Stick to What You Know: Relying on Past Experience to Tackle your Senior Thesis

As we head into April, many Senior Thesis deadlines (including my own!) are fast approaching, so I naturally thought it would be fitting to reflect on my thesis experience. Over the years, many PCUR posts have been written about theses and rightly so given that they are such a significant component of the undergraduate research experience. Many of these posts and much of the discourse surrounding the Senior Thesis emphasize what makes this project exceptional, framing it as the capstone of our college careers, an unprecedented challenge, and quite possibly the longest paper we will ever write.

While I by no means disagree with these characterizations, I want to present a slightly different perspective in this post. Instead of focusing on how theses are exceptional feats, I reflect on the ways in which I have found my thesis to be similar to past academic work that I have done at Princeton.

It’s a Woodrow Wilson School department tradition that all of the seniors jump in the Robertson Hall fountain after they hand in their theses.

I’m writing my thesis on state-to-state differences in the provision of maternal health care for pregnant and postpartum women in U.S. state prisons. I wrote one of my Junior Papers (JPs) on this general topic, so my thesis wasn’t entirely uncharted territory. But the content was not the only part of my thesis that felt relatively familiar—I found that my past research experiences at Princeton had appropriately prepared me to collect data, structure my thesis, and address broader research implications as well.

To gather data for my thesis, I primarily relied on state correctional reports, a legal research database, and information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. While I had not used all of these sources before, I had experience using similar datasets and research databases either for my JPs or for other research assignments. For instance, as I mentioned in my most recent post, I had met with a subject librarian to learn how to find and use data and reports from Senegalese governmental agencies for one of my JPs. When I embarked on data collection for my thesis, I relied heavily on the past guidance I had received on these types of searches.

Perhaps one of the most daunting aspects of writing a thesis is structuring a cohesive paper that can be well over one hundred pages. However, I found that the past public policy research papers that I had written for departmental courses in the Woodrow Wilson School could serve as helpful reference points for organizing my thesis. In many ways, the set-up of my thesis differed more in degree than it did in kind from my JPs. In other words, I utilized similar structures, but (significantly) expanded each section for my thesis given that theses should be much greater in length and in scope.

Lastly, I felt comfortable discussing policy implications in my thesis since I had participated in a policy task force for the Woodrow Wilson School and was charged with developing recommendations for policymakers. While my thesis required me to address policies pertaining to a topic that differed from the focus of my task force, I felt that my past experience developing policy recommendations with the guidance of my task force director enabled me to approach this component of my thesis with the necessary know-how and confidence.

None of this is to say that I flawlessly executed my data collection, structuring, or policy implications. Nor is it to say that writing a thesis is not an unprecedented challenge due to the project’s length, gravity, time frame, and a host of other factors. Rather, I wish to suggest that the Senior Thesis is not always the uncharted territory that it is often made out to be.

This conclusion is worth noting because it reminds us that we can—and should—rely on our past experiences in all stages of our thesis work. Although the trajectory of independent work varies by major, every department’s curriculum is structured so that, by the time you are a senior, you have embarked on projects that have prepared you well for your thesis. Reflecting back on these projects and what you learned from them can make the ever-intimidating thesis at least slightly less daunting.

— Emma Kaeser, Social Sciences Correspondent