Students possibly writing theses in Firestone Library.
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It’s thesis season at Princeton, and with sleepless nights in the carrels of Firestone Library approaching for many seniors, it appears that the familiar sights of Princeton’s capstone project are returning to campus in earnest after a two-year hiatus. 

The senior thesis is one of the hallmarks of the Princeton undergraduate experience, a unifying force of solidarity among seniors bringing their collegiate careers to a close. Whether they look forward with excitement or dread, every student who begins their freshman fall at Princeton knows that eventually, their thesis will one day be due. 

Back in 1987, senior Andy Schneider documented some of the “tactics” he observed and developed writing his own thesis, and while times may have changed in many ways in the 35 years since Schneider wrote, ask a senior what they’re doing this semester and you’ll likely hear a decades-old familiar refrain: “I’m working on my thesis.”

Thesis Tactics

By Andy Schneider ’87

(From the April 8, 1987, issue of PAW)

I should be working on my thesis now. It’s due in two weeks, and I really don’t have time to eat regularly, let alone write this column. I think I’ll go and work on it a little… No, I’ll take another break.

Although I can’t remember the first time I heard about Princeton’s thesis requirement, I do recall one of those meetings for high school students who are interested in the University. At one point in the proceedings, some of the local alumni were asked to discuss their theses. A distinguished figure in the community stood up and said, rather proudly, something like: “I did my thesis on the viscosity of diketopiperazines while in a hydrophilic solution of Cephalosporium Acremonium.”

Another stood up and said something even more complicated, adding quite sincerely, “It was pretty much fun.” That night’s message was pretty clear: Come to Princeton and we’ll make you smart. You’ll be able to write a whole thesis by yourself — and as an added bonus, you’ll have oodles of fun doing it.

Well, it’s thesis time, and I think my bonus got overlooked this year. But it is relatively easy, if not downright enjoyable, to complain about doing your thesis. In fact, for most seniors, thesis moaning is a way of life: “Boy do I have a lot of work to do,” says a junior, talking to a senior during dinner. “I’ve got a 15-page English paper due tomorrow which I haven’t even started to think about. And after I finish that, I’ve got to read all of Crime and Punishment and memorize a whole Triangle script. And then I’ve got to write the first half of my JP. It’s due in two days.”

“You think that’s bad,” says the senior, somewhat nonchalantly. “I’m working on my thesis.”

“Oh,” says the junior, obviously embarrassed. “I guess I have it pretty easy after all.”

When a senior isn’t moaning about his thesis, he’s procrastinating. It’s called “blowing off” time, and a lot of it is done about this time of year. Wouldn’t it be great, I’ve often thought, to be a visual arts major. I would do one of those “creative” theses — maybe do an abstract of an abstract painting. How long could that take? A couple of minutes? An hour at most? And that would be it. 

Or what about a creative writing thesis, something poetic. My thesis would consist of 15, no 12, very short poems — haikus maybe — that reflected my most personal thoughts. If each haiku took 15 minutes to write — that’s five minutes per line, or a little under a minute per syllable — my thesis would be finished in just three hours. Time to party!

Now, I’m not seriously implying that “creative” majors don’t spend a lot of time on their theses, because I know they do. But at the same time I doubt whether they put in the effort of the typical Wilson School student. For it is within the Woo that thesis competition takes place on a daily basis.

“I haven’t left my carrel in nine days,” says one Wilson School major to another. “I’m only stopping now to get a glass of water.”

“Pretty impressive,” says the friend. “Hey, how many pages have you written so far?”

“Well I’ve written 400, but I’m aiming for 650.”

“I know someone who’s aiming for 700.”

“Oh, did I say 650? I mean 750.”

Unfortunately, there are still those who equate quantity with quality, length with depth, even at Princeton. Pages, pages, I need more pages! It’s all part of thesis competition. The longer the better, so make it lonnnnnnnng. For the clever senior, the computer is a handy tool for thesis stretching. Of course it should be used as a last resort, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. 

Here’s how it works: Let’s say you’ve typed in 60 pages, but think it should be a little longer. Start with the left margin. Can it be two letters wider? Sure it can, so tell the computer to change the margins accordingly. Presto! The thesis has grown by three pages. After changing the other margin, and maybe even enlarging the type, the 60-page paper has matured into a 75-page tome. Add a bibliography, and the table of contents, stick in a dedication page, insert a couple of random pages, and we’re talking thickness. We’re talking quality. Be careful, though. It’s easy to shrink the size of the text on the page until there’s hardly anything left, and advisers don’t like that.

Once you’ve typed it and adjusted the margins to perfection, it’s time to print it out. And the higher the quality of the pressing, the happier your adviser will be, right? That calls for the laser printer. That crisp type makes even the most worn-out text look like a million bucks. 

So it’s printed out. Now bind it — using gold trim if you’re still a little worried about its quality — and present it to your adviser. Boy does it look sharp. 

Now it’s time for a little good-natured thesis bragging: “How’s your thesis coming?” the lucky senior asks.

“Okay, I guess, but I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m probably not going to sleep at all this week.”

“That’s pretty rough.”

“What about yours? How’s it coming?”

“Oh, well I handed mine in the other day.”

“Were you happy with it?”

“Yeah, I have to admit it looked pretty sharp.”

Then there’s this type of conversation — no harm meant, of course: “What are you up to these days?”

“Same old thing. Sleep. Work on my thesis. I’m about to go crazy. But what about you?”

“Oh, I’ve just been goofing off now that I’ve handed in my thesis. Went to the Bahamas for a week. Now I play a little tennis, take an afternoon nap, watch Letterman. You know how it is.”

Few seniors seem to care about their thesis grade. Everyone wants to do well, but getting it done is the main thing. And of course, getting it done is the hardest thing. Speaking of getting it done, I think I’ll go and work on mine a little…. right after I take another break.