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Seniors Ponder Thesis Agonies

By Angela C. Walch

The answering machine says it all.

"I'm kind of married to my thesis right now, so I'm hard to get a hold of," says the machine answering the phone of Daniel J. Kolodner '97, an English concentrator.

While Kolodner and numerous other seniors in the English and government departments celebrated the end of their theses with champagne yesterday afternoon, for many other students, the thesis process is just beginning.

Some first-years sell their souls and senior year early on to honors-only majors like history and literature or social studies when they declare their concentration. Other (wiser?) first-years hedge their bets and major in English, economics or government, where they can keep their options open to the bitter end, and still graduate if they drop their theses at the last minute.

As first-years struggle to find the right concentration, juniors attend pre-thesis advising meetings in their departments with trepidation in their eyes, and wonder if it's too late to escape.

The thesis is purported to be the capstone experience of the Harvard education. According to the lore, it's as important to the College experience as the houses students live in, the friends they have and the extracurricular activities they participate in.

So how do hundreds of future seniors make the decision?

Students say they consider a number of factors: academic interests, other time commitments, possible advantage in jobs or graduate school, the satisfaction of graduating with honors and quality of life.

But how much do each of these matter? Will a thesis really trash your social life? Will your future employer know the difference between departmental and non-departmental honors? Will a graduate school care?

Bleary-eyed seniors and their non-thesis-writing roommates wearily offer advice.

Quality of Life

Every year, large numbers of Harvard students put their lives on hold to concentrate on the mammoth project of the senior thesis.

Many suffer greatly, growing to loath their topics, their advisers and most of all, their deadlines. Others bubble enthusiastically, sure that their thesis is the best experience of their lives.

English concentrator Barbara Chung '97 finished her thesis with time to spare. She had only spell-checking left to do five days before yesterday's due date.

"I'm just really, really happy that I'm doing a thesis," she says about her work entitled "Images of Resurrection in John Donne's Holy Sonnets."

"My topic is fantastic, and I love writing and reading," she adds.

Though Chung said her social life was unaffected by the thesis, she noted that most of her thesis-writing friends were not in her position. "For most of them, it'll be plug, plug, plug 'til it's due," she said.

Many seniors say they became virtual prisoners of their computers, remaining glued to the screen on weekend nights.

"It's taken a lot out of my social life," says Michael W. Narducci '97, a psychology concentrator.

Narducci is the only one of his 11 roommates writing a thesis. "It's kind of hard sometimes [because] I have to stay in and do this and I can't go out with them," he says.

"I want to be able to have a good time. I keep thinking it's senior year, and I won't get to hang around with these guys much longer," Narducci says.

The suffering is made more acute by the interminable length of the project. By the end, many students say their initial excitement about their topics is lost.

"I just kind of want to do it and get it over with," says Kolodner, who apparently does check his answering machine.

"From what I hear, you're happy after the fact," he adds.

Most seniors say there are ups and downs in the thesis process, with the majority of the ups coming after it's turned in.

"I'm not glad I did it now, but I think I will be in a couple of months," says Roy Astrachan '97, an Applied Math concentrator writing a thesis through the economics department.

"Right now, I'm not that unhappy that I'm writing it, [but] at various points I've been regretting it strongly," he said.

Though Astrachan is on the home stretch now, he says he went through a bad time in December and January.

"At that point, I lacked focus entirely. I had done a decent amount of work, but it wasn't coming together," he says.

Astrachan says a support network is invaluable in making it through the rough times. His father's ideas, his girlfriend's loving support and "bitching with [his] roommates" helped him keep going.

Academic Interest

So far it seems that except for Chung, Harvard seniors are a bunch of masochists. Why suffer through the misery they all describe?

As hokey as it sounds, personal academic satisfaction is what makes it all worthwhile.

"Ever since I came here, I wanted to do a project that was my own and original," says Chung.

"I love to study poetry, and I'm just sitting around studying Donne's poetry," she raves.

Seniors also feel gratified when they churn out the final product.

"I can't tell you what a good feeling it was when I printed it all out together," Chung says. "It was so much paper and so many words my fingers had typed.

"It's like giving birth--each copy will weigh almost three pounds," she says.

Despite its destruction of his social life, Narducci says his thesis was overall a very positive experience.

"I had the opportunity to do real research and to contribute to the field," he says. According to Narducci, his advisor wants him to publish his study on "the effects of mental representations of significant others on how we form first impressions."

Narducci "feel[s] good about the field" of psychology as a result of his work with his adviser and other professors.

He says he also learned a lot about himself in the process.

"If you want to go to grad school, it's important to find out if you have the ability and tenacity," he says.

Are Capstones Resume Builders?

With the final decision looming before juniors, many wonder if they should write the thesis in hopes of giving their resumes some extra punch.

And the answer from every senior, whether writing a thesis or not, is a resounding no.

"I definitely wouldn't recommend doing it just to get honors," Narducci says. "It's not something to do a half-assed job on."

Harvard's system of honors is not universally known, students say, and many times, employers and schools will not know the difference between honors in field and honors in general studies.

Susan M. Vacca, associate director of the Office of Career Services, said she doesn't know if outside employers can tell the difference unless they are intimately familiar with the College's system.

Jose M. Padilla '97, a government concentrator, did not write a thesis, but will graduate with honors in general studies.

"On my resume it says, 'A.B. in Government with honors,'" he says. Padilla says he doesn't claim to have written a thesis, but that law schools he has applied to have not asked whether he earned honors in his field or not.

Jobs and Graduate Schools

The world-wise Harvard student, most likely a veteran of Social Analysis 10: "Principles of Economics," worries about returns from the investment. Is a thesis a free ticket into law school or landing a job on Wall Street?

It depends, say those with the power to accept or reject.

Law and graduate school admission officers say the thesis is only one of many factors that goes into the admissions decision, but that the thesis can confirm acceptance of an already strong candidate.

Russell E. Berg, dean of admissions and financial aid at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences says "it depends on the department the student applies to, it depends on the school from which he comes, but in general, it certainly does help" to write a thesis.

But Berg cautioned that students should not write a thesis looking for future rewards. Instead, "a passion for [the subject] now" should guide the decision.

"You should make that decision without regard to how it's going to advance your career a year from now," Berg said.

Berg said applicants should not merely state on their application that they wrote a thesis, but should be "proactive."

"My advice is...to remind us why you did the thesis and [tell us] what you have learned."

Harvard Law School (HLS) admissions officials tell a similar story.

HLS Dean of Admissions Joyce Curll says a thesis is just one factor of many in admissions decisions.

"We look at the overall academic record," she said. "There are people for whom writing a thesis is not as important as for others."

Curll stressed that a thesis is "not a requirement. It's something we like to see, but we also like to see a whole bunch of other things."

Padilla says he remembers several Harvard alumni who dropped their theses after hearing about acceptances to law schools.

"You are accepted before you turn the thesis in. [Law schools] don't know how well you did. I have friends who have dropped their thesis after acceptance to law school," Padilla noted.

The senior thesis seems less of a priority in the hiring decisions of investment banks and consulting firms.

Steve Min '94, a senior analyst at Cambridge Strategic Management Group, a management consulting firm, says his company does not care if students write theses or not.

"We value the overall academic record more than whether or not they...are writing a thesis or are doing honors," Min says. "The biggest factor is if they have interesting, relevant summer experience and a strong academic record."

Min adds, "I'm a Harvard grad, and I didn't write a thesis."

Astrachan, who went through recruiting for both consulting and investment banking, said some consulting firms "seemed into the idea" of the thesis, but that investment banks "didn't give a damn."

Life Without Thesis

So if a thesis doesn't seem your style, what can you do instead to make the most of your Harvard experience?

"If I hadn't done this thesis, I could have taken more psych or language courses. As it is, I'm doing the absolute bare minimum this semester because of thesis and recruiting," Astrachan notes.

Narducci stresses that writing a thesis is "not for everyone."

"You have to make a decision if this is something you're really passionate about," he says.

Padilla, who chose not to write a thesis, says he spent his extra time taking language courses, travelling around the Northeast on weekends and learning ballroom dance.

"I wanted to say I wrote a thesis, but there was nothing I thought would carry me through a whole year," he says. "Plus, I wanted to do other things my senior year."

Padilla feels he is satisfying his academic thirst as well. Instead of the thesis, he is taking a government seminar on democratization in Latin America, a subject that greatly interests him.

"My desire to research and write a paper will be satisfied with the 20-page seminar paper," Padilla said.

He listed the benefits of this strategy as "not having the tension because this is pass/fail and not getting tired of the subject. My roommates are all sick of their topics."

Padilla said he does not regret his decision. "The real reason to do a thesis is to do something that you enjoy, not for someone or something else. It will be a painful and miserable experience otherwise," he says.CrimsonGrigory TovbisCHRISTOPHER E. J. SIMONS '97 shows off his creative writing thesis yesterday.

"My topic is fantastic, and I love writing and reading," she adds.

Though Chung said her social life was unaffected by the thesis, she noted that most of her thesis-writing friends were not in her position. "For most of them, it'll be plug, plug, plug 'til it's due," she said.

Many seniors say they became virtual prisoners of their computers, remaining glued to the screen on weekend nights.

"It's taken a lot out of my social life," says Michael W. Narducci '97, a psychology concentrator.

Narducci is the only one of his 11 roommates writing a thesis. "It's kind of hard sometimes [because] I have to stay in and do this and I can't go out with them," he says.

"I want to be able to have a good time. I keep thinking it's senior year, and I won't get to hang around with these guys much longer," Narducci says.

The suffering is made more acute by the interminable length of the project. By the end, many students say their initial excitement about their topics is lost.

"I just kind of want to do it and get it over with," says Kolodner, who apparently does check his answering machine.

"From what I hear, you're happy after the fact," he adds.

Most seniors say there are ups and downs in the thesis process, with the majority of the ups coming after it's turned in.

"I'm not glad I did it now, but I think I will be in a couple of months," says Roy Astrachan '97, an Applied Math concentrator writing a thesis through the economics department.

"Right now, I'm not that unhappy that I'm writing it, [but] at various points I've been regretting it strongly," he said.

Though Astrachan is on the home stretch now, he says he went through a bad time in December and January.

"At that point, I lacked focus entirely. I had done a decent amount of work, but it wasn't coming together," he says.

Astrachan says a support network is invaluable in making it through the rough times. His father's ideas, his girlfriend's loving support and "bitching with [his] roommates" helped him keep going.

Academic Interest

So far it seems that except for Chung, Harvard seniors are a bunch of masochists. Why suffer through the misery they all describe?

As hokey as it sounds, personal academic satisfaction is what makes it all worthwhile.

"Ever since I came here, I wanted to do a project that was my own and original," says Chung.

"I love to study poetry, and I'm just sitting around studying Donne's poetry," she raves.

Seniors also feel gratified when they churn out the final product.

"I can't tell you what a good feeling it was when I printed it all out together," Chung says. "It was so much paper and so many words my fingers had typed.

"It's like giving birth--each copy will weigh almost three pounds," she says.

Despite its destruction of his social life, Narducci says his thesis was overall a very positive experience.

"I had the opportunity to do real research and to contribute to the field," he says. According to Narducci, his advisor wants him to publish his study on "the effects of mental representations of significant others on how we form first impressions."

Narducci "feel[s] good about the field" of psychology as a result of his work with his adviser and other professors.

He says he also learned a lot about himself in the process.

"If you want to go to grad school, it's important to find out if you have the ability and tenacity," he says.

Are Capstones Resume Builders?

With the final decision looming before juniors, many wonder if they should write the thesis in hopes of giving their resumes some extra punch.

And the answer from every senior, whether writing a thesis or not, is a resounding no.

"I definitely wouldn't recommend doing it just to get honors," Narducci says. "It's not something to do a half-assed job on."

Harvard's system of honors is not universally known, students say, and many times, employers and schools will not know the difference between honors in field and honors in general studies.

Susan M. Vacca, associate director of the Office of Career Services, said she doesn't know if outside employers can tell the difference unless they are intimately familiar with the College's system.

Jose M. Padilla '97, a government concentrator, did not write a thesis, but will graduate with honors in general studies.

"On my resume it says, 'A.B. in Government with honors,'" he says. Padilla says he doesn't claim to have written a thesis, but that law schools he has applied to have not asked whether he earned honors in his field or not.

Jobs and Graduate Schools

The world-wise Harvard student, most likely a veteran of Social Analysis 10: "Principles of Economics," worries about returns from the investment. Is a thesis a free ticket into law school or landing a job on Wall Street?

It depends, say those with the power to accept or reject.

Law and graduate school admission officers say the thesis is only one of many factors that goes into the admissions decision, but that the thesis can confirm acceptance of an already strong candidate.

Russell E. Berg, dean of admissions and financial aid at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences says "it depends on the department the student applies to, it depends on the school from which he comes, but in general, it certainly does help" to write a thesis.

But Berg cautioned that students should not write a thesis looking for future rewards. Instead, "a passion for [the subject] now" should guide the decision.

"You should make that decision without regard to how it's going to advance your career a year from now," Berg said.

Berg said applicants should not merely state on their application that they wrote a thesis, but should be "proactive."

"My advice is...to remind us why you did the thesis and [tell us] what you have learned."

Harvard Law School (HLS) admissions officials tell a similar story.

HLS Dean of Admissions Joyce Curll says a thesis is just one factor of many in admissions decisions.

"We look at the overall academic record," she said. "There are people for whom writing a thesis is not as important as for others."

Curll stressed that a thesis is "not a requirement. It's something we like to see, but we also like to see a whole bunch of other things."

Padilla says he remembers several Harvard alumni who dropped their theses after hearing about acceptances to law schools.

"You are accepted before you turn the thesis in. [Law schools] don't know how well you did. I have friends who have dropped their thesis after acceptance to law school," Padilla noted.

The senior thesis seems less of a priority in the hiring decisions of investment banks and consulting firms.

Steve Min '94, a senior analyst at Cambridge Strategic Management Group, a management consulting firm, says his company does not care if students write theses or not.

"We value the overall academic record more than whether or not they...are writing a thesis or are doing honors," Min says. "The biggest factor is if they have interesting, relevant summer experience and a strong academic record."

Min adds, "I'm a Harvard grad, and I didn't write a thesis."

Astrachan, who went through recruiting for both consulting and investment banking, said some consulting firms "seemed into the idea" of the thesis, but that investment banks "didn't give a damn."

Life Without Thesis

So if a thesis doesn't seem your style, what can you do instead to make the most of your Harvard experience?

"If I hadn't done this thesis, I could have taken more psych or language courses. As it is, I'm doing the absolute bare minimum this semester because of thesis and recruiting," Astrachan notes.

Narducci stresses that writing a thesis is "not for everyone."

"You have to make a decision if this is something you're really passionate about," he says.

Padilla, who chose not to write a thesis, says he spent his extra time taking language courses, travelling around the Northeast on weekends and learning ballroom dance.

"I wanted to say I wrote a thesis, but there was nothing I thought would carry me through a whole year," he says. "Plus, I wanted to do other things my senior year."

Padilla feels he is satisfying his academic thirst as well. Instead of the thesis, he is taking a government seminar on democratization in Latin America, a subject that greatly interests him.

"My desire to research and write a paper will be satisfied with the 20-page seminar paper," Padilla said.

He listed the benefits of this strategy as "not having the tension because this is pass/fail and not getting tired of the subject. My roommates are all sick of their topics."

Padilla said he does not regret his decision. "The real reason to do a thesis is to do something that you enjoy, not for someone or something else. It will be a painful and miserable experience otherwise," he says.CrimsonGrigory TovbisCHRISTOPHER E. J. SIMONS '97 shows off his creative writing thesis yesterday.

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