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How important is an undergrad thesis?


seaofghosts
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The title says it all, really. But some background:

 

I've been in school forever because of work and experimentation. I want to get a PhD in history, and I was intending to do an undergraduate thesis in preparation for grad school. (And because I just wanted to.) But now it looks like I'm not able to do a thesis -- not because of bad grades or anything negative, I just don't have room in my degree for the necessary honors courses without going semesters over. And that costs money, obviously.

 

So how important is an undergrad thesis? I know it definitely depends on the school, but do most students who get into top programs complete one? I'm not aiming for Harvard or anything, but I do want to have choices. I should have solid applications otherwise. I'm probably making a bigger deal of it than I should be, but I just found out today that I can't do a thesis and it kinda disappointed me. 

 

Thanks!   :D

Edited by seaofghosts
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I don't think it matters that much to be honest. I think having a top-notch writing sample is important, but it need not come from a thesis course.

If you are really bent on a similar experience, try a directed research course from a trusted professor that will let you take an in-depth look at a topic from the undergrad level. Same results, without tons of boring honors courses that probably have nothing to do with your topic anyway.

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I know some undergrads who don't write a thesis but still get into top doctoral programs. Writing a thesis is definitely great experience to have before you get into grad school not just because it looks good on the CV or it helps to pull it out for your sample paper but because you will have to write a thesis in graduate school whether it's your MA thesis or doctoral dissertation. Working on an original research project such as a year-long thesis helps you understand what graduate work entails. It's not about writing 7-10 page papers following your professor's prompts anymore. You find what you're interested in and you build on it until you find something worth saying about it. And since undergrads don't usually have a chance to create original research, they tend to struggle a little when starting graduate work.

 

So in short, writing a thesis is definitely helpful for the experience. It looks good to be able to mention it just like being able to mention a publication or an opportunity to study abroad. If you can't manage writing a thesis as an undergrad, no sweat. Find something else that makes you unique and shows you're ready for grad school and focus on that in your application.

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I agree with everyone who posted above. Yes, thesis writing is helpful for experience, but otherwise, not essential.

 

Here's why:

For those who are applying to MA or PhD programs straight out of undergrad (in my experience, about half of the people), they're applying in the fall or winter of their senior year. For many, many people this means they haven't written or polished their thesis enough for use as a writing sample.

 

Then, there's some programs in undergrad that don't write their thesis until second semester (I'm one of those). And then there's some that don't even HAVE a thesis option for undergrad. So, yes, it's great for experience but it's just that. Experience.

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The experience is very, very helpful.  You learn what it takes to write an original 30+ page research paper based on primary sources, not secondary.

 

Your writing sample needs to be just that- a demonstration of your capabilities as a future historian to be able to collect, interpret, and analyze various sources and reconstruct historical accounts with a methodological approach.  If you have a seminar paper like that, then great!  Use it!  

 

If you don't want to take honors courses to be able to qualify for a thesis-writing course, ask a trusted prof for an independent study/research course.  I'm sure s/he will be delighted at the opportunity to teach the historian's craft in a serious, intimate manner.

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I agree with the rest about the experience being extremely helpful for understanding grad work (and for me, it also helped me really develop the research bug, and I now have a generally good idea at how to approach my potential project when I write my SOP)... however, if you have a strong enough writing sample, I don't necessarily think you HAVE to do one. TMP has a good suggestion for an independent study (I've done two myself and you can really make the experience what you need it to be, especially given the right adviser).

 

---------------

 

^ that line marks my end of one discussion and launch into a new one, given a question I've been asking some younger professors in my department.

 

For my writing sample, I am assuming I will use my senior thesis. My problem lies with how to cut it down, and I'm assuming some of you with an M.A. thesis might have some insight (mine is not quite as long as a Masters dissertation but certainly longer than a typical undergrad thesis). My thesis is right around 70 pages: do I send only a chapter (ca. 15 pages) with an abstract?; do I rewrite into a very condensed paper?; do I do something different depending upon varying page requirements? Your thoughts on this would be helpful :)

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I think if you had time, it would be a good experience for you, but I don't think it would effect your chances of getting into grad school in the slightest.  In my case, I did not even use my thesis as a writing it sample.  In most cases, the thesis is too long for a writing sample and cutting it up can be unwieldy unless you have an obvious chapter that stands alone well.  As an alternative project (on your time or in a seminar), you should work on improving the research of a 15-20 page research paper that is actually the appropriate length for applications.  This would be equally if not more valuable to your grad school applications.

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As others have mentioned, I would jump at the chance to some sort of shorter but comparable research project, if possible. Even if it's for yourself -- you're going to have to do this level of work (or higher) for the rest of your schooling -- nay, the rest of your career, so it's good to get a sense of how you go about it. Hey, you might really hate it, or at the least, it's good prep. My thesis (which I spoke about in my SOP, as evidence of my ability to do research, but did not use as a writing sample) took a LOT out of me. It was really, really hard. But I learnt so much about what I wouldn't do next time, and I think -- oh yes, I've already made it through writing 80 polished pages that required a huge amount of time parsing through original sources, I can do aaaanythingggg! Ok. Not anything. But I realize I can do the work of a historian.

Edited by lafayette
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I think -- oh yes, I've already made it through writing 80 polished pages that required a huge amount of time parsing through original sources, I can do aaaanythingggg! Ok. Not anything. But I realize I can do the work of a historian.

 

Please don't take away the "I can do aaaaanythinggggggggg"! Those are my sentiments exactly. Actually, that's my mantra right now. haha ;)

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Like others have said, I'm not sure it is necessary to gain admission into a PhD/MA program. Depending on what the senior thesis (undergrad thesis) process is like at your undergrad, I would recommend you jump on the opportunity to do one. I ended up doing a senior thesis rather than the usual capstone course (which involves a 30 page research paper) that spanned my senior year and ended up being around 120 pages. I can't stress enough how important this experience was, and how much it helped me transition to my MA and write a thesis.

 

Since my undergrad thesis process was basically the same as an MA thesis (year-long work with an adviser on a topic of my choice, with extensive historiography and primary source research) I was very well prepared, and not as overwhelmed as some of my peers when it came to the MA thesis process. If your undergrad offers such a thesis process I would definitely recommend it.  Also, if you are planning on writing your undergrad thesis on a similar topic to what you plan to study in grad school, you will undoubtedly benefit from having a good background in the historiography and research of your field/specialty. 

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My department has actually gotten rid of the masters thesis. The main reason has to do with union issues, but the other is that they are basically useless. Students spend massive amounts of time and energy and they end up collecting dust on the bookshelves. Plus, to be honest, as a student at a large public second-rate university, the work from most graduate students is hardly groundbreaking (except for those that are on the PhD track). Instead, they replaced it with the "culminating experience" (I know....the name cracks me up), which is the revision of a research paper they completed in a previous class. In the end, the goal is to have 25-page, publication quality paper.

 

At first, I HATED the idea. In fact, I had a huge panic attack, convinced that a PhD program won't accept me. However, I realized that this wasn't the case and was actually a very good thing, because I wouldn't have to turn a 100-page thesis into a 25-page writing sample. Plus, if I really wanted to do a thesis, I still have the option, because of the date that I entered the program. They are offering the option the first time this semester and I am hearing mixed things about it. A lot of the students are complaining about the amount of work involved, but I think that has to do with the quality of our grad students than the new program. 

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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 7 years later...
On 4/6/2013 at 8:19 PM, seaofghosts said:

So how important is an undergrad thesis?

IME, it was very important. I had a solid writing sample to submit with my applications and I did not have the crisis of confidence that many aspiring graduate students on this BB seem to experience season after season. The thesis allowed me to have enough self limit the number of programs to which I applied (two) and to not stress endlessly about getting an offer of admission.

The qualifiers here is that I did a five year plan as an undergraduate so my UG thesis was completed and polished going into my application season.

Edited by Sigaba
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