‘A Living, Breathing Thing’: Departments, Students Rethink Thesis Proposals Due to Coronavirus Disruption


As the coronavirus threatens to disrupt juniors’ preliminary thesis research this summer, departments are working to develop contingency plans and modify expectations for their concentrators’ capstone College projects.

Almost half of Harvard students undertake theses — independent, original research projects — over the course of their senior year. The College also uses performance on senior theses as a metric of mastery when assigning Latin honors.

Dominic M. Mao, assistant director for Undergraduate Studies for Chemical and Physical Biology and Molecular and Cellular Biology, wrote in an email that MCB and CPB theses require scientific research that is either wet lab-based, computational, or a combination of the two. Because much of this research typically occurs over the summer, University-wide cancellations have foiled students’ plans.

“Many of our students are facing the challenge of adjusting their planned projects because they will have much less time than they originally planned to collect their own experimental data,” he wrote.


The concentrations will also encourage students to communicate with their labs about online data sources that could be “productively mined,” including literature, public databases, and published datasets. CPB and MCB will host a town hall online with prospective thesis writers to discuss general contingency plans, followed by one-on-one meetings to discuss individual situations.

Thesis-related logistical difficulties will likely extend beyond the sciences, though. Humanities and social science concentrators also said the coronavirus pandemic has forced them to shift their plans.

Most undergraduates in the Art, Film, and Visual Studies department, for example, undertake creative theses that involve either filmmaking or studio art, according to director of undergraduate studies Matt Saunders ’97.

While on campus, concentrators use studio spaces, equipment, materials, and editing suites with all costs covered by the AFVS department. They can also solicit help from fellow students, who serve as cast and crew members.

Saunders said he believes the department will be able to accommodate most students on the studio art track by shipping necessary materials. This semester, Saunders said he successfully ordered and shipped roughly 70 basic painting kits to the students in his course. The AFVS department also sent cameras home with students who have slowly begun shipping them back to campus via FedEx.

The roughly half a dozen students producing film theses face additional obstacles since they now lack access to student crew members and actors on campus.

“We had some people who were still shooting this semester when the governor’s orders came in, and we had to reach out to them and reassert the idea that there couldn't be more than three people in the room at a time, and it definitely changed some projects,” Saunders said.

As the AFVS department reviews proposals, Saunders said the department will note if students proposed ambitious theses such as feature films with large casts or large welded steel sculptures and advise them on how to modify their projects.

Even for students who are conducting their research alone, global travel restrictions have hampered their ability to plan research projects.

George Soroka, the assistant director of undergraduate studies in the Government department, said many concentrators spend the summer before their senior year traveling to administer experiments, run surveys, and conduct interviews across the globe. But a University-wide moratorium on Harvard-sponsored travel has thwarted those plans.

“I wish we had some well laid out way forward for our students. But to be perfectly blunt, we're adapting to circumstances just like they are,” he said. “Having said that, the department is trying to make every effort to be proactive.”

Soroka said his department is working to free up funds so they will be available to students if travel becomes possible in the fall, or even over winter break. He added that the department would consider making the thesis deadline more flexible for students who are obliged to conduct research later than anticipated.

“One thing we always tell students is that the research you conduct for your thesis never ends up looking the way you think it will when you approach it. And that's a good thing because that means that research is a living, breathing thing,” he said.

Anya B. Bassett, director of undergraduate studies in the Social Studies department, wrote in an email that the University’s travel ban has precluded concentrators from doing some “in-person” thesis research, for which they typically “spread out across the world.”

She noted that the department is collaborating “one-on-one” with students whose plans have been thrown into disarray by the coronavirus crisis.

“We’ve been encouraging them to identify their core questions and helping them to re-think how they might be able to answer those questions in different ways,” she wrote.

One student who initially planned to conduct in-person interviews is now administering an online survey, Bassett wrote. Another who planned to conduct research in an international archive has shifted their focus to a local archive that has been partly digitized. Harvard research librarian Susan M. “Sue” Gilroy recently curated a digital “primary source field guide” for social studies concentrators as they embark on their thesis research.

Justin Tseng ’21, a joint concentrator in History and the Classics, said the coronavirus has disrupted his plans to visit archaeological sites for thesis research. Tseng added that though many requisite library resources are available digitally, the databases are “clunky to navigate.”

“I guess it's not thought of as much as thesis writers who are going to do it on science,” he said. “But without a lot of these print resources, it's really difficult to do research.”

McKynzie R. Romer ’21, a concentrator in Romance Studies, also said she expects conducting thesis research will be difficult without access to Harvard’s libraries.

“I'll have to find everything online, or order books myself,” she said. “Time constraints are different because I won't be able to find things as easily if they end up being less popular.”

Romer added that she was grateful for the small size of her concentration cohort, which ensured that she could talk to her advisor about adjusting her plans within just two weeks of vacating campus.

As departments guide students through these unprecedented challenges in completing their theses, Soroka said an ethos of “transparency” is essential.

“I know it's not always satisfying to have someone say, ‘We don't know,’” he said. “But we've at least committed to, ‘If we say we don't know, we say we'll try to find out as soon as we can.’”

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.