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Psych To See Thesis Boom

Department anticipates twice as many honors essays next year

By Ross A. Macdonald, Crimson Staff Writer

After a wave of faculty hiring spurred in part by concern that students were unable to find thesis advisers, the psychology department forecasts a possible doubling of senior thesis writers in the coming academic year.

According to Undergraduate Program Administrator Shawn C. Harriman ’83, 53 psychology concentrators set to graduate in 2005 are writing theses—and more thesis applications are expected come September.

This year, 27 seniors completed honors essays.

According to Harriman, the department is taking steps to accommodate this explosion in thesis writers.

“On one level, a psychology thesis is a particularly complicated project, in most cases involving human participants in experimental studies. In recognition of the care this requires, the department has increased its services for students planning thesis projects,” he wrote in an e-mail.

For juniors considering theses and first-term seniors who have begun work on their theses, the department has instituted monthly meetings with Lindsley Professor of Psychology and Head Tutor Stephen M. Kosslyn.

Graduate student Amy L. Wiseman will also fill the new role of department-wide adviser for all students writing theses. Additionally, the department expanded the amount of thesis information available on the psychology website.

The requirements for a psychology thesis, which is mandatory for departmental honors, are unusually demanding. Potential writers are encouraged to begin preparing a prospectus in the middle of junior year, and they must find both an adviser and a reader.

Readers must be departmental faculty members.

The need to obtain such supervision has been a stumbling block to potential writers in the past.

Renee J. Gasgarth ’03 said in fall 2002 that she had been actively discouraged from pursuing a thesis by her adviser.

“She said that she didn’t recommend writing a thesis, and that there was no reason everyone should be writing one,” Gasgarth said at the time. “She said it’s a real drain on the faculty, and not to even consider asking her to advise [a thesis].”

In 2002-2003, only 25 of 117 seniors who received degrees in psychology wrote theses.

In fall 2002, Kosslyn called that number “surprisingly low,” but added, “we’ve made great appointing new, very dynamic faculty.”

In 2003, the department lured Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker from MIT, and increased the number of lecturer positions.

“Our new faculty have been particularly eager to incorporate undergraduates into their labs and research programs,” Harriman wrote.

Kate G. Ward ’05, a psychology concentrator who plans to write a thesis next year, said she had not encountered any obstacles but that she thought “it would be hard for someone who didn’t put a lot of thought into it beforehand.”

In Ward’s case, the process was smoothed by relationships with faculty members. Ward’s adviser taught a seminar she took, and she works in the lab of her reader, Cabot Professor of Social Ethics Mahzarin Banaji.

“The department can only do so much,” said Ward, because the number of advisers available “depends on the instructors.”

Some psychology concentrators choose to forgo the intensity of the thesis process in favor of other coursework.

Esther R. Bisker ’04 decided not to write a thesis because of medical school applications. Instead of a thesis, she embarked on a course of supervised research, which she said was a “fulfilling experience.”

Nonetheless, she says she felt the option was available.

“I got an impression that they would support me,” she said, “but no pressure to write one.”

—Staff writer Ross A. Macdonald can be reached at

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