Thesis Honors Advisor Role and Responsibilities
The thesis is the culmination of honors education at Penn State, and while the thesis supervisor is the principal faculty role in the thesis process, the thesis honors advisor is very important at two key moments:
- Thesis proposal
- Final thesis submission
The thesis honors advisor is typically the student’s honors advisor, and has some prior familiar with the student. Ideally, the student has consulted with the thesis honors advisor, as part of the Scholar-honors advisor relationship, about research interests within the major so the actual thesis proposal (submitted one year before intended graduation) is not a surprise. For cases in which the student pursues honors outside of the major of their current honors advising, please see the last part of this document.
Historically the role of the thesis honors advisor, at least as defined centrally by the Schreyer Honors College, has been somewhat vague but it can be broken down into permanent and situational:
The permanent (i.e. in all cases) role of the thesis honors advisor is to review the thesis proposal and final thesis submission for:
- Overall quality
- Specific fulfillment of the disciplinary expectations for a thesis in the major
The thesis honors advisor is the gatekeeper, on behalf of the major, for what “With Honors in [major]” means. We distinguish between these two judgments, overall and specific, because a thesis might be an impressive piece of work but not sufficiently reflective of the field for which it’s submitted for honors. That is one reason why scrutiny of the thesis proposal is especially important.
Note: For purposes of this discussion, “major” is shorthand for “area of honors” which may be a major, a uniquely-named minor, or a uniquely-named graduate program. These situations are discussed below.
When reviewing the thesis proposal, you are also reviewing the appropriateness of the proposed thesis supervisor. Only tenure-line faculty, or equivalently credentialed and experienced non-tenure-line faculty, may supervise honors theses. If you have doubts or concerns, please contact the SHC Academic Affairs Office.
Additionally, the thesis honors advisor is responsible for monitoring thesis progress by periodically consulting with the Scholar and the thesis supervisor. If the major does not have a uniform calendar for thesis progress, as part of its thesis guide, the thesis honors advisor should set expectations for each thesis writer in consultation with the thesis supervisor. As you can see, it is far preferable to establish a uniform calendar via a thesis guide available to all students! Early in the final semester, the thesis honors advisor should specifically consult with the Scholar and thesis supervisor about the timeline for submission of the final draft, and the thesis supervisor should be specifically asked about any travel plans, grant deadlines, or other issues that might complicate the successful culmination of the thesis. Likewise, the thesis honors advisor should look at his or her own commitments later in the semester.
The thesis honors advisor should exercise special vigilance in those cases where the Scholar’s day-to-day thesis work takes place under delegated rather than direct supervision, for instance in a lab where the student interacts more with graduate students and postdocs. On the other end of the spectrum, in humanities fields where the student is working independently for long periods, the thesis honors advisor should follow up to ensure that the student is in contact with the thesis supervisor.
The SHC website has important information about the thesis: what we tell our students about it, and what they say about it. In particular, the Thesis Project Guide is our official guidance about the thesis process. There are separate guides for the more formal aspects of thesis formatting and submission. While it is written for students, we invite you to review it since it discusses what students can legitimately expect from their thesis supervisor.
The situational role of the thesis honors advisor is to mediate any conflicts between the Scholar and the thesis supervisor. While the SHC, specifically the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, is willing to participate in these discussions and should be made aware of any problems, the thesis honors advisor as a faculty colleague is best-positioned to handle conflicts without escalating the situation further.
For both of these roles, it is important that the thesis honors advisor possess a solid understanding of the expectations for an undergraduate honors thesis in the major. In some cases the thesis supervisor, because of a lack of experience working with undergraduates or because of excessive expectations about honors students, has graduate-level expectations for the thesis; while this is a legitimate aspirational goal in many areas, it is by definition an inappropriate standard for approving or rejecting a completed thesis. At the other end of the spectrum, the thesis supervisor might have unacceptably lax standards, or might wish to get out of a bad situation by approving a substandard final product. In both cases the thesis honors advisor’s role is to enforce appropriate standards, although we recognize that there is no way to require a thesis supervisor to sign something that he or she refuses to sign.
The best and only way to minimize all of these problems, whether substantive (about thesis progress or quality) or logistical (availability to review and approve), is for the thesis honors advisor to enforce clear expectations from the outset (thesis proposal), and throughout the process. This is much easier when there is a departmental or college thesis guide, so if your unit doesn’t yet have one, please consider writing one in consultation with your departmental colleagues and (if desired) the SHC.
Note: Many majors assign professional advisors as lower-division honors advisors, and many majors assign non-tenure-line faculty as upper-division honors advisors. Thesis honors advising is, by rule and by common sense, always a faculty role. Scholars must be reassigned from professional to faculty honors advisors no later than the start of junior year. Non-tenure-line faculty may serve as upper-division honors advisors, and therefore as thesis honors advisors, only with the approval of the SHC Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. Because the thesis honors advisor must deal with the thesis supervisor from a position of equal authority and without fear of repercussions (beyond the inevitable awkwardness), only the most senior and research-accomplished non-tenure-line faculty will be approved for upper-division honors advising.
Grading the Thesis
The thesis itself is not graded, but the SHC would like all theses to carry between 3 and 6 graded credits of honors independent research credits (typically 494H though there is still some variation across departments). In most departments the instructor of record for thesis credits is the thesis supervisor, but in some departments there is a single instructor of record for all thesis credits and that person consults with thesis supervisors to determine the grade. As with any other course, this is a departmental rather than SHC function.
When the Thesis Honors Advisor is not the Scholar's Honors Advisor
This can happen when the student:
- Has concurrent majors and seeks honors in a major that's not where they receive honors advising
- Seeks honors in their minor
- Seeks honors in an area in which they're neither majoring nor minoring
What all three scenarios have in common is that the thesis honors advisor may have no prior association with the student, so it is the student’s responsibility to consult with the would-be thesis honors advisor before submitting the thesis proposal. This is both a professional courtesy and a practical necessity, because there are limits to the student’s right to pursue honors in any area:
First-Year Entering Scholars
First-year entering Scholars may pursue honors in any area they’re majoring in, as long as they follow the major’s prescribed preparation for thesis writers.
Gateway Entering Scholars
Gateway-entering Scholars may only pursue honors in the major for which they were admitted to the SHC, unless they secure the permission of the honors adviser (in multi-adviser majors, the designated lead honors adviser) in the would-be area. The SHC knows from experience that some majors are willing to grant this “change in Gateway area of honors,” while others are not, but we always direct student inquiries to the appropriate honors adviser. If the change is granted, this must be communicated directly from the appropriate honors adviser to the SHC’s advising coordinator so the change can be made in our system before the student files the thesis proposal.
Regardless of how they entered the SHC, Scholars proposing a thesis for honors in a major that’s not their own, or a minor (whether their own or not), should consult with the appropriate honors advisor before committing to the thesis project with a thesis supervisor. Local policies about non-majors pursuing honors vary by department, and while the SHC claims no role in these policies, we believe that “unique minors” (those without a matching major, like Global Health) should offer honors to Scholars pursuing that minor. For minors that are reduced versions of majors (like Economics or Physics), it should depend on the individual student and on the “carrying capacity” of the department’s faculty and facilities.
Honors in a Graduate Area
The SHC recognizes “majors, minors, and graduate programs” as valid areas of honors for the thesis, and there are a handful of graduate programs that may come up, because they have no similarly-named major or minor. For students pursuing an Integrated Undergraduate-Graduate degree (IUG) and who submit a single thesis at the master’s level to satisfy both graduate degree and undergraduate honors requirements, the undergraduate area of honors can be either the undergraduate major or the graduate program, if differently named and more appropriate. (After all, the student is concurrently receiving the graduate degree.) For non-IUG students pursuing solely an undergraduate degree, the SHC encourages graduate program directors to permit honors and act as thesis honors advisors (or to designate one) only if there is no appropriate undergraduate area and the student has some degree of appropriate coursework (though not necessarily at the 500 level) in the field. Sometimes students seek out the graduate area because it is slightly more specific or impressive-sounding, but we remind them that the title of the thesis conveys that.
Questions about thesis honors advisor roles and responsibilities should be directed to:SHC Academic Team