Honors Thesis Handbook


For many honors students, the senior honors project has been the most important experience of their college careers. Preparation of such a project – the research, experimentation, or rehearsals – can focus your interests, provide perspective in your major, develop basic scholarly skills, foster creativity and independent effort, and synthesize your educational experiences in a way that other academic projects do not. As one graduate reflects, "the prolonged research in producing an original manuscript has given me a sense of pride and achievement even today, far above the benefits or knowledge gleaned from any one course."

Besides independent work, the project also involves close associations with faculty members, particularly with the professor supervising your work. Such sustained interaction contributes greatly to the quality of the experience.

Working on your project will provide you with a valuable assessment of your ability to investigate a problem and to do serious writing, research, experimentation, or creative work in your future. Through this work, you can develop the self-knowledge and initiative that are essential for successful graduate study. Admissions committees in many graduate or professional schools are especially interested in independent work you have successfully completed. At the same time, when you are pushed to the limit of your energies and creativity, you will discover new ways of organizing your time and managing stress and long hours of solitary work. As one recent thesis writer commented, it was "four months of hell," but this was balanced by the "total exhilaration I felt about the discoveries I made all along the way." It’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed!


Once you are fairly certain that you want to engage in an Honors Senior Project, make sure you are signed up for "HONR 396: Thesis/Project Proposal" (Offered for 0 or 1 credit; take it for 0 credits if you already have 18 credits, so it won’t cost you more tuition). Normally you will take HONR 396 in the spring term of your junior year. You will meet with other students preparing thesis proposals during that semester. In unusual circumstances (e.g. studying abroad in spring of your junior year) the Director of the Honors Thesis Program may permit students to take 396 concurrently with 398 in fall of the senior year, but this requires a great deal of work to be done in one semester.  If you will be studying abroad in the Spring term of your Junior year, you should consider completing your proposal in the Fall term prior to your study abroad.

Students who request a permanent drop of Honors 396 by October 31st of their senior year will be granted the drop.


The application process consists of two basic steps: (1) choosing your topic, and (2) choosing your project advisor. These choices are, of course, closely related.

Choice of Topic

In choosing a topic, you might ask yourself three simple questions:

  1. What do I want to know badly enough to go through the often time-consuming, frustrating, and joyful process of finding out? Am I willing to sacrifice nights in St. Joe for nights in the library or lab or studio working on this project?
  2. Am I qualified – do I have enough background in theory, languages, laboratory techniques, history – to pursue this topic?
  3. Is the topic significant, yet limited enough to manage in one semester of research?

By answering these questions and generating others, you will begin to focus your interests on a specific area or topic. Normally you will choose a project in your own academic major(s). (Occasionally someone writes a thesis in an area other than his/her major, but it is difficult to do honors work in an area in which the student has little training.) Once you have an interesting question or idea, put it into a single sentence or phrase. This phrase now becomes a project title, for example, "United States Policy in Nicaragua," "A Visual Interpretation of Shakespearean Sonnets," "The Process of Holography," "Epidemiological Aspects of Alzheimer’s Disease." The idea can be anything–as long as you created it and you care about it.

Once you have chosen your topic, complete the application by writing a one-page summary of the project proposal by the end of March. In this summary you should provide information concerning your preparation to do the proposed research. This can include a list of relevant courses, experience, term papers, publications, research, etc. In addition, list the major sources you expect to use. Be aware that research on living subjects will require approval from a committee, and begin this process early! The Application will include the signature of the CSB/SJU faculty member who has agreed to be your thesis advisor.

Choice of Project Advisor and Evaluators

There are two main ways to choose an advisor to assist you in your work:

1. You may join a professor in research which he or she is already engaged in. Thus, you and your advisor form a research partnership, sharing ideas and background knowledge. Where possible, this can be a very fruitful relationship; in fact, Samuel Schuman of Guilford College calls it "learning in which the process of cooperative exploration and discovery is able to move more deeply and more sure-footedly than if the student works more independently."

However, it is very important that the thesis work be your own work, in which you have generated the research question and the method of inquiry, as well as the analysis of the results.

2. You may choose a professor who works in your area of interest, but is not working on the same topic. In this situation, you will be somewhat more on your own, although the thesis advisor will still be a vital resource.

Once you have chosen your project advisor, ask him or her to sign your application to prepare an honors project and to complete the project advisor’s statement form (see Advisor Statement). This form must be submitted to the Director of Honors by April at the latest.

If a project topic emerges, but you do not know a faculty member who would be suitable, contact the chair of the appropriate department to assist you in identifying faculty members who might supervise your work.

Expectations of the Faculty Project Advisor and of the Student:

A faculty member who agrees to supervise your project expects three basic things of you: (1) to be genuinely committed to the research or creative project, (2) to have an adequate general preparation in the subject, and (3) to be responsible for working out the dimensions of the project and meeting deadlines.

You may expect that the faculty member who agrees to be your project advisor will help you to accomplish the following tasks: (1) developing a research plan and understanding of research methodology, including the use of special techniques or equipment, (2) doing an adequate literature search and developing a bibliography, (3) limiting the topic, (4) achieving a good outline, organization, and style, and (5) preparing the final draft by reading the thesis carefully, critically, and in time for you to make final revisions.

Format of the Honors Thesis Proposal

Your next step is to develop a full Thesis Proposal. The proposal should include:

  1. A title page including your name, advisor's name, date.
  2. An approval page listing the names of the project advisor and the other two committee members.  Physical signatures are not required at this stage, but they will be necessary for the eventual Honors Thesis itself. (See Sample Signature Page)
  3. A 3-6 page narrative description of the project that explains the purpose, method, and value of the project within the discipline chosen.
  4. A preliminary outline of the project schedule.
  5. A preliminary bibliography for the project.

The proposal should be typed (double-spaced) and sent electronically to Mary Tamm and Emily Esch.  Ideally, proposals should be submitted by the end iof the spring semester of the junior year. Students conducting research projects between the junior and senior year may not be able to complete the proposal by the end of the spring term, and in this case, the deadline for the proposal is October 15th of the senior year.  Students working on creative projects should speak with their advisors to decide if a bibliography is appropriate.


Prepare Well in Advance

Experience suggests that the most important advice is START EARLY! If the project is to be of maximum value, preparation must begin long before the day you set pen to paper. Ideally the project is the culmination of research or other creative work over an extended period of time. Research frequently includes summer vacation. The more you can do over the summer, the saner your senior year will be!

If your project requires experimental procedures, it is desirable to finish them by mid-term of the fall semester of your senior year, then use the remaining half of the term for analyzing data and writing. This implies that the preparatory reading be done during the spring of your junior year or by the end of that summer, at the latest.

Listed below is an ideal timetable. Appendices A - H include checklists and the corresponding forms for you and your project advisor. If you have any questions about this timetable or the forms involved, consult the various sections of this handbook for explanations or contact the Director of the Honors Thesis Program.

Honors Thesis Timetable:

Junior Year

Register for HONR 396 (Honors Thesis Proposal).  In some cases, you may not be able to complete a viable Honors Thesis Proposal by the end of the junior year.  In this case, you should complete the proposal by October 15th.  An Honors Thesis Proposal is the conceptual map of the Honors Thesis, so completing a deatiled map as early as possible is vitally important. 

The first step in the Honors Thesis Proposal is to complete a one-page description of your project. (See Application Form.)  Your project advisor must complete the electronic advisor’s statement form. (See Advisor Statement.) You will also need to get the permission of the department to do a thesis (Departmental Approval Form).

During the spring semester, you should register for HONR 398 for the senior year.  This is a variable credit course (1-4).  You can take 4 credits in either the fall or spring of the senior year, and if you wish, you can split the credits across semesters (say, 2 in the fall and 2 in the spring).

Ideally, submit your Honors Thesis Proposal by the end of the spring semester of the junior year.  The proposal should include a narrative description of the project (3-5 pages), along with a bibliography of all the major sources you will consult to develop the necessary background for your project. You must have a primary faculty advisor and two additional faculty readers. The two faculty readers do not have to be in your major department. (See Sample Signature Page)


In most cases, four credits of your academic load during the fall will be devoted to your Honors Thesis, so be sure to sign up for HONR 398.  In some cases, departments have their own courses designed to serve the role of HONR 398 (for instance, for History, sign up for HIST 399; for Physics, take PHYS 372 in the fall, 373 in the spring). Check with your advisor or the department chair.  If your major has a required senior research seminar, normally you will use the project in that course as the basis of your Honors thesis.

You should have a bibliography of works completed and at least twenty pages of text of work for your advisor to consider by mid-November. Those doing scientific research should be well along in the data-gathering process.

By the end of the fall semester, you should have a rough draft of your thesis for your advisor.  Those doing scientific research should have completed the data gathering, and should begin the analysis of data.

By mid-March, you should submit a final draft of your thesis to your committee members. (See Sample Title Page and Sample Signature Page.)

Students who request a permanent drop from Honors 398 by March 1st will be granted the drop.

By mid-April, you should complete your Thesis Defense, a public presentation of your work.

Last Regular Class Day of Spring Term: Two final, bound copies of the thesis, the signatures of all committee members and the department chair are to be handed in to the Director of the Honors Thesis Program. In addition, submit an abstract of your thesis to be used for publicity within the two schools and inclusion on the Web Page. You are also required to submit an electronic version of your thesis and abstract to allow for accessibility through the Web Page. No theses will be accepted for honors after the end of the semester.

And finally, on or before this day, both you and your project advisor will need to complete the Self-Evaluation form. If the student is a double major and has earned distinction in both departments, the evaluation form must be signed by committee members in each department. (Under extraordinary circumstances, if there is an unavoidable delay in getting the paperwork to the Thesis Program Director, have your advisor personally phone or e-mail the grade to the Thesis Program Director by 4 PM that day. (See Project Evaluation.)


At least a week before the defense, thesis writers will furnish complete copies of the thesis to the project advisor and the two faculty readers. Your committee will advise you with regard to final, minor corrections that you should make before the defense or before the final copy is turned in to the Director of the Thesis Program.


Structure of the Honors Thesis Defense:

  1. Once the advisor and readers consider the thesis ready for defense, the student is responsible for putting up a few signs in his or her major department and elsewhere announcing the time and place of the defense along with the title of the thesis. The student may also wish to provide other faculty members who wish to attend the defense with copies of the final draft of the thesis, so that they can read it before defense.
  2. The advisor of the thesis normally acts as convener of the defense, welcoming the student and readers, as well as other faculty members and students who have come.
  3. For about 20 to 30 minutes (usually no more) the student summarizes the issue researched and the conclusions he or she reached. The student may also give a short account of how the project evolved:
    • What was the original proposal? What difficulties or dead-ends did I encounter along the way? What were the positive surprises or unexpected discoveries? How is the final thesis different from the proposed project?
    • What might I have done differently, if I had the chance to do it again? What are the strengths of the thesis? What are the areas that need more research or thought? (This last question allows the student to talk about perceived weaknesses of the project before members of the panel point them out.)
  4. One of the readers begins by asking questions about the thesis, the methodology used, the conclusions drawn, etc. This may last up to 10 minutes.
  5. The second reader does the same.
  6. The student’s major advisor for the thesis does the same.
  7. Other members of the audience, both teachers and students, are asked for their questions as time permits. (The defense should not last more than an hour.)
  8. At the end of the questioning and discussion, the audience is thanked for coming and dismissed, and the student is asked to wait outside while the panel (advisor and two readers, the Honors Thesis Director, if present and requested, and perhaps the department chair if he or she is present) evaluates the project. (However, if preferred, this meeting can be held later.)
  9. The advisor leads this discussion and takes notes on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the project. These notes should be used when the advisor writes up a short evaluation of the project. This evaluation will be kept in the Honors Program file and may be used in writing future letters of recommendation for the student.
  10. The panel decides the appropriate grade for the thesis (usually A, AB, H or B).
    Students who have received a grade of A or H on their Honors Thesis will receive special recognition on their transcripts and at commencement: "Graduated with Distinction in [your major]." The faculty committee should please keep in mind that this is a B.A. thesis or project, not an M.A. project, but Distinction should not be awarded unless the work is of excellent quality.
  11. The student is asked to join the panel members for a brief report of their reactions to the thesis and defense. If the student has received departmental distinction (a grade of A or H), the panel may tell him or her at this point. The panel congratulates the student for having passed the defense.
  12. The advisor writes up a short evaluation and submits this promptly, along with the grade for the thesis, to the Honors Thesis Program Director, who will be responsible for reporting all thesis grades to the registrar. It is very important that the Honors Thesis Program Director get this information in time to put the information on the Commencement Programs, by 4 PM on the date in late March which will have been communicated to the student and advisor early in the semester.

After you have completed the final draft of your thesis, please write a 150-word summary of your work. You could have a look at the abstracts for the last few years linked to the Honors Thesis web page for examples. Turn it in to the Director of the Honors Thesis Program with your completed thesis and evaluation page. It will be used for Honors Program records, and a copy will be given to the Deans and other academic officers, and may also appear in other CSB/SJU news publications.