Know before you go: thesis research advice

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By Nick DAngelo

We left Union at 7 a.m. headed west towards Ithaca. When working with hundreds of documents, every minute of research counts and more often than not, you only have the time and funding for one shot. Gather what you can because you will not be going back. The Cornell collection of political papers for Congressman William Miller was my second archival experience and gave me a continued appreciation for the thesis process, as well as for archival research in general.

Thesis can be fun. Yes, it is a long, arduous process laden with a myriad of challenges and obstacles, but it is also the culmination of your academic career. Four years is nothing to shirk about and a scholarly pursuit should not be either. To those who live by the mantra, “The best thesis is a finished thesis,” I can only ask you to reconsider. I hope those of you who, like me, are coming temptingly close to finishing your thesis are proud of it. And I hope you believe you did all you could to make the work your best.

To those of you waiting to begin the process, or already agonizing about the uphill climb, be prepared and stay confident. Select a topic you will be passionate about and team up with an advisor you are comfortable with. Perhaps most importantly, start early and work consistently. It’s a piece of advice few take seriously, but you’ll be well served by it. Finally, take advantage of the many opportunities for grant funding.

Union has many resources for undergraduate research, including funding through the Undergraduate Research Grants. Take advantage of these. Moreover, starting the process early can help you to plan ahead once you start applying for grants. The ideal thesis is one that contributes something new to the scholarship of the chosen topic. That should be the goal of all students. One of the only ways to effectively contribute is to conduct the arduous task of primary research.

Whether you’re a major in the sciences, social sciences or humanities, familiarity with primary source research, unique regressions or original compositions and experiments is vitally important. Writing a thesis based solely on secondary sources is the equivalent of writing books on books, and while it may be an interesting and well-crafted argument, it is hardly original.

The research experience is very much the thesis experience. My own archival research has become one of the hallmarks of my Union education. Traveling to Phoenix, Ariz. to delve into the personal and political papers of Senator Barry Goldwater was like heading to Disneyworld for me (I hope you’re equally excited for the thesis work you’ll complete). I can only assume it is a thrill for any budding historian to hold hand written letters from presidents, governors and senators regarding both matters of national importance and those of personal subjects.

Your story is in the detail, and the details are buried within the primary documents. Using them to craft your narrative is fundamental — and challenging. The state of archives across the country are varied, and one never knows what to expect. Libraries must continuously deal with backlogged collections, attempting to organize and present the information to those who seek it.

My own research would not have been possible a decade ago. Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, a historian based in Arizona, noted that when she began her Goldwater research in 2004 much of the collection was left unorganized and closed to researchers. Arriving at Cornell last week, I realized the papers of an Upstate New York congressman from half a century ago were not in high demand.

Bill Miller’s boxes were not much more than piles of thousands of pieces of paper. While we can be grateful we have the original documentation at all, the maintenance of archives and libraries remains crucial to continuing scholarship in all disciplines.

The thesis process is your time to tell a story using the skills you’ve been mastering for four years. Do not waste it. For many of us, this will be the last project of its kind we ever complete, and I have to admit there’s a small bit of remorse in realizing that. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you,” wrote Maya Angelou. This is your chance. Craft the narrative, take pride in it and create something worthy of the experience.

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