Writing an undergraduate thesis is one of the best ways to spice up an undergraduate university education and make yourself more appealing to potential employers and/or graduate school admissions boards, but it entails a massive amount of effort and some serious goal-setting and punk-rock chops to pull off. I've been working on my own thesis for about a year, and overall, I'd say it's been an invaluable experience in getting my feet wet in the waters of academia, as well as an exercise in time management and stepping outside of what I find comfortable.
I only know about writing an undergrad thesis from a social sciences perspective (I'm in anthropology); natural sciences and humanities majors may find their experience to be entirely different and it may be more or less valuable to them.
Advantages of doing an undergraduate thesis:
- it looks amazing on a graduate school application. In fact, for some fields and high-end programs, it's damn near imperative that you have some sort of publication credit or research experience before applying. This is especially true for the research-oriented natural sciences (biology, chemistry, etc), where there may be hundreds of applicants to only a few dozen positions. A kick-ass undergraduate thesis might land you a research assistantship and funding. A mediocre thesis (like mine is turning out to be) is still an advantage when applying, because it shows you're at least willing to put forth an above-average amount of effort in your work and can think independently, which is the whole point of grad school.
- depending on what sort of work you're looking for, it also looks good on a resume. If you're a humanities major and wish to break into certain career fields, like advertising and marketing, an undergraduate thesis on these topics is at least worth the effort, especially if you do it on a relevant topic (like consumer preferences in your local area).
- you'll build relationships with your faculty (and not only your thesis advisor). This is invaluable towards getting a decent recommendation letter or two, which pretty much every graduate program holds as one of the chief application requirements. Professors you work with will see that you have the potential to be a successful grad student, and will say as much in their recommendation letters. Professors you work closely with will also see your personal qualities, like the ability to juggle coursework, employment and all the hassle that goes hand-in-hand with research. Get to know your faculty and talk with them about their research before choosing an advisor! They have office hours for a reason, and most professors are more than happy to talk about their work, especially to promising undergrads.
- you'll see if you really want to do research for a living. Many applicants to graduate programs don't really understand just what research is, and are unduly apprehensive when they realize that even a master's degree usually has some sort of thesis requirement. It's not that bad, and if you write a thesis when you're an undergraduate, you'll be that much better-prepared. You may even want to expand upon your undergraduate work when you set out to write your master's thesis or doctoral dissertation.
- you'll find research interests, something vital if you're looking to get into a social sciences or natural sciences program. Most graduate programs strongly recommend that you define your research interests and faculty you'd like to work with before applying. Some even require it, and will reject applications that show a lack of direction or focus. My department does this, especially since we've had 180 applicants last year for about 30 positions. Hit the ground running.
- you'll have something to present at conferences. If you're in the sciences (social or natural), you probably will be invited to at least one professional conference when you're knee-deep in your thesis work. Do it! It'll give you a chance to network and it'll give you something to brag about to your shiftless friends. It also gives you an excuse to travel, and if you can get your university to fund or reimburse you for your expenses, you can do it for cheap. Doesn't hurt to ask.
Disadvantages of writing an undergraduate thesis:
- it's a hell of a lot of time and effort. Many people in my program started writing a thesis, but had to drop out simply because they didn't have enough time to devote to it. They worked full-time, or had families, or other obligations. But don't let that discourage you! One of my fellow undergrads got pregnant while writing her thesis, but continued on and finished it. Several of them in my program already had families. I worked full-time while doing my research. It'll be just that much more difficult, but when you finish it, you'll feel that much more accomplished, and it'll show on your graduate application. You'll spend many an all-nighter trying to finish the damn thing, and your social and personal life will probably suffer. Figure out your priorites in advance, and be mercilessly realistic about your ability to sustain a requisite level of motivation for the length of time it takes to finish your research and writing.
- it won't matter in the grand scheme of things. Your thesis topic might sound brilliant at first, but let me tell you, when you compare it to the work other people in your program may be doing, you'll start to think your thesis is just so much bullshit. Doing an undergrad thesis is akin to a five-year old with a coloring book: just try to color within the lines and don't worry about it sparking the next paradigm shift in your discipline (because it probably won't). Most of your faculty have probably done an undergrad thesis, but you won't see it in their list of publications for a reason: it just wasn't that impressive. Make it a learning experience, and don't expect to coast on it in grad school, because the work you'll be doing there will overshadow anything you ever dreamed of doing in your undergrad years.
- funding is hard to secure. For those in the natural sciences, this is an especially thorny problem. You might be doing research that involves travel, or expensive equipment and procedures. Realistically, you should expect to pay some of it out of pocket, especially if your university doesn't have a well-developed program for undergrads writing theses. It doesn't get much better at the master's level; pretty much the only funded grad students in my field are those working on their PhD's.
Now, if you decide to actually go through with it and write an undergrad thesis, you'll have to do the following:
- if your university has an actual program for undergrad theses, apply early. In some fields, admittance to these programs is competitive. Make sure you find an advisor, too, which brings me to...
- ...finding a faculty advisor and a topic. Do this before applying. You will thank yourself later. Make sure your application is correct and fully filled-out. Spend a few weeks doing some serious reading on your topic and hammer out a decent proposal. Cite, cite, cite! Make sure your topic is something that'll hold your interest for at least a year; nothing sucks more than drudging your way through research on topics that you don't personally find interesting. The research will be tedious and time-consuming, and the red tape for getting research approval for certain topics (especially those dealing with human subjects) is a major pain in the ass. But it's not much better in grad school, so get used to it now and get your stuff done early.
- budget time for research and writing. You will have deadlines, and if your faculty advisor is really interested in seeing you succeed, he or she will bug you constantly about your work. Crack your own whip, and impress them.
- learn your library, and learn how to navigate the online databases available to you. Your thesis research will almost certainly demand a thorough literature review, which requires hours and hours and hours of reading. Become an expert in the available literature on it. Peer-reviewed articles are a must if you are dead-serious about your work; stay away from anything else, like popular books or documentaries. Notes taken during your coursework are an acceptable source, but you should really go to the instructor later on and expand upon them if you wish to cite them in your thesis. Cite that, too; most citation styles have some sort of template for 'personal communication'.
- back up your data! I keep my files on a dedicated USB drive and back them up whenever I do anything with them. It's only twenty bucks for a decent thumb drive, and when your computer crashes and destroys three months' worth of hard labor, you'll want to shoot yourself. Prevent that from happening, and back everything up. Keep your data safe. Same goes for your notes and recorded materials. A lot of my work involves me doing interviews, and I usually record them and take notes. When I get home, I put my audio recorder in a fire-proof lock box along with my notes. You'll thank yourself later when you avert a major catastrophe.
- get to know your fellow students doing the same thing. Hold thesis-writing parties with your fellow honors students. Go out drinking with them. Smoke a bowl with them, if you're into that sort of thing. They will be an invaluable source of support and encouragement, and will provide appropriate social pressure to keep you going through those dark, lonely nights in the library. They are just as motivated, but just as stressed as you are, and the friendships you form will last lifetimes, especially when everyone's off making their careers. No one should go it alone.
- budget time for yourself to keep from getting burnt-out. Take a few days off once in a while, but not so many that you wind up procrastinating. Ideas may come to you when you least expect it. Keep a notebook with you at all times, in case you think of some brilliant theory to apply to your research and can't get to a computer. There's a whole big world outside the lab and library, and you live in it, so spend some time away from your thesis to clear your head and keep yourself from becoming a burnt-out and embittered egghead.
- learn to cite, cite, cite. Academics are anal about citation for a reason. Give credit where it's due, and learn your field's accepted citation format. Every fact you drag out should be cited into oblivion, but leave room for your own thoughts. Remember, all your most brilliant ideas have probably already occurred to someone smarter than you, but don't let that limit you to becoming a mere regurgitator of facts. Come up with your own theories about why things seem to be the way they are, and compare them to other people's ideas. You'll have to do this in a research-oriented grad program anyways, so why not get started now?
- learn how to speak in public without shitting your pants. You will probably want to present your work at some point. Learn how to explain it concisely and accurately. Work on an abstract, and pare that down even more, in case you're at a party and someone asks you about what you're doing. Believe me, it'll save you a lot of hemming and hawing, and make you that much sexier to your peers.
- be flexible and adaptable, and don't be discouraged by setbacks. Because there will be setbacks. You might have to redo your research design when you find some bit of data that completely contradicts what you set out to do. If you're the sort of person who's their own worst critic, you might feel the need to completely revamp the whole thing mid-stream. Fight this tendency, but don't allow yourself to become careless and sloppy. Research may not go as planned. Lab equipment might break down. Participants may flake out. You may run into trouble getting approval. Nope, strike that: you will run into trouble at some point. Be like the reed, and bend in the breeze.