I wrote a thesis. I wrote it and bound it and turned it in. I am proud of my thesis and I think I produced a piece of research that is interesting and substantial. I worked very hard on it over many months, but always at a slower rate than I was comfortable with. During most of the time that I was working, I was unhappy. As the deadline approached, I was also unhappy when I was alone. I was never unable to stay focused in class and I was never unable to have fun with other people, but it became increasingly difficult to have fun by myself. I wanted to read books for pleasure, to walk around campus without a clock or a destination, to browse the Magic: The Gathering online database. I did all of those things and I enjoyed them. Immediately after doing those things, I felt wracked with guilt. I went to sleep every night disappointed in my daily output. I woke up terrified that I would underperform, and I did. My aspirations were impossible to satisfy.
Many Princeton students believe in a collective myth of thesis exceptionalism. The myth asserts that the successful completion of a thesis requires a student spend all of his or her waking hours working on his or her thesis. It is true that the thesis is unlike other papers. Students have free choice in choosing their topic, have almost a full academic year to write it, enjoy regular advisory meetings about their progress, and earn a grade with more weight in their GPA than any other single project. But it is not true that completing a thesis requires that one spend all of one’s waking hours working on it. Spending all of one’s waking hours working on a thesis is physically impossible.
This is obvious. The myth of thesis exceptionalism survives because it is continuously reinforced by large numbers of people. Many underclassmen observe seniors living the horrible lifestyle required by the myth and come to believe that that is the only way one can live while writing a thesis. Princeton officially recommends seniors take fewer classes senior year to free up time for their theses as if it were impossible to manage four balanced courses alongside a thesis. Leadership positions typically last the duration of a calendar year rather than an academic year so that outgoing leaders who are seniors have their final semester free of all responsibilities except their theses. After turning in their theses, many seniors glorify the joy and freedom of “ptl,” or “post-thesis life.” But the tribulations of “thesis life” are less related to the writing of a thesis than to the belief in and commitment to the myth.
I don’t mean to assert that I was given too much time to write my thesis, or that I could have done as good of a job on my thesis had I not employed my waking hours in the way that I did. The thesis is indeed exceptional and requires the serious investment of time and energy. But the goal of completing a thesis is distinct from the goal of spending all of one’s waking hours working on one’s thesis, and I think this is worth acknowledging. The conflation of these goals or the replacement of the former with the latter makes achieving success impossible. One cannot succeed in spending all of one’s waking hours working on a thesis, and therefore each day devoted to that goal necessarily results in failure. I closed every night of the final two weeks before my deadline feeling like a failure. The thesis I produced was an incidental consequence of the task I set out to fulfill.