Making the Most of Your Thesis: From Classroom to the 'Real World' (Guest Post)

A note from Katie: Korrin Bishop was a classmate and fellow student blogger at the UO. We both undertook massive thesis projects, and both found the experience to be enormously beneficial. Korrin has turned her thesis not only into a published article, but also leveraged her research into a network and (short months after graduation) into a just-out-of-college dream job. In this article, she shares advice on the thesis writing process, as well as giving great insights into how to expand an undergraduate thesis into fabulous opportunities post-graduation. I hope you enjoy as much as I did!

Making the Most of Your Undergraduate Thesis: From the Classroom to the “Real World”

Publishing an undergraduate thesis

Reflecting on my academic and professional careers thus far, I see a string of “there’s no way I could possibly do that” moments that, through just the right mix of curiosity, grit, excitement, support, and an eventual leap, I have since done. The act of pushing myself to do these tasks that once seemed insurmountable has shaped my life in unexpected and wonderful ways. 

Writing, defending, and later publishing, a thesis for the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon was one of these moments for me.

I remember getting accepted into the Honors College and being excited about the opportunity to be a part of a small liberal arts college nestled within a larger research university. It was a clear fit. There was just one problem. A thesis requirement? And then defending said thesis in front of a committee of scholars and experts in the field? As an incoming freshman, this seemed like one of the scariest prospects of all time. 

Now, I look back fondly and relish each step that got me to seeing my research in print today. 

Writing an undergraduate thesis not only presents students with an opportunity to push the bounds of their analytic abilities and hone skills attractive to employers, but also the potential to make a significant, real-world impact within a field that is meaningful to them.

Writing & Defending—You Can Do This

After a thirty-minute presentation, followed by a thirty-minute Q&A, I left the small room where I had defended my thesis and let out a sigh of relief as my committee deliberated. When I returned to the room, I heard the ten most magical words of my college career:

“Congratulations! You will graduate, and you will pass with distinction.” 

Getting to this moment wasn’t simple, but it was worth it. Students who choose to dive deeply into an undergraduate thesis will be rewarded with a uniquely fantastic feeling of accomplishment post-defense. It’s hard work, but you can do this! 

Some of my advice for the process of writing and defending a thesis are:

Honors College Thesis
  1. Start early.  I took my thesis prospectus class (a course which prepares students for thesis writing) and began speaking with my primary thesis advisor spring quarter of my junior year.  This allowed me to go into summer break with a topic chosen, able to do preliminary research.  It also meant I could spend my senior year focused on the main research and writing phase, rather than in planning.
  2. Pick a topic that moves you.  This is your chance to get very close to a subject, and potentially start a lifelong romance.  What subject is meaningful to you? Leverage that.  Throughout college, I became increasingly interested in homelessness issues. I eventually wrote my thesis on the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP), a stimulus program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Choosing this topic taught me an extraordinary amount of new information about homelessness and solidified my want to find a related career.
  3. Practice talking about your research often and in different ways. Before giving my thesis defense to my committee, I reserved a room in the library and gave it to my friends, knowing that if I could give it to them seriously without laughing or feeling embarrassed that I could do it in front of my committee, too. I also presented it to a local human services board familiar with my topic, and participated in an undergraduate research symposium where I stood for a few hours in front of a poster summarizing my research, speaking to dozens of attendees.

My Thesis & I Go to Washington—Value in the Elusive “Real World”

For students who see the thesis requirement as just something to check off their list of graduation requirements, it will be just that.  However, students who see it as a chance to gain expertise in an area of interest will be able to see the value of their work continue post-graduation.

For over three years, I have worked as an Analyst at Abt Associates on the implementation and evaluation of federal homelessness programs.  My thesis was a primary factor in securing my first job directly in my field of interest.

Korrin Bishop Washington, DC

While writing my thesis, I interviewed individuals at HUD about HPRP.  When I moved to Washington, D.C. after graduating, I got in touch with them, excited to meet in person the government workers who had basically become celebrities in my eyes.  A happy hour with them led to an invitation to present my research at HUD Headquarters.  The day I arrived at the HUD building, I looked up at that big, beautiful, concrete tower and felt enormous gratitude for the thesis requirement.

Through this opportunity, I learned about Abt Associates and the contracting work it does with HUD and other agencies working to end homelessness.  I quickly applied for a position with the company, speaking often about my thesis research during the interview process.  In a matter of time, I was working onsite at HUD as a contractor on a homelessness program partially modeled after HPRP.  It still feels surreal, and each day, I get to continue learning about and effecting change within homelessness programs.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed working on your thesis, keep in mind that post-graduation, it can:

  • Guide your job search;
  • Show employers you possess the self-direction and discipline it takes to complete a large project;
  • Provide talking points in job interviews that highlight your qualitative and/or quantitative research skills; and
  • Assist in making professional connections within your field

Three Years Later—Publication is a Process

I knew when I began my thesis that I wanted to try to publish it.  What I didn’t know was how long that process would actually take.

First, there were all of the tasks I actually had to do to write the publishable article:

  • Get 119 pages down to a readable amount.
  • Re-interview my subjects now that the stimulus program had ended to see if anything had changed.
  • Update my background research based on what I had learned working in the field.
  • Research potential journals for submission and follow their style guidelines.

These tasks were inevitably slowed down by:

  • Ahh!  I just moved to a new city and have to figure out transportation, socialize with new people, start a new job, unpack, miss home, clean my house, feed myself, etc.
  • Loving relationships.
  • Ensuing breakups.
  • General procrastination and fear.
  • Can’t I work on a new topic already??

I chipped away at rewriting my thesis for publication, but as you can see, got slowed down a good deal by life. However, this proved to be necessary, as my thoughts on what I wanted my thesis article to accomplish changed with me over that time. 

Korrin Bishop Thesis

I came to realize through my professional work and volunteerism that I didn’t want my research to be put into an academic journal that may just sit on a shelf becoming dusty. I learned my particular research would better serve the world if it could reach an audience of policymakers and practitioners in the field who could use what I had learned to influence future programs to end homelessness.

After this breakthrough, I found Shelterforce, a magazine published by the National Housing Institute that functions as the voice for community development.  I pitched my article to the editor, was accepted, and finally had the direction I needed to persevere and finish the process—over three years after my thesis defense.

For students interested in publication, I encourage them to bravely charge forth!  Know that it’s a commitment, but one that will inevitably reveal beautiful takeaways throughout the process.

The End Result—Impact Beyond the Classroom

I used to think there was no way I could possibly write and defend a thesis.  Today, I have not only done that, but, with real-world experience now under my belt, have also published a piece of work that I’m proud of and that has joined the nation’s dialogue on homelessness issues. 

Like many things I once thought I couldn’t do, completing the task has shaped my life in a meaningful way.  For any student considering taking on an undergraduate thesis, my advice is to absolutely do it, and to dive into the process with reckless abandon.

Please leave all comments, questions and feedback down below. Are you working on a thesis? Where else might students leverage their research to access opportunities? 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like "Imagined 'Plan B' Futures," "Inventing an Internship," "Saying 'Yes,'" and "The Benefits of an Honors College."