Advice for People Writing Honors Theses in the Humanities

Since I have successfully written, turned in, and received a grade on my honors thesis in history, I feel qualified to give advice on this subject. For those who do not know, for about the past year or so, I have been researching and writing an honors thesis in history on Stalin. All of my primary sources were in Russian and all my secondary sources were in English.

And now, without further ado, my advice (because I so love giving advice, whether it’s solicited or unsolicited).

Finish your primary source reading during the summer before you start writing your thesis.

I am assuming that most people write theses during their final undergraduate year of university. This was the case for me, and I regret not being able to finish reading my primary sources during the summer. This is important, especially if you are working in a foreign language. By finishing primary source reading early, you will be able to start writing early in the semester, while reading secondary sources at the same time. And this leads me to my next point…

Have a decent bibliography of secondary sources before the semester starts.

And by “decent,” I mean at least ten, preferably more. Read some general works on your topic so you know what other scholars have said before. Once you know the basic structure of your chapters, make sure to read more detailed works on those topics, too. Not having this basic intellectual framework was a major flaw in my thesis. (It is not that I had no framework; it is that I did not read enough secondary sources due to lack of time. I would not have had this problem if I had finished my primary source reading earlier.)

Work on your thesis every week.

No matter how busy (or not busy) you are, set aside time each week to work on the thesis. In our thesis seminar, a lot of people waited until the last minute to write their theses, which resulted in a lot of panic and angst. To be honest, I was pretty good about this. I had a working rough draft by October or November, and I worked on the thesis over breaks, too.

Make sure you like your topic and the professor(s) you are working with.

This seems obvious, but cannot be overstated. Trust me, by March, you will be so incredibly sick of your topic, even if you loved it originally. And if you did not love your topic originally, you will probably end up dropping out of the thesis-writing process (assuming that is an option). (In fact, two people dropped out of our seminar. It was scandalous.)

Try to finish a draft at least a few weeks in advance of the due date.

Had I managed this, I would have been able to revise my final draft more. Unfortunately, I was working right up to the deadline. I still managed to write a decent thesis, but it could have been better.

A final word

Am I glad I wrote a thesis? Absolutely. It was, at times, fun, frustrating, exciting, boring, and stressful, and I’m very glad I did it. If I had not written a thesis, I think it would have taken me longer to realize that I do not want to do a Ph.D. after all (more on that in another post, as it is quite a long story).

There is also something to be gained from writing a long work over a number of months. It gave me confidence that I can write longer works in the future (which is a good thing, as I have so many fiction and non-fiction book ideas). I learned a lot from the process and enjoyed the opportunity of working closely with my thesis advisor (who is also my major advisor – I have known the man since freshman year and he is a saint).

Have any of my readers written theses? What did you think about the process?

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One thought on “Advice for People Writing Honors Theses in the Humanities

  1. I wrote my BA dissertation on Russian foreign policy and I found the process very interesting and enjoyable, I started so early that there was no real panic at any point.
    Right now I’m writing my MA thesis in decision and policy analysis: the topic is wonderful (it’s inter-disciplinary, combining politics, sociology and decision analysis, which makes it a lot of fun) and I really enjoy it, unfortunately I haven’t really found the required self-discipline yet, but the thesis is due in June so I guess there’s still time. I really feel that I’ve found my calling and I’m so thankful that I’ve got the opportunity to write about something that I find so fascinating 🙂

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