Kyle Henson | A thesis to top it off


The Logical Skeptic | A senior capstone should be a vital part of the Penn experience


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Kyle Henson
The Logical Skeptic

Photo by Kyle Henson


As I picked classes for my final semester, I was excited to see how far I had come in satisfying Penn’s requirements. What had seemed an overwhelmingly long and convoluted list freshman year has been slowly withered to two biological basis of behavior classes. But there was still a significant requirement missing from Penn InTouch: my senior thesis.

A senior thesis is unlike nearly any other academic requirement. It can take many forms — I’ll be completing a 15-page paper on laboratory research whereas students in the humanities may write well over 100 pages. But this senior capstone is united by its commitment to expounding on a novel and specific topic.

Students are free to choose their own focus and typically spend one or two semesters researching and writing. The extended writing period allows students to apply knowledge they’ve accumulated over three years while exploring a topic in depth.

While many students are required to write a thesis either to fulfill their major or to graduate with honors, they are not a graduation requirement. Seniors, as a result, have disparate experiences. Those in popular majors with large classes and overburdened faculty receive less advising, making the thesis a more difficult endeavor.

Penn isn’t the only one of its peers that doesn’t require senior theses. But schools that have made it a requirement view it as a cornerstone of the undergraduate educational experience. Princeton University, for example, goes so far as to describe the senior thesis as one of the “most valuable academic component(s)” of the Princeton experience.

Accolades like this make it no surprise that some departments at Penn and even the entire school of Engineering have taken the steps to require their students to complete a final research project before graduating.

But besides academic and intellectual reasons to require students to write a thesis, there are many practical benefits:

For many seniors, Penn marks the end of 16 years of formal education. It’s incredibly anticlimactic, therefore, to end this journey simply by checking off a list of courses that bear little relation to each other.

A senior thesis would serve as an appropriate end to an undergraduate degree and force students to take control of their academic goals. Since the working world will not be filled with course requirements to guide your intellectual interests or lectures that meet every Monday and Wednesday, your ability to study independently will become paramount.

Many seniors lose sight of what it means to be a college student in the muck of On-Campus Recruitment and graduate school applications. A thesis would force students to remain engaged in studies that they enjoy while diminishing Penn’s notoriously pre-professional atmosphere.

Since Penn already has an expansive curriculum, it would be most effective for the senior thesis to replace an existing requirement, rather than add to it.

The writing seminar requirement would be an obvious choice. The current requirement is formulaic and despised by many freshmen (and seniors who waited too long).

A thesis requirement would allow students to develop persuasive and eloquent writing akin to professional academic writing.

Departments, of course, would have to adjust their curriculums to prevent a thesis from augmenting the credit total or time requirements of the major. The decreased course load that would come with integrating a thesis into all majors’ cores would also free up professors’ time for dedicated thesis advising.

It’s clear that requiring senior theses could improve students’ curricular and intellectual experiences. If Penn wants to continue its commitment to students’ intellectual development, the administration should not let students slide by without completing a capstone.

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