Out of the 34 classes that I have taken at Penn, it may be surprising that my favorite course was actually not what you might think of as a course in the traditional sense. I started my independent study during the spring semester of my junior year. I went into the experience with hundreds of ideas and interests and wanted my thesis to incorporate all of them. From history and sociology to health and nutrition, my ideas spanned many different disciplines, and I was excited to bring them all together to do research on a topic that I was passionate about. However, narrowing down all of my ideas to a specific topic that would be the focus of my thesis, would prove to be more difficult than I initially thought.
Throughout the semester I spent most of my time tirelessly searching for a topic that interested me. I started out by doing an extensive amount of research on topics that were innovative in my major. Over time, I became familiar with themes and concepts in the field. Nutrition labeling became a subject that piqued my interest, as it combined by passion for nutrition and health with key themes in my major. After a discussion with my advisor, I was able to establish an initial research question around nutrition labels and a proposal for the work that I would do in the coming semesters.
While some students spent their summer enjoying the sun, I spent mine swimming through academic journals and primary sources, trying to gather enough information to contribute to the longest paper that I have ever written in my college career. Going into this journey, I was nervous about what I had taken on. While I had plenty of experience writing papers for previous courses that I had taken, this would be different because I would be designing the entire project for myself. Despite this apprehension, I was also very eager to get started on a project that wouldn’t be limited by specific course readings or prompts.
The fall of my senior year is when I actually began to write my thesis. Unlike a normal class that has a set meeting time each week and a syllabus to plan out the semester, in an independent study you’re responsible for planning your own time and deadlines. As someone who thrives on structure, this was a daunting task for me! Holding myself accountable for the completion of this thesis with nothing but a final deadline was going to be a challenge. After speaking with my advisor, I was able to schedule monthly meetings with him in order to go over the progress that I had made thus far. In addition to these monthly meetings, I created my own schedule to serve as somewhat of a syllabus to keep me on track throughout the process. Creating these guidelines for myself enabled me to focus on my writing rather than spending time worrying if I would ever finish. But even with these precautions in place, writing an honors thesis was not easy for me; I faced plenty of frustration along the way.
One of my biggest obstacles was the actual writing process. Time and time again, I would find new information as I was writing that I wanted to somehow incorporate into my paper. However, I quickly learned that it is impossible to include everything, and at a certain point you just need to make sense of what you have. Another problem that I had was figuring out when to cite and when not to cite. Throughout the research stage, it became confusing which ideas were mine and which ideas were borrowed. My advisor was very willing to teach me the technical nuances of writing a research paper, which allowed me to not be afraid to ask for help and guidance even though it was my thesis.
Though the process of writing a thesis can be time-consuming, exasperating and even tiring at times, this process and the final product were very rewarding for me! I learned so much about what my interests and passions are and was able to explore them in a way that created a piece of work that contributed to the field of my major. I also immensely developed my writing skills through the multiple drafts that I worked on during the experience. If I could give one piece of advice for writing a thesis, it would be to narrow down your topic until it is focused on one specific question. This was the main thing that I would have done differently in the beginning in order to help me along the way. My project has provided me with an opportunity to discuss my research in interviews and develop an idea that I am truly interested in, and hopefully will continue to develop even after I graduate from Penn.