Thesis Project Guide
The thesis is, by design, your most ambitious undertaking as a Scholar. If it doesn't seem like a daunting and perhaps even intimidating project, you're not being ambitious enough!
A successful thesis requires a viable proposal, goal-setting, time management, and interpersonal skills on top of the disciplinary skills associated with your intended area of honors. When Scholars don't successfully complete the thesis, or if the thesis isn't everything it could have been, it is usually because of deficiencies in one or more of these areas.
This guide will walk you through the thesis process. We hope that you find this guide useful regardless of your academic area. Keep in mind, though, that your honors adviser and your thesis supervisor are the go-to people because they are familiar with how the general advice here applies (or, in some cases, might not apply) in your area.
An ideal thesis project should do many things, including:
- Satisfy your intellectual curiousity
- Give you the opportunity to work closely with faculty mentors
- Develop transferable skills
- Clarify your post-graduation plans
In the end the single biggest factor in determining thesis quality is your level of interest in and engagement with the topic, so it's worth the time and trouble to consider multiple possibilities rather than going with the first one that seems attractive to you.
At this point it's useful to review the purpose of the thesis, from the SHC's perspective. While the purpose of the completed thesis project, once it's out in the world, is to advance knowledge, understanding, or creative value in its field, the purpose of the thesis experience as a whole is to develop your intellectual and professional identity in the field, and to help you think about your future. Any given topic might do a better job in one of these three areas than the others, but the topic you choose should do a good enough job in all of them.
You should avoid the temptation to stick with your first lab placement merely out of convenience if the topic is not interesting to you. You are unlikely to produce a quality thesis unless you're excited enough about the topic to get you through the inevitable drudgery.
From Interest to Thesis
One of the major problems Scholars encounter is how to translate an interest in a topic into a thesis. When you hear—and you probably have, a lot—that a thesis isn't a term paper, that isn't just a commentary on the page count; there's a more fundamental difference.
Term Paper vs. Honors Thesis
A term paper can be spectacularly ambitious, lengthy, and well-done but its only goal is to demonstrate that the student has mastered the material.
A thesis, on the other hand, is problem-oriented: It identifies something of importance whose answer or best interpretation isn't fully known or agreed-upon by people who make their careers in the field, and it proceeds towards the answer or best interpretation. Even a creative or performance thesis is about expressing something you think is worth expressing and hasn't been fully expressed already, not just a demonstration of technical ability (writing, painting, acting, composing, etc.).
Identifying a Topic
An interest can come from anywhere, but the problem that defines a thesis can only come from a thorough acquaintance with “the literature,” the accumulated knowledge or creative value in your field.
By speaking with faculty (preferably more than one) and reading professional journals (again, more than one), you not only get a “crowd-sourced” sense of what is important, you also get a sense of what the open questions are. This is where you start to strike a balance between ambition and feasibility.
You might want to come up with the definitive explanation for Rome's decline and fall, or the cure for cancer. There is strong evidence - several thousand prior theses! - that your honors thesis won't accomplish anything on that scale. This realization might be disheartening, but it's an introduction to the reality of modern scholarship: Knowledge almost always moves incrementally and the individual units of knowledge production and dissemination (theses, journal articles, books) are only rarely revolutionary in isolation. This is part of what the thesis experience will test for you—whether or not you want to continue via graduate school in that kind of slow-moving enterprise.
The feasibility of a given thesis problem is bounded, as mathematicians might say, by several factors including:
Unlike a doctoral dissertation, which is ready when it's ready even if that turns out to be a year or more past the original expectation, the honors thesis shouldn't extend your time at Penn State by design. There are circumstances where you might defer graduation to complete your thesis, but that shouldn't be your initial plan.
Resources are a potential issue in that even a comprehensive and well-funded university like Penn State doesn't have the physical infrastructure for every possible kind of research. The expense of ambitious off-campus research, such as a comparative study requiring visits to several countries, can easily exceed our funding abilities. If you expect to incur more than $300 in expenses, you should get commitments from your department and academic college before proceeding.
The constraint that's least discussed but is probably most important, of course, is your abilities. Later in life, as a historian of pre-colonial Latin America, you might learn indigenous languages like Mayan or Quechua, but right now you only know Spanish; as a biochemist you might master a wide range of techniques but right now you only know one or two.
Ambitious yet reasonable expectations for the thesis, in terms of what you will learn and how the final product will contribute to knowledge, are not uniform across all fields. Some people are math prodigies but nobody is a sociology prodigy. They're just developmentally different things. High schools offer great opportunities in some areas that can give you a running start in college, even including research, but not in other areas. Even within a given discipline some subfields are thickly populated while some aren't, which opens up the possibility of making a bigger noise in the latter even as an undergraduate. These are all things you may want to discuss with your honors adviser and with would-be thesis supervisors, keeping in mind that faculty are people and therefore have different temperaments. One professor might see the undergraduate thesis more as a rite of passage or as a test, while the next might emphasize what it can do for the field.
This is the point in any thesis guide where you're told to look at past honors theses. And you should, but with a caveat: Since theses aren't graded, you never know if you're looking at something excellent or merely adequate. So be sure to look at more than one, and don't hesitate to look at master's theses, which are by definition more ambitious and therefore a good “reach” goal for you.
When is the thesis proposal due? By the end of your junior year, assuming you're on a four-year path to graduation, you must file a Thesis Proposal with the Schreyer Honors College via the online Student Records System. It's never too early to open that part of your SRS dashboard to see what it will entail. The end-of-junior-year requirement is from the SHC, but your major may expect a much earlier commitment so be sure to talk to your honors adviser as early as sophomore year about this. The thesis proposal needs only two things:
- What the thesis will be about
- Who will be supervising you
The SHC staff doesn't review the content of the proposal, so the intended audience is your would-be thesis supervisor and the honors adviser in your intended area of honors.
Your thesis supervisor is the professor who has primary responsibility for — wait for it — supervising your thesis.
Ideally your thesis supervisor will be the single most appropriate person in the whole university, or at least at your whole campus, in terms of specialization and, where relevant, resources. How far you can stray from that ideal depends on the nature of the thesis. If specific lab resources are needed then you can't stray too far, but if general intellectual mentoring is the extent of the required supervision then you have more flexibility, including the flexibility to choose a topic that doesn't align closely with the supervisor's specialization.Apart from unavailability — the professor says no for whatever reason — the biggest reason to consider bypassing the “single most appropriate person” is that you have doubts about whether you'd get along with them. Don't put too much stock in second-hand information about a professor, but if after meeting him or her you have concerns then you should certainly consider continuing your search. While a good thesis can come of a strained supervisor-student relationship, it's not likely.
Area of Honors
Major as Area of Honors
The standard scenario is that a Scholar has one major and writes the thesis under the supervision of a thesis supervisor in that major. The Scholar will then “get honors” in that major, as expressed on the thesis cover page and the diploma. In this case, the required approvals are the thesis supervisor and the Scholar's current honors adviser in the major.
Non-Major Area of Honors
The SHC does not limit your area of honors to your major. It can be another major, a unique minor (one without a major version, like Astrobiology), or a unique graduate program (like Demography). It can't be a certificate (like Nanotechnology) or an option (like Vertebrate Physiology). Remember, the thesis itself, or at least its title, is your “calling card” for future schooling or employment, so don't get too hung up on the area of honors beyond the fact that every thesis needs one.
The “area of honors” approval comes from the appropriate honors adviser. This approval is vital because it's the University's formal statement that the thesis project you propose represents adequate accomplishment in a given field, not just as an isolated piece of work. If you propose as your area of honors a minor or graduate program that does not have an honors adviser listed on the University Park or campus honors adviser lists, contact SHCAcademics@psu.edu.
The honors adviser is the gatekeeper for any area-specific policies or requirements beyond the thesis itself. For instance, some majors require that their students take specific coursework to graduate with honors, and this is enforced via honors adviser approval of the thesis proposal. Some majors will only grant honors to their own majors and minors, while others will more or less automatically grant honors for any thesis supervised by one of its faculty. The SHC does not keep an official collection of these policies, so if you are considering honors outside of your major, you should contact the appropriate honors adviser.
An honors adviser from the area in which you are pursuing honors must read and approve your thesis. If the thesis supervisor and honors adviser are the same person, you must find a second eligible faculty member from your area of honors who will read and approve your thesis.
If you have more than one major, you can do one of the following:
- Pick one major and write a thesis for honors solely in that major
- Pick a topic that can legitimately earn honors in both majors
- Write multiple theses, one for honors in each major
The first scenario is the most common, followed by the second depending on how closely related the majors are. You can also pick a non-major area of honors.
If you were admitted to the SHC via the Gateway or the Liberal Arts Paterno Fellows program, you are expected to write your thesis for honors in your entrance major. You do have the right to pursue honors elsewhere, for instance in a concurrent major for which you were not admitted to the SHC, but there is no guarantee of approval.
Topic, Not Professor
Typically, the area of honors suggested by the topic aligns with the professor's affiliation, as when you seek honors in history based on a history thesis supervised by a professor of history. But if the supervisor happens to be a professor of literature, you are still able to pursue honors in history based on the substance and methodology of the thesis.
This is especially worth remembering in the life sciences, where faculty expertise is spread among many different departments and colleges. As always, the honors adviser in the intended area of honors is the gatekeeper about whether a given thesis topic and supervisor are acceptable.
Timetable & Benchmarks
The thesis proposal doesn't require a timetable, but you and your supervisor should have a clear idea of how much you should accomplish on a monthly basis all the way through completion. Not all of those monthly benchmarks will be actual written work; for many Scholars the write-up won't come until toward the end. If you fall behind during the earlier part of the thesis timeline, it will be difficult if not impossible to make up that ground later.
Regular Meetings with Your Thesis Supervisor
You should take proactive steps against procrastination by making yourself accountable to someone other than yourself. Scheduling regular meetings with your thesis supervisor - even if you're working in same lab routinely - is the best way to do that.
If your supervisor isn't accustomed to meeting with students regularly, for instance because he/she works mostly with doctoral students who are more self-directed and typically don't have a firm graduation date, remind him/her of the importance of regular meetings for you. Some majors have required thesis seminars which will bring you together with other thesis-writers in your major.
Think ahead, preferably well before the time of your thesis proposal, about what your thesis work will mean for your senior year schedule. This is especially important if you have a significant capstone requirement like student teaching for education majors, or if you expect to do a lot of job interviews or graduate/professional school visits.
There are many reasons to plan to include the summer between junior and senior year in your research timeline: All of the ones just mentioned, plus the benefit of devoting yourself full-time to the thesis, whether it's in a lab on campus or in the field. Funding opportunities for full-time summer thesis research include the SHC International Thesis Research Grant, the SHC Summer Research/Internship stipend, the Undergraduate Education Discovery Grant, and funding via your thesis supervisor, especially in the sciences and engineering.
Writing the Thesis
The meaning of “writing the thesis” varies substantially by field. In science and engineering, writing is typically "summative": It is, literally, a write-up of actual physical work or simulations you have done. In the humanities, on the other hand, writing is typically "formative" in that the real intellectual work of the project is indistinguishable from the writing. Some fields, such as social sciences, typically fall somewhere in between.
These distinctions among types of writing are important because they dictate different timelines for the transition from research to writing, and whether a clean transition even makes sense. They also impact how much time you'll need for successive drafts. In a summative writing field it's relatively unlikely that you'll have to go back and make big changes as that would strongly suggest that the underlying research is flawed. In a formative writing field it's the norm. Your thesis supervisor will have ample experience in these workflow issues so you should make it a big part of your initial discussions and you should keep on track with whatever you agree to.
Tricks of the Trade
Regardless of the field, writing comes more easily to some people than to others, and for different reasons. For some people, including some Scholars, it's a relative struggle just to produce an acceptable piece of writing, while for others, probably including a lot more Scholars, it's a struggle to produce something that meets their own demanding standards. Here is some advice for both groups:
Scholarly writers have to organize their material, [and] express an argument clearly enough that readers can follow the reasoning and accept their conclusions. They make this job harder than it need be when they think that there is only One Right Way to do it, that each paper they write has a preordained structure they must find. They simplify their work, on the other hand, when they recognize that there are many effective ways to say something and that their job is only to choose one way and execute it so that readers will know what they are doing.Howard S. Becker Writing for the Social Sciences: How to Start and Finish your Thesis, Book, or Article (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) p. 43
Especially if you're in the social sciences, you should consider getting and reading the whole book, which is still available. Becker is also the author of the equally useful Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You're Doing It (Chicago, 1998).
The sooner you can get to an acceptable completed thesis, in advance of the submission deadline, the more time you have to make it an exemplary thesis.
Writing in Non-Chapter Order
Sometimes early chapters are easier to write once you have the bulk of the thesis committed to paper—and that's almost always the case for the Introduction, which presents a completed work and can't be written earlier except as an exercise to help you imagine the completed work.
Keep Moving and Assume Rewrites
Especially in those "formative writing" fields, the solution to writer's block is to write something even if you have no confidence it will be there in that form at the end. Treat writing like researching: Not every book and article you look at will end up cited in your thesis, and not every day in the lab will be reflected in your results.
Insist on Feedback
While some thesis supervisors will be eager to provide feedback as soon as you start producing writing, others may be inclined to wait until you've written the bulk of your thesis. The sooner you can get feedback, the better!
Of course, the other side of the coin is that you need to get used to accepting feedback and, at your discretion, incorporating it into your work. Make sure you are clear about which suggested changes are in effect required. A required change is one without which the supervisor won't approve the thesis. Suggested changes are just that, suggestions that can be accepted or politely declined.
Save Time for the Small Stuff
The final proofreading and formatting of your thesis can't be done in an hour or most likely even a day, so be sure to leave time in your timeline for those important tasks. A thesis really is forever, especially in the electronic age, and ideally it shouldn't be a source of embarrassment to you months and years down the line.
It's very likely that your thesis will quote from the works of others to some extent. You must acknowledge this use and provide an appropriate citation, but you do not need permission to use works in the public domain (works on which a copyright never existed or on which copyright has expired). To determine if a work is in the public domain, go to the following website, made available through Cornell University.
If you use copyrighted works, refer to Section 107 of U.S. Copyright law, otherwise known as the fair use doctrine. Below is the applicable language:
The fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include —
- The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
- The nature of the copyrighted work;
- The amount and sustainability of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
- The effect of use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
All four factors must be considered when conducting a fair use analysis. The Fair Use Checklist is an excellent tool in making a fair use determination.
Again, you must acknowledge the source of the content. If the use does not qualify as a fair use, you may not include the material without written permission of the copyright holder. For additional information, visit Penn State's Copyright Law website.
When requesting letters of permission, be sure the grantor is aware that the work will be made available to the public through Penn State's Electronic Theses and Dissertation website. Any letters of permission should be submitted along with the thesis cover page. You are solely responsible if you violate copyright law; Penn State will not be held liable.
There is a very strong presumption in favor of fair use when citing scholarly work, the purpose of which is after all to be utilized in future scholarship; likewise, in scholarship about copyrighted works (e.g. of fiction), typically fair use is determined by the significance of the reproduced portions to your goals in analyzing the work.