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Psyc major in college, Ph.D. wannabe: Should I quit my senior thesis?


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I'm applying to grad school to study a handful of topics I'm genuinely fascinated by. Problem is, as my school is a tiny liberal arts college, the psyc department is, naturally, tiny. The profs, in true liberal-arts fashion, don't do much research, and their labs can barely support the surging numbers of senior psyc-major honors thesis writers, which means until senior year when I can write a thesis too, I couldn't get into any lab with which to gain research experience. What's worse, since the department is so small, there is exactly one professor whose work is close to what I'm interested in.

So last year, when I applied for a thesis advisor, there was a record number of thesis applications, causing a shortage of advisors in the department for the first time. Through some unfortunate series of departmental decisions that may or may not have involved politics (as far as I know, I hadn't been troublesome in any way that may cause people to have reservations about advising me), I ended up being rejected by all 3 of my advisor choices. Worse, my first choice, a wildly popular professor because of her fun research interests and her being a fun person in general, took 7 out of the 8 people who applied to work with her. As you can guess, I'm not quite over the bitterness of it all. But long story short, I scrambled to secure a spot with one of two, apparently least popular, professors, just so I can write a thesis with which to get experience to apply to grad school.

I'll admit, I care very little about the topic. I also admit that I'm still a lucky bastard in that my advisor is much better than your stereotyped PHD Comics type. There's nothing I can blame her about my lack of interest or lackluster performance. The way she works is, I would do a lit review for my intro section in the fall, and run experiments in the spring. So I've somehow scraped together a satisfactory intro section, but the semester in which I wrote it was spent roughly like this, this, and this. The dilemma of the situation is that my heart is in other topics, so I'm continually trying to resist reading papers and books on my "pet topics" although they make me tingle with excitement (there, I said it), because finishing my thesis is a higher priority. That doesn't make me love my thesis any better. All it does is drive me nuts with guilt because I have, after all, been given an opportunity, and I'm on the fast track to squander it because I failed at self-discipline. But I seem to be simply unable to devote myself to something I don't care about.

So now I'm faced with the option of quitting my thesis. My advisor has noticed my lack of interest, although I tried to hide it, and she thinks I should quit because I've acquired some research experience, and since I already submitted my applications, it wouldn't matter whether I get any more experience. I, on the other hand, am afraid of the possibility of having to apply again in the future, and of being asked about my supposedly ongoing thesis during grad school interviews. Also, if I quit now, I won't acquire any lab experience (it's been just library research so far). There may be other repercussions that I haven't thought of too.

The benefits of quitting are many: I'll have massively more time to devour the psychology literature that I do enjoy. I'll also get a chance to explore other subjects that I've had to put on hold. I will, hopefully, be happier without an ongoing project continually kicking me in the ass.

I have a week to decide. Classes start next week, and if I'm quitting, I need to find classes to replace the thesis. I'm, quite frankly, relying on y'all to point out if I've made erroneous assumptions or limiting my possibilities. I've talked to other people, but none who knows the Ph.D. process well, and they all say I should go on writing it, just to be safe. But the prospect of spending the remainder of my college life being a tool and writing 70 more pages of bullsh*t is terrible.

To anyone who's going to recommend volunteering in a lab next year: I'm looking into that too. I'm not a US citizen, so the lab has to hire me as a paid employee, and only for a year at that. That is a possibility, but the chances of there being an open paid position in an interesting lab that people will hire me for are slim enough that I don't know if I should risk it.

Sorry I'm incoherent. It's late, folks :D Anyway, TIA for any advice/insight/recommendation/commiseration :)

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The Economist in me wants to yell: IGNORE THE SUNK COSTS! So what if you've put in all this time so far. If it's not making you happy, don't factor the work already done into your decision.

That being said, I still think the benefits of hunkering down and working through the pain to produce a senior thesis outweighs those of quitting and taking another course. Sure, you'll be able to read more about topics you really like, but you're going to have five years (not to mention the rest of your academic career) to do that. If (heaven forbid) you do need to apply another time, there is nothing like a produced thesis to make a stronger bid (my biggest regret is placing myself in a situation that made writing a thesis impossible).

While it may not interest you, try to think of this as good training when you become the research lackey of your future graduate school advisor. In a perfect world, your advisor will only want help with topics that fully interest you, but who knows?

If you decide to drop the thesis, you better take a very challenging course that will truly add value to your application.

Also, I worry that if you already applied and told graduate schools that you are writing a thesis and you back out that they will be very upset when they get your new transcripts and find out you "lied" about your last semester classes. It would be a little embarrassing to e-mail them that you dropped your thesis because the topic was uninteresting.

So I'm gonna' give you a little tough love here: SIT DOWN, WORK THROUGH IT, AND WRITE THAT THESIS!

(I hope there was some help in this circular, stream of consciousness set of advice! ;) )

Edited by tskinner
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I will echo what's been said so far. (And, I might add, I was in a very similar situation last year).

You cannot underestimate the power of an honors thesis in your application. You also cannot underestimate the experience and wisdom you gain from going through the research process with a project that is completely on your shoulders. It's one of those things that everyone says but you never really believe it when they do, but I learned SO. FREAKING. MUCH. by doing a thesis, and professors recognize the maturity that comes out of it. One major point of maturity comes from pouring tons of time and energy into something that doesn't interest you very much. Consider the very real possibility that you will spend your first couple years of grad school doing something that interests your advisor far more than you. You will have learned the type of discipline required to put out quality work without losing your mind, as well as the time management skills to pursue your own interests. You will become a better writer. Your data analysis skills will sharpen like you wouldn't believe. Even if you think you're already above average at these things (and you may be), you would be amazed at the kind of improvement and growth you can accomplish.

Also bear in mind that the vast majority of honors thesis writers across the country didn't do something they loved. You do not, under any circumstances, want to come across as a quitter, because that is exactly the type of applicant they are hoping to screen out. Also, you may need a LOR from this advisor in the future; what would she have to say about your level of commitment and perseverance? What does it say about your flexibility as an employee (which is essentially what you are in grad school, in a way)?

I find it very strange that she is encouraging you to quit, because I can't imagine any professor at my undergrad saying that to any student...though that leads me into an important distinction: You said your undergrad is a small liberal arts college and that the faculty aren't very interested in research. My undergrad was a very research-intensive university with a very highly ranked social psych department. The reason I point this out isn't to compare you and me, it is to highlight that the advice you are receiving from your advisor may not be the most helpful thing for you if you are applying to big-time research universities, which I suspect you are. If that is the case, let me pass along some advice from the kind of faculty you are probably aiming to work with: DO NOT QUIT YOUR THESIS!

For what it's worth, due to scheduling/IRB issues, I had to collect my data, analyze it, write it up, and finish my entire paper in less than a month. It was a very, very painful month, but it can be done, and it is already giving me an edge in the grad school process. However, if a lack of resources becomes too real of a problem, have you looked into the possibility of an extensive literature review/theoretical paper as your thesis? I think it need not be an empirical paper to count as a thesis (though I'd check with your department/college).

I don't mean to sound harsh, I really don't, and I also don't like to bring my own experience into it that much because everyone's situation is different. But I have been there too, so please know it is coming from the wish to give you honest advice based on what has done me well (for the same subfield, no less). I agree that you really need a good break, and to come back refreshed and ready to buckle down. Show your advisor that your episode of lacking was just that- and isolated bump in the road and not something indicative of your personality. It ain't over til it's over, and it isn't too late to make an comeback.

PM me if you want to talk, as I'd be more than happy to offer support.

P.S. PhD Comics = Awesome

(but also makes me worry sometimes!)

Edited by jordy
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Do not quit... it will look reflect on you negatively. Try to find something you really like about the topic and go from there. Whatever you do don't burn bridges in academia because she may be able to write you an awesome letter of recommendation if you decide to pursue something else in the near future.

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Finish it! You can do it!

I hated my major as an undergrad so much that I put off the classes and was still doing 100-level courses as a senior! But even though I hated the subject at the time (and 4 years feels like FOREVER when you're 18), I've managed to reconcile with the experience. I've put my on-paper qualifications to use to get jobs and apply to graduate programs that I really AM passionate about.

I second the "don't burn bridges" thing, too. I found a couple professors I DID really like and clung to them, and still send them emails once a semester. It's paid off: 3 years later, they're busting their butts writing me great, program specific (!!) letters of recommendation and acting as employment references. They knew I wasn't a fan of my major, but I focused on working with them and talking with them about my interests, as well honestly explaining my disappointment with my major. They valued the honesty, they gave me some concrete advice for ways to use my field to my advantage in a slightly different way, and they can talk about me in more depth now when someone asks their opinion about me.

I guess I would add, be HONEST with your advisor. It's NOT your #1 topic, fine; but it's a means to an end, and you can find some bright spots in the situation. Ask them about how their interest developed, or if there is some sub-field that bridges the gap between your interest and theirs. They'll value you as a person for being honest and seeking out their perspective, even if you're interests aren't a perfect match. Having faculty (or coworkers, or bosses) respect you is really important when you ask someone to vouch for you later on.

Edited by red_crayons
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Aww, thanks everyone! I'll continue with my thesis. Your opinion is the same as people I'd talked to, but now I feel safer following their advice because I know for sure it's coming from people who understand grad school. Glad to know I'm not alone in the whole hate-your-thesis thing. I love this board <3

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