When Should I Plan for and Begin Work on My Thesis?

  • Students who have written a thesis would shout loudly: "Start early! Start early!"

    Not just at IUP but nationally, one reason many students do not write a thesis is that they wait too long to start thinking about it, and when they finally do there is simply not enough time left to pick a topic, find a professor, get the necessary approvals, and do the work. Sadly, they are left out by default. Don't let that happen to you.

    Ideally, you want to have all the plans and approvals completed by the time you register for your thesis credits, and this is three to five months earlier than the start of the semester when you begin work. This means deadlines will come up faster than you expect. It will take you some time to settle on a topic, find a professor to direct your thesis, and get the necessary approvals. This isn't something you can do in the last one or two days before registration. So this is the bottom line advice: "Start early!"

    Yes, it is usually—although not always—possible for you to register at the last minute. You can sometimes add thesis credits to your schedule as late as the "drop-add" period at the beginning of a semester, but the more you try to do at the last minute, the more chance of something going wrong. Don't procrastinate! Be smart, and be early!

    Even as first-year students, it is not too early to talk with your academic advisor about a thesis. Obviously, you are nowhere near ready to pick a topic or decide which faculty member you want to work with. In fact, you probably aren't sure if you even want to do a thesis or if it's the best path to take. You may not even be certain about your career choice or your major. But you can tell your advisor that you are in the Honors College and a thesis is something you are considering. You can seek answers to some basic questions: Does your department have any special thesis procedures? Will it waive any standard requirements if you do a thesis? Are there courses that you should take before starting a thesis? If so, when and how frequently are these courses offered? You can try putting a thesis into your tentative four-year plan and see how well it fits with the other things you want to do. This isn't a time to make a decision one way or another. It's certainly not a time to reject a thesis out-of-hand as something impossible. It's a time to keep your eyes open and explore possibilities.

    During your sophomore year, you will want to continue thinking seriously and perhaps make some specific plans. Your four-year plan should be taking a more definite shape now. If you are thinking about spending part or all of your junior year abroad, or if student teaching or an internship is going to be part of your senior year, you will need to think about when you want to schedule your thesis. In some departments, the sophomore year is when you sign up for departmental honors programs. Sophomore year is also a good time to attend an Honors College workshop or 4:30 Series presentation on thesis writing. If your thesis is going to be a senior year activity, you still have some time, but if your four-year plan calls for you to start as a junior (see the next paragraph for some reasons why it might), you need to begin serious planning as a sophomore. Remember that you register for courses well ahead of time. You select second-semester junior courses in October of your junior year. That's not very long after you return next fall, so it's wise to talk with your advisor about possibilities before you leave for the summer.

    During your junior year, you finalize your plans if you have not already done so, and in many departments you begin actual work on the thesis. There are good reasons that your department might recommend starting a thesis work in your junior year. An obvious one is that students in some majors are away from campus for an internship or student teaching during their last year. Either of these activities will take your full attention, and it is not advisable to try to do a thesis at the same time. Even if you are going to be on campus for your entire senior year, you will find other demands on your time, such as job searches and interviews or complicated applications for graduate and professional schools. If your thesis is relatively far along during the Fall of your senior year rather than just being started, your professors can write stronger and more detailed letters of reference explaining what you have accomplished. You can also schedule a conference presentation in time to include it on your résumé, and you might be able to submit a section of your thesis as a writing sample to accompany your applications.

    As your plans begin to take shape, you will want to consider whether your research will involve unusually high costs for items such as equipment, supplies, or travel. If these expenses are significantly beyond what an undergraduate might ordinarily be expected to provide in course supplies, you might be able to apply for funding. (Alternately, you might need to modify your plan to meet your budget.)

    Your senior year will be occupied with completing your thesis, providing two copies of the finished product to the Honors College, and including information about it among the accomplishment that you want to have listed in the Honors College graduation program. Since your work is in the final stages, you are also in a good position to answer questions from students in the classes behind you and to be part of an in-house workshop or 4:30 Series presentation on honors theses. Finally, you will want to take time to thank those who helped you with your thesis, and to take some well-deserved pride in what you have achieved.

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