Who Needs a Thesis Anyway?

Come Gov jocks one, come Gov jocks all, but just don't come looking for senior thesis advisers because there just aren't enough to go around.

Kirkland House resident Nancy D. Prior '89 says she has spoken to more than nine prospective thesis advisers in the Government Department, but most of them said they were too busy because they already had advisees or were doing their own work and did not want to take on extra responsibility.

"The Government Department says 'Oh, write a thesis, write a thesis,' and then they have no way of helping you with even preliminary stages," Prior says.

"We have a shortage [of thesis advisers]," admits Jane T. Gray, coordinator of the undergraduate program for government and office manager for the government tutorial office. "There's just not enough faculty and graduate students."

Gray says there is a "supply and demand" problem. The department currently has between 40 and 60 teaching fellows, plus faculty members who serve as thesis advisers, but this apparently is not enough for the more than 80 concentrators who want to write theses. Government advisers usually assist with only three these because of time constraints, Gray says.


Prior says that having to fight for an adviser has changed her whole attitude about writing a thesis. "Because I faced such a big obstacle already, I figure the whole thing isn't worth it," Prior says "A thesis is supposed to bring personal satisfaction, but it's already so dissatisfying because of all the dissatisfying things in the formative stages."

Although Prior has not decided whether she will write a thesis, if she chooses not to, she will not be alone. Many students in Harvard's largest departments, such as government, economics and history, elect not to write theses, thus sacrificing their chance for honors within their department.

Only about 50 percent of all government concentrators actually write senior theses, Grav says. While most students take junior tutorials, many of them decide to write or not to write during spring of junior year or during the following summer. Approximately five percent of those who start government thesis work in the fall drop it by Christmas, Gray says.

In the history department, a larger percentage of concentrators write theses, says Head Tutor Philip A. Kuhn '54. This year, the department has 105 honors candidates and 86 non-honors seniors.

Although the history tutorial office had a line extending outside its door last Friday, as students frantically sought advisers, Kuhn says all but four of the would-be honors candidates now have supervisors, and the rest are "negotiating."

While some students do not write theses because they cannot find advisers, many undergraduates choose not to devote a full-year course to writing just one paper--thus dropping honors--for other reasons.

"The reasons [for dropping] vary," Gray says. "Sometimes they think their grades aren't good enough, some don't feel passionate enough about a topic to stick it through."

Senior James S. Keller '89 says he is not writing a thesis because he could not find a topic that "captivated" him enough to "dedicate a semester to." Without the pressure of a thesis, Keller says he can devote more time applying for jobs and playing rugby.

Career-minded students often find this route attractive. Government concentrator Kathaleen A. Kelly '89, who has not decided whether to write a thesis, says she has been advised not to, because theses do not matter for law or graduate school or what she does after college.

After all, students who choose the non-honors track within their department can still graduate with a form of honors. Students with grade point averages better than "B" are granted a cum laude degree in general studies.