The thesis project is the most momentous capstone of a New College student's career. We spend four years taking classes, designing courses and working on Independent Study Projects, but fourth year is when the shiitake mushrooms hit the fan and you (hopefully) complete the most significant research project of your career. Everyone's thesis experience is different, but I wanted to tell you all about mine so that you have some insight into what it could be like. I imagine the thesis project can also be a deterrent for prospective students, although it shouldn't be, and I hope my story will quell some of those fears.
I came to New College in love with learning new languages. When I was in second-semester German I, we had a substitute professor named Frank Chaich. He was an incredible German professor because his background was in the field of Second Language Acquisition. SLA is dedicated to understanding second language learning and pedagogy. I was immediately enthralled by the field, so as a second-year student, I applied for the Student Appointed Professor fund to have Frank come back to campus to teach a course on SLA. I also decided to be a psychology major, in addition to slashing (our term for minoring) in both Spanish and Chinese language and culture. Psychology is a broad research field, so I was able to do a thesis on the topic of Second Language Acquisition for my psychology concentration.
Spring semester of my third-year, I designed an Independent Research Project tutorial with Dr. Heidi Harley, my psychology sponsor. I spent that time writing up my Institutional Review Board application to conduct human research. I also did some preliminary research for my thesis project. I wanted my thesis to be related to vocabulary. At the time, I thought my thesis' focus would be vocabulary acquisition, and that I would use an intelligent flashcard program called Anki to help students learn and master new vocabulary.
When fall semester came around, I needed a way to measure students' vocabulary. I began researching vocabulary measures. There was so much research on vocabulary measures that the focus of my thesis shifted from measuring vocabulary acquisition, to designing different versions of the X_Lex and A_Lex vocabulary measures for Spanish and Chinese second-language learners. The X_Lex is a written, orthographic measure and the A_Lex is an aural, phonological measure where participants check off words and the final score on the measure estimates how many words participants know out of the most commonly occurring 5000 in the respective language. While these measures have been used extensively in the research over the past decade, I found no research where they had been designed for Spanish and Chinese, so I designed the measures and administered them to the Spanish and Chinese students at New College.
I did a good amount of research over fall semester of fourth-year, but most of my time was put into designing the measures and administering them to different language classes across campus. I gathered my data in this way and also ran statistical analyses. A lot of my hypotheses came through in the results, along with some interesting twists. When our January Independent Study Project term came around, I really began to put a lot of time into writing the thesis. I wrote the first draft and have been editing it with my sponsor since. It is about 70 pages, and I am currently planning on doing my Baccalaureate Examination in two weeks.
Now, before you panic, I have to note all of the people and classes in place that helped me bring my thesis to its final stages. For one, Dr. Harley has met with me whenever I was in need since last spring, before I was a fourth-year. She encouraged me, always noted my strengths, provided constructive criticism, and allowed me to be very independent with my deadlines. I work well having independent deadlines. While I did not turn in a draft of my literature review and methods section with the rest of the psychology students last semester, I was still on track and now will be the first of the psych students to complete my thesis. Of course, I started a little early last spring, but I am highlighting the fact that I found a sponsor whose style matched my own. Some professors are very strict with deadlines and will not accept late work. Harley worked with me the whole way through and let me build my project with her support.
For some Areas of Concentrations (our term for majors), you will have to take a thesis tutorial class for both of your final semesters at New College. This only helps. For one, it counts for one of the three minimum courses you have to take each semester. So, you can get away with two real courses and put the rest of your time into your thesis project. Furthermore, the psychology thesis tutorial helps you build your thesis with the support of all of the other students who are working on theses in the same discipline. You also receive feedback from all of the professors, not just your sponsor. Most of your work is on your thesis, but they also have you read older students' theses, give presentations on your research and help another psych student edit their thesis. They gave us tips on applying to graduate school, and before we have our Baccalaureate examination we do a practice exam in front of the class. That way, you can iron out some of the issues in the presentation before having to defend your thesis in front of your committee.
And do not for a second think you write 50-100 pages and turn it in just like that. You write, edit, write, edit, write, have another psych student edit, write, have a friend edit, write, have your sponsor edit. Toward the end, you trade your work back and forth with your sponsor editing the final document together. I have spent a few hours meeting one-on-one with Dr. Harley this week to go through some of the final edits of my thesis before I hand it off to my other committee members. They will have a week to read it before I present the work to them at my exam where they will ask me questions and I must defend my thesis in front of them.
The thesis project can be terrifying because it takes more of your time than any other single project that you must complete to graduate at New College, but it is also an extremely rewarding experience. Professors and tutorials are set up to help you do your research, practice writing and editing and turn in a polished project that you can defend and support before leaving here. I came to New College with no research experience and poor writing skills. By the time I became a fourth-year, my classes had provided me with a tremendous amount of writing and research experience. Even if you are worried about your writing skills and academic background, New College will help you through the process as long as you are motivated. We may not be a school layered in caution tape and safety nets, but if you want help it is always there.