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.