You’re an upper classman now and inching ever closer to graduation—yay! Many of you, no matter your major, have to complete a large final project. Sometimes it’s called a “capstone;” sometimes it’s called a “thesis” or “portfolio.” No matter what your program calls it, you most likely call it “scary.” Essentially, the purposes of these large final projects are to test the skills and knowledge you were expected to collect during your studies as well as demonstrate and celebrate your achievement as a student. All in all, the latter purpose is key to meditate on. If you have passed the necessary classes to make it to this point, then you are most likely more prepared to create this final project than you may believe. What it takes to “create” said final project also depends on your major and the requirements of your program, but be certain it will involve writing on some level, which is why I’m talking about it here.
We know that the keys to avoiding writer’s block and battling procrastination for any academic assignment are making a plan/schedule and starting early. One of my Writing Center colleagues Alexa Antill recently shared some great tips for tackling the writing process that are worth checking out! And they apply to this larger project as well.
I am currently in the trenches of writing my own thesis portfolio for the Masters of Art in English program here at Marshall. Fortunately, both the graduate and English departments have been helpful in reminding me about deadlines early. Whether you get such reminders from faculty or not, it’s always a good idea to inquire about important dates—again, early! In general, you should start formulating a plan for your project the semester before it will be due. You can think of that time as the pre-writing stage. Perhaps keep a journal specifically for thoughts and ideas regarding your project. It’s okay if you have absolutely no idea what you want to do your project on right away; that is the purpose of the journal. You may be sitting in a lecture one day and the professor brings up a certain theory or text or experiment that peaks your interest: that is something worth journaling about, because who knows, with a little more research, it may end up being a part of your final project.
Notice I say write down the stuff that you find interesting. It is probably an obvious point, but you are going to want to choose something that you are truly intrigued by or enthusiastic about given that you will be spending a lot of time engaging with the subject. This is another reason, you should be doing this pre-writing early. If you wait, you risk picking any ole’ topic out of the pressure to begin, which could result in a miserable experience.
Once your brainstorming has led you to a potential topic for your final project, then start your research. Usually, larger projects naturally require a larger amount research; therefore, it’s a good idea to create an ongoing annotated bibliography (Not sure what one of those are, exactly? Writing Center tutor Hailey Hughes has broken it down for you in this recent blog post). Because you are performing extensive research over a lengthy period of time, it is easy to lose track of sources and even forget what some of them were about in the first place—thank you, Christmas week of Netflix binge watching. An annotated bibliography will definitely help mitigate these troubles.
As you begin to understand the specifics regarding your topic on a deeper level, you may seek out some mentors for your project. In the MA of English program, we graduate students assemble a committee—usually consisting of three faculty members, with one serving as the chair (leader)—and it serves as a guiding and supporting body for the work we produce as a part of our final project. Even if your program does not require you to ask faculty members to monitor and guide your work (usually through reading and commenting on the writing you produce), it’s not a bad idea to seek out a mentor anyway. You’ll want to do this early, too, as a curtesy to the person’s schedule. You should try to ask the individual if they’d be interested at least the semester before you will be doing the actual writing/creating of the project (usually also the semester it is due). Finally, you will want to choose the faculty member based on their area of specialty. Many times we gravitate towards professors we just like in general, our favorites. However, if your project has to do with stem cell research, but your favorite professor’s background happens to be quantum computing, you may want to consider another faculty member. How can you find out which professors specialize in what? There are a number of resources for this information. Many departments have faculty web pages in which bios and educational backgrounds are detailed. Otherwise, traditional conversations with departmental members works well, too. Tell your favorite professor what you’re working with and ask if he or she knows anyone in the department that may be interested in working with you.
Finally, once you have your plan and some wise people to help guide your progress, you should pick some deadlines for yourself. These also depend on the nature of your program and the specific project you are doing, but you can generally figure out a way to break down your work into sections. For example, my thesis portfolio consists of a critical introduction, a scholarly paper, and a collection of creative essays. I could have chosen to work on all three at once, but I found it more approachable to knock out each part one at a time. I picked dates to distribute drafts to my committee members for each section and then a deadline for the complete project draft as well. Finally, I chose a defense date (this is a presentation event in which I will share the finished project and answer any questions posed by my committee or others who attend). In sticking with the theme of this post, I picked dates that fell much earlier than the ultimate deadline (as in the week before graduation). In fact I gave myself about a month to push things back if I need to. Having these early deadlines helps put a positive form of pressure on me, but it also gives me peace of mind to know I have a little bit extra time to play with in the case that the unexpected arises during my project process (e.g., illness, emergency, an extra busy week of work, etc.).
To recap the advice about approaching a final project I have given in this post, here is a list:
- Start early! (Usually the semester before the project is due, but even before is good, too)
- Keep a journal (jot down interesting ideas and topics—brainstorm regularly)
- Choose a subject you are truly and deeply interested in (you’re going to have to spend a lot of time with it!)
- Create an ongoing annotated bibliography to keep track of your research
- Enlist the guidance of faculty mentors (Ask individuals who have knowledge and experience in the specific subject you are pursuing)
- Set early deadlines for yourself, stick to a schedule, but allow some extra time for “push-back”
I hope you find these guidelines helpful and that they bolster your confidence as you approach this last big step that leads to donning cap and gown. And one last tip: visit the Writing Center! We tutors are eager and happy to help you write your way towards commencement!