To UVa Engineering fourth years. This isn’t a post about what I did well, but what I wish I had done.

First off: congrats on surviving three years of engineering school. If you’re like most students, the hardest part of college is behind you. Your fourth year is easy if you manage it well (i.e. not like I managed it). Needless to say, the STS thesis* you’ll write is probably the biggest assignment in your academic career, aside from maybe your technical capstone / research project. Hindsight is 20/20, so having just finished the thesis, I’d like to offer some pointers while they’re still fresh in my mind.

  • If I remember correctly, UVa and Princeton are the only universities in the country that require an undergraduate thesis. Consider it an opportunity that most of your peers won’t get.

A little background info

We get little information about the thesis prior to our fourth year. You’re bound to have some preconceptions about it, so I’ll address some of the questions I had going in:

  • Length: the finished paper should be 3000-3750 words, excluding your references list (12-15 double-spaced pages). Unless your professor says otherwise, consider these strict limits.
  • Subject: the subject of the paper can be essentially whatever you want, as long as 1) it uses the social sciences and 2) you can relate it back to your technical project.
  • Content: the STS thesis is a social sciences research paper - you’ll study how social groups interact with each other and with technology. You’ll still write a technical paper, but that will be a part of your technical project; the two papers are written separately.
  • The portfolio: the STS thesis is one component of your thesis portfolio; you’ll work on this throughout the year and have it professionally bound during the last few weeks. The portfolio includes:
    • a preface describing both your technical and STS papers
    • your technical paper (your technical advisor / capstone professor will give you guidelines for this)
    • your STS thesis
    • your prospectus (more on this later)

Tips for choosing a thesis question

  • First and foremost, start thinking about your thesis early. Give yourself plenty of time to find a subject matter that interests you. You should have a fairly clear idea of what you want to do by mid-October.
    • Keep in mind that if you’re doing your capstone through a particular class, you may have to wait until your project is assigned to start thinking about a relevant thesis. If you have any preparatory STS assignments before this point, consult with your STS professor, but a speculative thesis subject should suffice.
  • Think in terms of a research problem. Your thesis should pose a question with no obvious answer, and then argue for a possible answer. If you lose sight of your question, it’s very easy to slip into a Wikipedia-style informational article instead of an argumentative paper – avoid doing that.
  • Bounce ideas off of other people. It can be your classmates, your professors, your family, whoever. Dedicate plenty of time to finding an interesting research problem; you’ll own it for the rest of the year.
  • Take the prospectus seriously. This is a sort of preliminary look at the existing research surrounding both your technical project and your STS thesis. It’s the biggest assignment of the fall semester; done well, it can be a great starting point for both papers.

Tips for writing the thesis

  • Again, start early. You have 3-4 months between the approval of your prospectus and the due date of the completed thesis. Use as much of that time as possible. Bonus points if you start working before the spring semester starts.
  • Read the theses of past students. As of 2017, they’re on the short shelves to the left when you enter Brown (Clark) Library. Read several, especially from students who had your STS professor. Look for structure and patterns, and look for excellent work.
    • I was a little apprehensive about starting my paper; seeing the work of past students gave me enough of a confidence boost to put down the first few sentences. Give it a try if you find yourself in that situation.
  • Real research is messy. Be okay with that. Chances are that with past assignments, you’ve had most of the structure and content of the paper in your head before you wrote a single word. Much as we engineers love that linear approach, true research just doesn’t work that way. Research, writing, structuring, and restructuring will all happen simultaneously.
  • Use some kind of note-taking tool. As you do more research, your notes will quickly get out of hand without a good system to track them. I used Evernote, but OneNote does something similar. Google Keep uses tags instead of separate notebooks; depending on how you like to organize your notes, you might prefer that system. If you’d rather take notes on paper (I did occasionally), Tim Ferriss has a relatively simple notebook system you may find useful.
  • Let your research question evolve. Depending on what information you find or don’t find, or what you find interesting, your original research question may evolve slightly or substantially (or not at all). If the direction of your research points to a better final product, follow it.
  • Set small intermediate deadlines and stick to them. If you only see the late March deadline for your finished thesis, it’s easy to keep putting it off in favor of short-term assignments (I made this mistake – don’t do it). Your professor will likely require you to turn in a draft or installment before then, but you should set your own quantifiable milestones in addition to those. If you write 500-600 words per week, you’ll be in a very good place.

A few closing thoughts

The STS thesis is much more interesting if you do it for yourself instead of for a grade or a deadline. Dedicate consistent time to it, and make it something you’ll be proud to display.

Good luck!