In the thick of a thesis

May 19, 2011, 3:02 a.m.

Thesis-writing time? You mean crunch-time, ugly-time, deep-deep-thoughts-time, blood-sweat-tears-time, days-without-showering-time, girl-don’t-even-think-about-naptime time? Indeed, word association might be one way to go about writing a thesis–choose a topic, break it down into about 17 different parts, pick one, write 50 pages on it and have it represent your entire undergraduate career.

In the thick of a thesis
(CAROLINE MARKS/The Stanford Daily)

Undertaking such an endeavor takes intensive planning, a strict schedule and a heavy dose of determination. Some students start preparing as early as sophomore year. Christine Kang ’11 started planning at the end of her sophomore year.

“It really helps to start early; then when you come across something interesting you can say, ‘Oh, okay. I want to write about that’,” Kang said.

Kang came across her topic, corporate insurance policies, while completing a directed reading in her junior year. She is analyzing various insurance policies to see what they reveal about the corporate governance of companies. After Kang’s professor encouraged her to take on the topic, the only problem was trying to narrow it down.

“It’s just one paper, so it has to be a really directed question, testable and manageable,” Kang said.

Kang took several classes geared towards helping honors students to help work out her research plan, especially a thesis-timeline.

“Everyone has their own timeline, which is what’s hard about the thesis,” she said. “But the honors seminar gives you a lot of support.”

Even though students follow different timelines, friends still manage to find time to commiserate together. Irys Kornbluth ’11 gave her friends credit for keeping her motivated.

“Talking to other people who are writing theses about their struggles is a really important way to move forward,” Kornbluth said. “You have to realize that these frustrations are totally common.”

According to Kang, one of the more popular resources used by toiling thesis writers is Google Scholar, a specialized search engine. Kang used it at the beginning of her work to evaluate the scope of her topic.

“You get a sense of different angles other researchers have taken,” Kang said. “Then you focus on that small aspect of it.”

For Valentin Bolotnyy ’11, finding that small aspect to define was one of the more difficult parts of the process. Bolotnyy only started to zero in on a specific angle of his topic two months ago.

“I was looking at broad questions that people don’t really even look at in their Ph.D. dissertations,“ Bolotnyy said.

Bolotnyy’s initial topic, the mortgage crisis, was much too broad.

“What you end up accomplishing is a little underwhelming given what you’ve set out to do,” he said. “You’ve set out to answer why the financial crisis happened, why the mortgage crisis happened, but you end up tackling just one little part of it. Though when you get down to that smaller part, it’s a lot easier.”

A narrow topic, however, still presents a daunting time commitment. Bolotnyy spends 30 to 40 hours per week on his thesis, and the hours increase with each passing week. But despite the long hours, both Bolotnyy and Kang believe the process is worth it.

“It changed the way I look at the materials I study in classes…When you’re asked to produce something original, it really tests your understanding of what you’ve been doing this entire time [in class],” Kang said.

The process revolves around understanding how theories apply to the real world, researching a topic thoroughly and experiencing a rapid evolution of one’s academic interests. Kornbluth appreciates the chance to devote herself to a topic she feels passionately about. Her research topic is the role of cultural identity in the design practice of fashion designers.

“Getting to have so much time to work on something that I’m so interested in is great,” she said. “And it’s cool to see a study that I helped design come to fruition and to have that insider’s perspective. Generally, it’s a great way to step back and think about the industry I’ll be going into before I actually enter it.”

Most important to the keen thesis writers is the rush of creating a work in its entirety.

“You feel like you’re adding something new to the field, an element of discovery, an element of ingenuity,” Bolotnyy said.

And ultimately, if you’re going to be putting in gargantuan amounts of effort, time and emotional weight, you better love what you’re doing.

“Do it,” Kornbluth said. “It’s for you and no one else.”



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