What Is an Honors Thesis?

  • An honors thesis is an original, independent research project undertaken with the guidance of a faculty mentor and culminating in a significant paper.

    As an Honors College student, you are familiar with the thesis papers written in our core courses, and this is at once similar and different. The two forms are similar in the sense that both are characterized by a persuasive argument, judicious use of evidence, originality of thought, and clarity of expression. But they differ in two important ways—an honors thesis is a much larger project, and it is based on original research carried out according to the standards of the discipline. Although as an undergraduate you are unlikely to make a truly world-shattering discovery, you should expect your honors thesis to make, in at least a modest way, what scholars call "a contribution to the field."

    You may hear people refer to an honors thesis as a "senior thesis." In some ways, this phrase is misleading because many students start their theses before the senior year. But if such a phrase denotes a sense of maturity and culmination, then it is not entirely wrong. An honors thesis allows you to use your accumulated skills and knowledge to study an important question, test a hypothesis, or produce something truly creative—and to do so on your own, independently. Thus, an honors thesis is the ultimate, defining accomplishment of your undergraduate education.

    Although your thesis does not have to be done in your major, you do need to choose an area in which you have strong interest and skills, and for nearly all students this means a topic within the major. If you have the interest and the background, it is also possible to design an interdisciplinary thesis that joins two areas, such as genetics and ethics or marketing and psychology. Selected Titles of Recent Honors College Theses can be viewed at the end of this guide.

    The form and length of honors theses vary greatly by discipline; recently, most traditional research-based theses have been thirty to fifty pages, but some have been longer or shorter. Some departments may want your paper to be the length of a scholarly article in that field, and this may result in a final product that is quite a bit shorter although based on just as much serious research and thought.

    In the arts, theses sometimes take the shape of a substantial creative project that reflects the same level of commitment and effort found in research-based theses. Such creative projects fall within the definition of a thesis provided that you leave behind a permanent record of the artistic work plus appropriate written explanation or rationale. Some creative projects (such as play scripts or musical compositions or poetry) naturally provide a permanent record in the form of a printed text; visual or performance-based creations require photographs, tapes, or other recording formats.

    Next > Should I write a thesis?