Writing a thesis radically transforms your senior year experience. A thesis will consume your entire life, especially in the last two months before it is due. Although every department issues a schedule which recommends completing a first draft of the thesis long before it must be turned in, hardly anyone actually does the requisite editing and revising until the last moment. Most theses are written under tremendous time pressure, and on some days you find yourself wondering whether you will actually finish by the deadline.
Writing a thesis counts as taking a course each semester. During the fall, this will translate into your feeling as if you have an exceptionally light work-load, because you will be accumulating research slowly and lazily. But during the spring, when you actually have to write dozens of pages, you will feel as though you are taking several extra classes.
Suddenly, your other courses will fade in importance. You will skip some for weeks at a time. Those professors and TFs who allow seniors writing theses to skip or postpone mid-terms and papers are greatly appreciated. Those who insist on interrupting your precious thesis-writing time do not understand the extent of their cruelty.
A thesis not only dominates your academic life but interferes with your social life. When you do go out and party, you will be wracked with guilt, tediously thinking about how you are squandering an opportunity to do work. You will consider your thesis constantly, even over a glass of beer. You may even dream about your thesis. Last night I dreamt about my theory chapter (or lack of one).
Two factors will help you to survive the thesis-writing experience: a good advisor and close friends who are also enduring the misery of having to write 60, 80 or more pages about some arcane subject. For those of you who are under the delusion that you have found the topic which will carry you through months of writing, no matter how scintillating your topic seems to be at first, it will eventually seem stale and insufferable.
A good thesis advisor should be knowledgeable about your subject and should be familiar with what your particular department expects in a senior honors essay. However, it is even more important that your advisor is willing to spend hours helping you improve your thesis and is someone with whom you can establish a good rapport. Thus, asking a high-profile professor to advise you may be a terrible mistake. If your advisor does not have enough time to spend guiding your work, you will inevitably end up frustrated. Furthermore, enduring the criticism of an advisor with whom you do not get along well is likely to breed resentment.
Friends who are writing theses are also extremely important. You will spend almost as much time complaining about your thesis as you will actually writing it, and those who are not undergoing a similar experience will not be able to sympathize with your gripes. Friends can also help to motivate you, and you will find motivation in odd activities.
For example, several days ago, my roommate and I decided to shave our heads to proclaim our complete dedication to our theses over the next few weeks. (My freshly-shorn dome looks great, but my roommate flaked and decided not to shave his head when he was halfway through shaving mine.)
Writing a thesis can also help you to make new friends. You will instantly bond and commiserate with fellow thesis-writers, even if you barely know them. But the thesis can come between you and your non-honors friends, because you will resent their unfettered freedom to enjoy lazy spring days. The thesis can also wreak havoc on your love life, when your significant other finds out that you now spend most of your time contemplating another interest.
In conclusion: don't write a thesis unless you're absolutely sure that you're ready for the sacrifice it involves. Hopefully, the grief a thesis can inflict will only serve to make the rest of senior spring seem more enjoyable; I'll find out whether that's true after March 20.
David W. Brown's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.