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The Dartmouth
April 15, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Verbum Ultimum: Race to a Thesis Advisor

The difficulty of securing an advisor should never prevent a student from pursuing a thesis.

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The senior thesis is, for many students, the culmination of their academic pursuits. Writing a thesis can be an invaluable experience and learning tool, providing students with the opportunity to engage in high-level research, collaborate closely with an academic in their field of interest and publish their own original research. Several members of this Editorial Board are currently pursuing theses. However, we have observed serious obstacles to finding an advisor willing to oversee a thesis. This can be discouraging, if not insurmountable, for students who are seeking to write one. The opportunity to write a thesis should be available to any student who has proven their capability and academic interest, and we believe that departments have the obligation to ensure that no student is denied the opportunity to pursue this academic endeavor. In order to accomplish this, we suggest that thesis directors for each department implement a matching process to pair thesis writers with appropriate mentors. This would ensure that no student who has the potential to write a thesis is denied the opportunity. 

The current model in many departments for proposing a thesis and finding an advisor puts an unreasonable burden on the student. In these cases, the department requires a student to approach a professor whose expertise aligns with the student’s research interests. Professors are at complete liberty to accept the student’s request, decline the student’s request or even ignore the student entirely. While we appreciate that theses are a huge time investment for professors, and that professors should have the option to decide whether or not they take on a thesis mentee; however, in our experience, it seems that professors are a little too hesitant to advise theses in some cases. Our Board has multiple students who have been rejected or ignored by all of the professors they have contacted, including professors they have taken classes with and who have similar research interests, leaving them with nobody willing to advise them.

This system can foster an environment in which it is difficult to find any advisor at all, never mind one who understands and can contribute ideas to the student’s chosen project. Professors will often decline to advise a thesis if their area of interest does not completely align with the students’ interest — which we feel is a completely valid reason to decline, as the professor may not feel comfortable advising a thesis they cannot contribute their own expertise to. However, there are many cases in which there may only be one professor in a department who actually has expertise in a specific field. If that professor is unresponsive, or has already agreed to advise another thesis and does not feel comfortable taking on a second one, then the student seeking an advisor in that field may be out of luck. This exact scenario has played out for two members of this Editorial Board: They hoped to write theses on specific areas of interest, but the only professors who had expertise in those subject areas had either already committed to other thesis projects or did not respond. We have noticed this creates a race among students to secure their advisor, which can leave the students who lose out without options.

This difficulty can put students months behind schedule. A member of this Editorial Board emailed a professor she took a class with previously about a thesis project in that same field over the summer and has still received no response. Other professors in the department were supportive of the idea but declined to advise due to a poor fit with their own research interests. This member had initially hoped to begin research for her thesis this fall, but because she has still not secured an advisor, she still does not know if she will be able to write one at all. 

Every member of this Editorial Board who wanted to write a thesis is passionate about their area of study and has always been absolutely certain they wanted to pursue a thesis. However, for students who may be interested but less certain, these logistical difficulties could prove challenging enough to discourage them from writing a thesis entirely. Even members of this Board have questioned whether the academic opportunity is worth the frustration of being ignored by yet another potential advisor. If this system is potentially turning away students who genuinely want to engage more deeply with their studies, then it needs to be reevaluated. 

There is another solution, one which some departments already employ. We believe that a committee matching process would lessen the stress of finding an advisor and remove a large barrier to writing a thesis. The creative writing thesis, for example, requires students to submit their written thesis proposal without an advisor, and upon seeing their proposed project, the thesis committee approves projects and then matches students with advisors. Students can rank advisors they would like, but in the end, the department and its professors have the final say. This way, no student who proposes a worthwhile project is left without an advisor. If this system were implemented in all departments, it would almost entirely negate the stress and frustration of finding an advisor. Students who otherwise would have given up writing a thesis if they did not have an advisor in mind may not be discouraged. It would also ensure that students who have niche thesis interests are paired with the professor most prepared to advise their studies. 

We also want to be sure to recognize the experience from the professors’ side. Advising theses is no small task. It requires a significant time investment, ranging from countless meetings and email exchanges with students, assisting with research and guiding students through the department’s thesis approval process, not to mention the work of reading and editing the actual thesis itself. If a professor does not feel comfortable to advise a thesis, of course they have a right to say no. Nevertheless, several members of this Editorial Board have not heard back from potential thesis advisors, leaving their thesis proposals in limbo and potentially leaving them without the chance to write a thesis. At the end of the day, departments should look at a students’ proposal and determine which professor could best help them. The onus to find a thesis advisor who has both the capacity and research expertise needed — which is already such a difficult balance to strike — should not fall entirely on students. 

We acknowledge that this system is too late to implement this year, but we hope that departments consider this system for future years to alleviate these problems for future thesis-writers. In the meantime, we hope to direct our requests at professors who may be ignoring thesis requests in their inbox. Please answer the students who are asking you to advise their thesis. If you are not already advising a thesis, agree to meet with the student to discuss their idea. If you have already committed to advising another student, help them find someone else: Forward their request to other department faculty, or perhaps suggest other professors the student should reach out to. At this point, any response is better than no response at all. You may help the student gain the academic opportunity of a lifetime.