Autumn Miller is a new alumna with degrees in History and Politics & International Relations. She will be attending Regents University’s law school in the fall.


(From the editor, Dr. Robin Lauermann: This post is a stand-alone entry in the From the Field student blog series.  Autumn shares insights about the experience writing her department honors project for the Politics and International Relations major, for which I served as faculty advisor.  Once available, a link to the thesis on Messiah’s institutional repository MOSAIC, will be included here.)

Imagine it is your senior year at Messiah University and you are enjoying all of your “lasts”. You spend the evening with a few roommates watching your favorite show Outlander when you really should be thinking of a topic for your Politics Seminar research paper. The thought suddenly hits you as you watch the Jacobites line up on the screen to enter into, for many, their last battle. After studying both politics and history, there is a sense not everything appears as it truly does. The cogs in your brain start to turn and realize you actually have a good research idea. As they say: From this point, the rest is history!

What I could not imagine when I submitted the project proposal was for a small research project to turn into my department honors thesis, in one semester no less. Typically, a student who desires to complete a senior thesis will start to consider the step in early fall of their junior year. Once decided upon, the student may sit down with a potential faculty sponsor to discuss next steps, which include writing a formal project proposal that needs to be sent to the department head and dean of the school in which the degree is housed. I would be lying if I said this part of the project is not stressful, especially if the school decides to change how to go about submitting proposals. There were many times during this period where I considered not even partaking in the project if this would be the trend of headaches caused throughout the semester. An added obstacle both myself and my faculty sponsor had, was convincing the administration to approve not only expanding a paper I had written a semester before but also complete said project in only a semester. During this time I leaned heavily on the Lord and my community for guidance. Ultimately, I was advised that an honors-level research paper would be an asset when I started law school the coming fall. From the point of advice, I sat down and committed to the project.

One of the most important pieces of advice I could ever give to a student thinking of doing a department honors piece is to choose the faculty sponsor carefully. Like students, faculty have a wide array of specialties, quirks, availability, and personalities. My options were limited in the politics department due to only having three professors. I wanted to choose a professor who not only valued the same time management styles as myself but was also easy to access; personality complementary to my own; knew the field of quasi-comparative and quasi-case study my research would take. The other problem was to make sure the desired faculty member did not have too many students already doing research projects. Generally, a faculty member will have no more than two or three doing a research project underneath them due mainly to prior commitments, course loads, etc. If you are strongly considering a faculty member and the amount of spaces available for students is almost filled, I would recommend a sit down with the professor to show interest as a way to ‘reserve’ said spot. Personally, I knew I needed a faculty member who worked well with deadlines to keep me on track as well as someone who could easily curb me from branching out too far in the topic.

Once all of the paperwork and finding a faculty member is settled, the student may move on to the research phase. I was lucky to use a majority of the same primary and case study sources from the first half of the project, so I was not starting from scratch. It is important to perform a little bit of research every day so as to not overwhelm yourself when it is closer to the writing portion- using a project management template helped me plan it all out. Taking time off during the long research hours you may have planned is also important, as to give your eyes and brain a rest. I often spoke about my research with my history professors who closely studied the field of 18th Century Scotland and England. Dr. Huffman was an incredible resource during my entire project, but especially during the research phase as he directed me to primary and secondary sources I would have missed just searching through the library. During the process, I highly recommend using an essay map and annotated bibliography to collect thoughts, quotes, and ideas together. Spending the extra time on the map and bibliography makes the writing process faster, as you already have a majority of your content. Essay maps are also extremely helpful when you need to go back and find a quote rather than going through the source. The research phase is never truly over as new information comes out every day, but there will definitely be a point when in your gut you know the writing can begin.

The writing process is when the pen finally hits the paper. Often this part of the paper is when the breakdowns, burnouts, and writers’ block comes into play. As someone who experienced all three, it is extremely important to have a good sense of community. Like many bestsellers, a community was behind the author who wrote the book. Whether the community is your friends, professors, family members, or classmates they are the rock to rely on during one of the toughest parts of your academic career. When the going gets tough, they are also the ones to encourage you to take a few moments to yourself and have fun, it is your senior year after all. Different departments may have different page minimums, but do not think of your paper in that way or you will never get it done. Think of the writing phase as writing everything you know on the topic; editing is saved for the proofreading phase.

The last phase of the process can either be the most painful or helpful. Proofreading is probably not many people’s idea of a good time. However, to ready the paper for public dissemination, it needs to go through a few rounds of help. Between you and the faculty member, you can decide how many rounds to plan out for proofreading. I submitted sections throughout the writing process, so by the time I had a complete product, there were fewer things to correct. While a paper will never be one hundred percent perfect, you still do want a paper that shows everything you learned academically in college, including new grammar skills.

Finally! You have made it to the end of the whole project and graduation is just around the corner. Relatively early on, you can decide to present your findings. I highly recommend you do so as it is fantastic practice for oral communication and your community would love to hear about the finished product. It is an opportunity to show the skills you may have developed throughout the project. If you are planning on going to law or graduate school, a presentation is a perfect opportunity to practice defending an argument or thesis. They also provide snacks!

Regardless, I hope you decide to take the same journey I did and complete a department honors research project. There is nothing more gratifying than looking at a fifty-three-page paper knowing I finished the project. The best feeling though is knowing those six-page bi-weekly papers feel like nothing now after spending a whole semester writing something nearly eight times larger. Looking back on my project, I am absolutely proud of how the paper shows the very best of everything I have learned in my three short years at Messiah.

Carpe Diem.


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