A few months ago, I heard a particularly strange story on NPR. The segment was focused on limits and featured a woman named Julie Moss. In 1982, as a senior in college, Julie signed up for and completed an Ironman triathalon on a whim, with little training or preparation. Much to her surprise, come game day, she was in the lead—a significant lead at that. Then, in the final few yards of the last leg, nearing the finish line, her body gave out (and she shat on national television). The second-place runner flew past her, and Julie literally crawled across the finish line.
The reason that this particular narrative stuck with me is that the woman in question completed her Ironman as a required senior project for her bachelor’s degree. Certainly an unorthodox approach, but to her point of view, it accomplished what those kinds of projects are meant to accomplish: It gave her a better understanding of her own abilities and a sense of purpose. She explained to the host, “I crawled. And so here I am, coming along, and the TV lights were blinding me. And I knew my life was going to be different. I felt my life changing. I made a deal with myself that I don’t care how it looks, I don’t care if it’s messy, I would finish. It was pivotal.”
Certainly we can’t all run out and compete in Ironman competitions. But her experience raises the question: How do you finish off your college years? Does an undergraduate need some defining, final accomplishment to be satisfied that time was well spent?
Arguably, the easy answer is no. Not every student—myself included—chooses to complete a school-sponsored final project or thesis. At Barnard, it’s simply required of all students. But at Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and General Studies, many departments do not require one for graduation, leaving it to the student to decide whether the lure of graduating with honors is worthwhile. Maybe more students would complete a senior project if we thought completing an Ironman would be a department-approved endeavor. Instead, the choice often boils down to simply writing a 40- to 90-page paper or not.
Why write a thesis? From a brief survey of classmates, the answers were usually a mix of pragmatism and optimism. For one, a thesis is your golden ticket into graduate school. It is generally a necessary step to graduate school admission. Basically, a thesis matters—at least until you write your dissertation. Or, if you become president, it matters long after.
Beyond the birth certificate debate, throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, Republican pundits have been trying to get their hands on Obama’s thesis from his Columbia years, and jumped for joy when they thought it was a Constitution-bashing project called “Aristocracy Reborn.” (It wasn’t.) The preoccupation with writing a thesis, it seems, is as much about the work as it is about being able to say you completed the work.
But the other more romantic reason for writing one is a genuine wish to better understand a given topic and discover something new. On the popular tumblr lolmythesis, students from universities and colleges around the country summarize their works in one sentence. And while the titles are self-deprecating and purposefully tongue-in-cheek, there’s still something to be said for the strange and wonderful projects that these thesis-writers take on.
Some examples from the website include: “You can learn a lot of cool things about plant ecology from leaves, but not if all your plants die” (“Functional and Ecological Leaf Traits in Species of the Family Melastomataceae”); “Very tiny nukes can reduce cancer in plastic dishes and nude mice” (“Antibody Mediated Radionuclide Targeting of HER-2 for Cancer Diagnostics and Therapy”); and “Somehow, I am getting a law degree out of drawing pictures of dead cartoon cats” (“Dead Cat Personas: A Series of Paintings Examining Biracial Identity and Gender Conformity in a Monoracial Culture”).
The decision not to write a thesis is still something I debate—even though, as a second-semester senior, it’s undoubtedly too late to change my mind. I can’t help but feel that I’ve failed myself, that I proved I’m not as intellectually curious as I alleged in my admission essays. There is comfort in numbers, and I’m certainly not alone. Why not write a thesis? Because, to my cynical mind, if you have no plans for higher academia, your senior year is better spent in internships or focusing on networking. Or—and here comes the romantic reason—why spend your last semester of college agonizing over a document that you will likely stash away in a drawer or lose when you can spend it with friends, exploring the city, and finally taking advantage of those elusive elective classes? Starting a new language, trying your hand at poetry, making a pact to visit every major museum before graduation—such self-administered goals can be just as gratifying as a department-approved 40- to 90-page thesis.
Those of us who get the choice are lucky. A thesis involves an enormous amount of time, research, and writing, and students should be able to decide if it’s in their best interests—both to their mental health and future goals—to complete one. Because the truth is that maybe some of us are better served off the beaten path.
Abby Mitchell is a Columbia College senior majoring in comparative literature and society. She is a former arts and entertainment editor for Spectator. Life’s a Mitch runs alternate Fridays.
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