Five Tips for a Regret-Free Thesis Summer

I remember feeling blindsided by thesis talk my junior spring. I was in the middle of my second JP—I didn’t have a topic, an adviser, or any idea where to start. But I knew I needed to start my research in the summer before senior year. If I had learned anything from my JPs, it was that I would need all the time I could get to complete a research project of this scale.  

Juniors: whether you’ve already applied for thesis funding or haven’t yet thought about your thesis at all, now is the time to make a summer thesis plan. Remember: every hour you invest over the summer is an hour saved during the semester, when you’ll be back to balancing coursework, job/grad school applications, and extracurricular obligations. 

This summer, I was doing an internship in São Paulo, but I spent my evenings and weekends at a local library, reading sources for my thesis. It wasn’t fun, but I’ve thanked myself for it every day this year.

As I prepare to submit my thesis this month, I’ve thought back to my own junior spring and collected five things I wish I’d known before my thesis summer: 

Set a long-term goal at the beginning of the summer. Take a look at the calendar to get a rough sense of the number of weeks you have between now and your thesis deadline next spring. Try to identify in concrete terms what you would like to have produced by the start of the school year. For me, it was a full outline and 50% of my primary source research read and annotated. I didn’t quite get there by the end of the summer, but it was helpful to have an ultimate goal in sight. 

Make a schedule and stick to it. This is the single most important step to a productive summer. I never woke up in the mood to do thesis research. Without a schedule, I probably would have avoided it all summer. Whether it’s two hours a day or two hours a week, committing to a regular thesis time will guarantee your progress and prepare you for a more challenging thesis schedule in the fall. 

Begin with the secondary literature, but focus on your own data. Once you’ve decided on a general topic, identify and skim the most recent secondary literature on it. Check citations and get a sense of the current academic conversation on the topic—what’s been said, what hasn’t. I often get discouraged when I find existing scholarship on my topic—I worry that someone has already “taken” my idea and that I’ll have to start over. But I’ve learned that the secondary literature is only there to be helpful, not to claim territory. Think of it as a ready-made summary and bibliography for your topic—the argumentation will come later. That said, plan to spend at least 75% of your summer thesis time on primary sources, the ultimate fabric of your research (at least in History, though I imagine a similar rule applies to other disciplines). Especially at the beginning of your research, focus on the most central primary sources first—even if that means going out of order. Always get the most important research done first and reserve your remaining time for embellishing and filling in gaps.

Email the experts on your topic. Depending on your field of study, your adviser may not be an expert on your particular topic. Identify and contact the professional scholars who have published work on your topic. Most professors post their email addresses online and are thrilled to hear from student researchers with similar interests. Some of the most invaluable guidance I’ve received has come from researchers I’ve never met, but who were gracious enough to respond to my multiple emails asking for advice. The earlier you do this, the more these scholars—who know the field intimately—can help guide your project.

Start writing over the summer. If you’re anything like me, you will not really feel ready to start drafting your thesis until you’re deep in the research. But starting to write will help direct your research, and give you a head start on the drafting process. Even if you have no sense of your argument or your structure, start writing and see where it takes you. Writing has helped me identify the information I still need to obtain and has pushed me to start articulating my argument—even before I realize I have one.

One last bonus tip! Start using Zotero or another citation software now. Even if you’ve never used a citation software before, you will need it for your thesis. Wrestling with hundreds of manual footnotes and citations is not how you want to be spending your valuable thesis time. 

Ultimately, you should prioritize enjoying your summer vacation. But starting your thesis now—even just a few hours of research a week—can transform your senior year.

–Rafi Lehmann, Humanities Correspondent