WRITING PAPERS is part and parcel of attending college. Depending on the course load, it can transcend any given assignment to become almost a state of being. Many are the nights where haggard looking students nursing a budding caffeine addiction can be found slumped in some remote corner of a cafe or library. However, for the undergraduate student, there is one paper in the face of which the rest can only pale in comparison: the senior thesis. But for all that its reputation precedes it, what is the experience of writing one actually like, and how can it benefit the students willing to undergo this Herculean task?
Senior Thesis in Korea
In Western universities, particularly those in the United States, the senior thesis is seen as something of a rite-of-passage. It is the last great obstacle before a transition into still more rigorous postgraduate studies or employment. This description is especially apt for the country’s various liberal arts colleges, many of which mandate the completion of a senior thesis as a graduation requirement across majors. Such approach is markedly different from universities in Korea where it is traditionally only required of students working towards engineering degrees. Yonsei University’s policies are in keeping with this broader trend; the College of Engineering has the most majors where a senior thesis is explicitly mandatory.
However, Yonsei does provide every student with the opportunity to develop an undergraduate thesis in their chosen field by packaging the experience as a semester-long elective, if not mandatory. The senior thesis has no real curriculum and functions more as an independent research project. Other than the occasional progress report a supervising professor might request from their students, undergraduates are left to their own devices in all respects from conducting a literature overview, to planning out the research, and ultimately structuring and writing the thesis. Unlike other courses, the senior thesis requires a disproportionately large amount of preparation. In an interview conducted by The Yonsei Annals, Lee Sang-Jin (1st Sem, Graduate Dept. of Electrical Engin.) said that it is “generally a good idea to start as soon as possible” if you have a direction for the research. Once a topic has been chosen, it is important to plan out a schedule and have the dedication to stick to it.
All this is to say that writing a senior thesis is no small task. It does not come as a huge surprise then that the senior thesis is on the decline in Korea as students continue to weigh the value of the experience against the level of commitment needed, which could be channeled towards other pursuits. Even engineering departments are gradually phasing out mandatory senior thesis programs. In top research and engineering institutes such as the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), many engineering students are no longer required to write senior thesis or have the choice to take capstone programs in lieu of a thesis. Ko Jung Hyoo (Prof., Pohang University of Science and Technology) told the Annals that the reasons behind this trend are “numerous and vary depending on individual universities’ policies,” but he noted that “undergraduate senior theses have always been problematic to a certain extent.” In an undergraduate setting, which traditionally emphasizes building a broad understanding of various disciplines, it is often the case that students are not yet prepared to conduct the kind of highly specialized research required for academic research papers. Furthermore, senior theses require a close relationship between the supervising professor and the student which is harder to maintain in universities with higher enrollment rates. Liberal arts colleges are the exception to this rule as their typically high faculty-to-student ratios allow professors to pay much closer attention to individual students which would help explain their staying power in those universities.
Why Senior Thesis?
Yonsei students provided their own perspectives on the senior thesis. Of the 10 juniors and seniors contacted by the Annals, 7 responded that they had no interest in writing a senior thesis with the prevailing opinion being that they did not think it would be a “meaningful” use of time when weighed against preparing to enter the job market. Others still believed it to be “bothersome,” and requiring an unnecessarily large amount of work. A few were unaware that the university even offered an elective perhaps signifying a need for improved communication about the thesis program. These sentiments were echoed by students in other universities as well. Kwon Shin Hyung (Jr., Dept of Econ., Seoul National Univ.), said that majority of the students in his department were preparing for professional license tests—such as Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) tests—and had not given much thought to the prospect of a senior thesis deeming it “hardly useful.”
However, the Underwood International College (UIC) in Yonsei has proven to be an exception to the demise of the senior thesis. For instance, its Integrated Sciences and Engineering Division (ISED), has made completing a senior thesis mandatory since 2017. Underwood Division (UD), though it has not made the senior thesis mandatory, has increased credit incentives for taking the senior thesis program. Since its inception, UIC has sought to provide a comprehensive liberal arts curriculum and approach to education, even in the face of recent academic trends. In an interview with the Annals, Professor Kelly Walsh (Prof., UIC, Chair of Common Curriculum) said that while he understands student’s anxiety regarding job employment “there are reasons to write a senior thesis, namely for the skill set that it offers [undergraduate] students” which he believes can be just as useful to students preparing to enter the workforce as it is for those pursuing postgraduate studies.
Students who have taken senior thesis have given similarly positive evaluations of their experience. Lee Ji-woo (Class of ‘16, UIC, Integrated Science & Engin. Div.) remarked that she was able to directly mention the research experience she gained through writing her senior thesis in the written application for her job. An anonymous student in UIC’s Graduate School of International Studies spoke of how first-hand experience in designing and conducting research helped in her graduate studies, having taught her greater “time-management skills and organizational skills necessary for long-term research.” She noted that these skills are also “clearly relevant to other career paths.”
Besides the experiences and skills that writing a senior thesis can impart, it also has the potential to be a personally meaningful project. Professor Walsh hopes that the senior thesis can be an opportunity to “foster intellectual curiosity” for undergraduates. Reflecting on his own undergraduate experience of visiting his professor every week to talk about Ulysses by James Joyce, he remarked that he hopes Yonsei students will take advantage of the opportunity and “embrace the intellectual fulfillment provided by a senior thesis.”
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Certainly, pressures surrounding successful employment may compel students to prioritize some pursuits over others, especially during a pivotal senior year. However, undergraduate studies can offer much more than just a few lines on a resume. It is worth reconsidering the senior thesis, to not miss out on a potentially valuable and potential once-in-a-lifetime experience to immerse yourself in a semester-long independent academic research project.