Senior Honors Thesis
Undergraduate Research is not only becoming the norm on campuses across the United States, but in some cases has become a requirement for college graduation. This makes sense so far as focused, mentored research on a specific intellectual project can provide students with the specialized knowledge and skills they typically cannot get anywhere else on campus--or at least not in the same way. For this reason the American Association of Colleges & Universities not long ago included undergraduate research on its list of "high impact" practices for undergraduate education.
We hear all the time from former students that their Senior Thesis project was one of--if not the--formative experiences of their undergraduate careers. Some students even credit the thesis with getting them into the graduate, medical, or law school of their choice, or getting them a great job in their field right out of college.
For this reason, the University of North Dakota Honors Program has built a two-semester senior research project into its major. That said, the Senior Honors Thesis is available to any UND student of at least Junior standing with a 3.2+ GPA interested in conducting research under the direction of a UND faculty member.
The following guidelines describe the process of writing a Senior Thesis from beginning to end. Please read through this information carefully. Contact the Honors office at 701.777.2219 for more information or to schedule an appointment to talk over your own project.
Should I do a thesis?
What is an Honors Thesis?
The thesis program, which is administered by the Honors Committee but involves faculty from departments across campus, provides you with the opportunity to engage in a lengthy, directed project that involves creativity, critical thinking, research, and writing. You are free to tackle an interdisciplinary subject or one that falls within a specialized area of interest. Much more than a glorified term paper, an Honors thesis involves identifying an area of interest, researching it as fully as possible within two semesters and wrestling with the implications of your investigation on paper and orally before an audience of faculty and students.
Your thesis may take one of several different forms:
Primary Research: Some students attempt to create new knowledge by conducting research either of an experimental nature, such as in a laboratory or through surveys, or with original documents and texts. For example, a student might design and run a psychology experiment that has never been done before, analyze results, and then write a substantial paper in which he/she lays out the research question, reviews the literature, describes the experiment, and presents and discusses results. Others might draw upon primary source materials such as papers in the Chester Fritz Library's Special Collections or literary texts to develop an original interpretation or theory. The key here is that you are working in an area that is untapped by previous research, even though you build on work by other researchers or scholars.
Secondary Research: A second type of thesis emphasizes synthesis and analysis. Using mainly secondary sources such as works by other scholars or critics, a student might trace the development of an idea or examine a variety of perspectives on an issue in order to offer his/her own interpretation or critique previous theories.
Problem-Based Research: In a third type of thesis, the researcher analyzes a clearly defined problem and proposes solutions. For example, such a project might involve studying options for noise abatement at an airport or analyzing the cost effectiveness of several possible options for reducing the erosion of a riverside slope to which a county highway sits perilously close. Students in computer science or engineering might develop a software program or technology designed to perform a specific task. With this type of thesis, you would also write an introductory essay that explains the project and puts it into a context.
Creative Work: Lastly, students might work on a creative thesis (although all theses involve creativity and critical thinking, this category is more closely related to the arts). Examples might include writing short stories, poems, or a play; directing, acting in, or designing a theatrical production; putting together an art show of drawings, paintings, jewelry, or photographs; or creating a video or multimedia presentation. Such projects must be accompanied by an introductory essay that defines the project, discusses influences, assumptions, and key issues in creating the work; applies a theoretical framework to the work; and describes the context in which the work was created.
Whichever type of thesis you choose, all involve a significant commitment of time and effort. For that reason, the Honors Program requires that you divide the work over a minimum of two semesters. Additionally, you should begin thinking and reading about your thesis topic the semester before you start the project officially.
Who is eligible to do a thesis?
All students who have been accepted as full members in the Honors Program are eligible and, in fact, required to complete a thesis in order to graduate as "Scholars in the Honors Program."
Students who have not been involved in Honors may also apply to do a senior thesis in their junior year through the Senior Honors (also called Departmental Honors) program. To be eligible for Senior Honors work, students must have maintained a GPA of 3.2, completed 75 credit hours, and have their applications approved by their major department and college dean. These students graduate with Senior Honors upon successful completion of the thesis.
Why should I do a thesis?
Most alumni who have completed a thesis look back on this piece or work as the most significant learning experience of their undergraduate career. This opportunity offers you the chance to target a project of genuine interest and devote a considerable amount of time to reading, thinking, and writing about that subject. The thesis program is intended to provide able students with a challenge; the satisfactions inherent in meeting a real challenge are the main draw of the thesis program for many students.
There are other advantages, as well. When you write a thesis, you have the opportunity to work closely with the faculty on your committee, each committed to helping you succeed in your project. In effect, you have the benefit of a 2:1 faculty/student ratio (or 3:1 if you choose to have a three-person thesis committee) in an individualized class designed around your interests and needs. In addition, a thesis might, depending on the nature of the project, provide you with opportunities not normally available to students, such as the chance to participate in an on-going research project or use resources and equipment (computers, laboratory apparatus, or documents) not otherwise accessible to undergraduates. Lastly, through the thesis program, you can demonstrate your mastery of concepts, writing skills, research methods, and critical thinking to prospective employers, graduate schools, and, most importantly, yourself. Sometimes, theses lead to publications. In any case, this independent project represents a very substantial accomplishment and is recognized as such within the UND community and beyond.
How do I begin?
First, inventory your interest to identify broad subject areas that might be worth investigating further. Remember that a thesis counts as the equivalent of three 3-credit courses, or 9-credits total. Make sure you select a topic that will sustain your interest over the long haul.
Given the range of work that might constitute a thesis project, consider these questions as you narrow down your list of possibilities:
1. What kind of thesis do you want to write? Do you want experience in a lab or art studio? A chance to work with primary historical documents? Do you want to design a survey? Should you write a computer program, poetry chapbook, or a novel? Would you rather immerse yourself in the literature of a particular subject and develop your own analysis? Do you want to study a particular social or institutional problem in order to develop a new solution?
2. Do you want to write a thesis that relates to your professional interests or would you prefer to use this opportunity as a last undergraduate effort to expand your horizons? Is your goal a portfolio to show off to prospective employers, a publishable essay to enhance your application to a graduate/professional school, a paper that answers some tantalizing intellectual question that you have long wanted to study, or a foray into some new area that you've always wanted to explore but couldn't before now? All are legitimate goals for this project.
Some examples from the past are:
- A communications major planning on law school who explored the erosion of "civility" in the era of social media.
- A political science student who always wanted to know more about the World Bank and its flaws.
- A history major who was intrigued by the question of how UND's own Chester Fritz came into his fortune and interest in philanthropy.
- An English major whose drive to write poems was pressing.
- Another English major whose interests in theology, history, and literature combined in a study of Jewish theological responses to the Holocaust.
- A Pre-Health/Biology major studying neurotransmitters in the human brain over at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
- An accounting major who evaluated computerized accounting programs.
- A psychology student who administered a survey to North Dakota judges to determine how they responded to polygraph evidence in courts.
- A music/philosophy major who traced changing notions of the "harmony of the spheres."
- An engineering student who designed a coal gasification plant for a major energy firm.
3. With which faculty members would you prefer to work and what are their areas of expertise? Given that the thesis is an opportunity to, in a sense, apprentice yourself to a faculty member, who would you choose as a mentor? Would you like to work both with a thesis chair and with an additional faculty member whose background or interests will enrich the project?
4. What kinds of papers/projects have you enjoyed working on in the past? Could a project from the past serve as the nucleus for a thesis? What have you been reading, watching, listening to, attending, and thinking about lately?
5. Looking through the collection or Honors theses in the Honors library in Robertson/Sayre (which primarily houses these written by Honors Program students) or those in the Special Collections of the Chester Fritz Library (the complete collection), which theses interest you the most? Which strike you as possible models for your own work?
What costs are required to complete a thesis?
All courses require some expense. If texts for a typical class average cost about $100, and a thesis counts as the equivalent of three courses, expect to pay in the neighborhood of $300 in various research expenses including: Interlibrary Loan charges, photocopying, books, binding, and in some cases, additional expenses such as travel, reimbursement to experiment subjects, or video/film/photography costs. Obviously budget depends on the project. The fixed costs are photocopying and binding fees for the final written document. Set aside at least $50 to $100 for high-quality printing, bond paper, and library binding. You must bind at least two copies in hardcover: one is for the Chester Fritz Library and the other in the Honors library in Robertson/Sayre. Of course, most students choose to bind copies for themselves, committee chairs, parents, and so on.
How is a thesis graded?
Your thesis will be jointly evaluated by your thesis committee, which will then recommend a grade to the Honors Program. Grades for a thesis project will be based on the following principles:
An undergraduate thesis is more than a term paper or independent study, but less than a master's thesis or dissertation. Students are evaluated primarily on the basis of the learning they demonstrate in the written work and in the oral presentation rather than their ability to create new knowledge or contribute to a particular discipline.
In a thesis, students should analyze, critique, and synthesize information from a number of sources as they master a complex subject. For creative theses, students should both have proficiency in the art form and be able to place their work in a context, acknowledge influences, comment on process, and define key terms.
Students should be actively engaged in designing their projects and should have a firm grasp of the broad theoretical underpinnings to the particular framework they've chosen for their thesis. In the case of collaborative projects, either with faculty or another student, they must articulate how their own contributions fit into the on-going research of others.
The thesis itself should be well-written, organized effectively, and well-documented. The needs of a lay reader should be addressed in at least a portion of the thesis. Similarly, students should be able to discuss their projects articulately and knowledgeably at the conference presentation.
For graduation as a Scholar in the Honors Program or with Senior Honors, you must receive a grade of "A" or "B" on the thesis. A portion of the final grade (20%) will reflect the quality of your presentation at the Undergraduate Research Conference or Thesis Defense.
What special recognition do I receive for completing a thesis?
Your accomplishment will be noted on your transcript and the commencement booklet for the semester in which you graduate. In addition, a seal is affixed to your diploma that states either "Scholar in the Honors Program" or "Senior Honors."
The Thesis Process
Developing a Prospectus
At least your Junior year, if not sooner, begin to talk with faculty who might serve on your thesis committee. They can help by suggesting resources you might peruse--books, journals, and people--and help you better understand research in the field. As you begin to focus on a more specific research problem/question, sample the current literature in the field to gain a sense of issues to explore as possible thesis topics. When you have a specific research question or project goal in mind, you're ready to write a prospectus and set up a committee.
A prospectus is a brief summary (generally four-to-five pages, but may be longer depending on the project) of your subject/question prepared in conjunction with Honors faculty and your potential thesis chair. The way such a document looks varies from discipline to discipline, but in each case the goal of a prospectus is to provide the Honors Committee with an overview of the project as you have defined it in the very early stages. Basically, you want to give the Honors Committee a clear sense of what you intend to accomplish in your thesis and how you plan on accomplishing it, meaning the proposal should include background on the subject/question, a sense of the method to pursue, a literature review of some sort and a problem/thesis statement, so far as you are able to articulate one. The focus of the prospectus should be on the project, not on you. While the Honors Committee encourages you to write in a natural voice, the prospectus should be formal enough to meet the standards of academic writing across disciplines.
Your prospectus should cover these issues (although not all apply to all projects):
1. Brief Description of the Project: Introduce the subject in a way that will allow readers who are unfamiliar with the discipline to understand your project and what questions or goals you will address. Define specialized vocabulary carefully as you write. This portion of a prospectus may include at least a general "thesis statement," if not a more specific research problem to be explored.
2. Background/Rationale: Provide readers with enough background that they can grasp why this project matters and what assumptions and knowledge underlay the project. Carefully define the scope of the project and the rationale behind it. What research are you drawing upon in your work? What theoretical approach provides the framework for your project? What authors/artists have shaped your own creative work? What questions have previous researchers left unanswered? What probable answers to your question do you anticipate at this point in your research? What is the likely outcome of your project? As the word "thesis" suggests, you should have a central idea that informs your whole project.
3. Methodology: How will you go about answering the question or meeting the goals you've identified? What types of materials will you examine, or research will you conduct? What kind of experimental design, survey instrument, creative techniques or research tactic will you need to succeed in the project? If your project builds on the on-going research of your faculty advisor, or another researcher, what piece of the collaborative project will be yours? How will your work fit into the larger framework of the subject's research history? Basically, the methodology that you describe should be realistic for a one-year project, appropriate given the resources available to you as an undergraduate at the University of North Dakota, and designed in a way that will provide data relevant to the research question you've identified.
4. Literature Review: (This section may be incorporated into another portion of the prospectus or addressed in a separate Bibliography or Literature Review section). All research is based on the work of others. What previous research or theories have you considered? What controversies relate to your question? How have previous researchers attempted to answer your question and how do you assess the strengths and weaknesses of their results? What background, information, assumptions, and context must be established before you can proceed to make your own contributions? Discuss all of this in some detail. If you incorporate a literature review into the body of your prospectus, include a Works Cited page. If you do not cite any specific articles or books, attach a preliminary working bibliography to your prospectus (labeled either Works Consulted or Bibliography).
5. Appendices: For creative theses, or for projects based on a previous paper, please include either sample works to demonstrate your proficiency in the art form or the paper that you will extend upon or incorporate into your thesis.
The point of the prospectus, then is to demonstrate that you have defined a feasible project and that you possess sufficient knowledge/skill or have done enough preliminary work to understand the key issues surrounding your proposed project. Your prospectus must be reviewed first by your thesis chair and revised as needed in light of your chair's feedback. If you have asked an additional faculty member to serve on your committee, that person must also read and approve your prospectus before you submit it to the Honors office.
Setting up a Thesis Committee
A thesis committee consists of at least two people: the thesis chair and the Honors contact. You select a faculty member to serve as the chair of your committee, while the Honors contact is appointed by the Honors Program to represent the Honors Committee. You don't need to worry about the Honors contact at this point in the process. For now, your main concern is with finding a faculty member who is willing to support your work by serving as your mentor throughout the project.
The most important person on your thesis committee (other than you!) is your chair. as you begin to define your project, think about which faculty member would best help you achieve your goals. A thesis chair should commit to meeting with you once every two weeks during the course of the project's research/writing. In deciding who you will approach, consider both the faculty member's area of expertise and the nature of your interactions and relationship with that person.
Oversight of your project
A thesis is a 9-credit project that stretches over at least two semesters. To ensure that you define and execute a project that reaches a successful conclusion within that framework, the Honors Program has a fairly elaborate oversight process that involves these steps from beginning to end: initial application with prospectus; development of a Memorandum of Agreement; final approval by the Honors Coordinator; end of semester progress review by your thesis committee; and final review. The next sections of these guidelines provide an overview of this process.
1. Initial Application
When your thesis chair has approved the prospectus, have that faculty member sign the Thesis Application Form and submit the form, together with three copies of your prospectus, to the Honors office. If you have an "optional" committee member, that person should also sign the form.
Within two weeks, the Honors office will contact you via email with information on who will serve as the Honors contact on your thesis committee. The Honors contact represents the Honors Committee. With this appointment, your thesis committee is complete. You can then set up a meeting with your committee to develop a Memorandum of Agreement.
2. Memorandum of Agreement
In order to enroll in thesis credits, you must turn in a completed, signed Memorandum of Agreement to the Honors office. This Memorandum of Agreement serves as a kind of contract that approves your thesis project and the details of how you will conduct it. Upon receipt of the Memorandum of Agreement, the Honors Coordinator will give a final review of your project, and the Office will then authorize you to register for thesis credits.
The Memorandum of Agreement will include specific details about any changes to your project as described in the prospectus that were agreed upon by you and your committee. The Memorandum will also provide an agreed-upon timeline for completing the project and specify exactly how the thesis credits will be allocated. A thesis project must involve nine credits of coursework divided over a minimum of two semesters. You may, however, include previous coursework as a part of those nine credits; you may also divide the credits among several different course numbers. A portion of the credits should fall under a '489' number, which indicates on your transcript that you have undertaken a Senior Honors Thesis. To register for a 489 course in any department, you must obtain approval from the Honors Program.
Since 489 projects normally span at least two semesters, you will receive either "SP" for Satisfactory Progress or "UP" for Unsatisfactory Progress, as determined by your thesis committee at the end of the first semester. This grade will remain in effect until the project is completed, at which point the Honors office will report the final letter grade to the Registrar; the final grade will then replace the temporary grade for all semesters of the project. Note: If you fail to make sufficient progress on your project, you may not be permitted to enroll in any further thesis credits. Also, you may not graduate until all SP or UP grades have been replaced with a permanent letter grade.
You might need to change the terms of the Memorandum of Agreement at some point during the project, if, for example, you decide to pursue a new direction in your research, or you extend the project into additional semesters. All such changes must be approved by your thesis committee and must be noted in writing on a memo that is signed by you and all committee members.
Semester Progress Report
A successful thesis project involves continuous collaboration with your thesis chair. Plan on meeting your thesis chair regularly throughout the year. In addition, you will meet with your thesis committee at least once a semester to review your progress. You should also feel free to consult with other committee members as necessary. Remember that your thesis committee is there to help you succeed. Draw upon their expertise. Before arranging for this Progress Report meeting, you should submit a written report summarizing your work to date or copies of current drafts of any written sections of your thesis to your committee members by the first day of the last month of the semester you intend to complete the thesis (May 1 or Dec. 1).
Set a meeting date that gives your committee members at least a week to review your draft. At the review meeting, make a brief presentation on your progress to date and then discuss your work with your committee. This is a good opportunity to acknowledge any difficulties you might have encountered, so that your committee can help you resolve those difficulties. At the end of the meeting, the committee will determine if you have made satisfactory academic progress and will complete and sign the Thesis Progress Report form. The Honors office must receive this form directly from the thesis chair or designated committee member at least three days before grades are due to the Registrar. In the absence of a Progress Report form, the Honors office will submit a grade of "UP" to the Registrar.
A. Graduation Application
In the semester in which you plan to graduate, submit a Graduation Application to the Honors Program (in addition to whatever forms are required for your College). This form must be received by the Honors Office by the date listed by the Registrar in the Time Schedule each semester for university graduation. In order for you to receive full recognition of your accomplishment at Commencement and on your transcript and diploma, the Honors Program must receive this form. You must also apply for graduation through your college. If you are earning a degree through the Honors Program and no other degree-granting program, then you must also apply for graduation through the College of Arts & Sciences. The Honors Program is administratively separate from the College of Arts & Sciences, but students who are graduating through Honors and no other program earns an Arts & Sciences degree through Honors, hence Arts & Sciences must also approve their graduation.
B. 489 Focus Group Sessions
Finally, part of the Hon 489 "course" requires participation in a series of three focus groups designed by Honors not only to assemble a diverse cohort of students engaged in the same process, but to engage you in discussions of matters important to you as you transition out of the university, including reflection on the university experience itself, leaving the university, and leadership/ethics questions. Contact will be forthcoming on session dates and vary by semester.
If you complete your thesis in the Spring semester, you must submit an abstract (one- to two-page summary of the project and results) to your thesis committee by March 1. A committee meeting is not required at this point, but should any member of your committee raise serious questions about your abstract, you should arrange a committee meeting to address those questions. Once your committee has approved the abstract and made a recommendation on whether you should give an oral or poster presentation at the Undergraduate Research Conference (URC), ask your committee members to sign the URC Scheduling Form and submit it together with your abstract to the Honors Office by March 8. This abstract will become part of the Undergraduate Research Conference Program. If you complete your thesis in December and don't graduate until the spring, you must meet all the requirements for spring graduates. If you graduate in the fall or summer semesters, these requirements may be waived upon approval by your thesis committee and Honors Coordinator. Please contact the Honors office, 701.777.2219 or honors@UND.edu for more information.
D. Preliminary Approval Draft
If you complete your thesis in the spring semester, a preliminary approval draft is due on April 1 to each member of your committee and to the Honors office. When you deliver copies of your draft to your committee members, schedule a meeting with your committee to meet as soon as possible to receive their feedback and to give a trial run of your Undergraduate Research Conference presentation. For fall or summer thesis completers, the first draft due dates are November 1 and July 1, respectively.
Note: This is also the draft that will be read by the Honors Committee to award the George and Margaret Starcher Undergraduate Research Award, a monetary prize given to the author of the best thesis each year at the URC banquet held on the night of the Undergraduate Research Conference. Awards are also given for the best oral and poster presentation at the conference.
E. Conference Presentation Approval
By April 8, you must meet with your thesis committee to rehearse your Undergraduate Research Conference presentation and gain their approval for your participation at the Undergraduate Research Conference via the URC Presentation Approval Form, which must be received by the Honors office by April 9.
F. Participation in the Undergraduate Research Conference
All thesis students must participate in the annual Undergraduate Research Conference that takes place in April. In addition, the Psychology Department requires an oral defense for students graduating with Departmental Honors in Psychology. For students graduating in August or December and aren't able to participate in the Undergraduate Research Conference, please contact the Honors Program for further information.
G. Revised Draft Approval
If you complete your thesis in the Spring semester, you must submit a revised draft of your thesis to your thesis committee by May 1. Your thesis committee will complete the Thesis Grading Form on the basis of this draft. The Honors office must receive this form directly from the thesis chair or designated committee member at least three days before grades are due to the Registrar. If further revisions are required, the Honors office will not record grades with the Registrar until notification from the faculty member designated on the Grading Form has been received that all revisions have been completed. If this Grading Form is not received in time, a grade of "UP," Unsatisfactory Progress, will be recorded with the Registrar. For fall or summer completers, revised drafts are due by December 1 or August 1, respectively.
H. Binding Approval
When you have completed all revisions as approved by your thesis committee, bring two or more copies of your thesis (two are required, but you may wish additional copies for yourself, committee members, or family) to the Honors office. Honors staff will verify that the copies meet the guidelines for binding specified by the Chester Fritz Library and then sign the Library Binding Form which you will bring, together with the copies of your thesis, to the Chester Fritz Library Periodicals Department. The Honors office will then inform the Registrar that you have completed your thesis requirements and fulfilled all thesis requirements for graduating as a Scholar in the Honors Program or with Senior Honors. At the same time that you get the Library Binding Form from the Honors office, the office will ask you to complete a Thesis Assessment Form that evaluates your experience in participating in the thesis program and, if you are a full member of the Honors Program, and Alumni Assessment Form evaluating your overall Honors experience.
With this final step, you are done!