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Social Science Concentrators Adapt to the Virtual Thesis Process

The Committee on Degrees in Social Studies is located in William James Hall.
The Committee on Degrees in Social Studies is located in William James Hall. By Helen Y. Wu
By Natalie L. Kahn, Crimson Staff Writer

In an unprecedented semester of virtual learning, seniors concentrating in social science disciplines say they have faced a host of new challenges in completing their theses — but also a few upsides which come with an all-virtual writing process.

Students in fields such as Social Studies, Psychology, and Economics are working around the challenges of virtual thesis advising and solving logistical difficulties posed by research, such as archival access or field work.

Despite the challenges of working away from campus resources, several students said one upside virtual learning has brought is increased access to professors — not only at Harvard but at other schools.

“The one thing that I've really seen is, professors, both from Harvard and from other schools, have been a lot more accessible than they would have been pre-COVID,” Economics concentrator Joel P. Byman '21 said.

“I can email a professor from another school and ask to get on a Zoom call to ask if they have any guidance,” Byman added.

Other students said it has been challenging to have never met their thesis advisors in person.

“The main sort of strange difference would be the fact that I've actually never met my thesis advisor in person, even though at this point I know him pretty well,” Social Studies concentrator Daniel L. Aklog '21 said.

Many Psychology concentrators have had to rework in-person study plans, according to Psychology concentrator Ryan R. Chappel '21.

“My thesis has been one of the few in Psychology that hasn't had to change that much — I was already doing an online study,” he said.

Other concentrators, such as Elizabeth R. Kaye '21, whose thesis examines friendship development in the first year of college, have had to rework the structure of their research altogether.

“I was initially planning to recruit only Harvard first years, especially during orientation. As I was not on campus to recruit, I needed to expand my recruitment to colleges across the country,” she wrote in an email.

Social Studies concentrator Rumi M. A. R. Khan '21 touched on another big challenge presented by virtual thesis-writing for social science concentrators — access to archives.

Khan, who is writing a thesis on the economic history of China, has also had to shift gears and build his analysis primarily from secondary sources.

“I’m looking at historical data, using mostly secondary sources which kind of changes the scope of my analysis. A lot of people are transitioning more to secondary sources rather than primary sources,” he said.

Aklog also mentioned the lack of archival access as an obstacle.

“I'm writing my thesis on the second Ku Klux Klan. And there’s a lot of good microfilm newspapers that exist in Lamont and Widener but I can't really use them,” Aklog, a Crimson Editorial editor, said.

For most Economics concentrators, archives are not as crucial to the writing process, which lends itself more to an online format than other disciplines, according to concentrator Nicholas R. Lore-Edwards '21.

“The main resource for thesis writers in Economics is how you get your data, and a lot of that can be done online,” Lore-Edwards said.

However, Lore-Edwards noted that online research comes with its own drawbacks.

“Zoom fatigue is real. Working on your thesis as an economic concentrator involves a lot of staring at a computer screen because we're running regressions or doing online research,” he said.

“Having to be at a computer all day and then go and work on your thesis on a computer has been pretty challenging,” he added.

Nonetheless, many students said they recognize the inevitability of the challenge of writing a thesis virtually during a pandemic.

“It's something that I've just sort of had to accept and run with — you just kind of have to adjust,” Aklog said.

—Staff writer Natalie L. Kahn can be reached at natalie.kahn@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @natalielkahn.

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