Before senior year, the senior thesis can feel worlds away. For me, thinking about my senior thesis has always felt like imagining potential careers—impractical fantasies rather than realistic plans. Wouldn’t it be cool to…? What if I…?
But just a few weeks ago, I received an email from my department, reminding me that thesis funding application deadlines were approaching. If I wanted to receive summer funding for thesis research, I needed to have an adviser, a research question, and a summer research itinerary solidified by the end of spring break.
I felt somewhat blindsided by this deadline. I’m still a junior. I just started my second Junior Paper. I had given almost no thought to selecting my thesis adviser, let alone constructing a research plan for my still non-existent thesis project.
But for years, I’ve heard stories about the University’s generosity in supporting thesis projects. I wasn’t about to miss this opportunity.
Fortunately, I was able to select an adviser and write a project proposal before the funding deadline. Even so, I wished someone had warned me sooner about the timeline for thesis projects.
As I’ve learned, it is never too early to start thinking about thesis ideas. Because thesis ideas can gestate for a long time, it can be helpful to maintain a few lists of ideas, models, and resources. You can add to them when you get inspired and consult them when the time finally comes to select a topic.
Here are three easy list ideas:
Keep a list of your favorite works of scholarship. By the time we get to senior year, every Princeton student has probably encountered hundreds of academic sources. These works of scholarship can serve as models for our own research and writing. Whenever you encounter an article or book that you find particularly compelling, consider adding it to your list of favorites. Write a few sentences about what you like about the source. Does the author use a particular analytical or theoretical framework you find interesting? Does the topic excite you? Do you enjoy the writing or structure of the work? When trying to decide on my thesis topic, I found it super helpful to reflect on my favorite academic sources from my coursework and independent research. I realized that my favorite scholars tended to use an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating theory, ethnography, and archival research. And even when focused on the past, my favorite history arguments felt unequivocally relevant in the present. These models helped guide me toward a strong research proposal with a methodological orientation.
Keep a list of research topics/questions from both your coursework and your extracurricular life. This can be a useful practice in general, especially for classes that require independent final papers. But your thesis will probably evolve from a specific topic or question that you encounter in your first three years at Princeton. Perhaps it’s an underdeveloped section in your favorite academic book. Or maybe it’s a primary source, social phenomenon, or historical event that has not been addressed well in existing academic literature. It can be easy to forget under-discussed topics, so write them down!
Keep a list of your favorite professors. Great teachers are certainly easier to remember than niche research topics. But when searching for an adviser, it can be useful to consult a list of potential options, rather than trying to select someone cold from your department’s faculty directory. Even if you don’t end up choosing someone on your list, it can be helpful to notice themes. Ultimately, I ended up selecting an adviser I’ve never taken a class with. But by reflecting on my favorite teachers, I realized that all of my favorite History professors shared a focus on gender, social history, and subaltern communities—leading me ultimately to my current adviser.
Of course, there is no need to worry about choosing a thesis topic before you have to. These tips are supposed to help make the process easier, not more stressful. Creating these lists can also be a fun way to reflect on what you’re learning and how your interests have shifted over time. Ultimately, it’s never too late and it’s never too early to start thinking about thesis ideas!
–Rafi Lehmann, Social Sciences Correspondent