I wrote my philosophy thesis in three weeks at the end of fall semester. My breaks consisted of writing five other papers due during the same time span and preparing for two final exams. I even had a motto: “Thesis is twenty-five percent effort, seventy-five percent keeping your butt in the chair.” I took to belting my legs together to keep me from getting up from the computer. After three weeks of utter hell, my thesis was finished. It was fifty-three pages long. Imagine my anguish, then, when I found out that classmate Andy Shriver’s thesis was two pages longer than mine. Obviously, length does not indicate much of anything about the quality of one’s thesis. Ask any senior poet, actor, or painter, and they’ll tell you that the digits in your thesis’ page count give little evidence of the quality of the material lying on said pages. What matters is quality, not length. But however often we repeat that mantra, it doesn’t free us from thesis envy.
Whenever a senior busts through the two-hundred-page barrier in an honors thesis, seniors everywhere wince. Why? For men, perhaps it’s a challenge to their manhood. Alternatively, it may be because seniors have conceptualized their honors thesis as a child to be born. After all, the thesis is a great weight bearing down on you, growing heavier every day, conceived approximately nine months ago. Then, at the end of a desperate final push, something new is created. Thus, when absurdly weighty theses are mentioned, certain painful images spring to mind.
Honors-thesis students everywhere suffer a secret belief that their thesis experience was the year’s worst. Morbid announcements of inflated page counts are just one symptom of that collective campus belief. The result is a culture of angst that pervades the campus every March. That culture is created by seniors sharing horror stories and creating rituals that serve not only to indicate their misery but also their ability to overcome that same trauma.
Keeping a sense of humor is critical to surviving thesis stress. Seniors often play games with their thesis, treating it like a real person — the ultimate pathetic fallacy. This is a good way of procrastinating while spending quality time with the most important person in your life and staying free to write if the inspiration strikes. Personifying the thesis gives obsessed seniors and their theses a chance to hang out together.
One favorite game is stacking all the thesis materials to see if the pile is taller than you are. Another favorite is creating a fictional life for the thesis. For example, when one thesis reached twenty-one pages, its author noted that it could legally drink.
Another honors-thesis ritual is the disaster story. Real thesis shamans are those who suffer regularly from ridiculous mishaps or undergo moments of horrendous anguish. A few recent masters:
Absolutely everything that could go wrong with classmate Sarah Coulter’s honors thesis in physical chemistry did. Coulter and her advisor managed to flood her lab their very first day while “watering the laser.” She cut off a piece of her finger with her Swiss Army knife. She also managed to solder two pieces of equipment together, a protean feat considering that she managed it without using any welding equipment. The department’s new Pentium computer crashed after two days. Complaining that the computer room was cold, she wore my winter coat one night as a pair of pants. With Coulter’s thesis, when it rained, it froze.
Last year, Evan Halper ’95 managed to get through months of thesis work uneventfully, only to get nailed at the end. I can still remember Halper printing out the thesis on the last day. As pages slowly spit out of the printer, Coulter picked up a page. She turned to him and said urgently, “Evan, there’s a grammatical error on the first line!” This process repeated itself as each page printed out, until Halper begged her to stop reading his thesis. He also had to face his thesis panel without his advisor, who was sick. He didn’t talk much about that experience.
Two non-honors thesis students deserve some recognition for the quality of their horror stories. Two years ago, Christian Gaylord ’94 performed an original one-man play about his hometown for his thesis. Some time after the production was over, his thesis advisor asked him when he could read the script Gaylord had authored. He responded incredulously, “You mean I have to turn it in?” He had written it on various scraps of paper whenever inspiration hit.
That same year, another senior suffered through his physics thesis. He missed two deadlines, receiving extensions both times. Finally, time ran out and he had to turn it in the next weekend. He had three days. He had written nothing. His comment after the weekend was over: “Worst three days of my life.”
The clothes make the thesis. Suitable raiment is vital to creating the correct style for your thesis, the summation of your academic career. A properly attired thesis student can foster one of two impressions about his relationship to the work, and by extension, about the thesis itself. There is simple, utilitarian fare: a sweatshirt and a pair of sweatpants. There are a few simple rules to follow to make this fashion statement. Don’t shower. Don’t shave — anywhere. Don’t change your clothes; sleep in them, preferably on a couch. This line of apparel says, “The act of writing is such an ordeal that I can’t write until I stare at the computer screen so hard that I get a nosebleed.” Warning: This might imply that reading said thesis will be a similar ordeal.
The second thesis ensemble is formal attire. Dress to kill. Wear only the slickest threads. This outfit symbolizes the human struggle for survival and quest for the sublime within a finite paradigm ruled by an uncaring and elusive god. Unfortunately, no one can maintain this sartorial strategy for long. All these rituals, games, and incantations create an illusion. Perhaps that illusion is necessary for the realization of the thesis, but it’s still an illusion. We can recognize its beauty while understanding that this idolatry obscures the fundamental force of creation: Will.
David Kociemba ’96 is the former features editor for The Bates Student. This essay first appeared in the March 13, 1996, Student and is reprinted here by permission of the author.