Should I rewrite my undergraduate thesis?
December 30, 2006 11:20 AM   Subscribe

I studied philosophy in college. By my senior year I had decided that I wanted to pursue a career in academia. I had co-founded a conference. I was writing a thesis. I had intentions of applying to graduate schools. However, during my last semester I experienced a crisis of faith and delayed my thesis for six months, eventually earning a "C". I want to go back and do the job right, but I don't know how.

The thesis was a disaster in part because I had not developed the necessary skills to conduct basic academic research independently. My college is exclusively seminar-based and most of the "research" I used in my papers was gleaned from my participation in class. Paper-writing for me was typically an intuitive affair wherein I would try to come up with complex interpretations of the materials provided in class rather than seek out new information from new sources. This approach gave me a false sense of security in my supposed ability to find connections between anything, conveniently ignoring the fact that all of the materials were connected by virtue of their inclusion in the course. Nonetheless I succeeded in my endeavors and held excellent academic standing until my last semester when I crashed on the thesis. Suddenly I wasnt being handed assignments anymore and I began to doubt the relevance and quality of my work. I fell into the rut of deleting chunks of text and rewriting everything until it became dense and esoteric. I was also reading hefty courseloads of Heidegger and Wittgenstein at the time and I precociously felt inclined to emulate their writing styles in combination, which further drove me into protective esotericism. I eventually abandoned my bibliography altogether, instead opting to rely upon the whimsy of my own thoughts as the basis of my research. My advisor was aloof throughout this catastrophe although in hindsight I probably should have been more insistent on demanding his time. When I finally handed in a stack of papers six months after the original due date it was clear that the project was a failure. I immediately moved from NYC to Providence and began an entirely unrelated creative project that is just now, one year later, beginning to wrap up.

Now I want to go back, write the thesis properly and start working towards graduate schools or at least to just write productively in any context, but I don't exactly trust my workflow management, research methods or organizational techniques. I also have less of an advisor than I did the first time. WHERE TO BEGIN?
posted by anonymous to Education (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds like a question you should be putting to the academic advisor at the college. They will know the specific options available at the college to help you. From what I've seen, there tend to be a lot of options that not many people know about or use.
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:30 AM on December 30, 2006

I've been struggling with my thesis work, but should have things wrapped up in March. While it's been difficult to get myself motivated my adviser has been very good at telling me what I need to do and how I should go about doing it. Traditionally, a thesis is one's first "real" research project, so hand-holding is a standard part of the process.

But my research is social scientific. I minored in philosophy as an undergraduate, but don't really understand how one does philosophical research project. Attempting to combine the writing styles of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, however, sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Assuming you earned a "C" for your thesis, you still passed. Did you receive your degree? If so, I don't think it makes sense to do it again.

But if you do end up in academics for another round I think the most important thing is to identify a scholar you want to work with and then stick with them throughout your course of study. Part of the reason I've a decent relationship with my adviser is that we've been working together, in some capacity, for more than two years. That relationship - between burgeoning scholar and credentialed scholar - is the crux of graduate work.
posted by aladfar at 12:05 PM on December 30, 2006

Well this is awkward - I only just now realized that you're talking about undergraduate work.

No one will ever care about your undergraduate thesis. Your GRE scores and overall GPA is pretty much all a graduate program will care about. That is, of course, unless you make a point of making an issue of it.

If you want to give it another try apply to a graduate program and build a relationship with a professor you want to work with. Professors are nice to undergrads, but it's a fundamentally different relationship. They treat grad students as peers not students. I think you'll find the environment far more conducive to the sort of work you want to do.

Good luck!
posted by aladfar at 12:09 PM on December 30, 2006

What aladfar said. If you to try and cheat the system, take a class or two at a really good school, get all A's, and get the profs you had to recommend you. Worth a shot at least.
posted by xammerboy at 12:14 PM on December 30, 2006

Sorry, I meant, if you want to try and cheat the system. Not that I really view it as cheating, but its a shot at getting into a better grad school than perhaps your current grades will get you. As long as its a good school, the credits should be transferrable anywhere.
posted by xammerboy at 12:15 PM on December 30, 2006

What others have said--move past the thesis, it is finished, and get on with the rest of your life.

But why do you want to go to graduate school? You are aware that the market for philosophy professors is unbelievably tight? If you want to go for the love of knowledge, great, but now is not a good time to be trying to get a tenure track position in the humanities.
posted by LarryC at 12:46 PM on December 30, 2006

No. Find sympathetic and relevant potential advisors and have them make noises to get you into their programs.

Also, consider finding a philosophy bent within another department. My MBA knowledge management prof was actually an ethicist who realized the opportunities lay in the business department.
posted by acoutu at 2:43 PM on December 30, 2006

Should you rewrite your undergrad thesis? No. It is over and done with. It served its purposes of giving you a learning experience and earning you some college credit. If you revisit the topic of your thesis now, you are likely to get stuck in intellectual bogs (difficulty seeing the issues afresh) as well as emotional ones (constant self-flagellation for past mistakes).

It was an undergraduate thesis. You are a college graduate now. Assess what your current goals are, and then decide how best to meet them.

It is a little unclear to me from reading your question what your goals are, exactly. Are you still set on pursuing a career in academia, meaning that you want to earn a Ph. D. and try the academic job market? Are you asking about the undergrad thesis because you think you have to re-do it or un-do it somehow in order to proceed with your plans for grad school and career? Or are you less sure about the academic career, but bent on rewriting the thesis regardless?

To take a stab at your "WHERE TO BEGIN?" question: How about beginning with a stack of prospectuses and applications for M.A. programs in philosophy? With good grades apart from the thesis and a decent showing on the GRE, you ought to be able to get into a master's program that will be good enough to meet your needs. Your needs as I apprehend them from reading your question are: 1. To get more practice in the skills of academic research. 2. To get that practice under the guidance of competent teachers and advisors [which is not to imply that your undergrad thesis advisor was incompetent]. 3. To strengthen your credentials for a possible application to a good Ph. D. program. 4. To spend a year or two immersing yourself in academia, by which I mean academia as a profession. An M.A. program would give you time to talk with career academics about what the job is like, do a little research on the job market, read lots of journal articles, read the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed regularly, maybe try out teaching an undergrad class, maybe serve on a departmental committee and experience the joys of meetings, etc.

Then you can decide whether you really, definitely want to go for a Ph. D. and academic career after all. If the answer is yes, then with an M.A. in hand you will have a start on that process and feel better prepared than you do now.

[Caveat: I am in academia, but not in philosophy. In my field it is not uncommon for someone to earn an M.A. at one institution before moving on to a Ph.D. program somewhere else. I am not positive that this is how philosophy works.]
posted by Orinda at 4:58 PM on December 30, 2006

If I'm correct in my understanding that you've already (long since) graduated from college, then I agree with the consensus here that there's no sense trying to go back and "fix" your bachelor's thesis. It's over and done; revising it, in your spare time, for nothing more than your own peace of mind, would be less fun than starting an entirely new academic project.

If your primary concern is getting into graduate school: First, listen to LarryC, and also read Tim Burke's fabulous essay "Should I go to grad school?" ("Short answer: no. Long answer: maybe."). Next, strategize, with the help of an academic advisor of some kind (from your old college, if possible, so they already know your work), about the best way of improving your chances.

It might well be best to enroll in some courses part-time, as some others have suggested, or else to do a stepping-stone Master's degree, anywhere that you can, in order to demonstrate your seriousness and engagement and build a portfolio of good work before applying for a Ph.D. program. That's the role a polished bachelor's thesis would have served in your application; so replace it by doing some good new work. Go anywhere that will have you (and ideally even fund you, though perhaps that's out of reach at present), do some good work and make some connections, and then apply to the Ph.D. program where you really want to be. In the meantime you'll have some more academic context, supervision, and advising to help you with the writing-process problem.

If developing a better research and writing process is your primary concern, the first step is to take a look at academic how-to-write books like The Craft of Research or Peter Elbow's work. And see if your old college's writing center or similar resources are available to alumns (or just try pretending to be a current student and see if they notice).
posted by RogerB at 5:01 PM on December 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

I got the first A+ undergraduate thesis that my advisor (who had worked as a professor for some 15 years) had ever seen/given. It doesn't mean diddly, other than to myself, today.
posted by iurodivii at 5:37 PM on December 30, 2006

As said above, if you don't have to write a second thesis, don't do it. Move on --- spend that time applying to grad school, traveling, working, etc. One "C", even on your thesis, will not mar you for life. (And it's like that old joke: What do you call the person who graduated at the bottom of their class in medical school? "Doctor." A better thesis gets you exactly the same degree as a crummy thesis, and makes pretty much zero difference, ever.)

But if you have to go back to redo it in order to graduate, I'd suggest setting your sights realistically low. It is only an undergraduate thesis, not a dissertation or a book --- you don't need to be brilliant, you just need to be solid. I don't know what length you are expected to write, but I'd guess between 60 and 120 pages, right? So that's maybe three to six chapters of 20pp each. There is a really limited argument you can make in that space, given how little substantive research you can do in a semester as an undergrad. You just need to make that limited argument, and make it using the clearest possible language.

In my experience undergrads want to take on really big questions and topics in their theses ("all about poverty"; "religion in America"; "Kant vs Hegal"), but a good thesis needs a really limited and doable topic. If you can come up with a good topic, of appropriate scope and depth, you are halfway there. Be able to sum up the whole thesis in one jargon-free sentence, and the same for each chapter. (eg: "My thesis is an exploration of the development of melody in Kant. In the first section I discuss books 5 and 6 of his Ring Cycle, in the second section I look at his responses to contemporary critics, and in the final section I consider modern feminist critiques.")

The rest of the answer is in your question, in your description of what you didn't do last time. Do the opposite: Talk to your advisor, often and honestly. Stick to your bibliography. Don't drag things out. etc.
posted by Forktine at 6:07 PM on December 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

You should take a look at The Philosophical Gourmet.
posted by anticlock at 7:05 PM on December 30, 2006

I got a BA in philosophy a few years ago, and this year I'm applying to grad programs. (I'm aiming for a linguistics Ph.D.) I also had a less-than-stellar undergrad career: in my case, I got decent grades but did a lot of dropping out, dropping back in, transferring and general fucking around.

What I did was to go back and visit some of my favorite professors from my undergrad years. I was surprised by how pleasant the visits were — they all remembered me, were glad to hear from me and glad to give me advice on the next step — but in hindsight I shouldn't have been so surprised. After all, advising people on their academic careers is a professor's job, and most of the good ones enjoy doing it.

So if you want to do graduate school, or think you might, that's where I'd start. Go back for a visit, talk to the profs you respect or admire, bounce your hopes and ambitions off of them and see what they suggest. They won't, of course, be able to tell you if you should go to grad school — only you can decide that — but they can help you refine your ideas about what you want to study, suggest programs where you're likely to succeed, and give advice on how to get into those programs.

(Some of them may also offer to write letters of recommendation. That's a good sign — they wouldn't offer unless they had good things to say about you — and you'll need letters anyway, so it lets you kill two birds with one stone.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:48 PM on December 30, 2006

It sounds to me that your undergraduate thesis, which was supposed to be a learning experience, was one. You took away from it the knowledge of what your particular shortcomings are, which will allow you to address them. Believe me, that is more than most get out of the experience.

The various people above are right in saying that nobody but you will ever give that thesis a second thought, so quit worrying about it and move on.

If you are sure that you want to go on in academia, apply to a selection of great schools in your field, and some just good ones. If you get into a great one, push through for a PhD. If you don't, get a masters at a good one and then re-apply to the great ones. Unfortunately, in the humanities, if you don't come from a pretty small subset of schools, you'll never get an academic job (this deserves it's own entire thread.)

Also, in grad school, don't worry about grades too much. What gets you an academic job is publications and conference presentations. Focus on those, and impressing one or two big names at your school (for rec letters and supportive phone calls) and you're in.
posted by overhauser at 10:42 AM on December 31, 2006

Oh, one more thing: your PhD thesis will matter. These days you have to spin it into a book that a publishing house is interested in to get that academic job everyone wants. So it is important to think in a very cynical marketing sense about what exactly your PhD thesis topic will be.
posted by overhauser at 10:45 AM on December 31, 2006

The advice that my undergrad advisor gave me when I was looking for grad schools (in East Asian religions) was: 1) Know what you want to do in grad school, as finely as humanly possible, and 2) Find a professor who's doing the same thing. If you find a proff who's into the same things as you, they will want you for their program. They want assistants who understand what they're doing, and they (occasionally) want people who can actually engage them on an equal footing. Knowing what you want to do also means that you're not going to be wasting time. Using this advice, I (a good but not stellar A-/B+student) got wait-listed at Harvard and accepted for the MA at Columbia.

So spend some time -- months, weeks, years, whatever -- and think about what topics interest you enough to propel you through years of grad school. What energizes you enough to make the intense bullshit and cynicism of grad school worth it? And when you think of topics, try to be as specific as you can. Your thesis will need to be something that no one else has ever published, basically, so you need to start thinking in terms of what niches you can fill. Not that you're going to be doing that all the way through, but the sooner you can formulate your goal and aim for it the better. And specific ideas will again show the proffs that you know what you're doing and that you have a program.

Assuming you come up with a topic, or topics, do some research. Find who's doing what. Look at books you've read and which proffs' work you loved, but remember that journals are where the new work comes out. If a proff is interested in just what you are, but they haven't published anything in years, then you're not actually going to be studying with them -- you're going to be studying with their replacement after they retire. So look through the journals to see who's studying things close to your interests.

Once you know who's doing what, you know which schools you want to apply for. And a clear statement of your interests -- if they're aligned with the proffs' -- can easily be more powerful than GRE scores or, really, anything else in getting you into a given school. As I said, I got into excellent schools without having great GRE scores or grades.

Look at departments or schools as a whole only as a secondary aspect of looking at professors. Departments are made of professors, and even though a given school may be great at some things, it can truly suck at others. Schools don't matter; proffs matter.

Doing this kind of research will be good practice for grad school, and it may get you into a far better school than you could've imagined you'd be suited for.
posted by jiawen at 11:21 PM on January 1, 2007

Academic philosopher here. I missed this question when it was first asked, and am going to put my 2 cents in anyway.

Don't go back and do your thesis over, for all the reasons stated above.

Your experience with the thesis (ever-increasing ambition for the scope of the project, inability to bring it all together to meet your ambitious goals) is one your should pay careful attention to. It suggests that you might have a hard time in grad school. The work in grad school is very much like writing an undergrad thesis, but more so -- you're on your own to schedule and manage and complete a large project. If you're always looking for the next idea, you never finish writing up the previous one; if things have to be perfect before you're happy with them, you'll never finish a dissertation. Think seriously about this and you can avoid years of misery. There are a lot of interesting, intellectually challenging, great things to do out in the real world that will play to your strengths -- go explore them for a while.

Do NOT go to grad school in philosophy just because you enjoyed it as an undergrad and can't think of what else to do. (I don't know if this is your situation, only you know that. I know it's a common situation, and leads to people wasting years that would be better spent doing other things.)

In philosophy, it is not usual to get an MA first. It's okay, of course, but it sounds like it's quite different from the English routine that Orinda described above.

If you want the possibility of an academic job, you should only get a PhD from one of the prestigious departments -- even then, employment prospects are much darker than you might think. There are a handful of programs (most notably Tufts) that offer MAs as a way for people to improve their applications to prestigious PhD programs. There are other programs that offer MAs, but those MAs will not lead to a job in philosophy. Do NOT go to a graduate department if they're not paying your way -- do NOT take out student loans to go to grad school in philosophy. I can answer other questions, email in profile. Also your undergrad advisor (whose letter will be essential if you're to have any hope of getting into grad school) should be able to help with this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:50 AM on February 6, 2007

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