The Microfinance Puzzle: Realizing Goals Through Savings and Insurance
Rachel Davison, International Affairs, 2013
Thesis Advisor: Professor David Stifel

Q: When did you start thinking about your thesis?
A: I knew I wanted to write a thesis late sophomore or early junior year, and actually did decide that I hoped to write about microfinancing during my first semester of junior year. However I did not truly conceptualize my thesis in a concrete way until immediately before my senior year.

Q: How did you start tackling your thesis project at the very beginning?
A: I first met with the department heads of my two majors, International Affairs and Government and Law, to discuss the best way to go about selecting an advisor. Once we had all decided on the most appropriate faculty member to serve as my main advisor, I asked him if he would accept the position. I did all of this the first semester of my junior year since I was going abroad in the spring. It is important to set that up early on since advisors will only commit to one or two advisees. I was then abroad until August just before my senior year, so I met with a family friend in the field of microfinance to discuss potential topics I could tackle with my honors thesis. However, the literature review was definitely the most helpful step in finding the final direction and focus of my paper.

Q: Did your advisor explain the structure of a thesis project to you?
A: Yes, my advisor, Professor Stifel, did an incredible job with explaining the structure and process of writing a thesis. From the beginning of the Fall semester senior year he had us plan out a timeline for our preparatory and writing process, and laid out a few specific deadlines such as abstract deadlines and our mid-term defense in December. This was extremely helpful in maintaining a disciplined writing schedule and staying on top of my work during the entire year.

Q: Did you have to do a literature review? Had you ever done one before?
A: Yes I did do a literature review and yes I have done one before. The importance of a literature review varies depending discipline and topic, however, for my topic the literature review was integral to my paper. First of all the literature review directs you to where your own research fits into the vast amount of pre-existing literature. Your thesis should be original so if someone already addressed your argument in the same manner you had planned to address it, you should probably pick a different topic or angle. For me, the literature review exposed exactly what the pre-existing literature had not addressed and that was where my argument fell into place. Furthermore, for me, my entire paper was somewhat of a literature review or meta-analysis of impact assessments. Because I was obviously unable to participate in fieldwork in a developing country, I had to base my paper on those of previous scholars and experts. Consequently, my paper was about the issues that other scholars had exposed and how to address those shortcomings in the microfinance industry.

Q: Do you remember receiving correspondence from the library about your honors thesis?
A: Yes! The library was incredibly helpful whenever I needed them! At the beginning of the year I went in for a personalized session with a librarian. They told me about many useful tools and services that are available to thesis honors students. For example, we are able to borrow library books for the entire year. Additionally, the reference tool, “RefWorks,” was extremely helpful in terms of keeping track of the many documents that I included in my thesis. Whenever I had a question or an issue the library staff was always very eager to help!

Q: What did you find most challenging about your thesis project?
A: For me the hardest part was mentally keeping track of all of the documents that I read. I did a general literature review before I began the writing process. Then before each chapter I read an enormous amount of literature on that specific chapter. While I created many meticulous annotation techniques to help me refer back to these texts, the sheer quantity of articles made the writing process very slow at times.

Q: What did you find most rewarding about your thesis project?
A: Honestly, the whole process was the most rewarding academic experience I have had at Lafayette College. Simply being able to produce a 160-page document that I felt was well written and thoroughly researched was incredible. I was able to prove to myself that I can push my boundaries and meet even greater challenges. Additionally, the defense was an incredible experience in itself. Having the opportunity to show friends and faculty that I had truly gained mastery over the subject matter of my thesis was extremely empowering.

Q: What assistance did your advisor/department offer you throughout the course of the year?
A: My advisor primarily helped with organizational and conceptual issues. At the outset he required that I have a timeline and trajectory for my project, which was extremely helpful. Additionally, during our weekly meetings throughout the year he kept tabs on how much I had written and how much I had yet to write. I often went to him to help with brainstorming as well. He really let me be very independent during the whole process while also helping me maintain a structured work ethic. Additionally, he was really helpful when preparing for presentations. He gave me a template and general guidelines for what a “good” presentation consists of, and scheduled a practice before my first formal presentation at NCUR.

Q: Did you meet with librarians in the course of conducting your research? How many times and at what stages of your research?
A: I met with librarians to arrange a mid-year panel discussion on the thesis writing process. I took part in a lunchtime panel during which four of us thesis students discussed the experience of writing an honors thesis. Outside of planning that panel, the only time I required librarian assistance was to order a book on microfinancing that the school did not own. They were extremely helpful in locating and buying a copy of that book for me.

Q: What other kind of support did you rely on throughout the year to accomplish your thesis (IT, parents, friends, etc.)?
A: I received an enormous amount of support from friends and family throughout the experience. Having an encouraging support system is definitely helpful during the thesis-writing process since it can be very all consuming at times. My parents were very willing to read over chapters I sent them and always acted impressed at my latest page count, and my friends provided a positive outlet for me the entire school year. Having a strong support system definitely makes the experience more livable.

Q: Were you able to get access to all of the research materials you wanted for your project?
A: The library has a very minimal collection of books on my subject matter, but the majority of literature is in the form of scholarly articles, so I definitely had access to more than enough material.

Q: Would you do anything differently if you went through the process again?
A: No. Honestly I was surprisingly diligent and disciplined throughout the process. I think I was a bit intimidated by the idea of writing an honors thesis, which made me take it extremely seriously from day one. My organizational skills and writing skills also helped me a ton this past year.

Q: What advice would you offer other honors thesis students, especially in your department?
A: I would say that the most important pieces of advice are to stay organized and disciplined from start to finish. Writing an honors thesis takes an enormous amount of self-motivation. It is entirely your undertaking, and while you will have an advisor, the whole point is that you are doing independent research. If you create a timeline early on and try your best to stick to it, you will honestly never feel overwhelmed. You know you will defend in late April or early May, so at the beginning of the year plan to have completed your final draft a month before that. This way you have built in leeway if you run into some glitches, and it will allow your committee a chance to read your paper and provide feedback before your defense. Additionally, apply to the National Conference for Undergraduate Research. Presenting at the NCUR was one of the most wonderful memories I will take away from Lafayette College. It is a truly unique experience, you meet great people, and it is great practice for the final defense. Finally, write about something that you are passionate about and that inspires you. It makes the entire process incredibly rewarding.