Web Exclusives: The Varsity Typewriter
a PAW web exclusive column by Patrick Sullivan '02 (email: pas@princeton.edu)

April 10 , 2002:

The collegiate god
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" ahead.

We’re not talking sports. We’re 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, I’ve 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 doesn’t 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. It’s mulch, after all. New or not, it’s just compost. Another nameless senior made a habit of sitting in his carrel in Firestone naked. He’d 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 you’re getting close, and the anxiety arises from knowing that there is no way you’ll 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 your eyes.

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 don’t know these guys, nor they you. They’ve 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." I’ve surmounted the pinnacle of my undergraduate experience, and although it seemed miserable at the time, I am proud of my work. Moreover, I’m 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 Princeton’s 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 Princeton’s 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 sport.
In the meantime, I’m taking this newly earned freedom in stride: I’ve been noticing new mulch all throughout campus.

You can reach Patrick at pas@princeton.edu.