Doing a fourth year undergraduate thesis project has been one of the best experiences of my life. To say that it was life changing is not an exaggeration; it is the reason that I am a scientist today! I’ve always been interested in biology and during my second year of undergrad I heard that our department offered opportunities for students to do an independent research project in the lab of a faculty member in fourth year. The application process took place in third year and was very competitive. Many students wanted to do projects, but a limited number of project slots were available. The application consisted of making appointments with various faculty members to discuss the potential projects that they had available and in order to determine whether your research interests were well matched. You then listed your top three choices for placement and hoped that you would have a faculty member pick you as a thesis student. I was very naïve going into this process and had not laid much ground work in order to increase my chances of success. I was devastated when I didn’t get selected for a project.
Fortunately, my teaching assistant at the time for Plant Physiology thought that I showed promise and arranged an interview with her graduate thesis supervisor who hadn’t had any students apply to his lab. The meeting went well and I accepted the spot in his lab for my undergraduate research project. I spent 10 months designing and executing experiments, analyzing results, and presenting those results orally and in a final thesis document. It was an excellent experience overall, I really enjoyed myself, and it led to my decision to stay in science and obtain my M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees.
Many of the undergraduate students that I talk to are unsure about whether to do an undergraduate thesis or not. It’s often perceived as a mysterious experience and I do my best to outline why I believe that it’s a valuable opportunity for many students. Here are some of the things that I say to students as to why they should consider doing a fourth year thesis project:
1) You are taking an undergraduate biology/biochemistry/health sciences degree. Presumably you are doing this for a reason; whether it is because you like the subject, you might want to go to graduate school, you want to get admitted to dental, medical, or professional school, or maybe you really don’t know what you want to do with your life. Doing a thesis can help to clarify your future plans. Perhaps you will love doing a thesis project and will have found your calling by the time you finish your time in the lab. Maybe you will hate doing lab work. Either way, by doing a thesis in 8 months you will have more information available to you in order to make an informed decision about your future plans. If you perform well, your supervisor will be happy to write you reference letters and to serve as a mentor in order to help you succeed in your future goals.
2) A thesis teaches you a lot of transferrable skills that you can go on to use in other areas of your life in the future. Other schools and employers are looking for people who can manage and complete projects, manage their time, work independently and as part of a team, problem solve, present information to a variety of audiences, write, and see the bigger picture. Your thesis should provide you with practice in all of these skills and many more.
3) Doing a thesis is an opportunity to put into practice what you have learned during your undergraduate degree. It is also really cool to discover something for the first time! You will also meet some interesting people in the lab and through the course of doing your project. It is amazing to contribute to the creation of knowledge!
4) You may have opportunities for travel by attending conferences in order to present your work. You might collect information through networking at these events that will help you to make choices in the future about your life and career.
These are the first few advantages of doing an undergraduate thesis project that come to mind. If you are a scientist who supervises undergraduate researchers, what other positives do you use to encourage students to take advantage of this opportunity?