I have just founded yet another Harvard group: Ari’s Thesis Club (ATC). My thesis-deprived friends thought we were kidding. “Wait, Thesis Club is real? You’re not joking?” No, unfortunately we’re not joking—“we” being myself, my first-year roommate Katie and my current roommate Kate. The comp requirements are a year of living with me, possessing a Kate-ish name, and lacking annoying work habits. Each day, Thesis Club takes over a seminar room for 12 hours at a time, where the Kates and I lay out all our papers and peck away at endless chapters while munching on discount Valentine’s candy. It’s a warm, encouraging atmosphere (“My thesis is a piece of crap!”), and much more pleasant than working solo. It is also the intellectual environment that the Harvard admissions brochures brag about: “Ari, would you say that the child in my source is ‘hitting’ the other child with a baseball bat?” “Katie, do you think it’s okay to have a fifty page Appendix to make it look longer?”
Given that Thesis Club membership came as a total surprise to me and many other students (I am writing back-to-back columns this month so that fellow columnist Sue Meng can fully enjoy the final days of her own thesis club) I present you with a letter to juniors, to properly prepare you for the future.
Many of you are at that blissfully naive time during junior spring when you are deciding whether to write theses, and if so, on what topic. Please keep in mind that for many of you, a thesis club is in your future, except for those of you lab rats, who will be spending 60-hour weeks in labs, biting your nails over your non-viable thesis experiments. Rule #1 for any thesis: Make sure that you have a viable project. My first thesis topic was an exposé on the evils of Diet Coke, a project wholly dependent on the Coca-Cola Company admitting to the addictive, cancer-causing nature of its lucrative product. (I kid you not.) This is a flagrant example of a non-viable thesis project. Other examples include: trying to split the atom with light rays, writing the next Great American novel and constructing a new theoretical framework for democracy. No Nobel Prize winner has ever been twenty-two, and there is a reason for that.
Equally problematic in Thesis Club are the phrases “new,” “totally unique” and “has never been done before.” Total individuality doesn’t exist, and while innovation is nice, so is work based on what others have done. You know those sourcebook articles that spend 90% of their time regurgitating the arguments of others, concluding with a new way of looking at those arguments? Those articles are very valuable, and also 90% easier to write than the articles that construct their own everything from scratch, in addition to their own arguments and conclusions. The articles are also much easier to defend in oral exams—the unexpected evil cousin that follows Thesis Club. Many academic greats have gotten quite far on this model, so borrow and footnote away.
If you do need to write a magnum opus, for the sake of your sanity, keep it under the 210-pages of this columnist’s thesis. Editing takes approximately ten times as long as writing. It takes me a full day to read my thesis, let alone fix all those horrendous pages that I wrote while tipsy in the middle of the night trying to meet deadlines. Just as great books can be short and sweet (my favorite book, The Lover, by Marguerette Duras, is 90 small, double-spaced pages), so can great theses.
As for the research process, some of you have realized that your research can consist of interviewing people. If you are smart, you have already begun applying for grant money, which will not only fund the interviews, but also your plane fare to visit the bars of Barcelona/your best friend in Los Angeles/the Dali Lama while you conduct said research. You probably think that you’ve just hit pay dirt: You’ll travel for the summer, talk to some people, and then write it up. Little do you realize that you’ll spend many angry summer hours on the phone with subjects who don’t show up for interviews, the entire fall semester analyzing interview data, and all of Winter Break coming up with a conclusion to your research. Congratulations, you have just written the first twelve pages of Chapter One. The rest of your thesis does not yet exist, as you still need to provide a full academic context for your study, historical background, a theoretical framework based on your data and a conclusion. Keep this in mind when deciding between library time, lab time and people time.
Faced with such a situation, a significant percentage will drop theses, or, as my ex-Social Studies boyfriend put it, take advantage of that “giant golden parachute” known as the Government Department. This is a great decision. Graduate school is in the near future anyway, at which time a Dissertation Club can be yours. In Cambridge, your senior spring will be pleasant; while your thesising friends are taking advantage of their only hope of a golden parachute—Jack Daniels over bad drafts—you’ll be living it up at Senior Bar.
If you do choose the thesis club route, never fear, it will be over soon enough. The current ATC membership has high hopes for the future, especially Katie: “I can’t wait until Thesis Club becomes TV Club!” Ah, student motivation at its best.
Best of luck,
Arianne R. Cohen ’03 is a women’s studies concentator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.