The Senior Thesis: Start Early!

The infamous Senior Thesis is a source of stress and anxiety for many students. Although there are information sessions galore for juniors, I didn’t feel like I actually understood the process until I started it. This summer, I began my thesis research process by traveling to Norway to collect observational data on the country’s prison system.

My thesis will be a comparison of the humaneness of the Norwegian prison system to that of the American prison system. Funnily enough, this was not my first choice. Originally, I had planned to study the border between Mexico and the United States, until I learned that Princeton does not fund thesis research trips to Mexico due to safety issues. Upon learning this, I realized I had to figure something else out, and I eventually landed on my current topic. I’ve always been interested in the prison system, and I’ve done prison reform work for years.

After choosing my thesis topic, I began to worry that I was falling behind. This fear was not based on any actual evidence of seeing other students advance further in their thesis research than I had. I actually think it was because of all the information sessions–the more sessions I went to, the more convinced I became that most students start researching before senior year. I’ve never been a procrastinator, and I certainly didn’t want to find myself scrambling before the deadline. So, I chose my thesis adviser and submitted an IRB proposal and a funding application during my junior spring semester.

The purpose of all of this was so that I could conduct research abroad over the summer. The IRB approval process was long (see this post for tips on navigating the IRB). Since my research plans included human subjects in the form of interviews, I had to get my plans approved by the IRB, an ethics board, to ensure I wasn’t infringing on anyone’s rights. Because I planned on interviewing incarcerated individuals, a protected population in the eyes of the IRB because of vulnerability, the IRB had to make sure that my plans were ethical. After a few months, my research plans were approved, and I got my trip fully funded by the Woodrow Wilson School.

A mural in Halden Prison.

My research trip was incredible. In Norway, I spent a few days inside Halden Prison, a men’s maximum-security facility located in the south of Norway. I spent a full day shadowing the warden to learn about his perspective on incarceration and how he runs the facility, and also interviewed six incarcerated individuals and a guard. The purpose of these interviews was to gauge what it is like to be incarcerated in Norway, as well as what it is like to be part of the system as an enforcer of punishment and rehabilitation.

Another mural in Halden Prison.

Submitting the proposals and applications was a lot of work, and planning the actual trip took months. However, looking back now, I realize that I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t started my research process when I did. My paranoia actually helped me, in a way. Now, I feel much less stressed out knowing that a significant portion of my research has already been done (see this post for tips on how to stay on top of your work as the year progresses). For those of you who are looking for current funding opportunities, seniors have until Thursday, November 7 to submit a senior thesis research funding proposal to OUR for winter break (this deadline may be earlier for individual departments)! No matter what your topic is, starting early is always a good idea, even if your research plans don’t include any travel at all!

–Andrea Reino, Social Sciences Correspondent