to study in graduate school and the type of school you want to attend. If you are planning on applying to another "fairly average" state school, I don't think that not having a thesis will hurt your chances of getting accepted because you already have honors -- and will likely receive good recommendation letters from your professors.

The grad program will likely require good GRE scores, good letters of recommendation, and a good writing sample. If you are an editor, it is likely that you already have good writing samples, no? If you have a well-written research paper (i.e., a class paper of 15-20 pages) that you can submit with your application packet, I see no reason to write a thesis, especially if the topic will not be in your field of graduate studies anyway.

The thesis will suck the life out of you, and that's if you LOVE your topic and are highly motivated -- and your letter indicates that neither is true. Go forth and discover what really interests you for the next phase of your life.

And congratulations on your successes so far. You are already ahead of most students!
posted by quixotictic at 10:31 AM on July 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

The only benefit to doing a senior honors thesis at this point is to see if you have the chops to be a graduate student:

I don't think this is true. I did an honors thesis and have never been to grad school. I did it specifically for the challenge, but it has helped me greatly just by being on my resume.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:37 AM on July 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Agreed with others above. I had a topic I was passionate about, so I wrote an undergrad honors thesis--and I regret it still. What got me into graduate school were writing samples (short ones, from other papers), good GRE scores, a decent essay and excellent interview. Ditto for jobs, excepting the GRE scores. At no point did anyone ever ask me about my thesis, and I doubt anyone has ever read it or cared. My thesis was clever and I was proud of it, but there are much better things I could have done with my senior year that would have prepared me better for both graduate school and the workforce. Do those instead.
posted by epanalepsis at 10:37 AM on July 31, 2013

I'm assuming that the research experience will benefit me when applying to grad schools

My undergrad thesis is basically the reason I got accepted to a top-level graduate school despite otherwise solid but undistinguished undergraduate grades. It was also a topic I was really interested in and enthusiastic about.
posted by deanc at 10:42 AM on July 31, 2013

Fundamentally, I agree with the other posters here. If you intend to apply to graduate programs in your current field of study, it will be a real benefit, as it will demonstrate your ability to write in-depth on relevant subject matter, which is your main job as a grad student. Otherwise, it will just be another accomplishment for you to take personal pride in.

I was required to write an undergraduate thesis, which ended up being pretty arcane even within my field. I was both tormented by and quite enjoyed the process. I do think it provided me with some intangible benefits (confidence that I could single-handedly initiate, manage, and complete a larger project than I had ever attempted), but no one has ever cared about it since it was bound, signed, and put on a shelf in the library.
posted by voiceofreason at 10:47 AM on July 31, 2013

Best answer: I have very fond memories of doing my honors thesis, and it did cost extra tuition to do, but I was super-jazzed about it because I knew it was ultimately what would get me into grad school (in fine arts, for which a portfolio was required). It really doesn't sound like you'd enjoy doing yours at all. In fact, it sounds like it'd be a downright awful experience for you. Why would you give up the things you enjoy in your last year of school? That's when you're supposed to reap the benefits of the previous 3 years! Edit the journal! Take up some esoteric hobby! Nose yourself deep into the archives of your campus library and write about something that fascinates you!

If you're passionate, you'll get into grad school. Here's another vote for you doing what will make you happy.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 10:48 AM on July 31, 2013

Do you see any possibility that you'll end up an academic? Research-oriented programs might value the thesis, and the concomitant recommendation, more highly, and the experience will be more relevant, than if you go to grad school only for professional credentials. Frankly I don't see a Geography thesis helping get you into a terminal MS program in computer science, for example. And it doesn't sound like you're very pumped about the whole thing, either. I would not do it if I were you. (and I did not do it, when I was an undergraduate. As I never went to grad school I don't think it made any difference, and I never regretted my choice)
posted by mr vino at 10:51 AM on July 31, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone.

Not going to threadsit, but here's more information that might be relevant in terms of grad school applications. I've had several courses that have required 15-18 page papers, and those papers (with some more editing) are darn good, because I loved the topics I was writing about. I also had a short essay published in an a quarterly journal about a year ago, which was unbelievably exciting. I'm tempted to think, as quixotictic suggests, that the combination of these will more than suffice for good writing samples.
posted by rensar at 10:55 AM on July 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't.

A double-major is better. Doing a fun activity with the annual is better. What matters to grad schools is GPA and GRE scores. What your particular school does with its Honors program...not so much.

That goes double for a non-related masters degree.

So, given that you'd give up a second major, a great activity AND actual dollars to do this, and it doesn't float your boat OR light your fire, I say the costs to do it are too high.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:55 AM on July 31, 2013

I knew going into my senior year that I didn't want to go to grad school in my major field, so I skipped the honors thesis and spent a quarter abroad instead. Best decision I've ever made. Enjoy your last year of college instead of spending it writing a thesis you're less than passionate about. Good luck!
posted by coppermoss at 10:56 AM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

but it has helped me greatly just by being on my resume.

Ha: I was going to chime in and say don't do it because nobody will ever care. It was on my resume for a couple of years after graduating, and it eventually fell off because everybody told me they pretty much didn't give a shit about it.
posted by General Malaise at 11:04 AM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This was an option when I was an undergrad and, in fact, a professor whose class I was taking approached me and another one of his students and asked if we wanted to write a thesis (individually) in his field with him as the advisor. I politely declined, the other guy didn't. I'm not sure if he ever finished his, but I know for a fact he didn't finish it within the allotted semester and had to file for an Incomplete. Maybe your college is different but getting an Incomplete off a transcript even after finishing the work was a Herculean task in mine, and I wouldn't chance having to apply to grad school with one.

Another friend of mine did an undergraduate thesis and loved the experience, but she was also pretty passionate about the subject matter. Considering how exhausted and sick of her topic she was by the end, I couldn't imagine having to do that with something you're not even interested in.

If you don't have an interest in the topic, dread researching it, and aren't going to be staying in that field, you can spend your time and money in considerably more productive ways. For instance, being an editor of a publication or double-majoring (or anything else you actually want to do.)
posted by A god with hooves, a god with horns at 11:07 AM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

the self-discipline to follow through, the writing ability to explain your ideas and the intellectual curiosity to explore a topic that will be fascinating to you at some times, deplorably boring at others

Those sound like general career/life skills, not just something specific to graduate students.
posted by Good Brain at 11:34 AM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

but it has helped me greatly just by being on my resume.

roomthreeseventeen: can you comment specifically re: how it has helped you just by being on your resume?
posted by hapax_legomenon at 12:36 PM on July 31, 2013

Best answer: Something else to consider: doing the thesis may help you decide if grad school is really for you. Assuming you would be doing a thesis/dissertation based degree (i.e. not just a coursework Masters), you will probably be bored and sick of the topic well before you actually have it done (no matter how interesting you find the topic when you first start it). Doing the undergrad thesis may give you some insight into yourself and whether you could make it through grad school, or if you are willing to give up what it takes to do so.

Depending on which field you end up trying to get a job in, the thesis could look better on a resume than the double major or other things you mentioned. I hire in the engineering/science/programming fields, and college grad resumes with an honors thesis get my attention faster than almost anything else. It speaks to your communication abilities (which are admittedly also supported by the other accomplishments you've mentioned) as well as your ability to plan and execute a challenging, long term project even when it gets to the "non-fun" part (which none of your listed accomplishments really speak to).

Honestly, it sounds like you will do fine with either choice. Best of luck regardless!
posted by stoffer at 12:44 PM on July 31, 2013

Best answer: For my engineering undergrad, almost all majors required a thesis, to the point where we made fun of those who had the majors without the thesis as not being "real". So, if I was looking at resume and didn't see a thesis it might, honestly, trip me up. Not as bad as a mechanical engineer not knowing at least one 3D CAD system, but I would probably notice it and likely ask about it.

But, I am with stoffer--as long as you have a good story to tell me that answers that question or a bunch of other stuff that draws my attention away from it, you'll do fine.

As for my experience with my thesis--it was just another paper with some inventive work/research around it. I chose the topic and did alright. I had other friends who worked with profs where the prof chose the topic and they did alright, even though they didn't really like what they were doing or understand how it fit in the with the larger picture. When it is part of the environment, it wasn't a big deal. Just another thing to do before graduating.

I would also argue that if you are going to grad school you should get comfortable doing decent work on a topic you aren't really interested in. You don't always get to write about the particular research you want to do at the moment or you might get pulled in on a paper that isn't really what gets you going or your prof is prescribing the work and you aren't putting in a lot of your own direction. It happens and you gotta get used to it.

But, then again, you don't have to have the soul sucked out of you now. Again, you'll likely be fine either way.
posted by chiefthe at 1:33 PM on July 31, 2013

I've had several courses that have required 15-18 page papers

This is the norm. For grad school you want to stand out. The thesis will help.

If you don't like doing a thesis you won't like grad school.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:27 PM on July 31, 2013

Response by poster: I should mention that if I do end up going to grad school, it will most likely not be a research-based program. Most of the programs I'm currently considering are coursework-based.

Thanks all for the advice. Lots to think about. I'll post back once I've made a decision.
posted by rensar at 3:23 PM on July 31, 2013

Best answer: I did a thesis because it was part of my program. Enjoyed the hell out of it, eventually published it as an article. Eventually became a professor in that discipline.

However--you should just walk away. What you will give up to do this--other opportunities, money, peace of mind--is much greater than what you would gain. And without enthusiasm, your thesis would not be very good anyway.

Talk with your advisor as soon as possible. Explain it to her as you did to us. You will find her far more understanding and supportive than you think. You will still get the great letter.
posted by LarryC at 10:55 PM on July 31, 2013

Response by poster: Hi all. After several weeks of deliberation, I met with my thesis advisor. As soon as I told her that I'd be paying a couple thousand dollars to complete it, she said not to do it. Easy enough. She said she'd write me a recommendation letter and even recommended me for an amazing internship after I graduate next spring. And I'll be working on an independent research project this semester.

I'm relieved. In the interim, I've had several more opportunities present themselves that I would have otherwise had to turn down.

Thank you so much for all of your advice.
posted by rensar at 11:50 AM on August 31, 2013

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