Everything You Need to Know (for now) About Conquering Your Thesis: Preliminary Edition


Every year around mid-November, as the wind whirls among the fallen leaves, it whispers the name of a dormant dread: “theeessssssiiissss… theeeEEEEEeeessiiIIIIiiisss…” To MAPHers, this change in the air can bring both excitement and apprehension – both of which are entirely appropriate responses to the slow ramping-up of the thesis-writing process.

FEAR NOT! Well, ok, fear a little bit…but just a little! We mentors have put together a field guide to the preliminary stages of writing a MAPH thesis. Hopefully it will answer some of your more pressing questions.

Do I need to write about something I already know, or can I pursue new interests?

This is a decision for you, your preceptor, and (at some point) your advisor to make. In general, it’s helpful to have some prior knowledge to bring to the table, at least at the level of methodology – without it, your reading load is likely to be considerably heavier. But many people use the thesis to break into a new field, which can have its own intellectual payoffs. Everything depends on the specifics of your situation, so talk this over with your preceptors/mentors!

What if I don’t know where my true passions lie? What if I pick the wrong topic?

To those of you who are prone to second-guessing your life decisions, I say only this. Seriously, there will always be things you could have done, and there’s always the possibility that you would have enjoyed those things more than what you’re doing. Don’t let it paralyze you. That said, the best thesis topic is not necessarily the one closest to your heart/guts/identity. Sooner or later, you will almost certainly become exhausted with your thesis topic, and when that happens being passionate about the thing is not always enough to keep you going. Whether or not you love the object of inquiry is a secondary consideration; far more important that you be curious about it. The other problem with choosing something you love is that you need to be open to the guidance of your advisor, who will have his or her own ideas about what you should be focusing on, how you should go about the investigation, and what kind of scholarly conversations you need to be plugged into. Sometimes it’s easier to be open if the topic is not one that you have strong personal feelings about.

What if I want to change my topic?

It’s not a question of “if” your thesis topic will change, but a question of “when” and “how much.” Over the next few weeks, you’ll present your preceptor and colleagues with some preliminary thoughts about what you might want to write on. Most likely, this topic will change some between now and winter break as you translate your curiosities into a research program and bibliography. This process of mutation will, most likely, continue at every stage of the process – when you get back from break, your research will have opened up new avenues, and possibly demonstrated that your old ideas weren’t feasible. As you craft a proposal and court potential advisors, you’ll keep tweaking the direction and, in some cases, radically altering your whole topic. This is a good thing. And it’s also inevitable. Don’t get too wedded to any one vision of what your thesis is going to be, and don’t imagine that the minute you put something on paper you’re suddenly obligated to stick with it for the rest of your MAPH year.

How do I find an advisor?

UChicago faculty are a bunch of weirdos.

The short-term answer is: you don’t. Not right now. You’re free to start poking around on departmental websites, trying to find people who work on issues that seem close to your own field. And there’s no harm in talking to professors in your current classes if you think that would be productive. But don’t start asking people to advise your project just yet – it’s like asking people to prom before the homecoming dance. Not a great strategy. As the fall quarter progresses, you’ll want to start getting advice on a bibliography so that your blitz-reading over winter break can be as productive as possible. These conversations sometimes put you in touch with potential advisors, but at this point you should be freely exploring rather than targeting specific people and making proposals, all of which can wait until the start of winter quarter. Remember: one of your mentors didn’t have an advisor until several days into February, and that situation, though stressful, ultimately worked out for the best.

What if I just decided to do a creative thesis? Come to think of it, what IS a creative thesis?

Any project that is not an academic paper is designated as a creative thesis. Past students have completed everything from video projects to partial novels to policy proposals. All creative theses are required to have a critical component – in other words, you will write a 10-15 page analytic piece that relates to your creative work in some way. Many MAPHers have written academic essays that engage with a source that informed the creative project or relate to the work in some other way. Others have written book reviews or think pieces. Yes, this sounds like you have to write two theses. But it’s perfectly manageable, and the inevitable cross-fertilization tends to be surprisingly productive. Your preceptor can be a great resource for you as you navigate this part of the project. Please also go see Maren and/or Jessi in MAPH Central. They both wrote creative theses while in MAPH, and MAren seriously has a stack of examples of past creative projects she can show you.

Help I don’t know what I’m doing AGHBLGHRF!!??

I know that feel, bro. I really do. All of us in the MAPH office have been through this process, and we love to talk about our battle scars.

Tavi wrote a thesis combining religious ethics, political theory, and anthropology; changed his thesis topic significantly after winter break; couldn’t find an advisor for what felt like several decades; and finally ended up with an advisor from the law school, which resulted in further changes to the thesis topic and many daunting trips to the D’Angelo Library.

Keri wrote a thesis on 1920s and 30s Vogue as a representative of a cold modernist aesthetic. While her topic didn’t change from the beginning (though she did submit 2 thesis ideas), she knew very little about Vogue, modernism, and academic perspectives on fashion before writing it, so she ended up with a particularly extensive reading list. She also talked to many modernists as part of her research and idea-development process, since her advisor’s specialty was in a different time period.

Jessi wrote short fiction for her thesis under the guidance of Vu Tran in Creative Writing. The thesis emerged from a more experimental piece written for Vu’s Fall workshop class, which was re-worked into a thesis project during the winter quarter. She understands the specific, somewhat baffling struggles associated with the creative thesis: figuring out a critical component, coming up with a bibliography for a creative project, finding people to advise and look at the two components, etc…

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