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The Thesis Fog

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Yesterday, with two hours to go until the 5 p.m. deadline, I found myself watching the man at the copy store hand me inch-thick reams of off-white paper on which was printed my senior thesis.

It’s an odd sort of feeling—having pondered, labored over, drafted, edited, and re-written something for the past year—to finally hold the thick stack of paper that is its final, physical manifestation. I don’t know what exactly I expected. But to slide the printout into its binder, to head out into the rain towards the Government Department offices at the Center for Government and International Studies, and to finally hand over the two black binders was remarkably anticlimactic.

The senior thesis lives as a sort of larger-than-life being in my imagination. It feels, despite what the department tells you, like the conclusion of my academic career. When discussing theses, words like “milestone,” “capstone,” and “culmination” get thrown around. I recall thinking freshman year that it seemed fantastically impossible that any one person could conceive of an argument that required such a daunting number of pages—a hundred, no less—to outline.

I must confess that even this year it was often difficult to see precisely where the end lay. I had accumulated enough books in my dorm room to strike out on my own and found a new library, and yet I did not feel any closer to crafting a living and breathing argument. (I’ve heard not a few jokes from fellow thesis writers about its similarity to another roughly nine-months-long process, but fortunately for both me and my thesis, this will not consume the better part of my disposable income for the next 18 years.)

I spent much of my time at Harvard writing, either for class or The Crimson, and yet still a senior thesis remained shrouded in a sense of mystery and improbability. Looking back on it now, it almost feels like an act of magic, turning all those endless piles of books from Widener into something I could run off a copy machine.

I was undoubtedly fortunate to have friends who felt similarly. (Thesis writing also became a bit of gallows humor. I had a pact with one friend that we would not mention our theses in each other’s presence.) I have been touched by those around me, how they reminded me that to wander only sometimes means to be lost.

Yet, candidly, it was sometimes hard to convince myself of the feasibility of writing a thesis. An original contribution to the existing literature, mounds of research, and over 100 pages of text seemed far beyond the horizon of a 21-year-old undergraduate. Even though I felt at home with my topic, I did not fully know, until relatively recently, what the full nature of my argument would be.

In those moments of doubt, I convinced myself of my thesis’s inevitability. As I meandered through different potential areas of research, considered divergent approaches, and found unexpected results, it sometimes felt like I was blindly stumbling towards a destination that I still told myself I could see.

And yet, with every step, sometimes forward but also to the side or rear, I could look back and see that I was just a bit closer to the end. It was not in the places or ways I had necessarily imagined, and an outside observer who asked me to describe my topic once a month for the past year would no doubt think me a flip-flopper extraordinaire. Slowly, however, the notion that I had convinced myself of—that by March 7 there would be a thesis—began to take shape. The page count began to tick upwards, out of my research emerged results, and not a few times after some late-night thesis work, my brain, willed to sleep, instead forced me to get up again to jot down a few extra ideas.

Ultimately, that I could not see the end from the beginning did not matter. In fits and starts, the fog slowly began to clear. As I continued to hope and believe that the process of thesis writing would end in a product halfway decent, the thing that had seemed like both a rite of passage and an improbability began to seem like neither.

It felt like just another paper, albeit (quite) a bit longer. It was the conclusion of a year-long writing process, sure, but still only one portion of my time at Harvard. One hundred pages, but each one could be—and was—written. I have felt a renewed confidence reminding me that to walk through a bit of a fog does not mean that the destination is not there, waiting.

These thoughts may all seem rather cliched. Of course, writing a senior thesis is a privilege, not a condemnation. All the same, it is the most significant academic project I have ever undertaken.

And yet from my post-thesis perch I rather feel that the climax of this story took place in little bits over the course of the past several months, rather than all at once yesterday. The moments when the fog began to clear, bit by bit—not when the finished product was produced—those were the truly special moments of it all.

In some sense, writing a thesis has a quasi-spiritual aspect to it. It’s the performance of an act of faith that, even as you’re picking through the murky early months and even as the length and scale prevent you from grasping the whole thing until near the end, the destination is worth the trek.

Derek K. Choi ’18, a former president of The Crimson, is a Government concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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