Thesis Advising

Most students find their thesis supervisors during the spring term of their junior year.  The supervisor works with them to develop their topic and question, and to determine a schedule for summer research.  

Before you begin your search for a supervisor, take some time to read through pages 13-17 of A Guide to Writing a Senior Thesis in Social Studies, where you'll find tips on approaching potential supervisors, choosing the best supervisor for you, and what to do if you encounter problems in your search. Our Thesis Supervisor Database allows you to search for supervisors by topic and by region, and is a good place to start if you don't yet have someone in mind. Once you've found a supervisor, you'll need to complete the Thesis Supervisor Form, due this year on April 18th. (For the full calendar of deadlines, click here for 2013-14 and here for 2014-15.)

We have found that advising relationships work best when clear expectations have been set at the beginning, so juniors in Social Studies are asked to discuss the following topics with potential supervisors:

1. How frequently will you meet, and for how long? 

Typically, students meet with their supervisor every week or every other week, for between 30 minutes and one hour.  Meetings may be more frequent during the first semester, when the student is developing the project and conducting research, than in the second semester, when the student is writing and meetings revolve around the review of draft chapters.

2. What will the student do in advance of each meeting? 

Some supervisors ask their students to turn in something (ranging from an emailed progress report to a draft chapter) by an agreed upon time in advance of each meeting.  In turn, students expect that the supervisor will have read his or her work and be prepared to discuss it.

3. What expectations will you set for the summer? 

Some students, particularly those studying international topics, spend a great deal of time over the summer conducting research. Others review the secondary literature on their topic and fine-tune their question, preparing to do their primary research in the fall.  Supervisors and their students should talk about what the student is expected to accomplish over the summer, and should set a schedule for discussing the thesis, either in person or via phone and email. 

4. What expectations will you set about chapter and draft deadlines? 

Some supervisors ask their students to turn in written work by a specific time (24-72 hours before a meeting) and specify whether drafts should be submitted as hard-copy or emailed.  Many supervisors set dates after which they will not read new material (typically 3 days-1 week before the thesis is due).

5. How many drafts will the supervisor read? 

Many supervisors read a draft of each chapter, then a draft of the entire thesis, and then selected chapters as needed just before the thesis is due.  Some supervisors read more or less than this.  Supervisors and students should also discuss whether a supervisor is willing to receive rough and unpolished drafts, or whether a student is expected to turn in a draft that has already been proof-read.

6. What kind of support will the supervisor provide to the student? 

Supervisors can provide three kinds of support: (1) substantive support (an understanding of the substantive topic of the thesis and advice about books to read, other experts to talk to, contacts in the field) (2)  methodological and organizational support (knowledge of the method(s) being used, assistance with interpreting interviews, coding surveys, etc; knowledge about what a thesis looks like and advice about organizing research and pacing)  (3) emotional support (encouragement, advice and support with issues like procrastination and writer’s block).  Students and supervisors should discuss the kind of support the supervisor can provide, as it is uncommon for a supervisor to be able to provide all three kinds of support. 

7. How will a student get support that cannot be provided by the supervisor?

Supervisors and students should discuss who else at Harvard can provide a student with knowledge of a topic, methodological support, and emotional support.  Sources may include other faculty members, tutors in Social Studies, house tutors, and a student’s friends and classmates.  Social Studies students can sign up for a thesis writer’s tutorial, in which they become part of a group of thesis writers led by an experienced tutor in Social Studies.  The group meets every other week for 1 ½ hours; students discuss the research and writing process and exchange chapter drafts.

8. How accessible will the supervisor be to the student? 

Some supervisors are comfortable exchanging emails and phone calls between meetings; others are not.  A student and supervisor should discuss how frequently they expect to be in contact, and how each should reach each other in an emergency.