Column | Feb. 25

Make independent work optional

The Princeton University Library system holds almost 60,000 theses, written by senior students from 1926 to 2013. But, other than living trapped in Mudd Library, where do these theses ever really go? Your words or calculations will represent a space of the world that has previously gone unexplored. Your thesis will entail collaboration with sleepless nights, extraordinary professors  and, most likely, a great deal of funding. But the bulky senior thesis, with its unnerving deadlines and demands, might not be the best way to get the most out of our education or prepare us for our future careers, whether we find ourselves thrust into the workforce or tethered to another academic institution.

For some students, the senior thesis represents a long-term research project that produces a piece of scholarly work that can be presented to future employers, equipping students with a supplement to the curriculum vitae, honors, recommendation letters and transcript. Through the thesis-writing process, students find themselves knee-deep in records, libraries and advanced research, in close contact with professors and experts of the field, and in service of whatever academic community they one day hope to be a part of.  However, despite these positive aspects of the thesis, the thesis wouldn’t necessarily benefit every student’s Princeton career.

Senior and junior independent work should be optional. These projects require a great magnitude of effort over a long period of time, on top of our other requirements during our junior and senior years. At the busiest and most important time in our academic careers, when we’re turning in work for higher level departmental courses and applying for graduate schools or jobs, the senior thesis could be a burden whose benefits aren’t comparable to its added pressure and stress. In these cases, having an optional thesis would allow for greater flexibility in students’ schedules, allowing them to allot time for other opportunities that could better contribute to their goals. For some students, a study abroad program might seem most suitable during their senior year, due to department and certificate requirements that must be completed during their first three years. In these cases, the senior thesis might hamper students’ chances of exploring their field outside of Princeton’s campus.

To help students decide if they want to begin a longer independent project, it would make sense to set up a preparatory or exploratory program of seminars for students as soon as they are required to choose their majors. As an ecology and evolutionary biology major hopeful, I’d certainly prefer it if I could take a survey seminar that sampled a variety of topics, based on many different professors’ research, before I had to choose an adviser. An optional system would also give students greater flexibility in choosing advisers. Currently, students generally choose an adviser on the basis of the professor’s research, necessitating them to find thesis advisers before they’ve become well acquainted with the professor, the professor’s research or the process of writing a thesis as a whole.

Getting to know more potential advisers could also give some students the ability to work on multiple shorter independent projects. For many students, a portfolio format might be preferable to the long-form independent projects. To create such a portfolio, students could complete smaller intensive projects such as those they would be assigned to complete in an actual work setting. For each of these smaller projects, students could have the option to stay with one adviser or explore the department’s faculty, allowing them to leave with a greater sense of what that field really has to offer.

An optional thesis or series of independent work would also better complement the University’s grading policy. Currently, students are given letter grades on junior independent work and theses, in the same manner as they would be given letter grades for classes. However, I question whether the practice of assigning letter grades fulfills the goals of innovation and creativity that I would hope a senior thesis would try to accomplish. Theses should be reviewed for accuracy and edited for excellence. However, once revision is complete, it should not be necessary to rank different projects according to a formal academic scale, especially a quantitative scale. Departments at Princeton currently honor certain exceptional theses, providing those students with distinction based on “grades received by the student in departmental studies in the sophomore, junior, and senior years (including junior independent work, the senior thesis, and, for students in the A.B. program, the senior departmental examination).” As a student who’s admittedly terrified of producing a flop, but nonetheless interested and inspired by out-of-the-box ideas and unexplored topics, I’d find myself hard-pressed to take the easy route and follow the institution’s perception of excellence — of what a “good thesis” is. Under a different system, I could be encouraged to pursue a less conventional topic that I’d want to explore in my future career or academic pursuits, risk or no risk.

Isabella Gomes is a sophomore from Irvine, Calif. She can be reached at igomes@princeton.edu.

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