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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Senior theses a major undertaking

Published: January 31, 2014
Section: News

Justy Kosek ’14 stands stock-still in a tuxedo stained with blood. The theater and creative writing major is busy this semester perfecting his senior thesis, starring in a play he wrote titled “All You Need.” Kosek plays the title character David, who walks into his bedroom on prom night with blood-spattered clothing. “It’s about family and love and the nature of memories,” said Kosek. The play goes up Mar. 20.

But this is not the only project Kosek is investing his time into. Unlike most seniors, Kosek has elected to pursue two senior theses, one in each of his majors. “I started [my novella] about two years ago independent of any classes on my own, and after taking a couple of workshops with Professor McCauley, he brought up the possibility of doing a senior thesis. I had this story lying around, and I told him I’d like to make it into something professional-looking,” said Kosek. His novella, titled “The Queen of Duchess County,” currently totals around 100 pages.

“Completing a thesis is a major accomplishment, and a great opportunity to engage in an intensive learning experience of enduring impact. Choosing to pursue this path offers the chance to explore a topic or question in significant depth and to work through the challenges of choosing your own topic, defining the scope of the work, facing and triumphing over unexpected setbacks and synthesizing everything you’ve learned into a substantial work of art or scholarship,” said Meredith Monaghan, the Director of Academic Fellowships.

Brandeis’ Office of Academic Services’ weekly emails have recently repeatedly encouraged seniors to apply for senior thesis funding, where worthy applicants are allocated funds through the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Fund. “Anyone who submits a good application and can demonstrate a valid use for the funds is likely to be approved,” said Monaghan in an interview with The Hoot this week. “There is no set amount designated for senior theses, but students are encouraged to apply as soon as they know they need funding, since the summer awards (which are announced in March) will use up whatever is left in the fund at that point,” she said.

While theses from all departments can receive funding, what that thesis will look like varies greatly by department. For example, neuroscience theses often require working closely with a professor or a senior lab member on research projects. Students will often work in the same lab for years, and then focus just on the thesis project for one or two years. “While the writing of the thesis may take a month, its content and overall value depends on the thoughtfulness in the design and the care and dedication in the completion of the experiments over the preceding one to three years,” said Paul Miller, an assistant professor of biology and undergraduate advising head for the neuroscience program. And while the basic outcome of a neuroscience thesis is similar to other departments (students hope to graduate with Honors, High Honors or Highest Honors) there are other factors at stake, such as graduate school. “Any career in science requires thoughtful design of experiments and an explanation of the results in the context of other prior and ongoing work in the field. Completion of a thesis allows a student to gain such experience, helping them understand the mode of scientific research. Therefore, it is a good indicator of a student’s ability to perform well in graduate school, so is a strong boost, if not essential, to the admissions process,” said Miller.

For Kosek, whose theses are creatively-based, he hopes they may lead to offers of publication further down the road. “Writing my theses gave me a good sense of what writing might be like in the real world. Having a larger scope and a bigger goal to finish in a limited amount of time in a semester is a strong impetus to get work done,” he said. His aspiration is to publish his novella within a book of short stories.

“Each department has its own set of standards and requirements for honors consideration, which are listed in the Bulletin. While many departments require a traditional thesis (students enroll in a year-long course, conduct independent research, and produce a major piece of writing), others require students to take a specific series of courses (e.g. math) or to complete a senior project (e.g. music),” said Monaghan.

Thesis participation also varies by department. “The percentages vary depending on the department and the year, from as low as 3 percent to as high as 100 percent (in a major with two graduating seniors, both of whom complete theses),” said Elaine Wong, senior associate dean of arts and sciences. Miller stated that five to 10 neuroscience students will complete a thesis, out of 30 to 40 seniors.

All departments agree that a thesis is a worthwhile pursuit. “Writing a thesis is not for everyone, but it can be a very rewarding way to round out your academic experience at Brandeis,” Monaghan said. “Most faculty believe it is one of the most rewarding intellectual activities a student can undertake,” said Wong. “Research and writing skills are honed, and a close mentoring relationship with a faculty advisor can be formed. A student learns about the challenges and rewards of researching a subject about which they are passionate.”