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Economics Department to Initiate Optional Thesis

By Sarah Y. Keightley
Associate News Editor

Starting with the Class of 1993, undergraduates majoring in economics will no longer be required to write a thesis for graduation, said Gary J. King, administrative secretary of the Department of Economics. The decision was made at a recent department meeting.

"The information has gone into the [upcoming MIT Bulletin] that the thesis will be optional," King said. The requirement for those who choose not to write a thesis will be an extra elective subject, he said.

Professor Peter Temin '64, head of the department, said that the thesis was made optional because the department "discovered it's not always a useful experience." He noted that the economics department will continue to offer the Undergraduate Thesis Seminar (14.39), which prepares students for writing their thesis during the fall semester.

"For some students the thesis works, but for other students, the unstructured nature of the thesis proved to be very difficult -- it was not a productive use of their time," Temin said. "An elective would be more useful for these students," he said.

Temin said the department hopes students will be able to "self-select appropriately" whether or not they should write a thesis. He said the department will see in a couple of years if the new arrangement is working well.

The optional thesis issue had been a topic of discussion for almost one year, said Temin. "We hope to improve the quality of life for the undergraduate pursuing an economics education," he said.

Professor of Economics Jerome Rothenberg said, "I am one who liked the thesis requirement. It was a capstone for the entire undergraduate educational experience."

He conceded that there were administrative and operational problems with the thesis requirement. "The potentialities of the requirement were not really being met," Rothenberg said. "The change makes it possible for students who would appreciate it and have the opportunity, to make the thesis a real challenge, as it was intended to be. Others will have the opportunity to get a broad exposure to other economics courses," he said.

"It's worth a trial -- this may be a better arrangement. In principle the thesis requirement was a good idea, but in practice it was flawed," Rothenberg said.

Professor of Economics Richard S. Eckaus '54 said the new thesis option "gives flexibility without reducing standards."

Eric A. Portman '92, who is majoring in economics, said, "I think you're going to get a lot of people to opt for the option of not writing the thesis," adding that he would have chosen not to write one. "I personally don't think a thesis is necessary because the topics won't be educational -- it's more of an exercise," he said.

Another economics student, Daniel J. Grana '93, said the change "sort of surprised" him. "I think it's a worthwhile exercise to do a thesis anyway because you pick your own topic; economics has enough interesting topics at our level," he said.

"If some people don't want to do a thesis, it's a way for them to escape," he added.

William H. Orme-Johnson, professor of chemistry and chairperson of the Committee on Curricula, said he has noticed over the years that "there is definitely a trend in universities to eliminate bachelor thesis requirements."

Currently the departments of mechanical engineering, materials science and engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, political science, nuclear engineering, and certain humanities subjects all require theses.