So You Want to Write a Thesis?

Post by: Natalie Solis, Current MTS Student, DivEx Alum, HDS Office of Admissions Graduate Assistant  

Activist Installation against Femicides, across the street from the Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City. Photo by Natalie Solis.  

Coming to HDS, I knew that I wanted to write a master’s thesis as part of my MTS program even though it is optional and not required for MTS students, unlike the MDiv program. Since I enjoyed conducting independent research projects in college and will be applying to PhD programs in the fall, I decided that developing an extensive independent research project such as a master’s thesis would be a great opportunity to refine my research skills and prepare for a PhD.

My master’s thesis builds upon previous research experiences. For my undergraduate senior thesis, I drew upon Chicana feminist theories, particularly Gloria Anzaldua’s “spiritual activism,” spiritualities for social justice. I researched how Latinxs in Los Angeles engaged spiritual activism through art and aesthetics, which I continue to study during my time at HDS. 

Float at the Guadalupe Procession protesting deportations in East Los Angeles, California. Photo by Natalie Solis.

Past opportunities to conduct research in my hometown of Los Angeles and abroad (for example, when I studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for one semester in undergrad), motivated me to pursue a comparative, multi-site project. Expanding my research locations enabled me to develop not only broader perspectives, but also to note areas of interconnection and disjunction among cities. I already knew that Los Angeles was going to be one of the cities I would conduct research in, and I wanted to choose an urban Latin American city in dialogue with LA. While visiting Mexico City this past January, I decided that my second research location would be CDMX. I learned about the significant contemporary artistic movement between the two cities, especially among Chicanx and Mexican artists going back-and-forth between the United States and Mexico as means of transgressing the U.S.-Mexico border.  

In my first year at HDS, I have been exploring research avenues for my thesis via coursework and meeting with professors. A snapshot of my thesis explores the artistic and aesthetic interchange among contemporary Chicanx and Mexican artists in Los Angeles and Mexico City.  My main research question is: how are artists queering religion, specifically Catholicism, via decolonial artistic acts and in turn creating new spiritualities? Crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, these artists create not only new Chicanx/Mexican art, but also activist scenes centered on queer, feminist, and spiritual communities. Illustrating the interconnections between Los Angeles and Mexico City, I hope to highlight the importance of dialogue between the two cities by centering the work of artists creating alternative arts movements, with an emphasis on performance art and streetwear.

Float at the Guadalupe Procession protesting deportations in East Los Angeles, California. Photo by Natalie Solis.  

Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself while discerning whether you want to write a thesis and how to go about the process: 

Why should I write a thesis? Figuring out how writing a thesis will benefit you, whether as a writing sample for applying to doctoral programs or graduating with a long-form, publishable piece of writing, will assist you in determining the scope and length of a potential project. I decided to write a thesis as a targeted writing sample for doctoral programs. Showing the intersections between spiritualities, art, and Latinx/Latin American Studies will be crucial to my application.

How should I choose a thesis topic? Determining your location, time period, theoretical frameworks, methodology, and research question is crucial. While I came to HDS with some background information and research on my thesis topic, my coursework helped me develop further questions. A great way to test out your ideas is via final course papers. For example, taking courses such as Mayra Rivera’s “Latinx Theory: Being and Knowing,” Mark Jordan’s “Queer Theologies,” and David Carrasco’s “Moctezuma’s Mexico: Then and Now” helped me further develop my research questions.

Who will be your advisor? Find a professor who is knowledgeable about your research subject and cares about your work. Your thesis advisor does not have to be your academic advisor, but they can be. Working with a professor is crucial because they can provide you with feedback and assist you in the various thesis components, such as writing a letter of recommendation for funding. While you will have one official advisor, you can ask other professors, inside and outside of HDS, for any assistance who can serve as “unofficial advisors.” The more people in your research network, the better!

My academic advisor will also serve as my thesis advisor given his extensive research experience in Mexico City. I have also received guidance from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) here at Harvard, and reached out to faculty members outside of HDS, such as in the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard and mentors at USC, where I completed my undergraduate degree.

Danzante (Dancer) headpiece on the freeway in East Los Angeles, California. Photo by Natalie Solis.  

What is your time-frame? Decide whether there is a specific time when you would expect your thesis to be completed. Gauge how long it will take you to conduct your thesis, such as one semester to one whole academic year. I decided to have a one-year time-frame for writing the thesis because I will be conducting interviews and traveling prior to the writing process.

How will you go about writing your thesis? Determine how you would incorporate your thesis into your course schedule and academic load. I recommend taking a Reading and Research course with your thesis advisor. Preparing and writing a thesis on top of taking a normal course load is a lot of work, so finding ways to get course credit for your thesis is key. I will be writing my thesis via taking a Reading and Research course each semester during the upcoming academic year.

Will travel be involved? Verify if you would need to travel to conduct your research early on and plan when you would be able to travel. Additionally, seek out funding opportunities for your project. I applied and received funding through DRCLAS to travel to both Los Angeles and Mexico City this summer to conduct research.

(Note that before starting your research, you should check with the Harvard Committee on the Use Human Subjects (CUHS) about the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process especially if your research will involve human subjects. By contacting CUHS, they will be able to direct you on whether you will need to submit an IRB application and how to begin the IRB process.)

I hope that sharing my experiences with the thesis process is helpful and sheds light on ways that MTS students can conduct independent research during their time at HDS even though a thesis is not a required component of the MTS degree. A little planning goes a long way in the thesis process, and exploring your interests early is a great way to get a head start.

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