Thoughts on Theses: Rose Miller '16
Issue   |   Wed, 03/09/2016 - 00:14

Rose Miller ’16 is a senior psychology major. Her thesis explores aspects of of friendship, such as how friendships develop, whether or not they last and what people seek most in friendships. Her thesis adviser is Professor Catherine Sanderson in the psychology department.

Q: How would you describe your thesis?
A: My thesis is an examination of the psychological correlates of relationship satisfaction and loneliness among first-year students at Amherst. Specifically, I’m looking at same-sex friendships and how different strategies of initiating or maintaining relationships lead to different outcomes over time. Mine is a two-part study, meaning that I surveyed first-years in the middle of the fall semester, just as people are starting to get settled into college. Then, I surveyed them early this semester, right when classes were starting and after people had had more of a chance to solidify or change their friendships.

Q: How did you decide on this subject?
A: I decided to look at friendships among first-year students because, as everyone knows, the first year of college can be a difficult transition and friendships play a large role in making that transition either easier or more difficult. In social psychology, there’s a lot more research looking at romantic relationships and how those affect us than research looking at friendships, so I was interested in exploring a topic that is relatively understudied, despite how important close friendships are to our day-to-day lives, especially at college.

Q: Did your first-year experience impact your decision to write this thesis, and if so, how?
A: My first-year experience absolutely contributed to my thesis topic. My first year was really tough for me, and I felt like my friendships were a big cause of my stress that year. Being a senior, I have such a different perspective and I feel so much happier about Amherst and my time here, so I definitely was motivated to study first-year friendships as a way not only to reconcile what was a really hard year for me, but also just to shed light on the fact that friendships at college can be a mixed bag sometimes. I thought studying friendships via the psychological lens would be a perfect way for me to wrap up my college experience by using the research skills I’ve learned over these four years to construct a more cohesive narrative of what it means to be a first-year at Amherst navigating a brand new social environment.

Q: How has your thesis changed throughout the year?
A: I started this research with some hypotheses about how certain types of relationships or strategies in relationships might lead to better or worse outcomes, and I’m finding that the results are more nuanced than I originally anticipated. I was interested in how certain types of goals that people have for their relationships might affect the outcomes or satisfaction levels in those relationships. Specifically, I’m looking at the construct of “intimacy goals,” which is basically a way of saying, “How much do you desire closeness and self-disclosure with your friends?” I’m finding that one of the major important facets of these goals is desires for trust and honesty in relationships, more so than I originally anticipated. My research is showing that desiring truthfulness and is really important in terms of determining how people feel about their friendships down the line.

Q: What are the methods by which you discovered that people desire more intimacy?
A: It’s not that people desire more intimacy — it’s that certain individuals have different goals for their relationships. The degree of intimacy that individuals desire varies, and this variable affects how satisfied people are in their friendships. I used a survey method, and one of the measures on it was an Intimacy Goals scale, which was originally developed by Professor Sanderson for use in a study examining how much people desire intimacy in romantic relationships. We adapted the scale to pertain to friendship relationships.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your thesis?
A: I think the most challenging part of this thesis project is really trying to be unbiased and careful in interpreting the data. My results are pretty complicated, so I am really having to make an extra effort to make sure that I don’t over-interpret what I’m finding, and that I take all my statistical results with a little bit of a grain of salt, as one usually should do with most psychology research. Nothing is black and white, and I think that by working on this project intensely for so long, I can get a little narrow-minded. But I’ve found that it is really important to take a step back every once in a while and to consider all sides of the equation, and in this case that means understanding that friendships and relationships are nuanced and complex, and that my research is only measuring one very specific aspect of an intricate system.

Q: Where do you hope to see your thesis go?
A: In general, I’m really hoping that this research leads to somewhat of a better understanding of what it takes to make and maintain fulfilling friendships in college. As I’ve said, friendships are so integral to who we are, especially at this stage of our lives, and I’m hoping that the work I’m doing can contribute to our general sense of what is required to be a good friend, and to have impactful relationships.

Q: What is the best part of writing a thesis?
A: The best part is definitely getting to feel like you have complete ownership over something you are working on. I think sometimes in college, it can be easy to get lost in classes and to feel like you are doing readings or writing papers that are not exactly your own, or are not exactly what you would choose to be doing or thinking about if you had more freedom.

Q: What is the worst part?
A: The worst part is the flip side of that. You have complete responsibility for an academic project that is really important to you, so it can feel overwhelming at times.

Q: What advice would you give to future thesis writers?
A: My advice to future thesis writers would be to take your thesis seriously. It is what you make of it, but don’t take it so seriously that you make yourself crazy and think that it is the be-all and end-all of your college career. It’s not. It’s important and exciting and sometimes a little scary, but it’s also just a really great opportunity to learn something new about a field you’re excited about.