Capping It Off: 7 Tips for the Senior Thesis

It's not too early to start thinking about this requirement. Here's our advice.

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Many schools now have a "capstone" requirement: a longer writing project (sometimes called a "senior thesis") to be done in your final year. For some students this provides a golden opportunity to move to a more professional level of work in their chosen field. But for others, this is a dreaded, seemingly insurmountable obstacle standing between them and that fancy piece of paper with the university seal. In preparation for the fall, when many students will start working on this assignment, we offer you our best tips for staring down—and doing—the senior paper requirement:

1. Choose your adviser carefully. At many schools, the senior project is one of the first times that a faculty member is directly supervising your work. Be sure to pick a professor who is an expert in the specific field you're working on. The more you get into depth on an issue, the more you'll need to be guided by someone who knows a lot about the subject. Also, be sure to select someone you've taken a course or two with. You wouldn't want to find yourself, after the first week, with that sickening feeling that you're stuck for a whole semester—or a whole year—with someone you can't stand (and who probably can't stand you, either).

Extra Pointer. If you have a professor you really want to work with, you might consider changing to a topic in their area of expertise, rather than trying to get them to sponsor a project on some topic far outside their area of specialization.

2. Choose your topic even more carefully. Starting off with a bad topic is never going to have a good end. Consult carefully with your adviser before you put down your quarter.

5-Star Tip. Though, of course, every field and every paper is different, here are some signs of a good topic:

Previous experience (yours): It's in an area in which you have already done some coursework. A senior thesis is not the time to start work in virgin territory.

Doability: It's a topic that can be productively explored in the time you have. Don't fixate on a project that would take more than a lifetime to complete or a topic so narrow that you'll struggle to write even 10 pages on it.

• Answers a question (rather than surveying an area): The best thesis projects are ones that address a problem in a field and try to resolve it. Just talking about a topic you like usually nets a descriptive report, not an analytical paper—and reports come in on the lowest rung of the intellectual food chain.

Intrinsic interest (to you): There's no point putting in long hours working on something that bores you to tears from Day One. (This is especially important to keep in mind if your professor is suggesting a topic to you, rather than you picking your own.)

3. Consider expanding a course paper. Many students think, wrongly, that in order to do a senior thesis they have to come up with a wholly new idea. But, in many cases, the most successful projects are expansions, reworkings, and further explorations of previous course papers. It's not too hard to see why: Often you've done significant work on the issue (and hence know what you're talking about), and in many cases the original topics were picked by professors themselves (hence likely to work).

4. Organize your face time. At the very beginning, work with your adviser to establish an appropriate schedule of visits. Make sure also that you have a meeting of minds about what the work will be at each meeting: Are you supposed to just get together and shoot the breeze? Are you supposed to have read some article each week or have written a draft of something? Are you supposed to have revised a previous piece? Professors differ widely in their expectations: Know up front what yours wants. And be sure to stick to the meeting schedule.

5-Star Tip. Depending on your project, there may be a number of scholars at your university who could give valuable input into your work, either by helping direct your research or your thinking on an issue. Check with your professor about whether it would be worthwhile to consult with additional faculty members, either within the department or in neighboring departments.

5. Divide your time in half. Spend about half your allotted time researching and the other half writing. Most students wind up spending about 90 percent of their time researching, which means that they don't actually start pulling together their ideas until it's already too late. Good senior theses require multiple drafts, with serious revisions being made based on the comments of your adviser. All of that takes time.

6. Don't assume that longer is better. Many, many students make the mistake of thinking that the whole game here is to come up with as many pages as possible. But most professors judge by quality, not quantity. Ask your adviser what the appropriate length of the project should be. Some professors are looking for a 70- to 80-page magnum opus, but others would rather see a strong journal article-sized length of 25 to 40 pages.

7. Play to the bitter end. At many schools, the capstone project is capped by an oral exam: A committee of three or four faculty members holds court and asks you questions for an hour or two about what you've shown. This can be the time during which the grade—or level of honors—is determined. Make sure you know what's going to be expected of you at the oral exam—and take the time to prepare for it (no matter how sick you are about the topic).

Bonus Tip. As your project draws to a close, it's especially important to assess where your work stands in the field and what original contribution it makes. This is something you will need to communicate both in the paper and your thesis defense (if you have one). The whole idea of the senior thesis—or capstone project—is for you to start being a player in the field. You can't really play unless you know your position and who else is playing.

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