Thesis Writing Advice

Writing a senior thesis can be an intimidating endeavor. Both thesis writers and advisors share advice based on their experiences to help students get the most out of the process.

Advice from Former Religion Majors

Choosing and Working with an Advisor

When picking an advisor, a major factor should be the level of interaction you want from your advisor. If you have an advisor who doesn't want to deal with you a lot and you want to (or vice versa) it could be a very long two semesters.

Choose an advisor who you are sure is interested in you. Don't choose him or her because he or she might be in your academic area. That part doesn't really matter since it is YOU who is doing all of the work anyway. If you do happen to have an advisor who doesn't really seem very concerned about you, make sure that you hound him or her more than you think is necessary.

I think it is important to set ground rules, almost a contract with the advisor right from the beginning. If this contract cannot be agreed upon, it is important to find another advisor.

The final grade is pass, fail, distinction. It is not a letter grade, so it should be an experience that is enjoyable to you, not your advisor. The product should be your own product, not your advisor's. Most importantly, because you share a working relationship with your advisor, boundaries must be clear and the relationship must be comfortable from the get go. If the relationship is strained, as mine was, the creative process can be a bit cramped.

The Thesis Process

Definitely be passionate about what you are doing. The thesis is your swan song as an undergraduate. It is for YOU the student, and no one else. It's not for the faculty. It's not for your family. It's not for graduate school. The thesis is a year-long project where you get to do whatever you want. Remember, do it for yourself.

Be creative and daring in the scope of your project. Don't let anyone tell you that it's too big (not in the planning state anyway. You'll pare it down as you go through the process.) Or God forbid, that they don't specialize in your topic. OK, if your thesis advisor tells you that it's not in their field, do it anyway. FIND people outside of the department who are somewhat connected in your field. Talk with them, network, exchange ideas.

Respect your thesis. This is a serious project, something that cannot be done at the last minute or thought of as a paper only bigger. I didn't respect my project and it shows. Other people respected it more than I did and I'm faced with the embarrassing task of telling people I screwed up on it. If you can't handle the thesis project, don't do it.

Last but not least, remember the final grade you get is not an evaluation of who you are but what you did. The most important part is that you realize the quality of your work, regardless of the thesis evaluations. Good luck and remember to enjoy the process.

From Religion Faculty

Avoid writing an encyclopedia article or paper. A thesis should be similar to a shorter paper in that it frames a question at the beginning and sets out to answer that question in specific ways. At the end the paper should answer the question it set out to. If the paper winds up answering the question in a different way than expected at the beginning of the paper, it should be reframed.

Define your terms, especially those that play a large role in the analysis of your topic.

Be sure to provide enough literary, historical, or philosophical context of the text or community that is being studied.

Identify an analytical framework for your thesis (a comparative approach is one such framework). For example, if the movement you are studying is millennial, how does it compare with other millennial groups? If it is a protest movement, how does it compare with other religious traditions of protest?

Avoid being too general or impressionistic.

Many undergraduate theses avoid primary sources in favor of secondary sources. Talk with your thesis advisor about how to balance the sources of your particularly inquiry.

Proofread carefully! Watch for typos, infelicitous English, and inconsistencies in format or footnoting. While these are not, per se, substantive matters relating to the intellectual content of the essay, they do form part of the "packaging" and the necessary apparatus without which a scholarly essay is not scholarly. Carelessness here raises doubts about how competently more substantive issues are handled.

A series of regular, realistic deadlines will help you see your thesis as a succession of interrelated achievable tasks and will guard against unforeseen problems either in your work or outside of it.

A level of argument that is accessible, valuable, and memorable to any intelligent reader should run throughout the essay.

Start collecting ideas for the conclusion to your thesis now, so that as you write the introduction and body of the essay you will have some sense of where it is going.

After you hand in your first draft, start off by reading the conclusion first (rather than the beginning). Often where a paper draft concludes is where it should begin. Consider putting your ending at the beginning, or see how your conclusion relates to your introduction. This will help you think about how to revise some of your thesis or restructure your argument.