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A Thesis Diary

The Long View

By Adam I. Arenson

As of March 1, I have successfully completed my thesis. After a little laundry, a lot of rest and a trip to the library with all my books in my luggage, I am feeling just fine, thank you. Looking back, I see the rhythm of the process, the things I did right and the mistakes I made. Everyone seems to get a little misty-eyed when talking about a thesis, but this aura is an unhelpful attempt to shroud the "capstone experience" in mystery. As a remedy, and with apologies to seniors who are still writing theses, I present to you a thesis diary, a step-by-step checklist to accompany you to greatness.

Junior Spring. Though I am sure some crafty first-years are already plotting away and xeroxing articles, junior spring seems the best time to begin a thesis. Think more about choosing a broad idea than a specific topic, and hunt down your secret weapon: a good adviser. Drop into office hours and chat about your ideas, however unformed they may be. Shop around and think who would work best with you. Does she check her e-mail? Does he seem interested in your project?

Summer. To work or not to work, that is the question. I did little over the summer. (I bought a used book or two that looked like it might be relevant, and told my parents to pay for it "for the thesis.") Some people do oodles of research and come back at the early December stage, but my hunch is they loaf the semester away and reach December 1 no further ahead than the rest. So, figure out if an internship or time in an archive will best serve your thesis--and your mental well-being--and act accordingly.

Back at Harvard. Now the fun begins. "Research" at this stage may be pretty crude, and the learning curve is immense. You may think you understand Widener/microfilms/your topic/the nature of reality, but after a few weeks of reading you will realize how difficult it is to get sources, how foolishly broad your topic sounds or how banally obvious. Do not despair; it seems that all of us are humbled as we strive to join the company of educated men and women.

Early December. At the first great put-up-or-shut-up point, you will slave over the introductory chapter, working to craft the question just perfectly, to balance anecdote and irony in the opening with structure and scholarship throughout. Suddenly, the folk who have been saying, "Oh yeah, I did a bunch over the summer" also are working feverishly, having been told their first chapter draft looked like it had been printed in red ink. Work hard, but move on. You'll throw all this out in the end, but it will get you on the right track.

Winter Break. Though it seems foolhardy not to work on the thesis--or at least write papers for your other classes--here again you must face the question of whether working is the right decision. You are likely to begin speaking in the plural: e.g., "The thesis and I went to Acapulco." Don't worry, this is normal enough, and you haven't even begun to know cohabitaton yet.

January. Sometime in late March, you are going to look back and wonder what happened to this month. Where did it go? Finals and the Super Bowl took only three hours each; how is it that you have reached some late date with no more written than you had December 9? This, too, comes with the territory. If you have been researching hard and have formed at least a rudimentary argument, you are in perfect shape.

Intersession. What's this? Answer: something that underclassmen have and you do not. Look up long enough to read the course guide and wonder if it is too late to apply to jobs and fellowships for next year.

February. Write like hell. In a blaze of term-billed printing and caffeine, a thesis will emerge. Last-minute sources will be consulted and all the "get-to-that" notes will come back to haunt you. Much to your surprise, you will have an argument with cogent research and a grasp of the field. You will go to your advisor with a problem, but in explaining it you will figure out the answer and rush out to write it down before you forget. Save that insight, and back it up on the network, your parents' computer and in three or four states, too.

T-minus 3 weeks. Like a spring thaw, writing will become revising, though the process will be just as draining. You will feel ecstatic about strange things, like finding an errant quote or cutting out the split infinitives. You also will find yourself talking about the thesis like it was super-interesting to others, from section to bars to the checker in the dining hall. Please feel free to restrain yourself. Please.

T-minus 2 days. Step away from the keyboard. Do it. I'm serious. Rely on your hard work, your measured pace and your trusty proofreaders to help perfect your masterpiece. Buy a ream of special paper and set aside a day, about a hundred dollars and all your remaining patience, whether you are printing it yourself or dropping off your baby at the all-night whirling dervish of copies. Prevent yourself from looking too close; of course you will find mistakes, but what's to say that an errant mouse click won't create more while you try to fix it?

Voil. Sleep, drink and be merry. Laugh at seniors with later deadlines. Add a spring to your step, plan a luxurious spring break and write a column to help out future thesis-writers.

Adam I. Arenson '00-'01 is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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