Exclusives: The Varsity Typewriter
PAW web exclusive column by Patrick Sullivan '02 (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
10 , 2002:
Looking in the mirror toward the end of spring
By Patrick Sullivan '02
Every Princeton senior is a varsity athlete these days a
tireless worker, eyes firmly set on lofty end-of-season goals. He
or she rises with the sun to get in that extra "practice"
and goes to bed with feverish hopes for the "big day"
Were not talking sports. Were talking thesis.
Since 1931, Princeton students have undergone this rite of spring,
toiling endlessly throughout the year toward that blessed day in
mid or late April and for some particularly poor souls in
certain departments, May when they struggle exhaustedly across
campus to Pequod or Triangle Copiers to "bind" their completed
theses before handing them in.
Writing a thesis at Princeton has been compared to many things.
Depending on the individual, the department and occasionally, the
choice of expletive, Ive heard it called a "nightmare,"
the "worst experience of my life," and even, "a good
excuse to go to Brown." (Theses are apparently optional in
Providence, Rhode Island).
Being a runner, I likened my independent work to training for a
marathon, which although an overused, thoroughly un-original comparison,
works remarkably well.
When one decides to run a marathon, the training process begins
in earnest months before race day. Thought must be given to what
type of training regimen will work best, how to fit runs into a
daily schedule, and even what foods to eat for maximum performance
during workouts. Similarly, one must choose a focused, yet thought-provoking
thesis topic. Adequate source material must be located ahead of
time. Its also a good idea to set a research schedule, to make incremental
goals, and most important, to pace oneself. Training for a marathon
doesnt happen in a week and though some have tried,
writing a thesis in a week is nearly impossible as well.
Of course, this is only a theory
The realities of thesis-dom at Princeton are anything but regimented
or calm. What transpires from early March onward is a pell-mell
rush to the finish line, a caffeine-fueled, sleep depraved, multiweek
blur of early mornings at Starbucks and late nights at Firestone
Library. Seniors become weird, volatile, and even in some instances,
smelly. The smallest pleasures seem overly gratifying. An example:
I left the library one night with a friend, and as we walked by
a hedge row, he stopped and exclaimed, "Look, new mulch!"
with altogether too much excitement. Its mulch, after all.
New or not, its just compost. Another nameless senior made
a habit of sitting in his carrel in Firestone naked. Hed work
at his laptop for hours, completely in the buff. (His excuse was
that it was too hot).
Strange things can happen Firestone Library.
No matter how intelligent and organized most of us claim to be (I
make pretensions at neither), the last week before deadline is pure
madness, a combination of adrenaline, anxiety, exhaustion, and nausea.
The adrenaline comes from the excitement of knowing that youre
getting close, and the anxiety arises from knowing that there is
no way youll be done. Exhaustion grows from this anxiety,
as you consequently stay up even longer to finish chapter one, outline
two, edit the introduction, rewrite the middle of chapter three,
start over on chapter two, come up with a new thesis statement
Finally, nausea occurs in the early hours of the morning before
D-Day. Your stomach seems to cringe at that seventh cup of coffee,
and you stagger to the bathroom, clutching your sides. You look
in the mirror at the shrunken, pale, tepid ghost of the collegiate
god that used to be you. You could put groceries in the bags under
This is what I refer to as mile 25. In the Boston Marathon, this
time correlates to Heartbreak Hill, a gradual, one-mile uphill climb
just before the homestretch. This is the last hurrah, the final
push, the proverbial "breaking point."
At this moment, you have very few options. Sleep is out of the question
you need to reedit your draft once more before taking it
to the printers. You drag yourself back to your laptop, glaze distractedly
at your chapters and wonder, "What was my thesis statement
again?" (This can often induce a renewed wave of nausea. See
above for details).
Going to the "printers" is truly a remarkable experience.
You dont know these guys, nor they you. Theyve bound
400 theses already, but for some reason, you think that yours is
exceptional. You burst into the store, proudly drop your papers
on the counter with some particularly un-witty comment like, "Take
it" or "I never want to see this again." You pay
an exorbitant price, stumble out with a hardbound book with a fancy
Princeton shield on the cover, and you proudly present the fruits
of your multimonth toils to the departmental secretary. She, in
exchange, gives you a T- shirt, a cookie, and takes a picture of
your emaciated face. "For our website," she explains.
In hindsight, this seems like an unfair trade. Three months of blood,
sweat, tears and spell-check in exchange for dessert?
The point of this admittedly pointless column is that I have recently
completed my senior thesis. Being a post-thesis senior at Princeton
feels incredible. My goals for the day have gone from hoping to
"write 12 pages" to hoping to "wake up in time for
lunch." Ive surmounted the pinnacle of my undergraduate
experience, and although it seemed miserable at the time, I am proud
of my work. Moreover, Im looking forward of two months of
golf and sleep until graduation.
Like so many traditions at this university, writing a thesis means
becoming an indelible part of Princetons rich legacy. Every
senior submits a copy of his or her independent work to Mudd Manuscript
Library, where it becomes a permanent part of the archives. Subsequent
generations of eager Princetonians can peruse past theses, looking
up the works of famous alums or just spending an afternoon immersed
in Princetons voluminous history. A side note: this also offers
an amazing afternoon of procrastination I looked up the theses
of Dean Cain 88, Brooke Shields 87, Donald Rumsfeld
54, and Meg Whitman 77, to name a few.
Now that I suddenly find myself with more free time, I can guarantee
that my next "sports" column might actually tackle a real
In the meantime, Im taking this newly earned freedom in stride:
Ive been noticing new mulch all throughout campus.
can reach Patrick at email@example.com.