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Message from the dean of the college

“Over the years, most seniors have taken great pride in their work, sometimes surprising themselves and their professors at what they have been able to accomplish.”

More than any other academic experience, the senior thesis embodies the defining characteristics of undergraduate education at Princeton. The thesis gives the student the opportunity to pursue original research and scholarship on a topic of the student’s own devising, with the guidance and supervision of a faculty adviser. What is most important, thesis writers and faculty members agree, is less the subject matter itself than the contribution of the thesis in developing traits that augur well for future success, no matter what one’s professional and civic commitments. These include mental discipline; independence of mind and judgment; the capacity to focus and pursue a subject in depth; the ability to design and execute a complex project; the skills of analysis, synthesis, and clear writing; and the self-confidence that grows from mastering a difficult challenge. At its best, the thesis enables students to make their own contribution to knowledge in their respective disciplines.

Requiring a thesis of its undergraduates sets Princeton apart from other colleges and universities where the thesis stands as an option that can be elected by seniors, often in the context of an honors program. Generations of Princeton undergraduates have approached the thesis with a mixture of fear and anticipation. Over the years, most seniors have taken great pride in their work, sometimes surprising themselves and their professors at what they have been able to accomplish. While some students may take an indifferent attitude toward the project, the more remarkable fact has been the number of students who have caught fire intellectually in the senior year and produced first-rate theses.

I invited some seniors in the Class of 2010 to tell us about their experiences as thesis writers, and I asked their faculty advisers to reflect on their experiences advising those students as well as on the pleasures and challenges of thesis advising more generally. I posed some questions, but I left each of the writers free to decide how to respond. 

As you read you will notice some recurring themes, both about the process of thesis writing and about what makes for a successful thesis. Here are some observations that seem to me to be especially well taken:

  • Select your thesis topic as early as possible.
  • Select a topic you are passionate about.
  • Select an adviser who is interested in what you want to write about.
  • Begin to write early on even if it is difficult (or even if what you write ultimately proves unusable).
  • Good ideas actually come to you in the process of writing.
  • Be flexible: don’t be afraid to change direction (or to take a tack different from the one you originally intended) if a better idea (approach) occurs to you as you proceed with your work.
  • Keep an open mind to new ideas, to new data, to the relevancy of information you hadn’t thought relevant before.
  • Test your ideas in regular conversation with your adviser, with other faculty members, with your friends.
  • Leave time to rewrite and revise.
  • Set a schedule and keep to it, even if some days are less productive than others.
  • Don’t forget to have fun.

You will notice, too, that the seed for a student’s thesis often appears to have been planted in one or more courses taken in the first three years at Princeton. It is a good idea to keep an eye out for possible senior thesis topics as early as the freshman year and certainly during the sophomore and junior years. Junior papers often yield promising leads as well.

Other points worth noting include the following:

  • A number of students make use of University funds to do research abroad.
  • A number of students use summer internships to launch their theses.
  • Some students begin their science research in the summer at Princeton.

You will be struck, too, by the number of times faculty advisers make a key point: At their best, students’ theses turn out to be learning experiences for the faculty, on occasion leading the adviser to say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

I confess to having chosen strong students who wrote successful theses and who were pleased with what they were able to accomplish. But you should observe that, even in the case of the best students, thesis writing is never linear; there are plenty of challenges, detours, and false starts, and there is often more that could have been accomplished if time had permitted. 

You will see that some departments have multiple entries and others only one. That is a function not of my judgment that some subjects are more important than others, but rather of which students had the time to respond to my request to participate in this venture amidst the competing claims of new jobs, graduate study, and other commitments, personal and professional. The point of the essays is to be illustrative rather than comprehensive. I am confident that these accounts provide a real and immediate sense of the most distinctive aspect of undergraduate education at Princeton, a tradition of serious engagement in scholarship of which generations of students and faculty are justly proud.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel
Dean of the College, 1987–2011
Professor of History