Every senior at Middlebury is required to complete some kind of senior work, in the form of an independent project, production, or thesis. There are a couple of guiding principles here: First is the idea of challenge by choice. Students have the option of choosing an independent study or an honors project depending on the level of commitment they choose. Second is the concept of student choice. Students choose a project appropriate to their departmental focus: a music major might write a piece of music; a theater major might direct a production; a science major might conduct laboratory experiments; and a political science major will write a thesis.
How do you choose a thesis topic? After all, this is a project you’ll be working on for at least a semester, if not a year. Of course, you hope that the topic that is both interesting to you personally, and also one that has some academic value and is worth your time. Often students will find inspiration from a paper or project during sophomore or junior year. Others will find inspiration from their time abroad, summer experiences like internships or volunteer work, or some long-held interest. Still, many students will come into their senior with little idea of a topic that inspires them—this is why we have advisors!
I’m a political science major, and for me it was clear I wanted to write about some element of my time in China. Since a political science honors thesis is a three semester/yearlong project, I knew I had to find a topic that could keep me engaged for a full year. My internship this summer at the US Department of Commerce gave me the opportunity to learn about the importance of the Internet in various contexts. And having lived in China and learned about the uniqueness of the Internet censorship that exists there, I knew that this would be an interesting topic for me. My advisor helped me to narrow the topic to something focused, academic, and worthwhile.
So now it’s research time! The first stages of the thesis involve reading as much as you can about the topic of your choice. It is an exciting, humbling, and terrifying stage of the project. And by the end of J-term, amazingly, the bulk of my project will (hopefully!) be written.
People say that writing a thesis is simultaneously the best and worst thing they do at Midd, and the easiest and hardest, too. You have the opportunity to explore a single topic in depth, to become a real expert in an area, and to hone your research, writing, project management, and analytical skills. At the same time, a thesis requires self-discipline and a long-term commitment. Overall, though, it is a project that, after eight months, you can look back on with some pride.
I’ll have some more reflections on what the process is like come spring, but for now I’m excited to learn as much as I can about my topic and to begin outlining my work for the rest of the year.