I Love My Thesis! Or Do I?
Three seniors reflect on the decision to write a thesis, midway through the writing process.
Hours spent poring over books in hopes of finding the perfect source. Weekends spent huddled in the library instead of skiing with friends. Draft upon draft of each chapter, constantly making edits. Sleepless nights and jam-packed days — all for a thesis. Is all of this worth it?
According to Bryanna Entwistle ’23, a history major with minors in government and Asian studies, her senior thesis has been a long time coming.
“I always wanted to do one final, culminating project,” Entwistle said. “I didn’t know exactly what the thesis track looked like when I was a freshman, but it was pretty clear early on that I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it in the history department.”
Entwistle said her thesis is inspired by her long-standing interest in American, Vietnamese and Cambodian relations. It focuses on how the United States used the phrase “human rights” to justify anti-Vietnamese sentiments in Congress during the 1970s and ’80s.
Entwistle attributes her passion both to growing up in Singapore and having a father who is “a big history buff.” When she came to Dartmouth, Entwistle said she wanted to branch out and learn about other regional histories. However, by her sophomore winter, she found herself returning to Southeast Asian history.
“I really missed studying this region that’s so important to me and my family,” Entwistle said. “So I took [HIST 26, “The Vietnam War”] and started doing research.”
In addition to pure intellectual curiosity, writing a thesis can have practical benefits, such as becoming published and bolstering graduate school applications. Abby Smith ’23 is an art history major hoping to attend graduate school, but she said that her future plans aren’t the only reason she chose to undertake such a large big project.
“[By writing a thesis], you are able to quantify all the work that you put in throughout college by making this one thing,” Smith said.
Smith is writing her thesis about two gay Southern artists, William Levitt Jr. and Michael Meads, who grapple with gender in their work. While Smith said that she enjoys analyzing their art and exploring the connections between the artists, the workload can be overbearing at times.
“It is really just such a grueling process, and even though you love what you’re doing, it’s one of those things that kind of overwhelms your life for about nine months,” Smith explained. “But in the end… it’s going to be worth it.”
Writing a thesis also provides a chance for students to turn their own intellectual passions and progress into a tangible accomplishment.
“I love talking about my thesis,” Entwistle said. “It’s been really, really fun for me and really gratifying because it’s the one thing, so far at Dartmouth, that I feel like is uniquely me and uniquely rooted in my background and my academic interests.”
Emily Hester ’23 — a Russian studies and government double major — shared this sentiment, saying that the most rewarding part of writing a thesis is being able to follow her own interests throughout the entire process. Hester’s thesis centers on Soviet and American propaganda during the Cold War, which she has been researching independently for years.
“I think just being able to conduct research on a topic you think is interesting [is a great opportunity], because in college a lot of the stuff you have to research is something your professor tells you to do and it’s kind of in a limited time frame,” Hester said. “But with a thesis, I’ve been able to travel to different libraries and find all these sources and just pore over information that’s really interesting to me for hours at a time.”
Hester added that the project has both exposed her to the expertise of faculty with similar interests and allowed her to build confidence in her own abilities.
“It is incredible to be able to learn so many skills with a professor who does a lot of work [in that field],” Hester said. “And also the skills you learn by yourself from doing the research and all of that [are] definitely worth your time.”
These students all echoed that it is crucial to focus on a topic you’re really passionate about — otherwise the whole process might be miserable.
Smith, along with the other two seniors, encouraged underclassmen to consider writing a thesis, but said that undertaking a thesis also isn’t right for everyone.
“I would encourage people who have a very strong interest in something,” Smith said, “but if you don’t write a thesis, you’re not a worse student. There are other ways to show that you’ve learned a lot — a thesis is not for everyone … Because if you don’t want to, it’s going to suck.”
Although the prospect of a little printed book with your name on might sound enticing, this alone isn’t enough motivation for three terms of intense intellectual labor.
“You’re going to be reading 300-page books on your own time, and many, many of them just to get even the slightest bit of background information for your paper,” Entwistle said.
If these three writers are any indication, the thesis process is onerous, painstaking and long — but well worth it if you truly love your topic.