when you decide not to do an honours thesis

If you’re a penultimate or final year arts or social sciences major, chances are people would probably have asked you, “So, what are you doing your thesis on?” And it does get a little embarrassing when you have to admit, “Oh, I’m not doing one.”


Perhaps I was overthinking it a little, or maybe I was entirely misinformed, but doing an honours thesis seemed to me at the time to constitute, in many ways, the final frontier of university life. It was such a popular option among geographers that I was (mis)led to believe it was practically an unofficial ‘requirement’ of sorts in order to graduate. So, as you probably guessed, and as much as I like to deny it, it did bother me for a quite a while that I decided not to do one.

From the first day I stepped into university, I had the expectation that I’d one day be like my very stressed out seniors, writing their 12,000-word thesis. While I found it incredibly daunting, I also looked forward to reviewing literature and thinking through my theoretical framework before getting out into the field to conduct interviews and/or ethnographic observation or whatever it was that my methodology might require. When the time came however, I just couldn’t.

I have, for that, excuse after excuse. I didn’t know how to develop my topic idea (which by the way was on mixed-race relations), I didn’t have a strong theoretical backing, I wasn’t on fantastic terms with my prof, I lost interest in the topic … I could go on and on. The point is, I felt like I just couldn’t do it, and so, after much contemplation, I decided to call it quits.

Hopefully, since I made the decision relatively early on in the data collection phase, my prof wasn’t too pissed.

I, on the other hand, was really disappointed at myself. ‘Three years of studying geography in a top institution, and what of it?’ I berated myself for quite a while after sending in my ‘I-give-up’ email to the geography department, questioning what the point to my university education was.

At the time, most of my closer friends were working on their thesis or final year project of sorts – we call it an Independent Study Module in NUS, which basically is a shorter version of a thesis (4,000 – 5,000 words) that’s supposedly written entirely from secondary research. So, that sort of cemented my impression of what a thesis was. I couldn’t help but compare myself with them, wondering where my drive and motivation ran off to. In many ways, I was (and sometimes still am) my own worst critic.

But then, after the summer holidays ended and I returned to school for my final year of study, I realised that I was hardly alone.

Of the perhaps 70 to 80 or so geography majors who took GE3240 Geographical Research: Developing Ideas, which is our honours thesis preparation module, only perhaps a third stuck by their decision to do a thesis. The rest of my peers took the same option as I did, to read three additional honours level modules instead. I was completely shocked.

I was also somewhat relieved – after having caught up with some of my friends, I learned that they dropped their thesis after going through a similar thought process as I did, and that for them, making the choice was just as hard.

On hindsight, I think it’s really stupid that I needed to again compare myself to others to feel better about my own decisions, but that aside, I realised how ridiculous I was being for feeling so down about not having done a thesis in the first place. It really does not matter.


My four years in university has taught me a great many things and exposed me to numerous new concepts and fields of study. I did also experience a lot of personal development and growth in the span of time, having gone through various personal challenges and been fortunate enough to take advantage of certain opportunities. I’ll probably talk more about these in a future blog post, but my point for now is that I’ve come to realise that there are essentially very, very few merits to being a paper chaser, and that its much more important to actually value receiving an education.

Plus, from a more practical standpoint, as an arts or social sciences graduate, not landing a thesis doesn’t mean you’ll wind with any worse a job than your peers! In fact, many of my friends who decided to graduate without honours are right now holding some really competitive positions.

It’s normal to be disappointed when you don’t always live up to your expectations or when you feel like you can’t quite fare up against your peers. But it’s also important to always remember that you’ve also got a whole lot going for you, and that you’re blessed in more ways than one.

If anything, this whole disappointed-about-not-doing-a-thesis-thing reminded me how important it is to ignore misguided, misinformed, unrealistic and ridiculous expectations and focus on what really matters. Never again will I let my inner demons stop me from being my own cheerleader!

happy rabbits to cheer myself up :)
some happy machiko rabbits I drew to cheer myself up 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s