Opinion Student Life

Use Your Privilege: Five Social Inquiries From a Fellow Classmate

With less than 24 months to go, a first year Master's student shares his ideas and opinions on how one can deal with every grad student's final battle: the thesis dissertation.

by Jarrod Zenjiro Suda

“There are hundreds of unread thesis papers in the library. In most cases, the only people who will read your thesis will be you and your thesis advisor,” said our professor during the first lecture of Social Inquiry and Qualitative Methods.

I openly welcome this intent to humble us in reality. I also appreciate his hope in passing down the tools necessary to get more people to read your thesis than “just you and your advisor.”

But since week two, he has proceeded to bore me with verbose readings and flowery anglais.

Why not instead walk us through successful literature reviews of past alumni? Why not use the two hours of lecture time to conduct a randomized control trial on the actual class and teach interactively about controlling for bias? Why not have us record each other’s oral histories or help us craft our own open-ended surveys or form us into ‘market research’ focus groups?

We have less than 24 months to produce a powerful thesis dissertation. The following five ideas have forced me to take that mission seriously. 

1. Discipline Equals Freedom [1]

You are a member of the educated elite, and you should treat your level of influence with the respect that it deserves. About 7% of the global population has an undergraduate degree.[2, 3] In the United States, about 40% of those who attain a bachelor’s degree go on to the graduate level.[4] So if we model this behavior onto the undergraduate degree holders of the world, then we can conservatively estimate that just 2.8% of the global population obtains a postgraduate degree – some 215 million. What percentage of these people have written or are writing thesis dissertations on poverty reduction or peace mediation? Guaranteed, you are in the one percent – the academic front line of the world’s most pressing issues.

Society has carved out this identity for you: Graduate Student in Geneva. Regardless of whether you are Singaporean, Swiss, or South African, your community is praying that you manifest your potential in these two short years. Your far-fetched intersection between coronavirus social-distancing policy, its perpetuation of the police state, and its adverse effects on coastal communities may be original. You may even find a correlation. But in pursuing your pre-selected passions, you jeopardize your devotion to relevant, pressing issues of real human suffering.

You should be working, first and foremost, to make the people that put you at this institution – your grandmother, your high school football coach, the volunteers at your hometown homeless shelter – thrilled that you were put here. It’s nice to have passions. But purpose must be the main metric that you use when selecting your topic.

Thompson, Dan. Brevity, 13 July 2006.

Sacrifice your many interests so that you can form a clear and coherent hypothesis. We don’t need dissertations that create more problems. The world is broad and suffering is everywhere. As an individual, you are not able to bear the burden of the world. But you can strive to reduce suffering in the one area in which you have expertise. If you are in touch with the reality on the ground, then your community may not resent you for your elitist status but may actually ask you (and employ you) someday for your knowledge.

2. Engage in the Battle of Ideas

“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that,” writes John Stuart Mill. [5]

When you form your hypothesis, welcome authors into your paper who actively try to tear down your logic and reason. The Sachs-Easterly debate is classic. You may be compelled by Jeffrey Sachs’ data, which shows that foreign aid in the form of bed nets effectively lowers the rate of malaria death in sub-Saharan Africa. But you must also give voice to the perspective of someone like William Easterly, who argues that foreign aid is an ivory-towered Band-Aid that stunts the self-sufficiency of local communities. This tension embodies living truth. Mill concludes, “Conflicting doctrines share the truth between them.”

Failing to properly address your opponents will incline the reader to dismiss you as a willing follower to some academic authority, a blind purveyor of groupthink, or an emotional adopter of whichever side feels right. Do have a perspective. Do take a stand. But don’t be biased because bias leads to dead dogma.

3. Know the Truth Before You Write

My concluding arguments are organized in the following structure. This subsection presents the concept of writing as didactic rather than as descriptive. The next subsection introduces an epistemological perspective to prose, in which I argue that truth is something to be shown to the reader. The conclusive subsection provides various methodological resources that students may utilize to effectively construct “originality”.

How unbearable was that? Yeah, never do this. You should be offended that I wasted your valuable time having you read through my thought process. We start with paper proposals and outlines specifically for this reason – to help the writer (not the reader) organize and clarify thoughts. Before you begin to write the final draft, you must already know the truth.

Trudeau, Garry. Doonesbury, 3 Apr. 1972.

This task is not as daunting as it seems. Aatif Somji, for example, found microfinance to advance the economic and social freedom of women – on paper. But in the decades since their inception, micro-lending programs have not closed the gender pay gap among micro-entrepreneurs. The literature overlooked unpaid care and domestic work as two factors that produce gender pay gaps. Do these potential factors actually make a difference? Somji conducted “Time-Use Surveys” on business-owning mothers in Uganda to find out. [6]

In Somji’s thesis, you will see that he guides the reader minimally. It is overwhelmingly not academese because he is trying to show (not tell) you something that matters. He won the best master’s dissertation in international affairs at IHEID in 2018.

The truth is already out there. Your task is to hike to the best possible lookout from which to view the truth. In fact, the literature review and your data collection should constitute 80% of the work. The final 20% happens after you click “Create New Word Document”.

4. Write How You Talk

Your reader is not stupid, so don’t make them feel like they are. One reason why individuals of the academese style write the way they do is that they believe they have some intellectual gift allowing them to see what the layman is unable to see. What’s more likely is that the truth is available for all to grasp, if only you learn to walk with your reader down the right path.

Professor Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, an ethnography on twelve neighboring families of different working classes, begins with this image:

Laughing and yelling, a white fourth-grader named Garrett Tallinger splashes around in the swimming pool in the backyard of his four-bedroom home in the suburbs on a late spring afternoon. [7]

Winner of American Sociological Association awards, Unequal Childhoods is a strong academic source. It is filled with quantitative data and professionally conducted interviews. Yet Lareau neither reads like your typical intellectual nor your typical sociology journal.

Why Nations Fail, written by some of the world’s most cited economists, does not begin like this:

Why is inequality, both political and economic, becoming more extreme around the world? In this chapter, we discuss factors that contribute to inequality within the U.S. – Mexico border city of Nogales.

The academic source begins with the following:

The city of Nogales is cut in half by a fence. [8]

Regardless of the liberal, libertarian, or conservative leanings of these books, they share one common characteristic. The author treats you like a person with eyes and ears, and she intends to use conversation to direct your view. Is there anything more fundamentally human than that?

Watterson, Bill. Calvin and Hobbes, 14 Feb. 2013.

Make the reader feel adventurous – like she is discovering something alongside you. That’s because she is competent enough to recognize the truth when she sees it. [9] The bottom line is: escape the egotistic academic bubble and treat your audience as the intelligent beings that they actually are.

5. Gathering New Data is Not Optional

The famous contrarian Christopher Hitchens once said, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” [10]

You may have strong beliefs about the ineffectiveness of trade law in reducing child labor in Nepal or the role that federal welfare plays in incentivizing fatherlessness in American Samoa. Put in the research and effort necessary to argue on behalf of those hypotheses. One does not simply get to possess unearned knowledge. It is your responsibility to form your own robust opinions – independent of some partisan line or some intellectual fad – through the use of data, logic, and reason. This is the pursuit toward meaningful originality. And it is to be found out there in the world.

You don’t have to do fieldwork. You get to do fieldwork. You get to record the oral history of a Syrian Civil War survivor, interview one-on-one with an American nuclear engineer, or examine original documents from the 1949 Geneva Convention.

You have been given an opportunity not only to explain your philosophy to the academy but to actually embody it. Do you really care about the poor? Do you care about your Constitution? Do you care about the European project? Step out of the postmodern glass building and put yourself to the test.

Your published thesis can be the first step in what I hope is a long career of staring down hypocrisy.


Works cited:
[1] Willink, Jocko. Discipline Equals Freedom : Field Manual. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2017.
[2] 100 People: A World Portrait. http://100people.org/statistics_100stats.php?section=statistics
[3] Education Statistics. World Bank. http://datacatalog.worldbank.org/dataset/education-statistics
[4] Baum, Sandy, and Patricia Steele. “Who Goes to Graduate School and Who Succeeds?” Urban Institute, 2017, http://urban.org.
[5] Mill, John. On Liberty. Gardners Books, 2011.
[6] Somji, Aatif. Who Cares? Addressing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work as a Barrier to Female Microenterprise Development. IHEID, 2018.
[7] Lareau, Annette. Unequal Childhoods : Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley, University Of California Press, 2011.
[8] Acemoglu, Daron, and James A Robinson. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. London, Profile Books, 2013.
[9] Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st
Century. New York, Penguin Books, 2015.
[10] Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. London, AtlanticBooks, 2017.

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