Seven Tips to Help Seniors Finish Their Thesis

Many schools have a requirement for a “capstone”, which is a longer writing project (sometimes referred to as a senior thesis) that must be completed in your last year. This is a great opportunity for some students to get a job at a higher level in their chosen field. For others, however, this can be a daunting, seemingly unsurmountable hurdle that stands between them and the fancy piece of paper bearing the university seal. We offer our top tips to help you prepare for the fall when many students will begin working on this assignment.

  1. Be careful when choosing your adviser. The senior project at many schools is the first time a faculty member directly supervises your work. Make sure you choose a professor who is an expert on the subject. You will need someone who is knowledgeable about the topic to help you understand it better. You should also make sure you choose someone with whom you have taken a few courses. It would be a shame to feel stuck after just one week with someone you don’t like (and probably won’t love you).

Extra Pointer. You might think about changing the topic you are working with if you know a professor that you would like to work with. This is better than trying to get them involved in a project on a topic outside of their expertise.

  1. You should choose your topic carefully. A bad topic will not lead to a successful end. Before you start writing your quarter, consult your advisor.

5-Star Tip. Although every field and paper is unique, these are signs that a topic is good:

  • Your previous experience: This is in an area where you have done coursework. You should not start work in unfamiliar territory with a senior thesis.
  • Doability: This topic can be explored productively in the time available. Do not fixate on a project taking more than a lifetime or on a topic that is so narrow you will struggle to write 10 pages.
  • Answers a question, rather than surveying an area. The best thesis projects address a problem and attempt to solve it. A descriptive report is usually written on a topic that interests you, and not an analysis paper. Reports are at the bottom of the intellectual food chain.
  • Your intrinsic interest: It’s not a good idea to spend hours on something that bores your heart from the beginning. This is particularly important to remember if your professor suggests a topic to your, and you pick your own.
  1. Expanding a course paper is a good idea. Students mistakenly believe that to write a senior thesis, they must come up with an entirely new idea. Many times, however, expansions, reworkes and deeper explorations of course papers are the best projects. It is easy to understand why. Often, you have done substantial work on the topic (and therefore know what you are talking about), and many times the original topics were chosen by professors (hence more likely to work).
  2. Organise your face-to-face time. Your adviser should help you establish a schedule. Also, make sure you have a meeting with your adviser to discuss the work involved in each meeting. Are you supposed just to get together and chat? Do you need to read a piece each week? Or have you written a draft? Is it necessary to revise a previous article? Professors have different expectations. Be clear about what you want. Be sure to adhere to the meeting schedule.

5-Star Tip. 5-Star Tip. Depending on the project, there might be scholars at your university who can provide valuable input to your work. Talk to your professor about the possibility of consulting with other faculty members from the same department or nearby departments.

  1. Divide your time in half. Half of your time should be spent researching, and half the time should be used for writing. Students spend about 90% of their time researching. This means that most students don’t start putting together their ideas until it is too late. Senior theses are best when there are multiple drafts and serious revisions based on your adviser’s comments. This takes time.
  2. Do not assume that more pages are better. Many students mistakenly believe that the goal of this course is to produce as many pages possible. Professors tend to judge quality over quantity. Ask your advisor what length the project should be. Professors may prefer a magnum opus of 70 to 80 pages, while others prefer a journal article of 25 to 40 page length.
  3. Play until the end. Many schools cap their capstone projects with an oral exam. A panel of three to four faculty members sits down and asks questions about your work for about an hour. This is the time when the honors level or grade will be determined. You should be prepared for the oral exam.

Bonus tip. Bonus Tip. As the project comes to an end, it is important to evaluate where your work fits in the field and what unique contribution it makes. This information will be communicated in your paper, and your defense of your thesis if you have one. You must become a professional in your field by writing the senior thesis, or capstone project. Without knowing your position and the other players, you can’t play.

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