Editing the Process

Departments and students work to ease the process of finding thesis advisers

The academic departments have taken various approaches toward honing the often-complex process of finding thesis advisers.

Administrators debate the advantages and disadvantages of two different stances: some have chosen to provide a good deal of supervision as advised by the April 2004 Report on the Harvard College Curricular Review, while others have chosen to allow their students complete autonomy in the process.

Even as departments have begun to move in these two directions, however, students and administrators feel more could be done to facilitate these choices.


Some departments choose to guide the process of finding advisers with a firmer hand than others—taking a much larger part in arranging relationships between potential advisers and thesis writers.

The curricular review report “recommend[s] that each concentration ensure that every student who wishes to pursue a senior thesis is matched with a thesis adviser.”

The head tutor in the Philosophy department, for example, matches advisers with concentrators based on students’ thesis proposals and relevant faculty research interests. Students are not allowed to make prior arrangements with faculty members.

Both the English and American Literature and Language and the History and Literature Departments have matching processes as well, but they also respect agreements made independently between students and faculty.

The English department’s system assigns advisers to students based on faculty or graduate students’ interests and how they fit undergraduates’ thesis proposals, which can spare students the stress of meeting themselves with potential advisers.

“We take the pain, we think, out of the process—sparing both students and faculty embarrassment,” through the matching process, English Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) Elisa New wrote in an e-mail.

Matthew C. Dewitz ’05, an English concentrator, says he still managed to find “a great deal of flexibility” within the matching process. Although the department must approve final advising assignments, it accepts and considers preferences submitted by students.

But other department administrators argue that requiring students to find advisers on their own forces a certain degree of student-faculty contact­ that is not offered by departmental matching.

The Government department has considered instituting a matching system in the past but did not for this reason, says Government Head Tutor Andrea L. Campbell ’88.

“The process by which students find a thesis adviser requires they go talk to faculty members and grad students and that actually helps them hone their idea,” Campbell says. “If we had a matching process, that would short-circuit that whole process.”

Campbell also says matching advisers and advisees might not guarantee a smooth relationship between writers and advisers.

And responses to senior surveys of Government concentrators have shown “that students don’t like [a matching] system better than our system,” according to Campbell.

However, Gerald E. Wootten III ’05 says he would choose a matching system over the current system in Government.

“Having a professor whose knowledge is compatible is more beneficial,” Wootten says.

“I would much prefer where you at least had a professor that could send you in the right direction than have someone who lacked knowledge,” he says.

DUS’s and head tutors have also sought to make more advisers available.

One way to do this is strongly requesting faculty members to take on more advisees—a tall order, as thesis advising often requires a great deal of time and effort on the part of the faculty.

“That’s a lot of personal attention, which takes a huge number of hours,” says Psychology Head Tutor Ken Nakayama. “Few faculty members would want more than 2 or 3 [advisees].”

According to New, the English department asks every member of the faculty to advise at least one student thesis—and the Visual and Environmental Studies department asks its own to advise three or four, according to DUS Paul Stopforth.

“There’s a norm, there’s an expectation that everyone advises a thesis” in the Government department, says Campbell. “It’s not a requirement.”

Wootten believes all professors should be required to have a minimum of two or three advisees.

In fact, Wootten says concentrations requiring theses should guarantee a full professor as an adviser for each writer.

“You should teach, research, and you should advise,” he says. “Those are the three primary facets to a professorship.”

In fact, some economics professors do not advise theses at all—although the Curricular Review report says, “We remind colleagues that legislation adopted by the Faculty in 1979 requires all faculty to advise at least one senior thesis or tutorial.”

Diana N. Fridberg ’05, an Anthropology concentrator, disagrees.

“If a professor feels like they’re saddled with somebody, that doesn’t help anybody,” she says.


On the other hand, the Economics department—the largest concentration at Harvard—has taken a more market-oriented approach to thesis advising.

A more hands-off system, giving students and faculty complete independence, pairs advisers with advisees most efficiently, according to DUS Jeffrey G. Williamson.

Williamson says his department’s system allows professors who are better advisers to have more student advisees.

Students should have the freedom to flock to professors “who like [thesis advising] and are good at it,” and “students should avoid the bad ones,” according to Williamson. Also, potential adviser and advisee can themselves decide “if the chemistry is good or if it is bad” between them, he says.

“It’s demand and the market at work,” Williamson adds.

This approach has resulted in an uneven distribution of student advisees among faculty in the department.

“That’s not ideal,” says Professor of Economics David I. Laibson ’88, who advised four undergraduate theses last year. “Obviously, it would be nice if we spread the work evenly across the faculty.”

But, “you wouldn’t want faculty to turn away advisees simply because the faculty member has more advisees than average,” he continues, saying that the popularity of certain fields inevitably results in some professors having more advisees than others.

Williamson says this outcome does not trouble him.

“If I felt I was being burdened and some of my colleagues are not working hard enough, I wouldn’t do it,” says Williamson, who advised six theses in the last thesis cycle.

“Why would the DUS know better than students or faculty?” says Williamson, in explaining the lack of a matching process in the Economics department. “We think the market works better.”

Gregory R. Atwan ’05, a joint concentrator in English and Classics, who experienced both the matching and self-selection processes, says he thinks finding one’s own adviser is simpler—though he doubts that its efficacy holds up in larger departments.

“As long as it’s not Economics and Government where students are not expected to have a close relationship with their professors, I think putting the burden on the student to find someone works very well,” he says.

DUS Virginie Greene wrote that the Romance Languages and Literatures Department’s policy “leaves the initiative to the student,” which she says is important because “writing a thesis is about achieving an independent project.”


Another way of increasing the number of thesis advisers available to students is to move outside the realm of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS)—by connecting thesis writers with graduate students and faculty from Harvard’s various graduate and professional schools, or even from outside the University.

“It’s surprising often how faculty at other schools are interested and excited in working with Harvard undergraduates,” says Economics Assistant DUS Robert H. Neugeboren.

Philosophy Head Tutor Warren Goldfarb says he occasionally helps students find thesis advisers in other departments or even in other universities if their thesis proposals do not seem to fall within any department member’s fields of expertise.

According to Goldfarb, one student in the last thesis cycle was advised by a lecturer in the Department of the Study of Religion and he says he once convinced an MIT professor to advise a student thesis.

Biological Studies and Chemical and Chemical Biology concentrators often find thesis advisers in the Harvard Medical School, the Harvard School of Public Health, and Harvard’s hospitals.

A growing number of graduate students also supplement faculty supervision by advising or helping to advise theses.

According to Nakayama, nearly half of psychology thesis writers are co-advised by a graduate student; New says many English concentrators also have graduate co-advisers.

To guide searching students, the Government department has compiled a database of its graduate students’ research interests.

According to Campbell, exit surveys show that on average, students are more satisfied with graduate student advisers than with faculty advisers. Campbell says a possible reason is that graduate students can give more time and attention to their advisees’ projects.

This holds true in other departments as well.

Fridberg says she knows thesis writers whose graduate advisers tended to have more time and were very involved in the advising process.

“Having a full professor...can cause a lot of problems,” she says. “Unless they’re tenured, their position’s sort of up in the air; even with a professor’s best intentions, you’re still competing with his classes and other obligations.”

“I actually really enjoyed the opportunity to work with a graduate student,” Dewitz says. “He was much closer to my personal position, and was willing to make time for me whenever I wanted.”

But Wootten says he tried very hard to find a faculty member to advise him, thinking that a professor’s experience would be a valuable asset to his project.

“I didn’t want a graduate student because I didn’t feel like they could advise me properly,” he says.

He eventually found a professor in the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) who was willing to take him on, but finished his thesis by himself because, he says, his adviser stopped responding to e-mails after intercession and he was unable to reestablish contact.

“He could be dead for all I know,” Wootten says.

“Unfortunately,” he adds, “[being advised by a professor] back-fired and I found a professor who didn’t help me at all. Who knows if a graduate student would have been more helpful?”


What Wootten does know is that departmental advising can be limited due to professors’ workloads: teaching multiple classes, writing books, and doing other jobs such as advising companies.

But, “because the issue is so real,” he says, “you would think the Gov department would not allow that to happen; it would go above and beyond other departments to help students find advisers.”

Wootten believes the process should begin even earlier.

“What the Gov department fails to do is help you in junior year to locate professors whose interests or field of study are compatible to your thesis,” Wootten says.

He says this is why it took him until October of his senior year to find an adviser. He began his search by going to the professors that he knew, but says that if the department had informed him of professors who were compatible with his topic, he would have gone to them first.

In fact, he says that departments should provide guidance at the start of the advising process, “giving initial tools, directions, suggestions to go here and there.”

Big departments often utilize their tutorials or seminars for upperclassmen as channels for finding thesis advisers.

“Students now versus ten years ago are much better equipped to write good theses,” Williamson says, citing these seminars, some of which are relatively new, as a factor.

“About eight years ago, we were a basket case,” says Williamson. “Being a big department is hard and we’ve often used that as an excuse.”


Other departments, however, believe in more “central planning,” and that the process of finding thesis advisers can be improved.

“Certainly there could be some benefits from some formalization of the system,” says Earth and Planetary Sciences Head Tutor John H. Shaw.

Shaw suggests organizing a series of events designed to bring students and faculty members together in small conversations which could also inform students of “what types of theses have worked out in the past.”

Another way of acquainting science concentrators with advisers to guide their thesis research, according to Chemistry DUS Eric N. Jacobsen, can be offering more research-oriented classes aimed at getting students into labs.

He says the Chemistry department is considering creating a class designed for just that: providing students with research experience to help prepare them for labwork-heavy theses and to get them in contact with potential advisers. The idea for this class was partially inspired by MCB 100: “Experimental Molecular and Cellular Biology,”

which was created last year.

The compilation and dissemination of information about the thesis-advising process would benefit students as well, according to Biochemical Sciences Head Tutor Richard M. Losick.

“Some centralization would help, including an explicit advising system and a website with University-wide information on research opportunities,” Losick wrote in an e-mail.

Bernstein says Social Studies keeps a database of potential thesis advisers available to its concentrators.

Wootten says he thinks “there should be some oversight by...the College...over all thesis writing,” especially now that honors requirements have changed.

Some department administrators, however, resist this idea.

“I wouldn’t want it to be more centralized than [at the department level] since a faculty member in the field is very much needed to help admin[istrator]s understand subtle differences of emphasis within fields and to talk with faculty with strong feelings,” New wrote in an e-mail.

To hone the thesis-advising process, the Astronomy and Astrophysics department appointed a Senior Thesis coordinator, who is currently Ramesh Narayan, according to Head Tutor Bryan M. Gaensler.

Whether departments take a more “central planning” or a more “market-oriented” approach depends on characteristics and circumstances such as department size and honors requirements.

“Small departments may feel they don’t need at all to formalize this commitment and that it should remain a matter of mutual trust between adviser and advisee,” Greene wrote in an e-mail.

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

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