A Grand Finale
Collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, research, analytical skills and writing, writing, writing.
By By Jodie Nicotra and Emily Solomon ’21
It might sound like a rundown of the top human skills demanded by the 21st-century workplace. But these elements are also at the heart of Whitman College students’ most challenging assignment of their college careers: the senior thesis.
More than two-thirds of academic departments at Whitman require seniors to complete thesis projects. Some, like history, require the thesis only of honors students. (Other history students complete a shorter paper that serves as a capstone.) Students typically take a thesis-oriented course or independent study, where they get support for the process from faculty and other students.
Beyond the written thesis, senior projects can vary markedly by major. For instance, seniors in the sciences typically expand on research they’ve done with a Whitman professor or as part of a summer research internship at another institution. Music performance majors participate in a senior recital. Computer science majors work as a team to design and implement an integrative project. Art majors create a work to be presented in the Sheehan Gallery Senior Thesis Art Exhibition. A thesis isn’t required for English majors; those who choose to write one might elect to write an analytic study of literary work or craft a work of poetry, fiction or creative nonfiction. Many majors require oral and/or written exams as part of or instead of the thesis.
But no matter the student’s major, one thing everyone agrees on is that the thesis is a challenging endeavor. Even faculty are awed by how much students accomplish in a short period of time.
“From my perspective, I couldn’t believe it was possible—that everyone is completing an empirical study in one year,” says Tom Armstrong, associate professor of psychology.
Senior psychology students typically design their thesis study and write up the introduction and methods in the fall, says Armstrong. That leaves only a few months to collect and analyze data and write up the results, since they need to submit the thesis 10 days after spring break. “It’s a really condensed time frame for doing a lot of work,” he says.
Mentoring thesis projects can also be time-intensive for faculty, though it’s deeply rewarding work, says Sarah Davies, associate professor of history.
“The reward is to see things in new ways—to see through the students seeing things in new ways. Each one of these thesis projects has changed how I approach my research and teaching. So on that level I’m being selfish, because I’m learning something incredible, and they’re teaching me that.”
A Rigorous Road
Most generally, the senior thesis helps students develop the ability to see a large, complex project through to completion.
The academic rigor is almost on par with that required to earn a master’s degree, says Brit Moss, associate professor of biology. “They do an intensive research experience, they write a thesis and give a presentation on it, and they also do oral exams as part of their Whitman education in biology.”
The project also teaches students to ask good questions. Many struggle at first with how to ask a meaningful thesis question, or derive a hypothesis from a theory, or identify a gap in the literature. In psychology, the ability to ask good questions is where the proverbial rubber meets the road, says Armstrong.
For students who complete their theses as part of a group, collaborating toward a common goal is a critical skill, though not always an easy one. But as Armstrong points out, even when team dynamics on projects are less than harmonious, students are gaining important human skills.
“The thesis class is someplace where students can learn what can go wrong in the context of collaborative settings and develop interpersonal skills like being able to maintain relationships while still being assertive about their needs,” Armstrong says.
He and his fellow thesis mentors agree another key learning experience for the senior project is learning to grapple with failure. Except for the type of failure that might result from not putting enough effort into a class project or test, students typically don’t encounter real failure in a classroom or lab setting, where projects are artificially designed to succeed.
“An important part of the scientific process is grappling with negative results. How do you interpret that, how do you write about it, how do you think through ‘OK, based on this data, what would these next steps be?’” Moss says. “I spend a lot of my time with students thinking through, if they are going to carry this project forward, what would they say the next steps would be, and how would they write about that in detail in their thesis.”
The Afterlife of the Senior Thesis
Seniors can showcase their thesis work for other students and faculty in the annual Whitman Undergraduate Conference (WUC). Over the course of a day, more than 100 students, mostly seniors, present their work as part of panels and poster sessions. No classes are held during the WUC so all students have the opportunity to participate.
Further afield, while students can tout their thesis experience in their graduate school applications or to employers, these projects often have surprising afterlives in other ways.
For example, one thesis project that Armstrong mentored ended up becoming part of a paper with other experiments from his Whitman psychology lab. The paradigm developed by the student was also picked up and used by another lab, in a pharmacological study.
“Sometimes these thesis projects end up having a real impact,” Armstrong says.
Likewise, Moss says her thesis students genuinely contribute to her own work. She’s published with student co-authors who have been involved in different aspects of an ongoing plant synthetic biology project.
“It’s so fun over the years to see where students are ending up and what kind of projects they’re working on,” she says. “Especially when I might be scanning the literature and come across a former student who’s an author on a paper.”
For Davies, the thesis experience has an emotional component too.
“Personally, it’s always bittersweet bidding farewell to seniors. It’s so great to see them grow, and then it’s so hard to say goodbye.”