You’ve got your thesis topic, and you’ve found a faculty mentor. Now the real work begins – and the most critical component is not reading dusty tomes, running experiments in the lab or digging up the latest articles in Lexis Nexis.
Your most important task is to build a good working relationship with your faculty mentor.
Your professor’s support will help you tackle and finish that thesis, but more importantly, she or he can help launch you into academe, write a letter that gets you into a competitive professional school, or recommend you for that critical first job after you walk across the commencement stage.
Here’s how you can make a strong connection that persists, post-degree:
1. Research your mentor. It’s probable that you’ve taken a class with him or her, but if you haven’t, sign up for one now. “You need to establish a relationship in the classroom before you embark on the thesis,” said Honors College Dean Lynda Coon. “Many programs require a student to take a class with a professor before asking him or her to oversee thesis work.” Bone up on your professor’s latest research, especially any that relates to your thesis topic.
2. Start early. We have it on good authority that it’s tough to accurately estimate the time it will take to complete complex tasks (N.B., Hofstadter’s Law, which states that it always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law). Researching and writing an honors thesis certainly qualifies as a substantial, multi-step endeavor; there may be setbacks in the lab, or an idea that doesn’t pan out. You’ll have to narrow your topic, and oh yeah, if you’re launching a survey, you have to get permission from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) first, which can take some serious time to process. Build in some extra time to avoid a smash up of deadlines and stress right before your parents roll into town for Commencement festivities.
3. Request regular meetings … and don’t miss them! Meeting regularly will keep you on track and keep you on your professor’s radar. The frequency and nature of this meeting will vary across disciplines: a chemical engineering professor may meet weekly with a team of graduate and undergraduate students in her lab, while a history professor might want a monthly one-on-one. Yes, you can (and should) skip the meeting if you’re running a fever or your mom’s in the ICU, but let your professor know in advance that you won’t be there. Otherwise: Be there, and be on time. Casually cancelling meetings or dropping by 20 minutes late is disrespectful.
4. Bring a notebook and pen. “Students should take meeting notes – I require it,” said Noah Billig, director of the honors program in Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design. “Organizationally, it’s helpful, and the notes create a running dialog that you can share with your thesis committee.”
5. Don’t hide from your mentor (You can’t. They will find you!) “Three professors contacted me this past week because their students are hiding from them,” said Fulbright Honors Director Kirstin Erickson. “Don’t be afraid to face a problem. You’ll receive help if you ask.”
6. But what if the problem is your professor? It happens. Professors are people too. They’re smart people, to be sure, but they’re busy, and fevers and hospital-bound family members happen to them too. If your mentor is missing meetings, ignoring emails, or derailing the thesis process in some other way, she or he may be dealing with professional or personal issues that impact job performance – and you. If you experience problems with your faculty mentor, make an appointment with the honors program director in your college. Your director can lend a sympathetic ear and give you solid advice to help you move forward.