One of the most common questions the Undergraduate Program Office receives concerns how to find a suitable thesis advisor. The answer begins with thinking about potential thesis topics in relation to classes you’ve already taken in the department. Was there a professor or TF who really inspired you, or with whom you felt you had established had a good relationship? If so, there is your place to begin; reach out to them and ask if they’d be willing to sit down and discuss potential thesis projects. You don’t have to be worried at this stage about your topic not yet being fully developed—in fact, it is in the earliest stages of thinking about a research question that such mentoring conversations can often be most helpful. Think of this initial meeting or series of meetings as a fact-finding mission. You’re just talking through a potential topic, and you don’t have to ask the first person you speak with to be your advisor (though it’s always a good idea to ask if they can recommend other people for you to speak with as well).
What to do, however, if you can’t identify a professor or TF you’ve had classes with who seems appropriate to the project at hand? Well, a good place to start is this list of previous thesis topics and who advised them (you should consult the Department’s list of faculty and graduate students to make sure that a potential adviser is still at Harvard). A list of graduate students who have specifically expressed interest in advising is also available here. By the way, don’t worry about writing to either faculty or graduate students “out of the blue”; they are aware juniors will be searching for advisors and won’t be surprised at all to hear from you. In fact, you’ll likely find them to be very happy to chat with you, even if they ultimately don’t end up advising your thesis.
But you should start trying to identify potential advisors early; the ideal time to begin looking is late in the fall semester or very early in the spring semester of your Junior year. We say this because the thesis-funding applications are due by mid-February of your Junior year. This means that you’ll want to have a good sense of your project before you apply for grants to support your research. A request for money where the student lays out in a concrete fashion what he or she plans to do and clearly articulates why the project is both interesting and feasible is far more likely to be funded than an application that speaks only in generalities. For example, “I will conduct interviews with politicians” is not convincing—tell us with whom, and why, and detail whatever preliminary steps you’ve taken to start the process. Being able to say you have a thesis advisor who has been working with you to refine your question is a great help at this stage of the process.
Remember that you can be advised by either a Government Department faculty member or an eligible TF (meaning a graduate student who is a G-3 or above and has successfully finished their General Exams). Depending on the project, it may even be possible to be advised by someone outside the Department, but you’ll need to talk this through with the DUS or ADUS and receive permission. Please note that joint concentrators typically have an advisor (or advisors) in both departments.
As for whether it’s better to have a faculty member or TF advising you, there is no clear answer; it truly depends on your topic and the person advising you. The one exception is if you know you want to go one for a PhD in the social sciences; in this case, having an established faculty member advise you (and hopefully write a strong letter of recommendation afterwards!) is preferable. Note, however, that many popular professors are forced to turn down advising requests each year, simply because too many students ask them. So again, it is in your interest to get the advising situation sorted as soon as possible.
Without a doubt, establishing a good working relationship with your thesis advisor is one of the most critical factors for thesis success. The key to this is regular, forthright, and clear communication—by both parties. If you read through comments from past Hoopes Prize winners, they invariably talk about how important their advisers were in the thesis writing process. In contrast, poor thesis writing experiences are often linked to poor advising relationships. The best advice we can give you to speak to would-be advisors openly about your expectations and scholarly habits. Do you work best when you can sit with someone and throw ideas at the wall? Or do you need more directed guidance and deadlines to keep you on track? How often do you expect to meet with your advisor (we recommend meeting at least once every two weeks, and preferably even more frequently as the submission deadline approaches)? How available will she or he be in the summer, if you have questions while away from campus? All of these are things to discuss with your prospective advisor before you sign the advising contract.
The thesis advising contract (Faculty or TF version) is due to the Undergraduate Program in mid-May, before you leave campus at the end of Junior Spring. Sometimes, however, either because students decided to write a thesis late in the game or simply didn’t find an adviser before leaving, they enter the summer before their Senior year without one. If this describes you, don’t panic. You’re not the only one who’s in that situation. Please contact Dr. George Soroka, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies (firstname.lastname@example.org; 617-495-9890), if you would like assistance with finding a suitable advisor.
To reiterate: once you find an advisor, you must have regular meetings, although the frequency of these meetings will vary over the course of the year and from student to student. It is almost always a good idea to schedule your next meeting before you leave any meeting. You should also be clear with your adviser from the very beginning and over the year about your needs and expectations. The thesis is your project and you must drive it. Y our adviser is an ally and a resource, but this is ultimately your project.