Throughout this past year, as my social life slowly gave way to exhausting hours of laboratory work and even longer nights of thesis writing, the predominant question I was asked by my friends, peers and even myself was, “why?”
Why did I sacrifice my senior year, supposedly the most memory-impacted year of one’s entire college journey, to spend long hours in isolation, laboring over a piece of work that frequently drove me to the edge of sanity?
Well, I have had ample time to contemplate this question, and can genuinely concede that despite the chronic stress, sleepless nights and extensive social sacrifices I have had to make, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
An undergraduate honors thesis is an unparalleled journey. It is incredibly empowering yet equally terrifying. For many of us, it represents the first time we are truly in control of our research.
From the beginning, our choice of the project focus establishes a sense of ownership such that our research interests alone are centralized. Designing the methods is a nontrivial process that requires extensive planning and a solid comprehension of both the project aim and the literature of the field.
The execution of the experiments is rarely a smooth process, and through all the obstacles we encounter, we must learn how to problem-solve and adapt until we can form some answer about the question we originally sought to investigate.
However, to me, this journey was so much more than conducting a set of scientific experiments. The painstakingly endless hours of research and experimental reconstruction that would frequently result in yet another set of inconclusive data instilled in me extreme patience, perseverance and emotional strength in a unique manner, unattainable to the same degree elsewhere.
My thesis taught me how to think like a scientist and rapidly problem-solve in situations outside of the laboratory. My proclaimed passion for astrobiology was certainly tested, yet I found that no matter how dismal my research progress appeared, my excitement for the field did not waver.
The journey of a thesis can thus be beneficial for solidifying or otherwise deconstructing your career interests, and serves as an obligatory checkpoint, in my opinion, to verify that you actually enjoy research before continuing on to higher education.
My thesis taught me how to think like a scientist and rapidly problem-solve in situations outside of the laboratory. My proclaimed passion for astrobiology was certainly tested, yet I found that no matter how dismal my research progress appeared, my excitement for the field did not waver."
Beginning a thesis can be overwhelming, for it initiates the bridging between our passive learning gained from school and the active learning gained from critically thinking through the trials and tribulations of research. Indeed, our years of coursework do not come close to preparing us for this undertaking.
Though a thesis is not entirely independent of school, it is so much more than a research paper assigned for a class. A thesis requires extensive physical and mental dedication, as well as collaboration with an advisor, defense committee members, relevant laboratories and other scientists in a professional manner to which collegiate students are often not accustomed.
One of the most important (but often the most fatal) aspects of initiating a thesis is choosing the right thesis advisor. Students often seek out the most esteemed faculty member of their department in hopes that an affiliation with his or her name will bolster their research credibility and lead to an advanced, successful project.
However, what many fail to realize is that a good scientist and a good mentor are not synonymous. It is instead far more important to choose an advisor who will be invested in your research and willing to carve out substantial time for assisting with every step of the thesis journey (from writing the grant proposal to setting up the experiments; from analyzing the data to revising the thesis), as many of us require this much support given that this is our first real research experience.
My particular thesis advisor was a new assistant professor who had not yet built up his profile at CU Boulder, but who was extremely knowledgeable and excited about my research topic. He played an instrumental role in helping advance my research every time I was stuck, and he remained patient throughout my naïve questions, taking it upon himself to ensure that I understood the underlying mechanisms of my research setup and results so that my general research skills would develop.
Indeed, my thesis would not have been completed with such success if it were not for his dedication to my project. Though we did not know each other before my thesis, we developed a wonderful student-mentor relationship that will undoubtedly extend beyond my undergraduate years.
The thesis process is unique to each individual, and is even different for students within the same discipline. Thus, I can offer neither instructions nor formulas for how to successfully conduct a thesis.
Executing a set of laboratory-based experiments for a scientific thesis is undoubtedly different than constructing a comprehensive analysis of several bodies of literature for a humanities-based thesis. Furthermore, each student may embark upon this journey for a unique reason, but the ultimate sense of accomplishment gained from completing this large undertaking is fairly universal, as are many adversities that thesis-pursuing students seem to experience.
The process can be agonizing at times, especially when you crave a true break from the chronic stress but cannot seem to find one. You may find yourself feeling hopelessly lost, doubting whether you really belong in your field or are “cut out” for this type of career.
As is inevitable in research, the thesis journey is likely to take several unexpected turns — funding may fall through after a project begins, a mentor may unexpectedly leave, a laboratory may shut down, etc. I witnessed these circumstances happen to many of my peers. Whatever it may be, you have to be prepared to work through the challenges that seek to unhinge your trajectory.
Additionally, the frustration of consistent “negative” results can be demoralizing, and even crippling. And the prospect of an oral defense in front of esteemed faculty and peers can be absolutely terrifying. In fact, there seems to be a rather exhaustive list of negative factors that compel many students to avoid pursuing a thesis altogether.
But despite all of this, a thesis can be the best journey of your life.
Aside from substantially preparing you for graduate school and bolstering your resume, a thesis can open the doors to many previously inconceivable opportunities. My thesis journey led me to present research at several science conferences where I was able to converse with world-renowned geobiologists whose work I had merely been referencing until then, but who now serve as resources for and collaborators of my research.
These experiences have tremendously cultivated my professional development in a manner that cannot be taught in the classroom. Furthermore, my thesis served as a foundation for networking opportunities with many prospective graduate school professors and exposed me to diverse research occurring in my field, which has helped me identify my graduate-school research interests.
I am certainly not alone in experiencing these positive outcomes, as they were shared by many of my peers. The thesis can furthermore initiate your entrance into your field, serving as almost a first step in the rite of passage. Your thesis marks the transition from a passive consumer to an active contributor of research, and your work is ultimately eternalized for future authors to reference in their own work.
If you are considering writing a thesis, be prepared for the unique academic intimacy that will inevitably arise. Every second, waking or unconscious, will become dedicated to your thesis such that you and your thesis will become inseparable.
Your thesis manifests your passions, thoughts and opinions, and so it embodies you. The thesis journey is long, but when you finish, you will reflect back upon the incalculable hours of labor with an incredible sense of pride and ownership over a piece of work that you alone constructed and defended to the end.
An undergraduate thesis is an empowering, unparalleled journey that, as many have informed me, is fondly cherished for the rest of your life.
Shaelyn Silverman graduated in May 2017 with bachelor’s degrees in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and also neuroscience.