Overwhelmed seniors often skip thesis

Senior Kylie Kinley researches the history of a lynching in western Nebraska to serve as a basis for a fiction story. This piece will constitute part of a portfolio of her best literary works for her senior thesis in the Honors Program.

Story and photos by Katrina Fischman, News Net Nebraska

Two intensive honors seminars. Twenty four hours of honors credit courses. Stacks of forms to fill out.

These are just some requirements facing students of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Honors Program, which accepts 500 incoming freshman each year. Students receive a $250 a semester textbook scholarship and must submit a senior thesis to graduate from the Honors Program.

So why, after four years of dedication and extra work, do so many students drop the thesis?

As senior Zach Mapes puts it, “Life can get in the way.”

During his undergraduate career, Mapes said he has had too much to do and too little time. He is a secondary education Spanish and English as a second language major, a resident assistant, an honors ambassador who gives tours to prospective students, an assistant debate coach at Lincoln Southwest High School and a volunteer counselor for Lincoln Public School students.

All of these activities meant something had to be sacrificed. Mapes decided to study abroad in Spain for a semester his junior year and has a semester of student teaching practicum awaiting him. Adding this onto working and tough 300- and 400-level courses his junior and senior years, and it was clear the thesis had to go.

“It’s kind of a missed opportunity, but it is kind of one I was almost forced to miss,” he said.

Mapes is far from the only student not completing his thesis. According to Karen Lyons, director of the UNL Honors Program, 182 seniors in the Honors Program completed a thesis in 2008, and a year later, 187 completed it. In 2010, however, only 158 finished.

But Lyons said the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Some students drop the Honors Program because their GPA is too low. Others leave because of changes in the benefits of the program.

And another reason why students may not complete the thesis is because of a lack of a personal relationship with a professor. The Honors Program requires students to have a thesis adviser, someone who will guide the student and review his or her work. Mapes said he didn’t really develop a close relationship with a professor outside of the classroom and rarely found professors with his viewpoints in the College of Education and Human Sciences.

To overcome the obstacle of finding a research topic and professor to help them, many honors students participate in Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experiences (UCARE), where they apply for a research grant, using the funds as wages in exchange for aiding a UNL faculty member in research. The students work one-on-one with a professor and often later use the research as a basis for a thesis and ask the professor to serve as their adviser. But UCARE doesn’t always coincide with students schedules. Mapes studied abroad, for instance, and has to do of a semester student teaching.

Students should consider the benefits of completing a thesis, Lyons said. Doing a thesis shows that you are a self starter, can carry through a major project and can understand how to do research, Lyons said. It looks great on professional school applications and is a “tremendous benefit” in the job market, she said.

To illustrate this point, Lyons gave an example of a biosystems engineering graduate from UNL with a bachelor’s degree who completed a thesis in the Honors Program. He applied for a job open only to graduate students, but he was hired over other candidates because he had written a thesis.

However, other recent UNL graduates haven’t seen the same benefits in employment from doing the thesis. Jake Meador, a 2010 UNL graduate with degrees in English and history who completed a thesis in the history department, said his thesis hasn’t seemed to have made a difference to prospective employers. Out of 10 interviews, he said the topic came up once at an employment agency. While the interviewers were impressed he completed it, they didn’t offer him a job.

Although he hasn’t reaped the rewards in the world of employment, he has gained plenty of other benefits.

“What I learned from it was valuable in itself,” Meador said. “I learned discipline to focus on a single project for a long time, I learned to be a more precise thinker, and I learned a reverence for history and, by extension, the people that fill history. Those are lessons that will be useful in any career, as well as in friendships and family life.”

The thesis may be more important in some careers and majors than others. Christine Timm, associate director of UNL Career Services, said she thought completing a thesis would certainly affect graduate school applications, but was unsure of how it would affect employment. She said it may depend on whether the employer knows about the thesis requirement in the Honors Program.

Students such as senior English major Kylie Kinley have found ways to lessen the burden of the thesis by choosing a project that fulfills the thesis requirements while also being a practical project for her future plans. To apply to graduate school programs in creative writing, Kinley will need to submit a portfolio of her work. She is turning her thesis into a grad school preparation project, choosing to do a portfolio of her best creative writing samples, along with crafting some pieces specifically to include in the portfolio.

At times, Kinley seems to be facing the daunting task alone. Her three roommates from last year, all fellow Honors Program scholars, decided against the thesis. Despite many of her friends choosing to opt-out, Kinley said that isn’t happening for her.

“It’s a personal thing,” she said. “I have this weird complex where I have to do the best possible. Therefore, I have to do the thesis.”

Although Kinley is doing the thesis, she understands why many students don’t complete it. She said that she hasn’t received much guidance from the Honors Program and has learned about what to be doing by “word of mouth,” so she sees why students feel overwhelmed. But she admits she could have been more proactive and made appointments with Lyons.

Lyons said students who feel lost and struggle to find a topic haven’t taken advantage of Honors Program resources. This includes a thesis library in the Neihardt Residence Hall, where students can review other students’ thesis. A thesis handbook is available online, and the Honors Program hosts an academic midpoint check for students during their sophomore year. Also, Lyons is willing to meet with students to discuss problems. She also said there are options for those facing the time hurdle, such as registering thesis hours for credit in their major.

Another tool to make sure students are on track are the various forms students turn in throughout their time in the Honors Program. Students fill out a statement of academic interest by the end of the fourth semester and a memorandum of study by the end of their sixth. Lyons said it forces the students to think about a topic and start planning early, but Kinley and Mapes both agreed that they filled out the forms primarily to keep their scholarships coming and didn’t really take them seriously.

These forms are all too familiar for Honors Program students. Students fill them out throughout the program to ensure they are planning for the thesis early in their academic career.

But for some students, choosing not to do the thesis has nothing to do with the lack of guidance or time. Kinley thinks many students forgo the thesis because they don’t see how it is going to help them in the future. She cited an example of her current roommate who isn’t doing it because she doesn’t see how it will be useful in the anthropology field.

“They don’t see the benefit of it,” Kinley said. “It’s more of a, ‘Hey, you did a good job’ instead of a practical application.”

Despite the excuses or reasons for not doing the honors thesis, the Honors Program isn’t sympathetic to students who don’t complete the requirement.

“They’ve let themselves down terrifically,” Lyons said. “They’ve broken a contract with us essentially.” She advises students to “think about how they are going to feel in a few years knowing they gave up.”

The Honors Program has considered punishing students who don’t complete the thesis, such as revoking the scholarship their senior year. But Lyons said “the mechanics aren’t in place” and that such a change is unlikely in the near future. For now, students don’t lose the money, but they do lose the distinction of graduating from the Honors Program.

Despite not completing the thesis, Mapes feels he has gotten a lot out of the Honors Program, especially the discussion-based focus of the honors classes. Mapes always raves about his experience in the Honors Program to prospective students.

“I’ve enjoyed the ride,” he said. “The university Honors Program is a good way for UNL to stay competitive with the ‘Midwest Ivy League’ institutions.”

For students who are still debating about whether or not to a thesis their senior year is worth the stress and added workload, Meador has a suggestion.

“Education is not simply the accumulation of random, disconnected scraps of knowledge that you use to make money,” Meador said. “Rather, it’s growth in a way of seeing the world that is cohesive, holistic, and virtuous. So what I’d say is that doing the thesis will probably be, and should be, the most difficult academic task you’ve attempted thus far. But that’s precisely why you should do it.”

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