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Lend Your Expertise Thesis Roles & Responsibilities

The thesis is the culmination of honors education at Penn State, so being part of a Scholar's thesis committee is a particularly important role. While some faculty have assisted Scholars with honors theses before and are familiar with the roles and responsibilities, others may not know that undergraduate theses even exist until a student asks them to participate. The following information has been prepared to assist you in serving on a student's thesis committee.

Honors Thesis
A Schreyer Scholar meeting with her Thesis Supervisor

Thesis Supervisor

Thesis supervisors are selected by Scholars and judge the merits of a Scholar’s honors thesis. The relationship between supervisor and Scholar is integral to the ultimate success of the thesis.

Role

As with the graduate thesis, honors thesis supervision may involve only intellectual and editorial mentoring, or it may bring the student into your scholarly work and its physical setting in the lab and/or in the field. The first scenario may be lower-impact for you as thesis supervisor, but it requires specific commitment (from both you and the student) to stay in touch throughout the project. When the student is part of your scholarly work, the challenge (as with graduate students and postdocs) is to integrate them while carving out a project that is sufficiently their own. While it is common in these cases to delegate daily supervisory responsibility over the student to an advanced graduate student or postdoc, please remember that actual thesis supervision should not be delegated.

Your Decision

Thesis supervision is time-intensive, especially at a time of the year (middle and end of spring semester) when faculty have many competing demands on their time. When deciding whether or not to accept the thesis supervisor role, please consider the entire timeline. You are entitled to require intermediate deadlines, and an earlier deadline for the final draft, to accommodate your schedule, but this should be agreed upon before any commitment about thesis supervision is finalized. There are three procedural deadlines set by the SHC in the thesis process—for thesis proposal, format review, and final submission — but these are not a substitute for deadlines set between thesis supervisor and student for progress along the way. In particular, you and the thesis honors adviser (see below) must receive the final draft well in advance of the submission deadline, so your required or suggested changes can be incorporated. You must be available to sign the thesis cover page prior to the submission deadline, or to otherwise convey your approval to the Schreyer Honors College pending your signature. Questions about thesis formatting and deadlines should be directed to the Coordinator of Academic Services.

In an age of electronic communication, it is tempting to commit to thesis supervision even if you won’t be on campus for much of the time, because of sabbatical or other planned absence. Our experience is that these scenarios, while usually successful, present a higher risk of difficulties and even non-completion. While we appreciate the willingness of faculty to consider thesis supervision while on sabbatical or leave, please consider your best interests and those of the student before making the commitment.

If you are on the tenure track, please consult with your department before making a commitment to supervise an honors thesis. Again, we appreciate your willingness to consider thesis supervision, but by making a fully informed decision you are looking out for the student’s interest and your own.

Following Graduate School guidelines, faculty who are retired or emeritus at the time of the thesis proposal may not supervise honors theses. Faculty who will move to retired or emeritus status over the course of the thesis process (after submission of the proposal) may supervise theses, with the approval of the department via the thesis honors adviser (see below), but this is a serious commitment that you should not make unless you are absolutely willing to fulfill the role with the same level of commitment as currently-employed faculty. The Honors College reserves the right to review any proposal along these lines.

Thesis Expectations

Schreyer Scholars as a group are among the most capable undergraduates at Penn State or anywhere else, and may even be superior to many graduate students in terms of raw ability, but they are still undergraduates. This, and our expectation that Schreyer Scholars graduate on-time rather than staying on solely for thesis work, should be taken into account in determining whether the initial thesis proposal is appropriate, and whether the final submission is acceptable.

While the SHC is in no position to set standards about thesis quality or the pace of thesis work in most cases, we have encouraged colleges and individual departments to develop thesis guides that convey local expectations to students and thesis supervisors. More generally, we convey to students that the honors thesis is public and forever: it’s in the Penn State Libraries online catalog, and housed in a special full-text database. We likewise tell students that while it’s useful to look at past theses in their area on that database, any given thesis might have been barely adequate and therefore not a good aspirational goal; they should instead look at several theses, and as thesis supervisor you may want to refer students to theses you consider examples of high-quality work.

Other Participants

While the thesis is primarily between the student and the thesis supervisor, there is one other significant formal role. The thesis honors adviser must approve the initial thesis proposal and the final thesis submission. Unlike the thesis supervisor, the thesis honors adviser has a pre-existing Schreyer Honors College role as honors adviser, someone who works with Schreyer Scholars on a regular basis to guide their overall academic progress. Sometimes a student proposes thesis work for honors outside his or her primary major; in these cases the student should contact the Academic Affairs Office for guidance.

The role of the thesis honors adviser, at the beginning and end of the process, is to serve as a “second set of eyes” to guarantee the adequacy of the student’s work. More specifically, the thesis honors adviser is the gatekeeper for the “area of honors” that all theses must have; a thesis might be impressive, but it might not have enough history or biomedical engineering or finance, in terms of content, sources, and methods, to justify the required “Honors in -----“ on the transcript and diploma. In general, this is a pro forma matter since as thesis supervisor you are mindful of disciplinary expectations, but in some cases you might be supervising a thesis to be submitted for an area of honors that isn’t quite your own. Note that a student may have more than one area of honors for a thesis, in which case the thesis proposal and final submission must be approved by one thesis honors adviser in each area (a thesis may have only one thesis supervisor). Also, it sometimes happens that you are both thesis supervisor and thesis honors adviser, especially in smaller departments. In that case, you and the student should agree upon a tenure-line faculty member in your department to serve as “Reader,” in effect an ad hoc thesis honors adviser.

Typically the thesis honors adviser does not work with the student throughout the process as the thesis supervisor does, but he or she should have ample time to review the final draft and suggest (or, if appropriate, demand) changes before approving the thesis. The SHC has recently asked thesis honors advisers to take a somewhat greater role in keeping tabs on thesis progress, but not to the point of diluting the all-important relationship between the student and thesis supervisor.

Writing Quality

We expect Schreyer Scholars entering their final year to write well enough to make themselves understood according to disciplinary standards, and except for areas of honors where style is integral to overall value of the work (the clearest example would be a creative writing submission for honors in English), we suggest that you place a premium on content and clarity. You should require a relatively early installment of written work, most commonly the literature review, to get an early indication of any issues with the student’s writing. If you see problems but you’re not eager to work with them in that capacity — which we don’t consider a core responsibility of thesis supervision — please keep in mind that there are resources at Penn State starting with the Writing Center, so please refer students there. Campuses outside University Park should all have local resources for writing improvement.

Issues

While most theses proceed relatively smoothly, every year the SHC’s Academic Affairs Office is made aware of several cases where they don’t, and we assume there are other cases that we’re not aware of. Sometimes the student simply lacks the commitment (or, less commonly, the ability) to complete the project adequately, while sometimes the thesis supervisor has unreasonable expectations derived from graduate thesis supervision (see above, “Thesis Expectations”). Sometimes it’s just a personality conflict, which is why we remind students to look at compatibility and not just expertise when choosing to a thesis supervisor. Likewise, you should feel empowered to say no to a student if you have doubts about them, although we suggest that you consult with their honors adviser so you’re not making a snap decision. The thesis honors adviser should be the first point of contact, but the Associate Dean or Coordinator of Academic Advising are ready to help resolve any problems.

If the final draft requires, in your opinion, significant revisions especially with regard to core chapters (as opposed to introduction and conclusion), this suggests insufficient communication throughout the process. There are no ideal solutions at this point — it’s unrealistic for the student to make significant changes with limited time, but a thesis that doesn’t meet legitimate quality standards can’t be approved — so our goal is to make these situations as rare as possible. While it is permissible for students to defer graduation, most commonly from May to August, solely to complete the thesis, that is not an option for many students. We present these scenarios to you to convey the importance of avoiding them!

Funding

The financial viability of honors thesis research and creative activity across the University depends on most students either not having significant expenses, or having those expenses met within their department or lab: either through actual funding (money to the student) or through the department or lab assuming the expenses. The SHC has very limited resources to fund students in their thesis work, and our preference is to devote those resources to truly independent projects that aren’t integrated into ongoing (and funded) labs. Please consider, jointly with the student, what kind of resources the proposed thesis will require, whether materials, testing, travel, compensation to survey respondents, or anything else; also consider what the funding options are, whether from your resources or elsewhere.

IRB/IACUC Approvals

The Schreyer Honors College does ask, in the thesis proposal, whether the proposed work requires IRB or IACUC review and whether approval has been granted. However, we are not in a position to make those determinations, or to follow up about them. As thesis supervisor you have principal responsibility for your student’s adherence to the letter and spirit of Penn State and outside requirements in this regard.

Publication Embargoes

As noted above, theses are “published” online with the University Libraries. The SHC is willing to delay that process by up to two years if there is a patent or publication pending; we will not delay for proprietary or classified material, which should not be included in the thesis. Requests must be made to the Academic Services Coordinator prior to thesis submission.

Thesis Honors Adviser

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 adviser is very important at two key moments — the thesis proposal and the final thesis submission.

Permanent Role

The permanent (i.e. in all cases) role of the thesis honors adviser 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 adviser 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 Academic Affairs Office.

Additionally, the thesis honors adviser 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 adviser 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 adviser 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 adviser should look at his or her own commitments later in the semester.

The thesis honors adviser 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 adviser should follow up to ensure that the student is in contact with the thesis supervisor.

Our website has important information about the thesis: what we tell our students about it, and what they say about it. In particular, our thesis guides are our official guidance about the thesis process. While it is written for students, we invite you to review it since it discusses what students can legitimately expect from their thesis experience.

Situational Role

The situational role of the thesis honors adviser is to mediate any conflicts between the Scholar and the thesis supervisor. While the Schreyer Honors College, specifically the Associate Dean, is willing to participate in these discussions and should be made aware of any problems, the thesis honors adviser as a faculty colleague is best-positioned to handle conflicts without escalating the situation further.

Overall Role

For both of these roles, it is important that the thesis honors adviser 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 adviser’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 adviser 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 advisers as lower-division honors advisers, and many majors assign non-tenure-line faculty as upper-division honors advisers. Thesis honors advising is, by rule and by common sense, always a faculty role. Scholars must be reassigned from professional to faculty honors advisers no later than the start of junior year. Non-tenure-line faculty may serve as upper-division honors advisers, and therefore as thesis honors advisers, only with the approval of the SHC Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. Because the thesis honors adviser 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.

Different Advisers

There are times when a Scholar's thesis honors adviser is not the same as their regular honors adviser. 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 adviser may have no prior association with the student, so it is the student’s responsibility to consult with the would-be thesis honors adviser 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.

Scholars Enrolling After the First Year

Scholars who join the Honors College in their second or third year may only pursue honors in the major for which they were admitted to the Honors College, unless they secure the permission of the honors adviser (in multi-adviser majors, the designated lead honors adviser) in the would-be area. The Honors College knows from experience that some majors are willing to grant this change 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 College’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 Honors College, 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 adviser before committing to the thesis project with a thesis supervisor. Local policies about non-majors pursuing honors vary by department, and while the Honors College 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 advisers (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.

Schreyer Scholar Lisa Gardner

I chose Schreyer because I wanted access to world-class educational opportunities and international experiences, but I also wanted to be a part of a smaller community. Schreyer has served as my home base as I have navigated all the amazing things that Penn State has to offer.

Lisa Gardner '19 Mechanical Engineering

Lend Your Expertise Thesis Roles & Responsibilities

Honors Thesis