Thesis Writers Find Unexpected Rewards

The summer before her senior year, Shauna Shames ’01 spent two months at the University of Oklahoma watching campaign commercials at the country’s only archive of political advertising.

By the end of July, she had watched more than 500 videos.

After months of number-crunching and writing, Shames turned in her thesis on the role of gender in political advertising.

Writing a thesis had taken a physical toll on Shames—a week later, she fell ill and spent a week in the hospital recovering from mono and strep throat.

But the thesis would also prove to be her entry into the field she aspired to work in. Her very first year out of college, Shames won the top research position in a nonpartisan women’s political organization—and it was her thesis that got her the job.

“The thesis is not for everybody,” says Professor of Anthropology John Barry. “It requires you accept a very narrow focus for the better part of a year.”

But for many students a thesis proves to be a rewarding experience—and the thesis can also lead to future employment, says Associate Professor of Linguistics Bert Vaux.

“An important reason to do a thesis is that you have something to show for yourself when you apply to grad schools or even other sorts of jobs,” he says.

For some Harvard seniors, the thesis is more than a way to win honors in their concentrations. Students like Shames may have gone into the process looking for an in-depth project for their last year at the College. But once they graduated they found that the thesis was more than just the end of their undergraduate career—it opened doors beyond the University.

A Feminist, A Thesis, A Career

Shames was a joint social studies and women’s studies concentrator, whose thesis, “The Un-Candidates: Women’s Political Commercials 1968-1998,” won a Hoopes prize.

Now she is the research director at the White House Project (WHP), a national organization dedicated to the entry of women into all levels of political leadership, including the U.S. presidency.

“She is at the WHP because she developed great research expertise through her thesis work,” said her advisor, Judith Schor, former director of women’s studies.

Three weeks before her thesis was due in April, Shames was planning to spend the year after she graduated at Harvard as an assistant to the Currier House masters, baking cookies and living rent-free in the House.

But she still needed a summer job. She applied for a WHP internship through the Institute of Politics (IOP), but as a graduating senior, she was ineligible.

An IOP staffer offered to send her resume to WHP anyway, and he included her thesis thinking the organization would be interested.