Neuroscience Program Cancels Thesis for Class of 2024


Credit: Katherine Merisotis ’23

Neuroscience majors in the class of 2024 will not be able to complete a thesis during their senior year at Bates, according to an email sent to current majors in the class of 2024 from Chair of the Neuroscience Program Jason Castro on Jan. 20.

“Neuro seniors next year will satisfy the W3 by taking one of three writing intensive Neuroscience courses,” Castro wrote in his email. This will include a previously-existing course adapted to meet W3 standards. W3 refers to the final writing-intensive course a Bates student must take to graduate. It is usually satisfied by a student’s thesis and builds on the W1 requirement satisfied by the first-year seminar and the W2 course satisfied by 300-level seminars.

While I won’t pretend this isn’t a big change for Neuro, it aligns with and draws inspiration from other STEM/[Interdisciplinary] units on campus that satisfy the W3 primarily through seminars and ‘portfolio-style’ theses,” Castro’s email continued. 

Castro’s explanation for the elimination of the thesis and the change to writing-intensive courses to satisfy the W3 requirements was an increase in the number of neuroscience majors from previous years coinciding with one neuroscience faculty member taking a leave of absence.

“We’ll be feeling the double crunch of having the largest senior class in the Neuro program’s history (32 students; double the number of current seniors), while also being unprecedentedly short-staffed,” Castro wrote in his email. 

This is not the first time a Bates major has been so short staffed it needed to cut thesis. In the 2021-22 school year, after the simultaneous departures of four Economics professors, the Economics department canceled theses, as well.

The decision to eliminate the thesis requirement has been disappointing to some current majors. The Student spoke to a number of neuroscience majors in the class of 2024 who requested anonymity to speak freely. They will be referred to by pseudonyms to protect their identities.

“It is really frustrating because I came to Bates specifically for the neuroscience major and the opportunity to work closely with faculty and do a thesis — all of which was highly advertised by the school,” Hannah, a neuroscience major in the class of 2024, wrote in an email statement.

Thesis is a resume booster

Others are concerned that the lack of a thesis opportunity will affect their future, including graduate school admissions and career opportunities.

“Thesis to me is a huge component of my application to grad school,” Safia, a neuroscience major in the class of 2024, said. “Having a thesis on my resume differentiates me from other applicants.”

“Thesis was the main reason I came to Bates … If I had known that I wasn’t going to be able to write [a] thesis [in neuroscience], I would have been a biochem major,” she added.

Others agreed, noting specifically about losing the ability to graduate with honors.

“Doing a year-long honors thesis is the only way that you can graduate with honors … which can also be a big deal and make the difference in a grad school application or in a job application. I think that [eliminating the option for neuroscience theses] is pretty fundamentally inequitable and unacceptable, because [Bates] says on the website that every department offers thesis, which is now untrue for a large chunk of next year’s class,” Mike, a neuroscience major in the class of 2024, said.

Some students have independently proposed completing alternative ways of completing a thesis-like project to neuroscience faculty, but have been rejected.

“A research institution I worked at last summer offered me the chance to lead a project at their lab starting next summer … I hoped to continue this research as part of my senior thesis,” Hannah wrote. “So, when I heard the news, I immediately reached out to ask if I could do an independent thesis with researchers from the institution as my mentors …. The mentors I worked with have published a ton themselves and have MDPhDs, so I knew their experience writing and doing research made them more than qualified as a thesis mentor. However, I was told that a Bates mentor was needed for the W3 credit to count.”

Hannah is not the only neuroscience student who has had their independent thesis proposal rejected.

“I emailed back [to the neuroscience faculty] and I was like, ‘Is there any chance that, like, if I got my own funding, I had my own project, I proposed it myself, did everything, would I be allowed to do it?’ And I got the response that I wasn’t,” Safia said.

Despite their disappointment, many are sympathetic to the program’s inability to support up to 32 theses with limited faculty members.

“There simply just aren’t ever enough professors to be able to take on that many thesis students overall. That definitely to me is a sound reason. You just numerically can’t have 32 students writing thesis overall if you don’t have enough professors to advise them,” Safia said.

Mike agreed.

“I’m sympathetic to the position that they’re in … I’m not here to say, well, you should add back thesis and wave a magic wand and make it all go away,” he said.

Students frustrated by perceived lack of planning

Many students are still frustrated that the school did not plan ahead better or consider other alternatives.

“I know that my class has more majors than they’ve ever had. But they’ve known that now for at least a year,” Mike said. “People in most departments tend to start talking about thesis in late fall, or maybe early winter, of junior year. They told us at a time that it was too late for anybody to really switch majors or to maybe feasibly add a second one … Now there’s kind of no room to get feedback and try to plan for alternatives.”

“You’ve got 32 smart people that have probably some really good ideas about how to help solve this problem,” Mike continued, referring to the number of neuroscience majors in the class of 2024. “One thing I was thinking about is [that] … there used to be four different options for completing the W3 for the neuro major. If they had asked us before sending this email how many people might have been interested in each of those options, [then] I think maybe it would have been possible that some people, ideally some of the people who did really want to do thesis, would have been able to.”

Other potential solutions suggested by other students in interviews with The Student included allowing some students to complete neuroscience theses with faculty in related disciplines, like biology, or reducing the number of theses that each faculty member would need to advise by allowing neuroscience students to complete theses in small groups of three or four.

Some students expressed concern that the elimination of the thesis is part of a broader pattern of the neuroscience program struggling to receive appropriate resources, especially for professors. One retired last year and one will take a leave of absence next year with no announcement of a replacement as of the writing of this story.

“The neuroscience department is shrinking, making it increasingly difficult to get the classes you need, and now there’s no thesis,” Hannah wrote. “I wish more funding was raised and allocated to the neuroscience department.”

Mike said that he believes that the canceling of the thesis is a sign of deeper organizational issues.

“The fact that one person leaving the department throws it into such disarray that they cannot provide the thesis experience to an entire class year of majors” is concerning, Mike said.

Bates currently has three professors who teach exclusively neuroscience courses. Two additional professors teach classes in multiple departments. Mike says that the small number of faculty limits the amount of classes that can be offered and makes it difficult for students to complete major requirements.

“I know people who wanted to be neuroscience majors and are not because they couldn’t get into Intro to Neuroscience in their first or second year, or who thought about being neuro majors and looked at the courses and thought it was too hard” logistically to take them, Mike said.

Safia is frustrated by what she sees as the administration’s hesitancy to implement what she views as an easy fix: adding a professor to the department.

“[Bates] announced that they’re adding eight new tenure-track faculty positions. But there was no [discourse of] ‘Oh, we see that there’s a struggle with the neuroscience department, one of these positions will go to that program.’ … This is an obvious reason: you’re having to cancel thesis because there are too many students and not enough professors. That screams ‘add another professor,’” Safia said.

The popularity of the major

When asked whether the increasing popularity of the neuroscience program would make it consistently difficult to provide the resources and advising for the thesis and for student support more broadly, and how the program intends to respond to such constraints, Castro did not comment on specific details.

“We’re unfortunately limited in what we can say, because many of the questions you have are ultimately issues of resources and their allocation. These are discussed and decided-on collaboratively and procedurally by the administration and the entire faculty,” Castro wrote in an email statement to The Student on behalf of the entire neuroscience faculty.

“In broad strokes, we can say that we’ve certainly been articulating the needs of the Neuro program, and strategizing about ways to grow and flourish. Thesis is as exciting a proposition for faculty as it is for students, and we hope to be in a position to support it robustly and sustainably very soon.”

Dean of the Faculty Malcolm Hill agreed, writing in a statement that the college administration’s focus is on providing a robust experience for students.

“Our aim is to ensure that students have access to a high quality, signature senior summative experience within the major,” Hill wrote. “The proposed plan ensures a high quality experience for every major in the 2023-2024 academic year. The intensive writing experience proposed by neuroscience will provide excellent background material for a student who plans to apply to graduate school.”

He continued, “Once we are back at the full strength of tenure track faculty, a broader array of pathways will be available, including thesis. As the popularity of the neuroscience major continues to grow we look to support the unit, as we do every academic unit, so that students are afforded the best education possible, and that could include exploring recruiting additional permanent faculty.”

Hill did not specify when the department would return to the “full strength of tenure track faculty.”

While some students remain frustrated by the lack of concrete plans, many agree that the administration’s focus on supporting the growing program will be crucial as the program continues to expand in size — a growth which most students see as a positive.

“There’s so many students interested in it,” Safia said. “That should be a good thing.”