Alex Taylor, Contributing Writer
For many seniors, the beginning of the end is here. The time of senior theses, research projects and comprehensive exams is near, nearer for some students than others. While several departments do not begin their final senior projects until the spring, many students are already hard at work.
Senior biology major Anna Heimes has already begun working on her comprehensive exam; while many biology majors take their exams in the spring, Heimes decided to start hers before many of her peers.
Comprehensive exams for biology majors focus on research examination and presentation rather than standardized tests. Seniors find recently published articles from reputable scientific journals to examine so that they can more fully develop an understanding of the scientific methods employed, how results were obtained and necessary background information.
The final product is an oral presentation given to biology department faculty that usually takes 30-45 minutes and allows additional time for questions. Heimes appreciates the open-ended nature of the exam, which allows biology majors to specialize further in a field of their choice.
“My favorite part of the process is that we really have the opportunity to explore areas we are interested in,” Heimes said. “For instance, I’m pre-med and very interested in geriatrics, so I’m doing my presentation on a newly discovered/proposed treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. My other favorite thing is not having to stress about a huge test or recalling details from classes I took three years ago.”
Dr. Marcy Brown-Marsden, chairman of the biology department, noted the importance of internships to the biology department, both in the research and clinical fields. Besides allowing students to develop a sense of their own career paths, internships help students prepare for their comprehensive exams by allowing them to see research or clinical methodology in practice, and by allowing them to accumulate oral presentation skills.
After an internship, students give a presentation about their work to biology faculty as well as to freshmen biology majors in order to give freshmen an idea of what they can pursue as biology majors. While interning in a research capacity is not required for majors, the department highly recommends it for those pursuing graduate studies. Internships are recommended for those who plan on using their degree to pursue medical studies or to teach, so that they are sure about the career path they have chosen.
“We definitely say that if anybody wants to go to grad school, it’s crucial to get that kind of experience because you can’t know that you want to do it,” Brown-Marsden said. “If you thought you would want to go into education, we would want to have you have some experience in trying to teach because if you were working in a summer program teaching kids, you could say in an idealized way that I want to learn how to teach, but this actually puts it in a very practical, direct way.”
The history department is one of several departments that has its final project set for the fall. In the fall semester, senior history majors write their theses, which senior history major Peter Raia describes as the culmination and pinnacle of each history major’s experience in his own field of study. Like the major program, the thesis for the history department is open to being what the student chooses to make of it, which allows for a large range of latitude for the student to pursue his interests. Raia, whose thesis focuses on the intellectual impact of Francis Bacon in the Scientific Revolution on England’s economy through the Industrial Revolution, appreciates the ability to fully construct a thesis according to his own personal emphasis.
“This openness might make choosing a topic more difficult for those of us who are rather indecisive, but ultimately it forces you to choose a topic that has resonance for you individually,” Raia said. “More so than in any class, I’ve found that the thesis allows me to pursue what interests me most on a personal level, with a higher degree of depth than would otherwise be possible.”
The history department, unlike many other departments, holds its seminar class in the spring of the history major’s junior year. The seminar gives students a general understanding of historiography and historical methodology by introducing them to the various writing styles of great historians from different periods of time. The seminar also ensures that students interact with the entire history department faculty, in order to allow them to understand various perspectives on interpreting historical writing.
Dr. Charles Sullivan, chairman of the history department, said that the seminar serves a number of purposes, such as sensitizing students to what a historical question is, adding to historical writing read in the core curriculum and helping students prepare to write their theses.
“For example, the seminar typically reads Herodotus to complement Thucydides in the Core, Tacitus to complement Livy in the Core,” Sullivan said. “And finally it’s in the seminar setting that the history student first develops her or his topic, then writes a declaration of that topic and finally composes a six-page prospectus of the thesis that will be written the following fall.”
Theology majors seem to have the heaviest senior project of all, with a senior thesis, written comprehensive exams and oral comprehensive exams. However, senior theology major Liz McClernon sees the process as fairly straightforward and casual. McClernon, who plans to graduate early at the end of the current semester, wrote her thesis last semester, and plans to take her comprehensive exams this November. Theology comprehensive exams are usually offered only in the spring, but the theology department made an exception this year because there are several theology majors who plan to graduate at the end of the fall semester.
Theology majors often choose a term paper they wrote for an upper level class and expand on it for their thesis, choosing the professor from that class as their thesis advisor. However, McClernon disliked not having the opportunity to present her thesis publicly, as many other majors require.
“It shouldn’t be just about written communication. If it’s going to be the peak of your academic career, you should have the skills to communicate orally what you learned as well,” McClernon said. “I think if you’re going to spend that time writing, you should be able to publicly show your work.” McClernon acknowledged that the theology department’s oral examinations require students to demonstrate oral presentation skills, but would like more students to be aware of theses written by theology majors.
Dr. John Norris, former chairman of the theology department, said that by requiring oral and written comprehensive exams, the department assesses students’ “capacity to speak and write with clarity and intelligence.” While professors grade and assess written exams prior to the oral exams, students’ results ultimately comprise their performance on both the oral and written exams.
While senior projects vary substantially across departments, they are a common focus during the senior year, and often provide for students the opportunity to truly develop an area of focus to define their course of study at the university.