Brian Goldman | Countering Penn’s thesis culture
The Gold Standard | Traversing a thesis is a rewarding journey that more should have
February 27, 2012, 2:26 am·
The Gold Standard
Many seniors, including myself, are under the illusion that they are writing a thesis. But in fact, we’re persevering through them. They consume many nights of our lives. It’s just like Feb Club except minus the beer and add in mounds of research and stress.
So you might be surprised to hear this, but writing a thesis has also been one of the most eye-opening and productive periods of my college career. Now, a month ago, you would not have heard me say that. But with first drafts due in a week, I’m starting to sense a little light at the end of the tunnel.
However, not enough students get to experience this at once too stressful but at the same time gratifying thrill ride.
To write a thesis as a political science major, I had to apply to the honors program in the latter half of my junior year. The honors distinction in many departments is contingent on the completion of a thesis. I had to find a faculty advisor to act as my mentor and formulate a thesis topic in addition to providing an example of prior research.
The application itself was not the problem. In my view, at least, it was necessary. Undergoing a thorough application process mitigates the chance that students will drop out of the program during senior year or be so underprepared for the grueling work that the product will be severely undermined.
What surprised me, however, was the fact that the application process was not the end game. In fact, there was a selection process on top of that and not all students who applied to the honors program were accepted.
There’s a plausible rationale behind this. By selecting only the students that they it feels are strongest equipped to handle the thesis regimen, the department minimizes the chance that a student will drop out mid-year or submit inferior work.
However, I think the emphasis on elite students — in any department — results in unintended consequences. Just last week, my fellow columnists, College sophomores Hayley Brooks and Ali Kokot, lamented the lack of intellectual vigor on our campus. It’s an accurate observation, specifically at Penn.
Intellectual curiosity and debate can only be dampened by a system that would in theory deny a research opportunity to a student who — despite having an advisor and a topic in mind — had a poor academic record.
Transcripts don’t tell the full story, but sometimes we act as if they always do.
By the same token, a policy such as Princeton University’s — which requires that all graduating students pen an honors research paper — is much too heavy handed for a school such as ours. Those who aren’t interested in writing a thesis shouldn’t be forced into doing so.
But all those who want to and show an effort to find a mentor and a viable topic, should be allowed, as the norm and not the exception. At Harvard University, which has a similarly open approach, more students, as a percentage, write theses.
Harvard senior Mike McLean, a friend whom I met at an internship, is writing a senior thesis for Government Studies. McLean noted that about a third of Government studies majors go down the thesis track — roughly double, percentage wise, of the equivalent, Political Science department, at Penn.
Sure, Harvard may contain a greater number of students who are interested in research but that surely does not account for the gross disparities. Even a policy such as ours that would prevent certain students from writing a thesis, doesn’t account for the vast difference.
Penn is still doing a less than stellar job of promoting research. More opportunities should be available at the freshman and sophomore level to encourage future thesis writers.
Too often, thesis writing is couched in the semantics of research, research and research. Instead, we should emphasize achievement, ambition, publication and true scholarship on a subject of your choice. Students at Penn care about those things and writing a thesis allows them to fully accomplish those goals.
Tangible products are born out of the hard work a thesis requires. It’s a lesson I had not quite begun to envision until the light began to appear at the far, far end of Thesis St.
We shouldn’t be afraid of the process, but rather cognizant of the outcome. Write a thesis. You’ll regret it for a few months and then recant that regret for many years thereafter.
Brian Goldman is a College senior from Queens, N.Y. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The Gold Standard appears every Monday.