I remember the day I decided to take on a senior thesis in strangely vivid detail. I walked out of my advisor’s office feeling extremely confident and excited about the project I was about to undertake. However, by the time I had made it the three blocks back to my dorm, I was on the phone with my best friend in a panic, fervently begging her to talk me out of the decision I had just made.
As I look back now, over a year later, I can happily say that it was one of my better decisions. I currently work as an intern in a biological anthropology lab at The George Washington University studying primate behavioral ecology. For the past three years as an undergraduate student, I have studied data on maternal behavior and infant development in wild chimpanzees, wrestled with excel spreadsheets for countless hours, cataloged infinite sheets of behavioral data, and memorized an extensive protocol for entering data into excel and our online database. I came across this internship opportunity through an email sent out to all students pursuing their anthropology major.
My greatest passion has always been finding the answers to questions. I was never satisfied chalking things up to fate, chance, or destiny. Everything in my mind has to be answered with facts and correlations. I’ve always been curious; most of us are. The idea of research appealed to me because it is a way to establish facts and reach brand new conclusions – having tangible answers has always been crucial for me.
When I learned that the lab was working with Jane Goodall’s database, I knew I needed the job. Jane Goodall has been a personal inspiration my entire life. Her courage, strength, and dedication to science have always been traits that I admire. Jane embarked on a research journey in Tanzania in 1960 that many men and women would not have dreamed possible. Her independence and drive allowed her to succeed during a time when women were barely respected in scientific research. She individually named all of the chimpanzees she studied, researching their culture, hunting behaviors, and tool use. Her discoveries changed the worlds of primatology, anthropology, and the way we study evolution.
Although I didn’t necessarily plan on pursuing a career in primatology, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get my foot in the door of research and learn more about something I loved. I’ve learned that in order to discover your true passions, trying new things and jumping on interesting opportunities is a must. Working in the lab taught me that research was something worth pursuing, even if biological anthropology and primatology weren’t my primary passions.
When I first began working in the lab, entering data was exciting and informative. However, I soon realized that I was itching to get more hands-on in the work that the other lab members were doing. I would watch as the graduate students developed their research questions for their dissertations, and the post docs queried data for their analyses. I wanted to see if I had what it took to create my own questions and pioneer my own project. I met with my research advisor to discuss options and she suggested I begin work on a senior honors thesis.
The concept of individual, original research can be daunting, and it has been anything but easy for me. My near-fatal flaws include procrastinating and a lack of organization, but over the past year I have learned many valuable lessons about pioneering my own major project. Hopefully these skills will be applicable to you throughout your own research, senior theses, or any other type of long-term project.
1. Create a flexible timeline with small goals
This is extremely important for those of us who tend to leave things until the last minute. My thesis has taken place over the course of three semesters. I dedicated my first semester to creating proposals for two research topics, a major literature review, drafting preliminary research questions, and writing a 10 page introduction. I set deadlines for these individual tasks with my advisor in order to hold myself accountable. My second semester was all about performing the actual analyses and revising the questions after preliminary results. This semester, I’m finishing the final analyses and writing up the full body of the paper. Having smaller goals and requiring someone else to help keep you on track has really helped me stay organized and has limited my procrastination.
2. Keep an up-to-date spreadsheet tracking all of your sources/literature
The first step in research is almost always reading. There are so many studies that have already been done and it is crucial to educate yourself on the facts and information that already exist in the academic world. I ended up reading over a hundred journal articles in preparation for my research project. At first it was hard to keep track of the knowledge I was gaining just from the notes I had been jotting down, so I created a system to keep track. I started logging every article into an excel spreadsheet, listing the title, author, year, species, questions asked, methods, and results. This made it easy for me to look back and pull out the relevant information. I gained a foundational knowledge of my topic, as well as ideas for potential research questions and methods. For someone with severe organizational problems, this was a lifesaver, and I am constantly referring to this document. Make Excel your best friend!
3. Be proactive when it comes to meeting with your advisor
Fostering relationships with professors and mentors in college is one of the best moves you can make. Not only will they support you during your time in undergrad, but they typically have abundant connections that they are more than willing to share with you when it comes to your future. However, you are not their number one priority. Professors have multiple classes, conduct their own research, and are involved with countless other commitments. Therefore the responsibility is on you to be proactive when it comes to getting help with your project. You may have to be the one to schedule weekly meetings to touch base. You may have to be the one to create your own deadlines. Chances are that the more proactive you are the more your mentor will recognize your motivation and drive, and will do his or her part to help you succeed.
4. Treat the project as if it were a class
At most universities, working on an individual research project with an advisor can qualify you for research credits. For example, I got three credit hours towards my degree for each semester I performed undergraduate research. Therefore, I learned to treat my thesis as an actual class. If you think about it, you spend about two and a half hours in class per week, with an additional two to five hours on homework and readings. Each week, I try to dedicate that same amount of time to my project. This way, tasks don’t build up and you will feel less overwhelmed.
5. Utilize the people around you
I cannot stress this enough. Having other lab members around to support me has been absolutely invaluable. The grad students had all written senior theses in the past and are currently working on dissertations, which makes them excellent resources when it comes to research design, time management, and staying sane. At first, I felt a bit awkward approaching them; I wasn’t exactly sure that they would want to spend their time mentoring an undergrad when they already had so much on their plates. Luckily, they have been in your position before and understand the importance having mentors. Ask to grab coffee and talk about their projects and tips that they might have for you. People love talking about themselves and their work, and your colleagues want to see you succeed!
6. Never stop reading
New information is constantly being published. Even though I performed my major literature review over a year ago to jumpstart my research, there are countless new articles on my topic. It is so important to stay informed and always have the relevant and recent information on your topic. Reading the latest publications may give you new ideas for how you want to frame your paper, something else that you should control for, or another question you should be asking.
Good luck with your own research and thesis journey!