Senior Honors Thesis

What is a Senior Honors Thesis?

The Senior Honors Thesis is a two-semester, 6 credit research commitment on a topic that you and your faculty mentor agree on. The result is an academic paper, often of publishable quality. Honors Thesis projects are most successful if a student contacts a faculty member he or she would like to work with at least one semester before he or she plans to start researching. Senior Honors Thesis courses can be taken in any semester, including over the summer.

Why write a Senior Honors Thesis?

There are a number of reasons to consider writing a thesis. For one, it is an opportunity to explore a topic that interests you. There may have been a topic in a class or a reading that caught your attention; the senior thesis will allow you to dive deeper into the topic. You will likely master your topic and develop an educated perspective. Secondly, the thesis experience will develop your reading, research and writing skills–skills that will prepare you well for graduate school and other careers. Finally, writing a thesis is required for most Honors in the Major programs. Please talk to your departmental advisor if you have questions about this requirement. Most students find the Senior Thesis a rewarding experience in which they develop new skills through independent work.

First Steps

See our pages on how to get started with the Senior Honors Thesis process!

Disciplinary Standards

Some departments have web pages about standards for a Senior Honors Thesis; be sure to visit your department’s website and speak with your advisor for information on these standards. If you are interested in seeing a completed senior thesis paper, the Honors Program Office has bound copies of previous students’ thesis work in the Washburn Observatory library — feel free to stop by and browse through some research from your discipline!

Funding your Thesis

Theses can be funded in several ways. First, the Honors Program offers funding each year; please check out our pages on Senior Honors Thesis funding for more information. Hilldale and Holstrom Undergraduate Fellowships are also available to students with at least junior standing at the time of their application. Hilldale fellowships provide generous research support in all disciplines, while Holstrom fellowships are awarded for research on environmental studies. For more information on those awards, contact the Undergraduate Academic Awards Office. Many departments also have funding available for theses. Please talk to your departmental advisor about funding opportunities if your department. There may also be outside agencies that will support senior thesis research.

Registering for Thesis Credits

To register for Senior Honors Thesis credits, you need to contact your faculty advisor; he or she should then get in touch with the appropriate timetable representative or academic advisor who will in turn create a unique 5-digit code for the Departmental 681 course in your first semester and a second, unique code for Departmental 682 in your second semester. Your faculty advisor should be the faculty member listed for your Senior Honors Thesis experience.

Prior authorization is needed when students intend to complete either 681 or 682 while away from UW-Madison. Consult with the Associate Director for Academic Services if this is your intention.

Writing Your Thesis

Naturally, not all theses have the same format. Formats will depend largely on your topic and area of discipline. Most theses, however, have an introduction, body and conclusion. The introduction should motivate the reader to read the rest of the thesis and explain why the thesis question is important. Generally, the introduction should also explain the key vocabulary of the topic, state the thesis and hypotheses, and outline the remainder of the paper (Lipson, 2005). An effective way to organize the body of your thesis is to create subtopics under illustrative headings (2005, pg. 167). Transitions that connect the various subtopics together facilitate a cohesive thesis. The conclusion of your thesis should go beyond summarizing the main points; it should also connect the main findings to broader issues and suggest future research.

A senior thesis seems like a lot of work. Is it worth doing?

Doing a senior thesis is a lot of work and requires a 2-semester commitment to a research project. Whether it is a good choice for you depends on how motivated you are to complete a thesis. Think about your reasons for wanting to do the research. Are you interested in doing a thesis just to complete a requirement, or because you really want the experience of diving into a topic? Those who are motivated because of their interest in reading, writing and researching are less likely to see the thesis as chore. A thesis will likely seem more manageable if you work gradually over the course of the year. This will give you time to obtain all the necessary resources and materials, confront any roadblocks and write multiple drafts of the thesis.

Are there thesis topics that I should avoid?

Lipson (2005) points to a few topics you want to avoid. Many students run into problems when they attempt to write a thesis on too broad of a topic. In general, a narrow, precise research topic is easier to organize and will allow you to narrow your sources. Lipson suggests avoiding topics about the future because it is difficult to test alternative hypotheses for speculative research. Finally, he states that under most circumstances, you ought to avoid thesis questions that start with “should.” These questions are often judgments which cannot be answered by research.

What are some tips for staying organized while working on a senior thesis?

You will likely have lots of materials for your thesis which can make it difficult to stay organized. It is probably best to set up both a computer file for online and computer-generated documents and a folder or notebook for hard copy materials. It is a good idea to record resources and web pages as you use them because they will probably be much more difficult to find down the road. Appropriate labels and folders will help you find what you are looking for. Another tip for staying organized is to record what you worked on each day. This may help you locate materials and keep you on track. A running “to do list” will also keep you focused and organized about what to do next for the thesis (Lipson, 2005).

What should I cite in my thesis?

Virtually all resources used while researching and writing your thesis should be cited. If you are unsure whether you should cite something or not, it is probably better to cite the resource. Quotations, paraphrases and personal communications should all be cited, but established facts are generally not cited. (Lipson, 2005)

What should I do when I am done with my thesis?

First, congratulate yourself on finishing a thesis! It is a good idea to thank those who have helped your with your thesis either verbally or in writing soon after you complete your project. You may also want to talk to your mentor about any next steps related to your thesis. Do you want to try publishing your work? Do you hope to do further research on a related topic? Are you thinking about using your thesis as a writing sample for graduate school? Consider your goals for the thesis and talk these over with your mentor(s). You may also want to ask your mentor(s) for a recommendation letter. Many graduate schools and jobs require letters of recommendation from professors who you have worked with in college. A letter of recommendation might be easier for a mentor to write soon after you have completed the thesis, while you are still fresh in his or her memory. Finally, if you received a grant from the L&S Honors Program, we request a copy of your thesis to be bound and placed in our library. Please drop off a copy of your thesis at Washburn Observatory so we can showcase your work!

Works Cited:

Lipson, Charles. How to Write a BA Thesis: A Practical Guide from your First Ideas to your Finished Paper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.


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