Honors theses provide extra challenge for busy seniors

Seniors share the rigor and reward of writing a thesis


Chantal Iosso, ’20, checks flow conditions in the Maury River after the removal of the Jordan’s Point Dam this summer. Photo courtesy of The Columns.

Laura Calhoun

Senior year is a hectic time for many – balancing job applications, difficult courses, leadership positions and a social life is no easy task. Still, many students find an academic passion that they feel so strongly about that they add ‘writing a thesis’ to the mix.

A thesis, according to the university academic catalog, is a way to “encourage independent work and scholarly investigation by students and to foster their intellectual curiosity.” Though each department can set specific eligibility and completion requirements, all theses must be completed during senior year with exactly six academic credits of independent work. If students complete a thesis successfully, they can graduate with honors in their major.

Departments typically require students to pick a topic, select a thesis advisor who specializes in their topic area and submit a formal proposal by the end of their junior year. For Nick Mauer, ’20, this proposal felt natural – the idea for his history thesis began when he gave tours as an intern in Washington D.C. the summer before his sophomore year.

“I thought, Civil War memory and public monuments are in the news at this time, but I never hear anyone talking about National Statuary Hall,” Mauer said. “I think that it’s an important site that has not been examined.”

Nick Mauer, ’20, reads edits from his thesis advisor in his locked study on the fourth floor of Leyburn. Photo by Laura Calhoun.

Mauer’s thesis will examine how states used the collection of figures in the National Statuary Hall to promote certain ideas about the Civil War and exclude other perspectives. When it’s finished, it will be 80 pages long and comprised of two chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. He will also defend his thesis in front of a panel of professors to receive honors credit.

“I wanted to prove that I could stand up there and take questions off the cuff and have ideas and defend them,” Mauer said. “It was an academic and intellectual exercise for myself.”

To stay on track with both research and writing, students meet with their thesis advisor once a week to discuss their progress. Chris McCrackin, ’20, said his meetings with English professor Holly Pickett are invaluable.

“I go in and read off what I’ve written that week and engage in a discussion with her,” McCrackin said. “I think [it] is very helpful in pointing out potential flaws in my argument.”

McCrackin’s English thesis explores early modern tragic comedy and how it can humanize mythic and romantic tropes like resurrection and shipwrecks. The research for his thesis began over the summer at the University of Oxford, where he read between 30 and 35 texts. Now, he reads two to three texts each week in addition to writing a few pages. McCrackin said he didn’t intend to do this much reading.

“I originally went in with this idea that I was going to write about Shakespeare and just Shakespeare,” McCrackin said, “but it’s developed into a multi-period project, focusing both on classical and early-modern authors.”

To get through some of the denser readings, McCrackin said he breaks them up into 30-minute chunks, with 25 minutes spent reading and five-minute breaks in between. He said the most important part of staying on schedule is planning in advance.

“A lot of that is setting daily tasks to do and not putting it off until the night before,” McCrackin said. “Due dates are a lot sooner than they appear.”

McCrackin’s final project will be between 80 and 100 pages long. He said he thinks that writing a thesis is an important way for students to think and work through complex issues over a long period of time.

“I think there’s a tendency… when confronted with a complicated issue to shy away from it,” McCrakin said. “By engaging in a thesis, you’re actively pursuing a complicated idea that puts you out of your comfort zone.”

Other departments allow students to step out of their comfort zones physically with a more hands-on approach to the thesis process. Chantal Iosso, ’20, says her favorite hours have been spent canoeing, paddle boarding and standing in the Maury River with her advisor to research the potential effects of the removal of the Jordan’s Point dam for her geology thesis.

“We devised a project around [the dam removal] because there’s huge local interest in this,” Iosso said. “Trying to prevent sediment pollution, trying to prevent infrastructure damage – it’s important to predict how the stream is going to change.”

Iosso spent the summer working with geology professor David Harbor on the project. She has continued researching and teaching herself to use the predictive hydraulic modeling software HEC-RAS to learn more about what could happen to the river in the future.

A project so focused on the outdoors leaves Iosso’s thesis “at the mercy of nature,” so the exact outcome of the paper is still unknown.

“The expectation is more that I am putting in concerted effort every week to learn new things, try new things with my model, write more,” Iosso said. “The expectation is that we’ll have a lot of stuff done by May, but it’s not necessarily going to be any one thing.”

In addition to her required thesis presentation, Iosso will present her research at a national conference in December.

Iosso, Mauer and McCrackin all see their theses as an important piece of their future plans.

Iosso hopes to spend a few years after graduation working in stream restoration firms before going back to graduate school. Mauer hopes that his thesis will show extra academic rigor on his law school applications. McCrackin was awarded a Beinecke Scholarship last year, which will help fund his graduate school studies. He is currently in the midst of the application process and thinks his independent research will make his application stand out.

For students interested in writing a thesis in the future, Iosso recommends meeting with professors early in your academic career to learn about potential thesis topics and your areas of interest.

“The expectation with a thesis is that you’ll be more self-guided and more individually inquisitive,” Iosso said. “That’s not easy to do, so the more conversations you have with a professor… you’ll be in a much better position.”

No matter how it’s spun, writing a thesis takes extreme diligence, dedication and hard work. The excitement and interest students feel toward a topic is what makes the process worth the outcome.

“My biggest advice is to be passionate about what you want to do and don’t let anybody take that passion away from you,” McCrackin said. “If you’re deriving a sense of self-satisfaction and self-worth from that, I think it’s something that’s always worth pursuing.”