Should I Write a Thesis?

The Honors College strongly encourages you to do a thesis, but it does not require one for graduation.

This means you have a choice to make—thesis or not? You should note that some departmental honors programs do require a thesis, so if you are seeking "departmental honors" as well as graduation from the Robert E. Cook Honors College, you need to observe carefully the requirements set by your major. But assuming you have a completely open choice, what should you do?

A thesis is not the right choice for every honors student. Discovering new knowledge and turning it into a thesis can be tremendously exhilarating, but it demands a serious investment of your time and energy. You can't be merely going through the motions or doing this because someone else thought you should. If you aren't dedicated to the project or do not have adequate time to devote to it, you are unlikely to end up with a product in which you can take pride, and you may not have much fun doing it. A quality thesis demands a quality commitment from you.

A thesis is not the only right choice or even the best choice for every major or career path. In some disciplines, other experiences—if they allow you to demonstrate independence, proficiency, and maturity in your field—can be just as valuable or even more so. But even if your field emphasizes other experiences such as internships, do not be too quick to dismiss the possibility and value of an honors thesis. Some departments limit the number of such credits you may count toward your major, but there's nothing wrong with having more than one culminating experience—a thesis and an internship, for instance—if you can fit them in. Doing one does not necessarily preclude the other. You can think "both/and" rather than "either/or."

What then are some good reasons in favor of writing an honors thesis? First, the work can be incredibly self-rewarding. You can derive great satisfaction from designing a significant project and seeing it through to a successful conclusion. Knowing that you did it once, and thus can do it again in the future, builds legitimate self-confidence. Working closely on a one-to-one basis over an extended time period with a faculty thesis director can lead to mutual respect and intellectual discussions that are almost impossible to duplicate in any other setting. Along the way, there is tremendous intellectual excitement when you find new information, confirm a hypothesis, or finally understand how the pieces of a puzzle fit together. One student called those her "flashbulb moments" when "the light goes on and all of a sudden you understand something in a way you never thought of it before." This is the same kind of excitement that researchers have shared for centuries, at least as far back as the day Archimedes first shouted "Eureka!"

Second, a thesis is a superb opportunity to develop your discipline-specific research and communication abilities. This is a primary reason that a thesis is a common component of honors programs throughout the United States. Your knowledge will increase and your skills will grow exponentially. Writing a thesis also tests and strengthens your ability to employ initiative, to focus, to be persistent, and to manage time well. This makes a thesis exceptionally good preparation for the world of work or for graduate or professional school.

Third, a thesis can open other opportunities to you. If your research is important enough and well written, all or part of it might be published. There are local, regional, and sometimes national conferences at which undergraduates can do a poster presentation, be on a panel, or read a paper based on their research. In the course of your thesis work, you might connect with prominent scholars working in the field or make contacts leading to research assistantships or summer employment.

The fourth point follows logically—a thesis strengthens your résumé. Why do employers and graduate schools care about your thesis? Primarily because it is the part of your education that is most identifiably yours. Completing a thesis says volumes about your work ethic. For employers, it means that you can be given a significant independent project and be trusted to organize and complete it. For graduate and professional schools, it testifies not only to your persistence, but also to your mastery of research skills that are critical components of higher level study.

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