Senior Thesis Guide 2019-20                                      
Women’s and Gender Studies

                                                                                                                                                                                        WHEN DO I START MY THESIS?

Although a thesis can be an eight-month project, begun in the fall of senior year and completed in the spring, many of the most successful theses come from students who begin serious background work in their junior year. The ideal path involves finding a topic and an advisor before the summer begins. If that is not how it turns out, however, don’t worry. You will have the time in your senior year to write a good thesis with guidance from both your advisor and the thesis tutorial leader.


If you aren’t sure where to begin, a good place is the WGS office, where you will find bound copies of WGS theses written in years past to peruse. Look through the titles, find a few that seemed either related to your area of interest, or of interest to you more generally, and take an afternoon to read them (you can read a entire thesis in not much more than an hour).

This will give you a sense of what a good thesis looks like. You will see how long they are (some are as short as 30 pages, others as long as 100 pages), what kinds of topics in your area of interest students have addressed before, or other topics in general that WGS scholars have written about. You will see what level of originality and sophistication we are looking for: not a professional article or a Ph.D dissertation, but a well-reasoned, careful analysis that tells us something about the world we didn’t know before.


You will need to enroll in the humanities pre-thesis tutorial in the fall (21.THT) and the Undergraduate Thesis in Humanities (21.THU) in the spring of your senior year.  These seminars are designed to give structure to the thesis process. They will provide you with deadlines to help manage a long process. They will give you a chance to get feedback from the thesis tutorial leader as you begin to both structure the material of your argument and start to write chapters.   This advice is a valuable second opinion to supplement the help you get from your main thesis advisor.

THT and THU are worth 6 and 12 units respectively, even though THU will not require regular meetings in the spring term.  For the Pre-thesis Tutorial, you will meet once a week as a group with the tutorial leader and follow a set of deadlines and drafts determined by the syllabus.  Expect to do most of your research early in the thesis-writing process!  Students will learn how to refine research skills using a variety of library databases and/or archives, depending on the topic. In THT, much of your focus will be on completing an initial review of literature pertinent to the thesis topic, and refining the research question. All thesis students must turn in an annotated bibliography and initial draft of 25 pages representing their work in progress to the tutorial leader and their advisor by the last day of reading period in the fall term (12/16/19). 

For the Thesis Tutorial in the spring (21.THU) you will be working mostly with you advisor on finalizing drafts and can rely on the tutorial leader as an extra source of guidance and critique.  At this stage your initial research will have been completed, so the focus of the semester will be primarily on writing and revision.  The extent to which you will meet with your advisor or consult with the thesis tutorial leader will largely be determined by you and your advisor to keep the thesis moving along until the due date at which timeit will be submitted to your committee for evaluation.


Finding a research question that is interesting to you, interesting to others in the fields you are working in, has not been answered already, and can feasibly be addressed in six months of active research is not an easy task. Many students find that this is one of the hardest parts of the process.

The first step is to recognize that this is perhaps the single most important stage of the thesis process. If you find a topic that sincerely interests you, the rest of the process will be enjoyable and probably less difficult than you think.  If you set out to spend six months working on something that only half catches your interest, it will likely be much less enjoyable.

It is natural to think that the time commitment to your thesis will grow gradually – you will work at a leisurely pace in the fall, step it up in December and January, and really pour in late spring before the thesis is due.  As hard as it is to do, you need to adopt a sense of urgency now.  Be prepared to spend several hours a day on your thesis, all along the way.  Procrastination kills theses and it comes in many forms. Try to start writing as soon as you can, even if what you’re writing doesn’t really have a solid form right away.  Early writing may take the form of annotations/notes on sources you plan to use, definition of terms, explanatory or summary paragraphs about the topic or debates in the field that impact your argument, or early drafts of your approach to answering the research question you have identified. Using ‘reading/research’ as a way to put off writing is one of the most common forms procrastination takes.  You should absolutely experiment with approaches to an argument many times before you and your tutorial leader/advisor arrive at the best framework and organizational structure for your paper.   Don’t get too attached to what you write at the beginning, either.  Think of writing down your ideas and experimenting with the structure and even the content of your argument as a regular exercise. Your final paper will be a lot less convoluted if you work out some of this before you set about writing your final draft.

Avoid the temptation to narrow your search too much too fast.  Well-trained MIT students tend to start with specific, well-formed research questions. Well-trained scholars in the humanities, however, also know that in a search process choosing the first option you see can have serious costs. The way to fond a good topic is to go through 2 or 5 or 10 not-so-good ones(and a few more that you thought were really great but turned out not to be for various reasons).

Ask yourself what broad subjects areas interest you the most: sexuality studies? gender and the environment? social justice? gender in film and/or literature? the history of science? The search at this point should be more specific than a subfield (“I’m interested in the environment” ) but less specific than a real research question (“How have environmental regulations in North Dakota impacted the formation of family units among Native Americans?”).

Once you have one or two broad areas, read. Not just literature, but newspapers, journals, documentary, and anything else you can get your hands on that seems relevant. You want to know what questions people who care about this subject think are important. You also want to know what kinds of evidence, arguments, and critical frameworks people have brought to bear on these questions before.  What kind of information do reporters writing about this draw on, what theoretical frames have scholars used to approach the topic, what fields did they come from and how has this affected the questions they asked/didn’t ask?

After a couple of weeks of this, you should be an expert.  Then, and only then, start brainstorming specific research questions. List lots of them. Talk bout them with your tutorial leader, friends, family members, and professors. If you can explain your topic to someone outside of the material you have surrounded yourself with, that’s a good sign. If they think it’s interesting, that’s even better.


As soon as you can articulate a handful of broad subject areas that interest you, you should talk with faculty members.  The goal should be to talk to as many as possible.  Don’t worry at this point about who will be the advisor.  Send emails (keep these short, save the details for talking in person) and make appointments. Faculty members are BUSY and often hard to pin down, but they all keep office hours and making an appointment guarantees an audience sooner rather than later.  MIT has one of the top ranked humanities faculty in the world and now that you are writing a 21H thesis, you should take full advantage of it. You don’t need to have taken their course. Faculty love talking about research and creative ideas, and talking with students is their job. You can browse potential advisors and their fields of expertise on our website here:

When meeting with faculty, you should be prepared to talk in detail about your areas of interest. If you can hand them a single page summarizing these interests, all the better -they may or may not read it, but it helps you to organize your thoughts and makes you look prepared.  Once again, at this point you needn’t propose specific research questions. You want to find out what parts of this topic they find interesting, what work has been done, and what directions they think you should go in next.

At the same time, you may be getting to know them. You will see who seems most interested in your topic and whom you connect with personally.  You should read over their CVs and a few of their recent papers before meeting with them to have a sense of their interests and why they might be a good fit for your thesis topics of interest. You should ask them questions about their own work – whether specific or just “what kinds of things are you working on these days?”  Faculty members always enjoy talking about their research.

By the end of September you should chose the one faculty member with whom you seem to connect the best and ask him or her to be your official advisor.  Professors rarely say no to students who they perceive to be serious and genuinely interested in a topic. But if you find that you are having trouble getting a faculty member to advise you, please feel free to contact Helen Lee, WGS Faculty Director. You will need to have this faculty member sign the Thesis Registration Form by the add/drop date fall term and this must be turned in to the WGS office (14E-316).


In the month leading up to your thesis deadline, your advisor will work with WGS to determine a two person committee to read and grade the thesis. Your thesis grade will reflect the average of the two grades. Each reader will prepare extended remarks about the thesis, which you will receive, but you will not receive the individual grades granted.  In the case that there is more than a full grade difference between the evaluations of your two readers, a third reader/grader will be determined and the final grade will reflect the average of all three.   Your advisor may or may not serve as a reader/grader (some feel they are too close to the project by the end to objectively evaluate it, others feel they understand it uniquely). In each case, it will be up to the advisor to decide their role in this regard, but WGS will determine the committee in conversation with the advisor.


Remember that your thesis will almost certainly not follow the path you expect. You may set out to answer one question, find that what interests you is a second one, abandon that for lack of sources, and then stumble into a third. This is what research and writing is about.

Most importantly, remember that we are all here to help you.  This includes faculty, your thesis tutorial leader, your thesis advisor/s, the WGS Director, Helen Lee, and your administrators in WGS (x3-8844) or If you have any questions or concerns, just ask someone.


First week of fall Term          

Attend initial meeting of the 21THT with tutorial leader Karl Surkan.  This will be arranged with you over email before Reg Day.

Early September                      

You should be finalizing a thesis topic and advisor.  Start assembling a bibliography or relevant sources.

Mid September                        

You should be formalizing your thesis question, reading the literature, and brainstorming specific approaches to the analysis of your topic.

October 4th                                

Deadline to turn in the Thesis Registration Form with your advisors signature to the WGS Office 14E-316.

Mid October                             

Work with the 21THT tutorial leader (Karl Surkan) as you start writing and forming an argument

December 15th                          

Turn in a 25 page paper to your tutorial leader and give a copy to your advisor. This may consist of the first chapters of the thesis, laying out the question/argument, describing others work and your own approach, and outlining the theory and critical frameworks you will use to make an argument

Late January                             

Work hard. Decide what lines of argument are most relevant to make in the overall work and organize how you will present them, organized into chapters

Late February                          

Revise everything you’ve written and try to tie that chapters together.  Continuity of argument and quality of exposition are important. Continue to flesh out the content of each chapter, getting lots of feedback.

Early April                                

Have a complete draft of thesis, on which you can get lots of feedback and have time to revise it

Late April                                  

Final Revisions. Prepare title page, etc.  (se thesis manual for formatting guidelines) Proofread every single word of thesis.

May 8th

Theses are due. Turn in one hardcopy and email a PDF to the WGS Office by 5:00pm.

Read past WGS theses here.