A Distinctive Achievement Honors Thesis

As a Schreyer Scholar, you are required to complete an undergraduate honors thesis as the culmination of your honors experience. The goal of the thesis is to demonstrate a command of relevant scholastic work and to make a personal contribution to that scholarship.

Your thesis project can take many forms — from laboratory experiments all the way to artistic creations. Your thesis document captures the relevant background, methods, and techniques and describes the details of the completion of the individual project.

Two Penn State faculty members evaluate and approve your thesis — a thesis supervisor and an honors adviser in your area of honors.

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Scholar hitting the gong after submitting their honors thesis

Planning is Key Project Guide

The thesis is, by design, your most ambitious undertaking as a Scholar.

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. This guide will walk you through the thesis process. Keep in mind, though, that your honors adviser and thesis supervisor are your key resources.

Planning A Thesis

An ideal thesis project should:

  • Satisfy your intellectual curiosity
  • Give you the opportunity to work closely with faculty
  • Develop transferable skills
  • Clarify your post-graduation plans

The single biggest factor in determining thesis quality is your level of interest in and engagement with the topic, so consider multiple possibilities rather than selecting the first one that seems attractive to you.


From the perspective of the Schreyer Honors College, the purpose of the thesis experience is to develop your intellectual and professional identity in the field and to help you think about your future.

Once complete, the purpose of the thesis is to advance knowledge, understanding, or creative value in its field.

Lab-Based Research Fields

We recommend avoiding the temptation to stick with your first lab placement merely out of convenience if the topic is not interesting to you. The quality of your thesis is truly dependent on the depth of your interest and the energy behind your curiosity. Your intellectual engagement is the thing that will carry you through what may at times feel like a long and sometimes difficult process.

A Thesis Needs A Thesis

A thesis is problem-oriented and identifies something of importance whose answer or best interpretation is not fully known or agreed-upon by people who make their careers in the field, and it proceeds towards the answer or best interpretation. Even with a creative or performance thesis, the purpose is not to demonstrate technical ability (writing, painting, acting, composing, etc.), but to express something you think is worth expressing and hasn't been fully expressed already.

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.

Feasibility & Realistic Ambition

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 will not accomplish anything on that scale. This realization might be disheartening, but it is 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, etc.) 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.


The honors thesis should not extend your time at Penn State by design. There are circumstances where you might defer graduation to complete your thesis, but that should not be your initial plan.


Resources are a potential issue in that even a comprehensive and well-funded university like Penn State does not 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.

Proposal, Supervisor & Area of Honors
Thesis Proposal

The thesis proposal is due at the end of your third year, assuming you're on a four-year path to graduation. File your Thesis Proposal with the Schreyer Honors College via the Student Records System (SRS). The end-of-third-year requirement is from the Honors College, but your major may expect a much earlier commitment so be sure to talk to your honors adviser as early as your second year about this. The thesis proposal needs the following things:

  • Supervision
  • A Working Title
  • Purpose/Objective
  • Intended Outcome
  • Project Interest
  • Will your thesis satisfy other requirements?
  • Sources
  • Does your thesis involve working with human, animals, or biohazardous materials or radioactive isotopes?

The Honors College staff does not review the content of the proposal, so the intended audience is your thesis supervisor and the honors adviser in your intended area of honors.

Thesis Supervisor

Your thesis supervisor is the professor who has primary responsibility for supervising your thesis.

Ideally your thesis supervisor will be the single most appropriate person for your thesis 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 cannot 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 does not align closely with the supervisor's specialization.

Apart from a professor being unavailable for or declining your project, the biggest reason to consider bypassing the "single most appropriate person" is that you have doubts about whether you would get along with them. Do not 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.

Area of Honors
Major as Area of Honors
The standard scenario is that you have one major and you write the thesis under the supervision of a thesis supervisor in that major. You 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 your current honors adviser in the major.
Non-Major Area of Honors
The Honors College does not limit your area of honors to your major but can be another major, a unique minor (one without a major version, like Astrobiology), or a unique graduate program (like Demography). The area of honors cannot 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.
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, please contact SHCAcademics@psu.edu.
Area-Specific Requirements
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 Honors College 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.
Thesis 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 thesis honors adviser are the same person, you must find a second eligible faculty member from your area of honors to read and approve your thesis.

Multiple Majors

If you have more than one major, you can do 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. This will be considered interdisciplinary.
  • 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.

Second- and Third-Year Entrants (including Paterno Fellows)

If you were admitted to the Honors College after your first year or via 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 Honors College, 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 for whether a given thesis topic and supervisor are acceptable.

From Proposal to Thesis
Timetable & Benchmarks

The thesis proposal does not 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 Schreyer Scholars the write-up will not 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 (or e-mailing regular updates) with your thesis supervisor — even if you are working in the same lab routinely — is the best way to do that. You should also regularly update your thesis honors adviser.

Plan Ahead

Think ahead, preferably well before the time of your thesis proposal, about what your thesis work will mean for your fourth-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 third and fourth year in your research timeline: those mentioned above, plus the benefit of devoting yourself full-time to the thesis, whether it is in a lab on campus or in the field. Funding opportunities for full-time summer thesis research include Schreyer Honors College grants, the Erickson Undergraduate Education Discovery Grant, and funding via your thesis supervisor (especially in the sciences and engineering).

Follow the Template Formatting Guide

The formatting requirements in this guide apply to all Schreyer Honors theses. Please follow the thesis templates provided below:

Standard Template LaTeX Template

Information about using LaTeX is available from the University Libraries.

Fonts & Color
Font Type

All text should use the Times New Roman font.

Font Size

Reduced type may be used within tables, figures, and appendices, but font size should be at least 11-point in size and must be completely legible.

Font Color

The majority of your thesis document should be in black font, however, color is permissible in figures, tables, links, etc.


Begin each section on a new page. Do the same with each element of the front matter, the reference section, and the appendix.

Try to avoid typing a heading near the bottom of a page unless there is room for at least two lines of text following the heading. Instead you should simply leave a little extra space on the page and begin the heading on the next page.

If you wish you use a "display" page (a page that shows only the chapter title) at the beginning of chapters or appendices, be sure to do so consistently and to count the display page when numbering the pages.

Page Numbers

Excluding the title page, every page in the document, including those with tables and figures, must be counted. Use lower case Roman numerals for the front matter and Arabic numbers for the text. The text (or body) of the thesis must begin on page 1. Follow the template provided at the top of this section.

Title Page

Use the template provided as a pattern for creating your title page. Be sure all faculty members are identified by their correct professional titles. Check with the department for current information. Do not use such designations as "PhD" or "Dr." on the title page. (Ex. John Smith, Professor of English, Thesis Supervisor).

Electronic Approvals

Please submit your final thesis to your Thesis Supervisor and Thesis Honors Adviser at least two weeks prior to the final submission due date to allow them ample time for review and suggested changes. Also, please communicate with your professors to find out their schedule and preferred amount of time to review your thesis. Once your thesis is submitted, your committee will review the thesis one last time before giving their final approval.

Number of Approvals

A minimum of two approvals is required on each thesis. If one of the approvers has a dual role (e.g. Thesis Supervisor and Honors Adviser), then list both roles under the professional title. Do not list the same person twice. If the sharing of roles leaves you with fewer than the required number of approvals, an additional approver must be added (Faculty Reader).

Professional Titles

Be sure to identify all faculty by their correct professional titles. Check with the department for current information. Do not use such designations as "PhD" or "Dr." on the title page.


This is a one-paragraph summary of the content of your thesis that identifies concisely the content of the thesis manuscript and important results of your project. Some students like to think of it as an advertisement — i.e., when someone finishes reading it, they should want to examine the rest of your work. Keep it short and include the most interesting points.

The abstract follows the title page, must have the heading ABSTRACT at the top, and is always page Roman number i. There is no restriction on the length of the abstract, but it is usually no longer than one page.

Table of Contents

The table of contents is essentially a topic outline of the thesis and it is compiled by listing the headings in the thesis. You may choose to include first-level headings, first- and second-levels, or all levels. Keep in mind there usually is no index in a thesis, and thus a fairly detailed table of contents can serve as a useful guide for the reader. The table of contents must appear immediately after the abstract and should not list the abstract, the table of contents itself, or the vita.

Be sure the headings listed in the table of contents match word-for-word the headings in the text. Double check to be sure the page numbers are shown. In listing appendices, indicate the title of each appendix. If using display pages, the number of the display page should appear in the table of contents.

An honors thesis manuscript should replicate the appearance of professional writing in your discipline. Include the elements of a formal piece of academic work accordingly. For specific questions on organization or labeling, check with your thesis supervisor to see if there is a style guide you should use.

Acknowledgements (Optional)

Acknowledgements are not a required component of an honors thesis, but if you want to thank particular colleagues, faculty, librarians, archivists, interviewees, and advisers, here's the place to do it. You should include an acknowledgements page if you received a grant from the University or an outside agency that supported your research.

Tables & Figures

A table is a columnar arrangement of information, often numbers, organized to save space and convey relationships at a glance. A rule of thumb to use in deciding whether given materials are tables or figures is that tables can be typed, but figures must be drawn.

A figure is a graphic illustration such as a chart, graph, diagram, map, or photograph.

Please be sure to insert your table or figure. Do not copy and paste. Once the figure or table is inserted, you right click on it to apply the appropriate label. Afterwards, return to the list of tables or list of figures page, right click on the list, and "update table (entire table)" and the page will automatically hyperlink.

Captions & Numbering

Each table and each figure in the text must have a number and caption. Number them consecutively throughout, beginning with 1, or by chapter using a decimal system.


Place a table or figure immediately after the first mention of it in the text — on the same page if there is room, or on the following page. Alternatively, tables and/or figures may be grouped together at the end of each chapter. Tables or figures of peripheral importance to the text may be placed in an appendix. Tables and figures must be referred to in the text by number, not by a phrase such as "the following table." Do not wrap text!

Style Guides

These parts of the thesis will vary in format depending on the style guide you are following. Your discipline will use a consistent style guide, such as MLA, APA, CBE, or Chicago. Whichever style you are using, stick to the rules and be consistent.

Appendices (Optional)

Material that is pertinent but is somewhat tangential or very detailed (raw data, procedural explanations, etc.) may be placed in an appendix. Appendices should be designated A, B, C (not 1, 2, 3 or I, II, III). If there is only one appendix, call it simply Appendix, not Appendix A. Titles of appendices must be listed in the table of contents. Appendix pages must be numbered consecutively with the text of the thesis (do not number the page A-1, A-2, etc.).

Bibliography/References (Optional)

A thesis can include a bibliography or reference section listing all works that are referred to in the text, and in some cases other works also consulted in the course of research and writing. This section may either precede or follow the appendices (if any), or may appear at the end of each chapter. Usually a single section is more convenient and useful for both author and reader.

The forms used for listing sources in the bibliography/reference section are detailed and complicated, and they vary considerably among academic disciplines. For this reason, you will need to follow a scholarly style manual in your field or perhaps a recent issue of a leading journal as a guide in compiling this section of the thesis.

Academic Vita (Optional)

The academic vita is optional, must be the last page of the document, and is not given a page number or listed in the table of contents. The title — Academic Vita — and the author's name should appear at the top. A standard outline style or a prose form may be used. The vita should be similar to a resume. Do not include your GPA and personal information.

The Final Step Submission Guide

Once your final thesis is approved by your thesis supervisor and honors adviser, you may submit the thesis electronically. This guide will provide the details on how to submit your thesis.

Open Access

Your electronic thesis is available to anyone who wishes to access it on the web unless you request restricted access. Open access distribution makes the work more widely available than a bound copy on a library shelf.

Restricted Access (Penn State Only)

Access restricted to individuals having a valid Penn State Access Account, for a period of two years. Allows restricted access of the entire work beginning immediately after degree conferral. At the end of the two-year period, the status will automatically change to Open Access. Intended for use by authors in cases where prior public release of the work may compromise its acceptance for publication.


This option secures the body of the thesis for a period of two years. Selection of this option required that an invention disclosure (ID) be filed with the Office of Technology Management (OTM) prior to submission of the final honors thesis and confirmed by OTM. At the end of the two-year period, the work will be released automatically for Open Access unless a written request is made to extend this option for an additional year. The written request for an extension should be sent 30 days prior to the end of the two-year period to the Schreyer Honors College, 10 Schreyer Honors College, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, or by e-mail to SHCAcademics@psu.edu. Please note: No one will be able to view your work under this option.

Electronic submission of the final honors thesis became a requirement in spring semester of 2010. Both the mandatory draft submission and the final copy must be submitted online.

The "official" copy of the honors thesis is the electronic file (eHT), and this is the copy that will be on file with the University Libraries. Electronic submission does not prevent the author from producing hard copies for the department or for personal use. All copies are the responsibility of the author and should be made prior to submission. The Schreyer Honors College does not provide copies.

How to Submit

In order to submit your thesis, you must upload a draft in PDF format to the Electronic Honors Thesis (eHT) website.

What/When to Upload
  • The initial submission, the Thesis Format Review, should be the textual thesis only and should be in a single PDF file (it may include image files such as TIFFs or JPEGs)
  • The recommended file naming convention is Last_First_Title.pdf
  • Failure to submit the Format Review by the deadline will result in removal from the honors graduation checklist. If this occurs, you must either defer graduation or withdraw/be dismissed from the Honors College
Uploading Video, Audio or Large Images

If your thesis content is such that you feel you need to upload content other than text to properly represent your work, upload the textual portion of your thesis first as a single, standalone PDF file. Then, add additional files for any other content as separate uploads.

If the majority of your thesis work is a multimedia presentation (video, slideshow, audio recording, etc.) you are required to upload these files in addition to your PDF.

Acceptable formats include:

Apple Quicktime (.mov), MPEG (.mpg), Microsoft Audio Video Interleaved (.avi)
MIDI w/timing information (.midi), MPEG (.mpg), WAV (.wav)
PDF or PDF/A (.pdf), JPEG (.jpg), TIFF (.tif)

Please do not upload any ZIP files. If uploading more than one file, keep individual file sizes for the supplementary material under 50 MB where possible. Large files will upload, but it may take a long time to download for future use.

Final Submission

In order to submit your final thesis:

  • Refer to the thesis templates above to create your title page (no page number).
  • Make sure you have correctly spelled "Schreyer Honors College".
  • Be sure to include the department in which you are earning honors, your semester and year of graduation (Ex. Spring 2024, not May 2024), your thesis title and your name.
  • List the name and professional title of your thesis supervisor and honors adviser (in the department granting honors). If your honors adviser and thesis supervisor are the same person, a second faculty reader signature from the department granting honors is required.
  • Include your abstract following your title page (Roman numeral i).
  • Make sure your thesis is saved in PDF format.
  • Upload your final thesis on the eHT website.
Final Approval

When the final thesis is approved, the author and all committee members will be notified via e-mail of the approval. Your thesis will then be accessible on the eHT website within a month after graduation unless you have specified restricted access.

Schreyer Scholar Alison Roby

The Schreyer Honors College allows its students to reach their full potential and challenges them to be even better. More importantly, when we achieve our dreams, we have a fantastic community behind us that wants to celebrate our accomplishments along with us.

Alison Roby ' 18 Bioengineering

A Distinctive Achievement Honors Thesis

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