Thesis Process Guide
Using This Guide
This guide is meant to help seniors and rising juniors of any major through any stage of the thesis-writing process. Kate Barrett BC '20 shares tips for cultivating a successful and organized thesis throughout a semester or a year, from the initial generation of a topic to the final bibliography. Additionally, this guide provides insight into time management skills, research tools, and stress management strategies for alleviating stress and increasing clarity around the project. You can use the tabs on the left side of the page to toggle between information for different parts of the thesis process, as well as Kate's personal reflections on her experience. Feel free to contact the CEP for further thesis-writing skills and resources, or attend the Writing Center's Senior Thesis Co-Working Hours by going to Barnard Writing Center website.
What is a Thesis?
A thesis is...
- An independent research project that students conduct in their final year of undergraduate studies.
- A reflection of one’s major.
- An opportunity for students to show their ability to conduct research and formulate their own thoughts.
- A chance to work with an advisor to figure out a topic and research question to explore.
- A paper that can range from 20-100 pages, including title, table of contents, references, appendices, footnotes, figures, acknowledgements, and dedications.
How to pick an advisor
At Barnard, you are assigned a thesis advisor based on the seminar you sign up for. Each seminar usually has a theme, and each major has the same date and time for all thesis seminars. Additionally, all of the professors are in the major's department. Therefore, it is probable that you've had these professors as teachers before and you will likely know their teaching style. The hard part about picking an advisor is that if you have one topic that aligns with a certain seminar, you cannot decide to switch to an advisor that teaches a different seminar. Make sure you have an equal desire to have a specific professor as well as a topic in mind. If you don’t have a topic in mind before the fall, then choosing a seminar based on the professor is probably your best bet.
How to pick a topic
Carefully choose the topic you want to explore—could you study it for a year? Is there enough existing research available for you to fully explore it? It's important to consider the complexity and scope of your topic. Topics that are too narrow might pose research issues down the line, while overly broad topics can cause you to feel overwhelmed. It can be helpful to choose a topic with recent published research so that you have a lot of references to pull from. Additionally, this tactic will push you to engage with ideas that many people are already discussing and finding valuable.
How to conduct and organize your research
Once you have determined the topic of your thesis, you can begin by utilizing the college’s research librarians; they are great resources and can help you find more articles and references on your topic. As you begin finding and reviewing primary and secondary sources, use citation managers such as Zotero to help keep track of your materials. Diversify your sources for research—use books, website articles, scholarly articles, videos, primary documents, and archival material, if relevant. Print out and markup articles if possible, so that you can write your thoughts down as you read; this will help you analyze material from your own perspective. It can also be helpful to add all online documents to your Google Drive so you can access them anywhere and organize them by reference type or theme.
12 Things to Know About the Thesis Process
Depending on major, thesis projects occur over year-long or semester-long seminars, so you'll want to pick something that will be engaging to you throughout the entire year.
Some students opt to conduct independent studies rather than engage in senior seminars to write their thesis. While opportunities for independent study vary depending on major, consider this option if you have a specific relationship with a certain professor, if you have a niche thesis topic in mind that doesn't align with any seminar, or if the traditional timeline of the thesis writing process seems daunting to you, due to multiple majors or other reasons.
By planning beforehand, you’ll be able to get ahead of your research so you have an idea of what you want to write about.
Being flexible is crucial during the thesis process because there are a lot of instances where your topic or main focus could shift due to issues with research, access, or interests.
Engaging with a variety of different source material will provide a foundation for what you do want to put into the paper.
Professors assign deadlines throughout the semester to help keep you on task and make the process more manageable. You don’t want to be scrambling to write something at midnight the night before it is due.
While writing your thesis, assume that your reader does not know anything about your topic; this will help you to explain everything thoroughly. You can always revise later and edit out parts that are no longer necessary.
Reach out to your advisor through email, set up meetings, and talk to them before or after class. They are knowledgable scholars in your field and are teaching this seminar for a reason.
Usually, thesis seminars are comprised of small groups of students. Discussing your ideas and topics with one another is extremely helpful throughout the process.
If you feel that you are stretching out your paper in order to add pages, most of the time that will be transparent in your writing. Reach out to your advisor or research librarian if you feel you are running out of ideas. On the other hand, if you feel strongly about your paper and it is at the minimum page count, keep it there; often, concision is key.
Reading about your topic will also help you craft your question and determine the path of your paper.
Reflecting on the process while it's still ongoing will help you work through your challenges and track your progress. You can do this by hand, in word documents, or through online folders in Google Drive.
Tips for conducting a long-term project
Draft a plan that starts at the end.
- Start with the final deadline and work backwards.
- This helps ensure that you stay on track.
Try the SMART goals method
- This will help you achieve small milestones along the way.
- Track your progress by creating Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound Goals.
- This method makes it easier to notice what adjustments need to be made to stay on track.
Utilize online management tools.
- Collaborative and organizational tools like the ones listed on the Center for Engaged Pedagogy’s website can help you prioritize your tasks
- By using these tools, you can keep track of daily, weekly, or monthly priorities, all in one place.
Keep circling back to your research question.
- Make sure you constantly remind yourself of your goals so you don’t get sidetracked and start researching things that aren’t relevant to your project.
Don’t plan out more than 75% of your time.
- Only focus on the biggest deadlines you need to accomplish.
- Over-planning sets you up for failure and feelings of defeat if you don’t hit each micro-deadline on time.
In the initial preparation of the project, try to think of all the tools you need to complete it.
- Do you need funding?
- Outside sources?
- Connections/access to databases/libraries/journals?
- Access to sites?
- Additional researchers or readers?
Cultivating Good Habits
You want to be able to reread and edit everything you write along the way, and waiting until the last minute to complete sections of your thesis makes it difficult to provide fresh edits.
With the amount of literature, data, questions, and other classes circulating in your head, it's unrealistic to rely only on memory.
This will help you fine tune your own opinions, and even inspire certain research questions. Further, being able to explain an idea to someone else demonstrates that you have a strong understanding of it yourself. Utilizing the Writing Center to talk through your topic with fellows, even at initial stages, can also be extremely helpful.
New studies might come out as you’re writing, and you'll want to stay as up to date as possible.
For example, you could have one journal dedicated to your ideas and internal struggles/questions, and another dedicated to keeping track of more logistical and solid data, goals, and logistics.
Tips for Organization and Motivation
Make a plan
For example, if you are doing a yearlong thesis, you could plan to spend half of the year researching and the other half writing.
Set goals with your professor and for yourself
Try to set goals for how much time you want to spend each week doing different tasks: researching, memo-writing, working with your professor etc. Set personal deadlines of dates that you would like to have specific things completed by.
Be flexible with your plan
Look at the year or semester and mark off when you assume you will be done with certain tasks to make sure you’re still on track—but don’t get upset if those goals aren’t met. Writing a thesis is a give-and-take process.
Stay on top of your citations
Stay on track with your citations as you write your paper. Don’t assume that you will go back later and fill them in. Once you write something, cite it in-text and write the full citation in the bibliography immediately, or use tools like Zotero, which will do this automatically.
Look to your topic for inspiration
Remind yourself why you chose this topic in the first place. What inspired you? Why does this topic interest you? What were you excited by?
Reflect on how your thesis connects to your Barnard experience
Reflect on your time as an undergrad at Barnard. In a way, your thesis is a culmination of your college experience—it is an opportunity to showcase your growth.
Draw strength from your peers
Supporting and motivating your peers to finish their projects will, in turn, motivate you to complete yours. You're all in this together.
Think of the big picture
Remember that the work you are doing now could be very useful in other situations in your life. For example, you may draw on your thesis when putting together grad school applications, doing job interviews, or switching job industries. Also, the skills you cultivate while working on your thesis—research, writing, editing, collaboration, and so on—will very likely come in handy in the future.
Reflections on the Process
Choosing a seminar
My major was urban studies, and I had four different options for my senior thesis seminar. When choosing classes in the spring of my junior year, I wasn’t really sure what a thesis looked like, so it was hard for me to decide what seminar I wanted to participate in. Reaching out to past urban studies graduates helped a lot, because I was able to get a better understanding of what the research project would look like. Ultimately, I felt that I wanted to choose a seminar that would excite and motivate me. Since I didn’t have a topic in mind, it was even harder to choose between seminars, but I was most drawn to the description for the New York Field Research seminar. I had taken many anthropology classes in the past that taught me about ethnographic research and the importance of studying communities and cultures, so I figured that field research would be a good fit for my thesis project.
While the other topics were interesting as well, I feel that I resonated more with an ethnographic style than a traditional thesis paper. This was completely due to my research style as a student, because I feel like I am more of an interactive learner than a researcher. Knowing your research style is really important because it will help you choose a seminar, like it helped me choose mine. The professors are assigned specific seminars, so you have to make sure that the advisor you want is also in a seminar you could picture yourself basing your study on. I knew I wanted to work with my advisor so it worked out, but if I had wanted to do the seminar on international cities, I would not have been able to work with them.
Choosing a topic
Choosing a topic depends a lot on the seminar you are in, but there is some flexibility if you are really interested in something specific. Usually the seminars are broad enough that if there is one topic you would like to pursue, you could probably tweak it depending on which seminar you are in. For example, I knew I wanted to study food and restaurants, so for my field research it made sense that I would do an ethnography on a restaurant while looking at the social and cultural repercussions of gentrification. If I wanted to take the international cities seminar, I could have studied the importance of certain restaurants in different countries around the world. In order to choose a topic, I made a “mind cloud” where I mapped out as many of my interests as I could think of.
After I had a solid number of topic ideas, I went through each of them and tried to think of subtopics or research questions that would interest me. After I had thought about each topic, I did a process of elimination for the topics that seemed too broad or narrow for a thesis, or things that might not have sufficient research already conducted. Then I went through and ranked the topics I would be most interested in studying. From there, I started looking for scholarly articles related to each topic, and decided to pursue the one that had the most material to work with. When I decided that I had one solid topic, I then fleshed out potential research questions that I could study. I was able to find a few questions that I felt really strongly about, and when I went to class that week I talked it through with my classmates. They pitched in ideas and helped me fine tune my question into a more digestible statement that I was able to base my entire project on.
Staying motivated during the thesis process was difficult at times. It was really hard for me when my topic started to shift a few months in, and I felt like I was much further behind than most of my classmates. I realized that I needed to shift my research away from food sovereignty and take a closer look at the effects of gentrification. It was daunting having to switch topics, and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to finish my thesis on time even though it was still fairly early on in the year. Instead of giving up, I went to my advisor for help, and she was able to alleviate a lot of my fear. We devised a plan to get me back on track, which had me busier than usual for a few weeks, but ultimately got me back to the place I needed to be at. During this transition period I was feeling very unmotivated, but setting small goals for myself helped a lot. I set these smaller goals so that when I was able to cross them off my list, I felt a sense of accomplishment. With each strike, I felt more motivated to keep going.
For me, it was important to combat feelings of hopelessness and lack of motivation by opening up to friends, teachers, and peers who were going through something similar. By talking to my other friends who were writing theses, I realized that feeling discouraged is really common. The thesis process has ebbs and flows of excitement, and, at some points, disassociation. During the lows, it is important to lean on friends, but also to remember that this is a feeling of stress that will pass. So many students have written theses in the past, and there are so many resources at school to help you succeed and finish. My biggest takeaway was the importance of finding the root of my lack of motivation, which was the fact that I was insecure because I felt like I didn't know where my thesis was going anymore. Once I accepted this, I put all my energy into having a solid research question that I felt proud of. This helped me alleviate so much of my underlying stress that was manifesting in laziness and lack of motivation.
Moving from Researching to Writing
The yearlong thesis seminar is mainly split in two parts: the initial research stage, and the writing stage. Most students don’t even start writing their thesis until the spring semester. I never really understood this before starting my thesis, but the first semester is mainly focused on gathering data and learning as much about your topic as possible. This isn’t to say that the research fully stops before the writing begins, but rather that it slows down as writing takes more of a priority. Your professor will advise you on the specific ways you will collect data regarding your course, and you will learn about the basics of dissertation writing. For my seminar, my advisor had to teach us what an ethnography was, how to collect data through participant observation, qualitative coding analysis, and memoing - all things I had no prior experience with. Therefore, the foundational fall semester was crucial for a successful spring semester.
Kate Barrett is a member of the Barnard Class of 2020. She majored in Urban Studies with a concentration in Anthropology, and completed a senior thesis in the New York Field Research Seminar. She wrote this guide for the CEP in her senior year.
Many academic departments at Barnard offer students an opportunity to pursue a senior thesis or capstone project, which typically involve original research, analysis, and collaboration with faculty and other students. The following are supplemental guides for senior capstone projects and theses across a variety of departments. These guides are intended to give an overview of the senior thesis process and experience for specific academic programs. Please refer to department websites for contact information and detailed requirements.