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.

A few days later, WHP Executive Director Beverly Neufeld called Shames to offer her the group’s top research position.

“With her thesis work, [Shames] was a perfect match with the White House Project,” Neufeld said.

In her new position, Shames is analyzing the gender of guests on Sunday political talk shows over the past two years and looking for the images and messages of female candidates that work best in campaign ads.

“I fell in love with the project,” she says, “and decided this was what I really wanted to do.”

Screenwriting from Harvard

When Todd B. Kessler ’94 was a sophomore, he asked the English department if he write a play for his senior thesis.

The department said no—this was before creative theses was offered an option to concentrators—and Kessler transferred to the special concentrations department so he could write a play after all.

That play would earn him a stint with Spike Lee and set him on the path to becoming a professional screenwriter.

Kessler’s play, Darlene, premiered in the Loeb Experimental Theater in December of his senior year.

That same year also marked the third and final time that Spike Lee offered a seminar in screenwriting to undergraduates at the College. Kessler took the seminar, and by the time the seminar was over, Lee had offered Kessler a summer internship to work with him in Brooklyn.

The internship was in the development office of Lee’s production company. Kessler would read scripts and then write a detailed summary of whether the projects deserved further attention.

At the end of the summer, Kessler was offered a full-time position in the development office, but he deferred.

“I didn’t want to be reading scripts anymore,” he says. “I wanted to write.”

Then Spike Lee read Kessler’s thesis.

The famed director of Malcolm X decided he didn’t want to let the aspiring screenwriter go—and he offered Kessler the chance to adapt the play for the screen.

He spent eight months working on the screenplay. The script never got produced, but now Kessler’s resume had Spike Lee’s name on it and he was on his way.

Kessler went on to produce and write for “The Sopranos” on HBO, where his work was nominated for three Emmy awards. He has also just created his first television drama series entitled “Jamaica Ave,” which will be directed by Spike Lee.

Harvard to Africa

For Cagan Sekercioglu ’97, writing a thesis on the long-term effects of forestry practices on African birds meant his first visit to the continent, a stay that lasted two months and for which he prepared by memorizing the calls of about 250 Ugandan forest bird species.

After he graduated, the thesis helped him get funding for subsequent work—research that has taken him to about 50 countries across the world, where he has observed 4,062 bird species.

During his undergraduate years as a biology and anthropology concentrator, Sekercioglu never expected his thesis work to take him along this path.

But after he graduated, he embarked on a six-month backpacking trip from Colombia to Antarctica for research and photography. A Turkish newspaper wrote a story about his trip and mentioned that he was looking for funding for a book project about African natural history and conservation.

The article also mentioned his thesis research, and when officials from a Turkish bank read the piece, they offered to pay for him to conduct research and write his book.

To date, Sekercioglu, who is currently studying for his doctorate at Stanford University, has published eight scientific articles, as well as 27 popular articles on natural history, ecology and outdoor travel. He was recently elected one of the country’s top 100 scientists in a popular Turkish news magazine.

“Your thesis can be your ticket to a research career,” he says, “if you do a good job.”

—Staff writer Anat Maytal can be reached at maytal@fas.harvard.edu.