One of the most common questions the Undergraduate Program Office receives concerns how to find a suitable thesis adviser.
Government theses can be supervised by either faculty members or advanced graduate students in the Department. Often, undergraduates start their adviser search by talking with teachers whose classes they enjoyed. Was there a professor or TF who really inspired you, or with whom you felt you had established a good relationship? If so, you should feel free to reach out to them and ask if they’d be willing to sit down and discuss potential thesis projects.
The Government Department has also created a searchable database of potential thesis advisers. To use this tool, go to the “People” page on this website, scroll to the bottom of the right-hand column, and click on “Potential Senior Thesis Adviser.” You’ll now see a list of all thesis advisers in the department, and you can search within this list by subject matter, geographic region of study, methodological approach, and affiliation by clicking on the appropriate keywords. You can choose multiple different keywords to narrow the list, or hit the “-” sign next to a keyword to remove it and bring up a more expansive list of possible advisers. (As this search tool is new, we welcome your feedback on it!)
Your concentration adviser is a great resource for guidance about finding a thesis adviser and about the thesis-writing process generally. Feel free to reach out to them at any time to set up a meeting.
Initial Meetings with Potential Thesis Advisers
It is often helpful to identify several possible thesis advisers and meet with them to discuss your ideas. Keep in mind that just as important as finding someone who is knowledgeable about your topic is finding an adviser with whom you’ll work well. Feel free to ask potential advisers about their availability in the upcoming year, as well as their expectations from advisees.
In your initial meetings, you don’t have to be worried 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 adviser (though it’s always a good idea to ask if they can recommend other people for you to speak with as well).
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 advisers 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.
Timeline for Finding an Adviser
You should start trying to identify potential advisers early; the ideal time to begin looking is late in the fall semester or very early in the spring semester of your junior year. Keep in mind that some deadlines for summer research grants are due as early as mid-February of your junior year, and having an adviser on board by this point can simplify the process of applying for funding.
If you haven’t identified an appropriate thesis adviser by the end of your junior spring, please contact Dr. George Soroka, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies, to discuss your situation.
Deciding on an Adviser
As noted above, Government theses can be supervised by either faculty members or advanced graduate students in the Department. 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 adviser from each of their departments.
One question often asked is 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 on 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.
Once you’ve found an appropriate thesis adviser, you should submit a signed thesis contract to the Government Undergraduate Office. (Note that there are different forms for TF and faculty advisers.)
The Importance of a Good Working Relationship with your Adviser
Without a doubt, establishing a good working relationship with your thesis adviser 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 advisers 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 adviser (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 adviser before you sign the advising contract.
To reiterate: once you find an adviser, 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.