Dear Junior History Major,
It’s that time of year again. You’ve probably returned from spring break, hopefully in one piece and with your liver only a little worse for wear. Maybe you’re terrified by the senior history majors gliding across campus like ghosts, baggy-eyed and shell-shocked from the prospect of finishing writing starting their theses in the next four weeks. That will be you in one year’s time. But for now, you are just coming to the beginning of the thesis road, and wondering how to start walking down it. Here’s my step-by-step guide to making sure you get off on the right foot:
1. THINK about your interests
Treat it like an assignment – go to the library, the coffee shop, the bar, the gym, wherever it is that you get your best thinking done. Think back on the past couple of years, and write down every book, article, movie, lecture, discussion, or passing comment that has struck you as a topic you are really, truly interested in. Were you absolutely drawn into that lecture on Qing China? Scintillated by reading King Leopold’s Ghost? Avid reader of Jane Austen? Presumably you became a history major for a reason – you enjoy studying history. Include everything. Don’t stop to think about whether “that article in Newsweek about ‘Dark Knight’ being a totally badass movie” is a plausible research topic – jot it down anyway, and move on to the next one. Keep that list handy, and add to it whenever you think of something else.
Finding an idea that interests you is half the battle in choosing a good thesis topic, and arguably the most important step you can take. The cliche that writing a thesis is like being in a relationship is largely true – you will be spending a ridiculous amount of time with this topic, and choosing one that you are passionate about will partially determine how much you enjoy writing your thesis. After you’ve got a decent list, sit down and narrow it down to 5-10 topics that most excite you and that you can imagine absolutely consuming for the next year.
2. TALK it over.
Start with your advisor. Email her or him your list of 5-10 topics and ask to set up a time to discuss them. They will (presumably) have a lot of experience in just this sort of advising, and are the single best resource for determining whether a topic is academically feasible. Ask them the following questions about each topic:
– Too narrow, too broad?
– Will there be enough (accessible) source material?
– Will it be difficult to do original research?
– Is this a realistic scope for a senior thesis?
If they don’t openly advocate for one or two of your topics, they should at least help you narrow down the list by eliminating topics that aren’t feasible. From there, talk with other professors in the field you’re looking at. Ask them the same questions. Talk to senior history majors. Talk to friends. Talk to family. As you spend more time talking about the couple of topics you’ve chosen, it will gradually emerge which you are most passionate about, which one you most easily articulate, and ultimately which one you should choose.
3. PLAN your research.
Again, your advisor should help you with this. If they are not going to be your primary reader, have them refer you to another professor. Meet with them and discuss how to begin tackling the topic. Everyone has different approaches to starting research, but many will likely recommend the following:
Start doing some cursory investigative forays into your topic, especially if you don’t have a definitive set of primary sources. Familiarize yourself with the basics – both surrounding historical context and at least a working knowledge of what (if any) major research has already been done. From there, ask your advisor or reader about avenues to take towards finding primary source material. One of the most important things to find out is location – is it available online? Can your school’s library give you access? Will you have to travel to any distant archives?
Think carefully about how you want to take notes and what has worked for you in the past. I’d stump mightily for the benefits of Zotero, but it ultimately comes down to what you are comfortable with using. Whatever it is, use it. Faithfully. Short of having a photographic memory, methodical note-taking is an absolute lifesaver throughout the entire process, and will end up saving you time and effort.
4. START working.
The upcoming summer is presumably your last summer vacation as an undergraduate, and possibly your last three-month summer vacation for the foreseeable future. You should do everything you can to enjoy and take advantage of it. But here is the trade-off. Starting to work on your thesis during the break is a really, really good idea. Especially if the bulk of your source material is not available on campus, it becomes imperative to get a head start on research over the summer.
Although some of your classmates may have the ability to smoothly conjure out of thin air a brilliant and deeply profound thesis in the last two months before its due date, the majority of us mortals are forced to rely on hard work. There is a surprisingly sticky correlation between the amount of time one spends on their research and the quality of their end product. Hard work on the back-end of the process can not only mask other deficiencies, but it will also save your future self an incredible amount of undue stress and despair. Having said that, take some time off to be a college kid during your last summer vacation. Your thesis will still be there lurking in the shadows like voracious alien monster when you get back.
5. ENJOY it.
Writing a thesis will be the most difficult and rewarding accomplishment of your college career.
Best of luck,