Revising the thesis processAs the semester rushes to its end, seniors who have poured months into thesis projects are beginning to submit and defend them. For many, a thesis represents a chance to undertake independent research, negotiate the challenges of crafting a publishable paper and prepare for graduate work. But the undergraduate thesis process is not without flaws. Inconsistencies in the writing process across disciplines make it difficult to police standards, and limited opportunities to share work can make tackling a thesis project a solitary affair.
The thesis writing experience varies wildly across disciplines. Some departments expect students to conjure up their own questions, assemble their methods and dive into their research with very little structure or guidance. In other departments, students receive too much structure, and many wind up slipping formulaic projects into generic thesis templates. Due dates, expectations, advisor involvement and grading schemes also differ from department to department, creating inconsistencies in the amount and type of work students perform.
Each discipline employs its own methods and standards, making total procedural uniformity in thesis writing impossible and unwise. But some features of the undergraduate thesis experience—like the scope of one’s project and the schedule for completing it—ought to be consistent across most departments. In particular, standardizing the thesis writing schedule would turn what is often an isolated research process into a collective endeavor. Undergraduates from across the University would be able to help each other, trade ideas and develop a community grounded in a shared experience. Moreover, establishing a set of university-wide standards for thesis projects would ensure that each thesis meets a certain minimum level of quality.
Students dedicate incredible amounts of time and effort to their theses, but few have a chance to share their work. Some departments—like economics and chemistry—hold poster sessions so that students in the department can present their work and learn about the work of others. Events like these ensure that months or years of labor does not quietly disappear into a dusty filing cabinet.
Not only should more departments hold these kinds of sessions, but Duke should also create opportunities for students to share their work with students and professors in other disciplines. A miniature conference or cross-discipline poster session would allow students to swap ideas, meet others working on similar issues and discover opportunities for future collaboration. Perhaps Duke could use the infrastructure that Bass Connections already has in place to facilitate this kind of cross-discipline thesis sharing.
Despite some shortcomings, Duke’s senior thesis process has proven to be extremely valuable for most students who participate. Even though many students who choose not to write theses would benefit from doing so, giving students an option means that most people who pursue a thesis do so out of genuine interest in the subject matter. This is, of course, not always the case, and departments that encourage every senior to write a thesis regardless of their preparedness or the department’s capacity to support them do their students a disservice.
Writing a thesis is a wonderful opportunity, and with a minor tune-up and more chances for collaboration, Duke’s thesis process could be even more rewarding for those who participate.