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Undergraduate Thesis -- how important?

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Hey guys. I have been freaking out because it seems like I'm not going to be able to complete an undergraduate thesis. There are two teachers who have agreed to be secondary readers for my proposed topic, but said they couldn't be primary readers as they are unfamiliar with the author I've chosen. Both were very enthusiastic about my idea, but they were unable to supervise the scholarship themselves. I've known what I wanted to do my thesis on since probably sophomore year, and I can't get my head around possibly picking another topic. Do I need to just get over it and come up with something else? How important is having an undergraduate thesis when applying to graduate school? I'm not sure what else I would use as a writing sample, and I would forgo my whole "graduating with honors" designation if I didn't take thesis credit, even though I've done all the other steps to assure I'd graduate with the highest honors in my major. I am treating this like it's the end-all-be-all of my academic life, and I can't figure out how to fix it. Help!

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Is there anyway to modify your topic somewhat so that you can still research and write about the author you're interested in, but in a context your potential readers would be more comfortable supervising? This is not my area -- so the suggestion might be no help at all -- but can you focus on the genre/time period/style/whatever of your author rather than the author himself?

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I find it strange that your professors were unwilling to work with a new author —especially since their role as an advisor is not be an expert on your subject, but to help YOU become SOMEWHAT of an expert on it, at least enough of one to make a sustained argument about it. To answer your question, in my own opinion it is not that significant to have completed a thesis when applying to grad school. With that being said, the thesis will help help you with things that ARE important: articulating a proposed research project, explaining the application of a theoretical approach to some concrete case, etc. These are things you will need to do in your statement of purpose, but it sounds as if, based on your enthusiasm for your project, that you have a clear and focused idea. So, in summary, think of the thesis as a project for YOU, and not something that is a prerequisite or something that will impress an admissions committee. I would not give up on trying to find a way to complete the thesis—there are lots of open-minded faculty in the school which I suspect you are at (based on your location). Also, one last thing to think about regarding graduating with honors: as you do more research in preparation for grad school, you will be spending a lot of time looking at faculty web pages trying to find people you want to work with. Each professor will list their educational history: only in some cases do they list where their baccalaureate degree is from, and they almost NEVER indicate that they graduate summa or whatever. Most of these people are rather brilliant and I can only assume that they graduated with some form of honors. The point is that after a few years, it just doesn't matter anymore.

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Said simply, It does not matter if you wrote an undergraduate thesis or not. It may help you prepare a writing sample or form relationships with professors who may write you recommendations, which of course matter very much, but the fact that you churned out an undergraduate thesis is not itself going to get you anywhere. Anecdotes are just that, anecdotes, but if they are at all persuasive I can say that I am in a very solid program and never gave a thought to doing an undergrad thesis.

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I'm inclined to disagree that writing a thesis doesn't matter, but not because it adds or detracts anything from your CV. I believe writing a thesis as an undergrad is important because it gives you a taste for what a large research project entails. It's nothing compared to grad work, of course, but provides invaluable experience for a person interested in going to grad school--even if the lessons learned from such experience only boil down to "loved it" or "hated it."

That said, it's not necessary to do an honors thesis, but I would really recommend taking on some kind of large, extended research project before deciding whether you really want to go to grad school. An independent study culminating in a big paper/research project, perhaps, if the thesis doesn't work out.

Good luck to you!

Said simply, It does not matter if you wrote an undergraduate thesis or not. It may help you prepare a writing sample or form relationships with professors who may write you recommendations, which of course matter very much, but the fact that you churned out an undergraduate thesis is not itself going to get you anywhere. Anecdotes are just that, anecdotes, but if they are at all persuasive I can say that I am in a very solid program and never gave a thought to doing an undergrad thesis.

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Can't you do some kind of 'informal thesis'? Like, start writing a paper on your own, and talk about it to professors, have them help you, etc. Then you'd have a writing sample, you could mention this as a significant research experience, and the process will teach you lots about research.

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I would really recommend taking on some kind of large, extended research project before deciding whether you really want to go to grad school. An independent study culminating in a big paper/research project, perhaps, if the thesis doesn't work out.

I will certainly grant you this, but it's a bit late in the game (at least this season) to still be asking "whether you really want to go to grad school." Presumably almost everyone on this message board, ill-advisedly or not, has already concluded that pursuing graduate school is the correct path for them.

I stand by my original statement that having an undergraduate thesis to list on your CV or discuss in your personal statement is not, in itself, going to impress anyone. Your ability to conceive of a larger project and/or a directed course of study should be evident from what you discuss your personal statement. No one should feel inadequate for not having had an opportunity--or desire--to do write a thesis, especially because the process is frequently one that requires a significant expenditure of time and effort that has a questionable degree of ultimate pay-off. This isn't to say that I think they're at all without merit or somehow not worth doing for some, but they aren't the benchmark of undergraduate achievement that many make them out to be and, when it really comes down to it, they only bear a fairly superficial resemblance to the type of work that you'll be doing in graduate school.

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It might help to clarify.

The author in question is Cormac McCarthy, and no one on my faculty seems to know a lot about him. This is unsurprising given the dearth of McCarthy scholarship, but I still feel like someone should be able to help me out. For the final paper in my Dante seminar, we were supposed to do a comparative piece on Dante and an English poet of our choosing. I e-mailed the prof and asked if I could write about McCarthy. He granted my request, and gave me an A with glowing comments on the paper. When I walked in his office to pick it up at the end of the semester, he gushed about how impressed he was, and he even gave me a hug, thanking me for presenting such an impressive argument. My plan was to try this paper out on him, and if he responded favorably, ask if I could turn it into a thesis. I was shocked when he said he'd be a secondary reader but didn't know enough about McCarthy to supervise any scholarship focusing primarily on him. I really, really, want to do a paper on Christian allegory and McCarthy, but I've never taken an American Lit class (I've taken mainly theory classes for my English major), and subsequently don't really know who to approach. I had sent out a couple of e-mails throughout the semester to professors who taught Am Lit, but not gotten any bites from people willing to supervise a thesis. I left it with my teacher to "please" try and think of someone who could work with me. He promised to give it thought over the break.

Ugh. I know that an undergrad thesis means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but so much seems tied up into it (potentially stronger recc letters, a stronger writing sample, graduating with highest honors after already doing all the other reqs, etc.), that I can't bear the thought of it falling through.

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It might help to clarify.

The author in question is Cormac McCarthy, and no one on my faculty seems to know a lot about him. This is unsurprising given the dearth of McCarthy scholarship, but I still feel like someone should be able to help me out. For the final paper in my Dante seminar, we were supposed to do a comparative piece on Dante and an English poet of our choosing. I e-mailed the prof and asked if I could write about McCarthy. He granted my request, and gave me an A with glowing comments on the paper. When I walked in his office to pick it up at the end of the semester, he gushed about how impressed he was, and he even gave me a hug, thanking me for presenting such an impressive argument. My plan was to try this paper out on him, and if he responded favorably, ask if I could turn it into a thesis. I was shocked when he said he'd be a secondary reader but didn't know enough about McCarthy to supervise any scholarship focusing primarily on him. I really, really, want to do a paper on Christian allegory and McCarthy, but I've never taken an American Lit class (I've taken mainly theory classes for my English major), and subsequently don't really know who to approach. I had sent out a couple of e-mails throughout the semester to professors who taught Am Lit, but not gotten any bites from people willing to supervise a thesis. I left it with my teacher to "please" try and think of someone who could work with me. He promised to give it thought over the break.

Ugh. I know that an undergrad thesis means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but so much seems tied up into it (potentially stronger recc letters, a stronger writing sample, graduating with highest honors after already doing all the other reqs, etc.), that I can't bear the thought of it falling through.

Hm, well, it does make sense to me that a prof who focuses on Dante (and who is therefore, I'm guessing, a Renaissance poetry/poetics scholar?) might not feel comfortable directing a thesis on a writer who is so far removed from his specialty as McCarthy. It would be like asking a C20 Americanist to direct a thesis on Mary Wroth: quite a difficult undertaking and perhaps rather out of that person's depth such that it would do the student a disservice. I am not quite sure what to tell you other than keep doing what you've been doing--that is, reaching out to other faculty in the department who might be better suited to your needs, and asking profs you know to point you in the right direction. Perhaps you can talk to the undergraduate director and/or director of the honors program? I know that the director of my undergrad honors program did sometimes help match students with faculty for thesis projects.

If you are set on having (or required to take) a thesis advisor with whom you've already worked, you might consider reorienting your thesis in a different direction that aligns more directly with the faculty you know and trust (though I'll be the first to admit it can be extremely difficult to write a thesis on a topic you don't love from the outset, because it's very common for people to end up hating even their once-beloved topics by the end!). If you do this, you might also be able to set up an independent study with an C20 Americanist to work on your McCarthy project. That way, it might be possible to have your cake and eat it too.

What year are you in school? When do you have to have your thesis advisor set? If you're a junior, you could take a C20 American class next semester and try to forge a strong enough relationship with the prof to work ask her/him to advise your thesis. If your program has a separate Comp Lit department (or Rhetoric, even), you might also look there for potential advisors to widen your net a bit.

I completely understand your frustrations! It must be really difficult to position yourself so effectively for the honors program and have such a speed bump pop up in your way. The good news is that it sounds like you are a great student and very focused. Ask around for help: from your advisor, the undergrad director, the honors program director, professors you trust. Keep working at it, be a squeaky wheel, and it will hopefully all turn out for the best. Good luck!

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It might help to clarify.

The author in question is Cormac McCarthy, and no one on my faculty seems to know a lot about him. This is unsurprising given the dearth of McCarthy scholarship, but I still feel like someone should be able to help me out. For the final paper in my Dante seminar, we were supposed to do a comparative piece on Dante and an English poet of our choosing. I e-mailed the prof and asked if I could write about McCarthy. He granted my request, and gave me an A with glowing comments on the paper. When I walked in his office to pick it up at the end of the semester, he gushed about how impressed he was, and he even gave me a hug, thanking me for presenting such an impressive argument. My plan was to try this paper out on him, and if he responded favorably, ask if I could turn it into a thesis. I was shocked when he said he'd be a secondary reader but didn't know enough about McCarthy to supervise any scholarship focusing primarily on him. I really, really, want to do a paper on Christian allegory and McCarthy, but I've never taken an American Lit class (I've taken mainly theory classes for my English major), and subsequently don't really know who to approach. I had sent out a couple of e-mails throughout the semester to professors who taught Am Lit, but not gotten any bites from people willing to supervise a thesis. I left it with my teacher to "please" try and think of someone who could work with me. He promised to give it thought over the break.

Ugh. I know that an undergrad thesis means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but so much seems tied up into it (potentially stronger recc letters, a stronger writing sample, graduating with highest honors after already doing all the other reqs, etc.), that I can't bear the thought of it falling through.

I agree with everything that Pamphilia wrote.

And you also want to keep the broader picture in mind. Your difficulty in finding an advisor speaks to a much larger issue; if it's hard to find a 20th C. Americanist to help you with a project concerning Dante, it might be even more difficult to adequately frame such a project so that a graduate program might be interested in taking you on. It might leave admissions committee members scratching their heads--is this person interested in Medieval literature or 20th c. American literature? Italian? Comparative literature? Such are the pitfalls of periodization. Professors don't do that transhistorical, cross-cultural, pan-humanities work anymore (though perhaps they should). Joyce people often HAVE to have a firm grounding in classical mythology and medieval allegory (because Ulysses requires it), but 20th c. American novels don't often do that same intense mythology/allegory work. (I'm generalizing here.)

This is not to discourage you from pursuing this whole Dante/McCarthy allegory thing--it sounds fascinating and promising. I think there's a lot stuff to be done with allegory in American literature, but I think you'll ultimately have to decide whether your primary focus is post-1945 American lit or comparative Medieval literature, and you'll have to home in on that particular area. And yes, keep asking around for other Americanists. If you can, take a lot of classes in that area.

And re: the value of doing a thesis: Here's my advice. Yes, it's very valuable. But it's much more important to produce a sustained and original writing sample. You would be better off revising and re-revising a paper until it's a 15-20 pp. well-researched article, rather than spending all year struggling over an 80-page mini-dissertation. (I wish someone had told me this.) The problem with the thesis project is that it isn't really similar to anything we do at the graduate level. 20-page seminar papers can be turned into articles, and many articles can be turned into a dissertation, and a dissertation can be turned into a book--but what can you really do with an undergraduate thesis? (Mine is currently collecting dust.) I wish I had spent my time and energy perfecting a shorter paper rather than writing a really long thesis that eventually had to be (clumsily) excerpted and rewritten when I applied to graduate school.

The benefits of doing a thesis are that you get to immerse yourself in a topic for a sustained period of time. However, you could do this just as easily in an independent study.

Edited by lifealive

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There's actually been a fair amount of work done on Christian allegory in McCarthy -- you might want to check this out, if you haven't already:

http://oyc.yale.edu/english/american-novel-since-1945/content/sessions/session-17-cormac-mccarthy-blood-meridian

I actually wrote my honors thesis on a text that nobody in the department had read either (can't blame them -- it's a crap book, but it has an intriguing history and I was able to derive a unique idea from it). I just gave my readers plenty of overviews of the text, in addition to copying some important sections for them and they were fine with that. Surprised there's no resources available on somebody as widely studied as McCarthy.

Good luck!

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When I was in the beginning stages of trying to find a thesis mentor, my capstone professor emailed the entire department with my proposal and asked if who would be willing to work with me. That might be the way to go. No one in my very, very small English department was well-versed on the author I was writing about (Margaret Atwood), despite the fact that there is a ton of scholarship on her.

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This got sorted out literally the day before drop/add ends. Now all I have to do is present my "description of work planned" to the notoriously mean and scrutinizing head of undergraduate affairs. Not looking forward to tomorrow.

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