Providing Support for a Solitary Pursuit

Author: Joanna Basile

Ann Power

Ideas and ambitions abound. What many undergraduates lack is the know-how to tackle—on their own and for the first time—an extended research project that culminates in a senior thesis.

“When anyone does independent research, much of it is a solitary experience, which for newcomers can be especially intimidating,” says Ann Marie Power, a specialist in the sociology of education, social psychology, and urban education.

This challenge is precisely what makes the senior thesis a great learning opportunity, says Power, who serves as the sociology department’s director of undergraduate studies.

“It is an opportunity for our students to pull together all the various strands of knowledge they have been developing, both their understanding of sociological theory and its application to contemporary social life and their technical skills in the areas of statistics and research methods.”

So to support students throughout this seminal experience, Power has developed a workshop that gives seniors the academic tools—and the personal support—they need to succeed.

Mastering the Process

Kelsey Conlon

Sociology major Kelsey Conlon is writing her thesis on healthcare in rural Guatemala, where she interviewed more than 100 indigenous women and doctors about their attitudes toward natural and western medicine.

“I was really interested in healthcare in other countries,” she says, "but there were no sociology classes available that focused on that particular issue. After talking with Dr. Power, I decided that it would be a great opportunity to create my own research project and take it upon myself to learn more about an issue that I was so interested in and passionate about.

“The way Dr. Power explained it made it seem very doable and, at the same time, a great way to push myself to do something not all undergraduates get to do,” she says.

To help students like Conlon, the inaugural course in the fall included faculty presentations on topics such as conducting sociological research, writing an effective review of the literature, and writing for sociological journals.

In the spring 2011 semester, Power and invited faculty speakers are also guiding workshop students through other critical steps in the process: getting funding for their research, preparing for conference presentations, and learning what editors look for when reviewing manuscripts for publication.

“Basically, I saw a need for something that managed the process across all thesis writers and helped both students and advisers to troubleshoot and stay on track,” Power says.

“For example,” she says, “students needed help in knowing how to handle challenges in data collection and management, in communicating with their advisers, in applying for funding, etc.”

Just as important, students also use the course as a forum to share their progress and advice.

Building a Community

“The class gives me support,” Conlon says. “It is good to be around other students doing the same thing, learning what works and what doesn’t work, and what the specific process is for completing the thesis. We all really learn from each other.”

Connecting students to one another in common, although individual, pursuits was one of Power’s goals in building the class in a workshop format.

“The students proved to be great resources to one another, sharing not only their work but also the increasing know-how they were gaining about the research process,” she says. “What one student might be just getting started with, another had already been through so hearing how each other solved similar challenges was a great benefit to all.”

Completing a senior thesis also builds the confidence students need to be independent thinkers, no matter what work they pursue after college. “My approach to teaching and mentoring is personal, individualized, developmental, and challenging,” Power says. “Good advising is not handholding or infantilizing. Good advising means knowing who your students are, discerning their needs, and leading them to the opportunities that will help them.”

Conlon says this approach has helped make her research experience a positive one, and she encourages other sociology students to take on the challenge of a senior thesis.

“I think it is really important,” Conlon says. “I am putting into practice what I learned throughout my studies in creating something I am both proud of and passionate about. This class gives the support needed and the positive reinforcement to make one feel as though a senior thesis is not an impossible task. … It has been a very rewarding experience.”

Originally published by Joanna Basile at on April 15, 2011.