Thesis Supervisor Role and Responsibilities
The thesis is the culmination of honors education at Penn State, so thesis supervision is a particularly important role. While some faculty have supervised honors theses before and are familiar with the role and its responsibilities, others may not know that undergraduate theses even exist until a student asks them to supervise. To assist you in making the important decision about whether to supervise an honors thesis, the Schreyer Honors College offers the following information.
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.
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.
Making 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 advisor (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 SHC 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 advisor (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 SHC reserves the right to review any proposal along these lines.
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.
While the thesis is primarily between the student and the thesis supervisor, there is one other significant formal role. The thesis honors advisor must approve the initial thesis proposal and the final thesis submission. Unlike the thesis supervisor, the thesis honors advisor has a pre-existing Schreyer Honors College role as honors advisor, 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 SHC’s Academic Affairs Office for guidance.
The role of the thesis honors advisor, 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 advisor 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 advisor in each area (a thesis may have only one thesis supervisor). Also, it sometimes happens that you are both thesis supervisor and thesis honors advisor, 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 advisor.
Typically the thesis honors advisor 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 advisors 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.
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.
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 advisor so you’re not making a snap decision. The thesis honors advisor should be the first point of contact, but the SHC’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs 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!
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.
The SHC 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.
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 SHC’s Academic Services Coordinator prior to thesis submission.
Questions about thesis supervisor roles and responsibilities should be directed to:SHC Academic Team