An Interview with Haider Abbas ’17: How to Make an Impactful Senior Thesis

As senior thesis season approaches, Haider Abbas offers advice that will help you produce a thoughtful, successful, and influential thesis.

Haider Abbas ‘17 is a Princeton alumni who recently published his inspirational senior thesis which he created while in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Many Princeton seniors are now beginning to dive deeper into their theses, therefore I think that hearing from Abbas would be very helpful. Thankfully, a few weeks ago, I was able to interview Abbas and he offered key insight into why he chose his thesis topic, how he was able to produce his thesis, and most significantly the impact that his thesis will have beyond his years at Princeton. I hope that you can learn from his experience and develop a thesis that you feel passionate about!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your senior thesis about? What inspired you to choose your thesis?

I always knew that I wanted to study public policy, but I wasn’t sure what I would specialize in until I took a Princeton summer internship through the International Office. I took a global seminar in Greece and followed up with a summer internship there. At the time, the refugee crisis was at its peak in Greece, so I was working with a lot of refugees and learning how they would be integrated into the European society. Through my research in Greece, I developed a lot of interest in the topics of immigration and integration, as they became very compelling from a public service standpoint, which is what I was passionate about. I was able to dive deep into my topic from this nonprofit perspective and through the course in Greece I learned a lot about what are the problems having to do with my topic, such as human smuggling. Then, the next summer I decided to explore the topic a bit deeper and was very lucky that my junior year task force was actually on the refugee crisis in Europe. I applied for the task force, learned a lot about the topic, and got a better sense of it from a policy standpoint. I began to ask questions such as what are the main laws to be aware of in regards to immigration and what are different variables or obstacles refugees face, and these all really tied in with my previous summer experience.

After this, I was sure that I wanted to better understand policies and how they’re impacting immigration and integration and decided that this would be the scope of my thesis. But then, naturally when the thesis comes, it’s more research and academic driven, so you need to begin to consider ways to make a unique contribution to policy and also do so in a way dictated by the realms of research. So, at this point, I began to ask myself: How will I structure my hypothesis? Will I take a qualitative or quantitative approach? What am I testing or not testing? And so, I began working with my adviser and he suggested a most-similar research design methodology focusing on case studies. I then looked at two countries that are relevantly similar but are very different in a variable of interest: policy. So, that was Denmark and Sweden. I realized that I could look at these countries and try to understand how their policies were made. I asked myself: how can two countries be so similar, yet so different in their policies towards immigrants? 

How were you able to conduct meaningful research for your thesis while at Princeton? What resources made this possible? 

A few resources that I would suggest are the global seminar and then the follow up internship called PIIRS. Also, the task force that I was a part of was very meaningful because it helped me delve deeper into the topic in a very different way, a more academic way. More specific to my thesis, I applied for SPIA research funding, so they gave me money to use for traveling and research purposes. Initially, I was thinking of Austria and Germany as the case study examples, so I went to Austria and Germany. I interviewed policy makers and nonprofit people, went to some libraries, and it turned out that Germany and Austria weren’t so comparable after all. So I then decided that Sweden and Denmark would make more sense. Towards the end of my time in Europe, I went to Denmark and Sweden and did some research over there and established some relationships with professors so when I came back as I was writing my thesis I continued to talk to them informally and then naturally all of the other thesis advising was supplementary. 

“Publishing my thesis was a way for me to give it meaning beyond the world of Princeton…”

What was your goal in having your thesis published?

I am very passionate about the topic so it was a way, especially when you have a full time job and your time looks very different, for me to continue working with something that I’m very passionate about and also in a field that I would want to be is in my long term career goals. It was to stay connected to that. It was to stay committed to public service in any way that I could be because in the private sector that is hard to do. Lastly, it was just because I felt very passionate about my research so publishing my thesis was a way for me to give it meaning beyond the world of Princeton and especially on a topic that is very pertinent. So, I thought I could draw conclusions from it that would help people, policymakers, or students as much as possible. 

Do you see your thesis as having an impact beyond Princeton? How so?

Yes, so, as you know immigration is a very important topic. A few years after writing my thesis on it, I felt that some of the work that I did could be evolved in the way that it would have more meaning today and so although in my thesis I focused very much on Sweden and Denmark, I began to ask what can we learn about other European countries from my research. Since the two countries went through elections recently, Sweden and Denmark changed their immigration policies so it helped us think about the new dynamics and new policies not just in Sweden and Denmark, but in other European countries too. So, I decided to update and evolve my thesis and publish it as a book. Now, I’m very lucky because on November 16th it was published by Routledge. I am very excited about it and think that that’s one way in which I believe my thesis will have a lasting impact.

What advice would you give to those who are working on or going to soon work on their senior theses? How should they approach the process? 

One piece of advice that someone gave to me was to pick my major based on my senior thesis because they said that it’s such a big part of the Princeton journey. They suggested selecting my major with the goal in mind of working on a project that I’m passionate about, which is why I picked SPIA because I could definitely find something that would interest me since the school is very multidisciplinary. So, first, I would try to find a field or topic of interest that you feel you can be quite passionate about. Even though the research element may not be that exciting to you, so to speak, pick a topic in which the broader field is of interest to you. I think that a second piece of advice would just be to try to enjoy the process. Take it step by step. It’s hard to do that, especially in current circumstances where everyone is at home, but hopefully what I have done with this book can be an inspiration to some people to show that the thesis can have professional and personal impact beyond just Princeton. So, enjoy the process and find something that you’re passionate about that can definitely have meaning beyond your years at Princeton.

I hope that hearing from Abbas will inspire you to eventually choose a thesis in a field that you feel passionate about and consider how your thesis might have an impact beyond Princeton. Abbas was able to create a thesis that he loved and that also helped others. Through working hard and using the resources that he suggested, I believe that you can too!

⎯ Ryan Champeau, Social Sciences Correspondent