Searching for the Perfect Match

Students face complications in finding thesis advisers

As the search for advisers intensifies for juniors planning to write theses—with some initial deadlines for finding advisers coming up as early as next week—students and department administrators are once again grappling with a process that can be fraught with uncertainty.

For prospective thesis writers, finding advisers can be complicated by many factors.

They include timing, the stress of approaching faculty members, informal guidelines from departments, navigating around faculty sabbaticals and departures, and study abroad plans.

Students often find the process of finding thesis advisers difficult because of the informality of the process. In most departments, students have complete independence and must take the initiative to approach faculty members themselves, with only some guidance from the concentration’s Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) or Head Tutor.

“Finding a thesis adviser can be very stressful,” says David P. Borden ’05, a member of the Curricular Review Committee on Advising and Counseling and an economics concentrator.

“It’s a bit daunting...The student has to be for the most part proactive in seeking out faculty,” says Borden, who adds that his own experience was a positive one.

“Students often report difficulty in identifying a faculty member who is willing to advise their theses,” according to the April 2004 Report on the Harvard College Curricular Review.

In fact, a 2003 exit survey cited in the report found that of 69 percent of seniors who had initially planned to write a thesis, only 57 percent actually began the process—and only 48 percent finished it.

Of those who never finished a thesis or project, 16 percent reported that it was primarily because they could not find an adviser. And 33 percent of those who began one said it was “difficult” or “very difficult” to make an appropriate match.

“It has certainly been reported to me that sometimes people find it difficult finding faculty thesis advisers,” says Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby. “It can be an extraordinarily frustrating time when a student chooses to write a thesis and cannot get the advice that she or he needs.”

Many department administrators are aware of the amount of student effort required in the process of finding thesis advisers.

“It’s probably harder than it should be,” Chemistry DUS Eric N. Jacobsen says of the process of finding thesis advisers. “Students have to be perseverent and really take the initiative. There are opportunities, but they don’t fall into your lap.”

TIMING

The process, one whose success often depends on timing, puts pressure on students to have a definitive plan about their thesis as early as possible, so that they can begin pursuing potential thesis advisers.

Students who are not sure they want to write a thesis, for example, may not put as much energy into the process of finding advisers—which can hurt them in the event that they eventually choose to write one.

“While they’re debating, that means they’re not looking for an adviser,” says Social Studies DUS Anya Bernstein.

Gerald E. Wootten III ’05, an economics-turned-government concentrator, says that while some people procrastinate in choosing topics, those who know their topics early should have certain tools at their disposal.

“I would’ve liked to have a thesis adviser one year prior to my due date,” Wootten says. “I would have had better help in how to approach my research and saved a lot of time.”

The need to fulfill informal guidelines, such as working in a lab in freshman or sophomore year for science concentrators, often complicates students’ plans for finding advisers as well.

“It’s unfortunate that up until recently, it hasn’t been formally vocalized that working in a lab is going to help students find an adviser,” says Alexa L.M. Von Tobel ’06, co-chair of the Undergraduate Psychology Student Organization (UPSO).

Moreover, departments have different expectations about how early students must start looking for thesis advisers.

“It is possible that some students might be confused about when to start,” S.C. Samuel Kou, Statistics co-head tutor, wrote in an e-mail.

Most departments strongly suggest beginning the search no later than the spring of junior year, while other departments—like Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Statistics—say students should start much earlier.

COMPETITION

In departments with low faculty-student ratios—where a particular handful of professors may be in high demand as thesis advisers—the process can be competitive and stressful.

Some department administrators emphasize the need to increase faculty awareness of and exposure to potential thesis writers.

Earth and Planetary Sciences Head Tutor John H. Shaw says that of the 35 faculty members in his department, about a quarter of them advise theses.

He says, though, that “it’s not a lack of willingness,” but more a lack of awareness on the part of faculty members. According to Shaw, faculty members who have more contact with students through their courses or labs tend to advise more thesis writers.

“You need some mechanism to put [thesis advising] higher on the radar screen” of professors, he says.

According to Economics DUS Jeffrey G. Williamson, many students flock to a core group of professors reputed for being good advisers or who specialize in popular research areas.

And while less popular research areas do not see as much competition, students who want to pursue a thesis topic not represented in their department can encounter trouble finding someone with the requisite knowledge.

“Professors want to advise on topics they know about,” says UPSO co-chair Kelly N. Fahl ’06. “If your interests lie outside the scope of the department, it would be practically impossible to do it with a Harvard professor.”

Particularly in the sciences, potential thesis writers must constrain their research interests based on the resources available in their departments. Science concentrators’ research topics must overlap with those of a faculty member in order to secure the use of research facilities and lab equipment.

Shaw says he holds sessions with juniors to ensure that students have “realistic expectations” and “some consideration of the resources that exist within the faculty and department.”

Currently among psychology theses, many are extensions of a professor’s research, says Fahl, who is also a Crimson editor. “So [the thesis] is less meaningful,” she says.

According to some department administrators, though, some of the difficulties of finding thesis advisers may encourage more meaningful theses to be written.

“I’ve not known anyone who has a worthy project who’s not been able to find a thesis adviser to work with,” says Economics Assistant DUS Robert H. Neugeboren. “We’re trying to weed out those projects that aren’t worth doing.”

“This system makes sure you want to write a thesis for the right reasons,” he adds.

“There are still too many who [write theses] and who oughtn’t because they just don’t have the skills and their expectations are all wrong,” says Williamson, who adds that these students comprise “a small number.”

ON THE ROAD...AGAIN

Often, the process of finding thesis advisers is complicated by circumstances beyond students’ control, such as faculty departures or temporary leaves.

Diana N. Fridberg ’05, an anthropology concentrator, says she could not finalize her thesis topic until last October because her first thesis adviser left Harvard.

“I was sort of at a loss for what to do, and I didn’t feel I had a lot of guidance during that period of limbo,” Fridberg says. “I was sort of on an un-doable project for a while.”

Temporary faculty leaves may be as disruptive of thesis plans as are faculty departures.

Romance Languages and Literatures DUS Virginie Greene wrote in an e-mail that in the process of finding thesis advisers, “another difficulty comes from leaves of absence...often, one doesn’t know whether one will be on leave until quite late in the semester preceding the leave.”

Psychology Head Tutor Ken Nakayama says a Faculty of Arts and Science policy adopted two years ago, which halved the minimum time between faculty leaves, has complicated the process of finding a thesis adviser as well.

“If a psych professor leaves during the long process of doing a thesis, often over three semesters, it jeopardizes the process,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons it’s hard. You have to find a person to relate to over a period of time.”

“Many capable and eager students, who are academically eligible to write theses, are being excluded,” Tobel says.

Finally, with the number of students studying abroad rising steadily over the past few years, plans for doing so can further complicate the process of finding a thesis adviser. In the 2003-2004 academic year, 308 students studied abroad—about a 40 percent increase over the previous year’s 221 students.

“One problem I am beginning to encounter is clashes between students wanting to take junior year abroad while at the same time undertaking a senior thesis,” Biology Head Tutor David A. Haig wrote in an e-mail.

Bernstein says she encourages students planning to study abroad during their junior spring “to find someone before they leave or look for someone while they’re abroad.”

The process of finding a thesis adviser may also be more complicated in departments that do not require theses.

“The Government department, because they don’t require students to write a thesis, may not provide the same kind of support,” says Bernstein. “Since we require a thesis, to some extent, the burden is on us to help students find advisers.”

—Staff writer Tina Wang can be reached at tinawang@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at luluzhou@fas.harvard.edu.