Why Only One Senior Thesis?

My sister finished her capstone project for her degree in graphic design this spring. Before I jump into some thoughts that her work sparked, check out this short (two minutes) video about how she taught kids in Baltimore how to create signs — and why. The site for the project is here.

Baltimore Sign Project from Reed Ratynski on Vimeo.

I’m proud of my sister’s project because she put a whole lot of work into it. But the process got me thinking: why do we think in terms of creating just one capstone project or one senior thesis?

Sure, anyone who tries to do two projects of that size at one time may not survive to come out the other side. But we treat college (and perhaps graduate school) as the best opportunity for someone to dive into a giant project and put it on display for critique.

I’ve Had to Do More; Why Should I Suffer Alone?

I should provide some context. I did a massive paper to complete the graduation requirements for the International Baccalaureate program in high school. I created a new magazine from scratch in order to graduate from college. I participated in a massive group project where we essentially created a new product and a marketing plan to go with it to complete my master’s degree.

I like ridiculously massive projects. I routinely seek them out for myself. Publishing an ebook isn’t that much less work than some of these projects have been. So I’m biased in favor of looking for these sorts of opportunities. There’s also a certain element in my reasoning that I’ve had to do massive projects to mark the milestones in my life, so everyone else should, too.

But, even with that bias accounted for, it seems a bit ridiculous that most people only wind up doing one of these massive projects with the intention of showing it off.

Sticking a Flag in the Map

At least in theory, we’re always improving our skills. That’s the whole point of maintaining a portfolio and updating it regularly. We need to be able to show off our best work; it proves our value in our chosen fields.

But a senior thesis isn’t always our best work. Rather, it’s a project that forces us to reach for something we may not be quite ready for. It requires us to apply skills that we haven’t yet mastered, in a fairly flashy way. It comes with an expectation that we will publicly present this big piece of work and accept critiques on it. A senior project is as much a part of the learning process as it is proof that a student actually attended the necessary classes to earn a degree.

For those of us committed to being life-long learners, not routinely pulling out all the stops on a project in the vein of a senior thesis is illogical. Sure, we may apply new skills in little pieces and avoid the risk of public failure. But we don’t have a map of how our abilities progress — we don’t plant flags in our personal maps that say that we’ve conquered a whole new skill set.

Just the Right Amount of Stress

I’m not talking about doing an intensive project every year — I’ve just about lost my mind on every capstone project I’ve done, desperately working so that the damn thing is done and off my plate — and not even every other year. Something on the order of once every five years sounds about right to me.

The stress should stay, though: it’s a result of actually having something (like a grade) on the line. We make major breakthroughs and figure out entirely new approaches because failure is not an option. When a whole degree is on the line, almost everyone can produce. Academia may be on to something with the requirement that professors must ‘publish or perish.’

However, it’s pretty tough to find a situation where something big is on the line after you get out of school. Sure, you can keep going back for graduate degrees, but eventually you will run out of places to hang diplomas. Massive work projects can be stressful, but it’s rare that you find yourself pushed that far out of your comfort zone: projects might have short deadlines, but it’s rare that you’re given work that you haven’t already proved that you can accomplish.

That only leaves social expectations as a driving force for this sort of project. Social expectations got me through a bat mitzvah, including learning two Torah portions (quick translation: double the work most Jewish kids have to do). Well, social expectations and the promise of a big party. We all stress about what our friends think of us; why not direct that angst towards something useful, like proving once every five years that we are absolutely amazing?

Making Your Own Milestones

It would be nice to be able to tie the sort of big creative pushes to other milestones in our lives, but let’s be honest: having a kid or getting married are stressful enough markers all on their own.

Telling all of your friends that you’re committing to getting a big project done — something that scares you and excites you and stresses you out — is about as close as you can get. While that adds more stress to the process, it also adds a little bit of that ‘must succeed or else’ quality that we need in order to push through. Without that drive to make it through, without the consequence that (at least in our heads) our friends will laugh at our failures, it’s hard to tackle something big and scary.

If you’re willing to go all in, you may drag some of your friends along for the ride. Since misery loves company, I consider this a benefit. I’d love to see our society just generally expect us to do something cool every couple of years. It would help all of us get to those cool ideas that just seem a little too hard to pull off.