What If Your Undergrad Thesis Mattered?

What If Your Undergrad Thesis Mattered?

By Sanjena Sathian

SourceWonyeop & Yeongdeok/Corbis


Because all those paper-writing hours in the library oughta amount to something — and here are a few cases in which they really did.

By Sanjena Sathian

It’s commencement season. Which means tear-jerking speeches filled with shareable inspiration and advice. But you know what’s more inspiring than any of those messages? Some proof, in an age of the rising irrelevance of the liberal arts, that the academic work you do as an undergrad might —  gasp  — actually matter. Not for the GPA on your resumé, but because you might have written something smart, valuable or maybe even impactful.

Hear that, Peter Thiel?

Don’t believe me? Ask some of the prodigious 20-somethings of the last few decades who turned their undergraduate work into something worth returning to. 

The policy wonk

Teach for America: Judge it or love it, you’ve gotta see how much sense it makes that the idea for Teach for America came from a 22-year-old. A passionate Princeton undergrad, Wendy Kopp handed in her 1989 paper proposing that young people spend two years of their lives teaching in underprivileged schools — only to be told she was “quite evidently deranged.” Maybe TFA’s critics would agree. But a tip of the hat either way to Kopp for turning the suggestion into an actual charter corps within a year. A quarter-century later, she’s gotten 28,000 young people on board. 

Not all policy brains make an impact that early, though. Take Henry Kissinger, whose 354-page thesis’s biggest impact was inspiring Harvard’s government department to institute page limits. 

Inducing professor envy

Mega memorial: Here’s one to beat — Maya Lin’s 1981 senior project in architecture as a Yale undergrad became one of the most visited sites in America: the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C. Lin saw a chance to take her project to the next level by entering a national contest to commemorate the war; she won, out of a pool of 1,421. One of those thousand-plus competitors she beat? Her own professor, who gave her a C (so says campus tour-guide lore) on the project. She submitted it to be regraded, received an A, and the prof cited “artistic differences.” 

The campus novelists

With young writers having a bit of a moment these days, there’s no better time to follow in the footsteps of some of these greats.

DFW: Around this time of year, everyone wants to talk about the experimental/post-modernist author David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, entitled This Is Water. But before he was the legendary author of Gen X’s Great American Novel, Infinite Jest, he was a weird almost-tennis-pro turned philosophy major at Amherst, spending most of his Friday nights at the library. Those nights birthed Wallace’s first novel, Broom of the System, which he published about a year after graduating in 1985, halfway through his time in grad school. It’s pretty sweet to have your undergrad creative work become a book. Even sweeter, for Wallace? That he’d been on the verge of getting kicked out of that MFA program for refusing to write linear, realist stuff — as he told Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky. But when you get a review this good in the Times  at age 24, your luck kinda realigns. 

JSF: It’s a good deal to get Joyce Carol Oates as a thesis advisor. It paid off for Jonathan Safran Foer, whose 2002 super-hit debut novel Everything Is Illuminated began as a 1999 Princeton thesis. Foer also wrote a philosophy thesis, which (self-admittedly) kind of sucked. Thanks to good advice, he weighed his strengths and weaknesses and turned to the creative project he’d been fiddling with since well before his senior year. (Despite the success of the project, Foer still tried out med school for a year before heeding the writerly call.) You heard it here first: Publish your thesis and you, too, can be quoted on the side of a Chipotle cup.

Honorable mentions: James Franco’s Palo Alto Stories came from his UCLA undergraduate days (not that we’re recommending it); Zadie Smith completed her first novel, White Teeth , while in her last year at Cambridge — and not even for academic credit.

The ghosts of politics past

But it turns out that often, your thesis matters the most if you run for public office — sometimes as much as that grass you didn’t pass on. Because what’s better spin-fodder than 50 to 100 odd pages of a 21-year-old pontificating on world politics?

The Obamas: Turns out you’re not even safe if you didn’t write a thesis — Obama didn’t, but that couldn’t stop reporters from trying to get one of his old profs to dig out a paper on nuclear disarmament. Michelle’s came up, though — mostly for the first-person candor with which she addressed the issue of being black and “on the periphery” during her time at Princeton in the ’80s.

Hillary Clinton, née Rodham: Here’s one that may reappear in 2016 — Clinton’s 1969 Wellesley thesis was about one of America’s original ultra-lefty, controversial community organizers, Saul Alinsky. Though then-Rodham actually came down against Alinsky’s radical tactics — and even turned down a job offer from him in favor of more buttoned-up law school — it was tempting stuff for the “vast right-wing conspiracy” in ’08.

Of course, done wrong, an undergrad thesis can just be utterly mockable academic nonsense. But dream big, kids. Your favorite paper could turn into a book, a memorial or a skeleton in your closet. That’s the American nerd’s dream.