Writing an honors thesis

Julianna Treene & Julie Spierer, Contributing Writer & Special Features Editor

Perhaps one of the most prestigious manifestations of academic excellence and academic independence is the writing of an honors thesis. This year, 58 students undertook an original, independent research project with the guidance of a faculty member. The long and arduous research process culminated in a final paper, demonstrating significant findings that defend some particular thesis.

“Writing an honors thesis was extremely daunting at first, but at the end, it easily became the most rewarding thing I have ever experienced academically. It required me to process four years of learning, to assess my passions, and think about what I really wanted to say,” Sarah Decker ’17, who presented her thesis on the philosophical analysis of narratives in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said.

Proposal preparation

Those planning on writing an honors thesis must first have their advisor submit a Letter of Intent to Direct a Thesis form, as well as a Letter of Nomination by their penultimate year. Additionally, a separate Letter of Nomination needs to be completed by the student’s major department in order to be accepted into the Honors Program.

Although the process does not begin until the student’s senior year, many students are assured they will want to pursue defense of honors theses earlier in their college careers.

“Most students decide at the end of their sophomore or beginning of their junior years that they want to do an honors thesis,” Associate Professor of Art Janice Mann, one of the chairs for the Honors Council, said.

For May graduates, the Honors Thesis Proposal Form must be submitted to the Honors Council by late September. The Honors Council will then provide feedback to students and their advisors in the form of approve, approve with comment, revise and resubmit, or rejection of proposal.

The body of the proposal must be around seven pages in length, double-spaced, and use 12-point font, in addition to having a bibliography. The proposal must include: a thesis statement with clear objectives, the project’s description, impact, and significance, a bibliography, and a title page.

The title page must then be signed by the faculty advisor of choice, as well as the department program chair, and then scanned and submitted with an electronic proposal submission. The link to the Honors Thesis Proposal Form portal can be found on the University website.

Due to the extended and completely immersive nature of the research, it is important that students consider their faculty member of choice to advise the research.

“Becoming an expert in a certain topic requires you to interact with faculty on an entirely different level,” Decker said.

Following proposal acceptance

By March 1, students, along with their advisors, must complete a Thesis Progress and Intent to Defend form and select a co-advisor or second reader for their defense committee. Once a defense committee is formed, students and their advisors will appoint one committee member as a representative. Honors Council assigns a representative from a department outside the student’s major.

April 1 is the last day students can submit their completed thesis to the defense committee for approval. By late April, students must have completed their defense, a process in which the student presents their thesis to the chosen advisors on their defense committee.

During the defense process, students have the opportunity to present their thesis in front of their advisors, committee members, and a selected audience.

Format of the thesis defense process

Following the advisor introduction, the student presents his or her thesis, followed by questions from the general audience. The general audience is then asked to leave, after which the defense committee may ask the student questions.

The student is finally excused and the committee deliberates the student’s defense of his or her thesis.

“During my defense, I truly felt like an authority on my topic and was able to critically engage with my committee members and my audience,” Decker said.

Associate Professor of Political Science Scott Meinke advised two political science students this year, and a number of others in the past. He emphasizes the immense positive impact of the constructive criticism that students gain through the defense process has upon the final thesis document.

“The defense requires students to answer questions from many directions about their work and to consider constructive criticism about it. All of this helps the students to improve their final thesis document. Even the very best theses I’ve seen at Bucknell have undergone some revision in response to the defense,” Meinke said.

Nominations for the prestigious “The Harold W. Miller Prize” are due to the Honors Council chair by April 25, and the Honors Council and associated representatives will deliberate and decide the Miller Prize on Reading Day.

The final copy of students’ theses are due on the last day of final examinations, allowing those who successfully completed a thesis to finally breathe a sigh of relief.

“I’d say that defending the thesis was the most rewarding part of the process—in part because it was a culmination of months of work, and in part because it allows you to share what you’re passionate about to an audience. If anything, writing and defending an honors thesis provides a great sense of accomplishment, and I would encourage other students to do one if they are interested in in-depth research,” Emma Frawley ’17 said.

“The defense is a really important part of the thesis process for several reasons. It requires students to think about how to explain the research that they have done clearly and concisely. After many months wrapped up in the details of their research, they have to talk about what they did and why it matters to an audience that may not be familiar with their work,” Meinke said.

“Presenting the thesis was a rewarding experience. The entire process demonstrates the dedication and passion Bucknell professors, such as my research advisor Dr. Clapp, have for educating students. It is fun to be a part of a community where everyone shares a common interest in academics and learning,” David Hinnenkamp ’17 said. Hinnenkamp presented his biochemistry thesis titled “Synthetic Fatty Acids as Probes for Substrate Binding by Soybean Lipoxygenase-1.”

Frequently asked questions

Many students ask whether two honors theses may be completed, to which the answer is yes, so long as two distinctly different disciplines are examined. Two different proposals must be submitted, as well as two separate theses presented. You may not earn two honors in two disciplines with only one thesis.

If your thesis involves human subjects, in the context of interviews or surveys, approval must be granted through the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Students may contact the University’s IRB Chair Matthew Slater for more information surrounding the approval for human involvement.

The defense committee is composed of the research advisor, the second reader, who is usually chosen by the research advisor from his or her department of study with the input of the student, and a representative chosen by the Honors Council from a different department than the advisor.

The defense process lasts roughly 60-90 minutes, and the student may arrange a time that works best with his or her schedule that will be arranged with the defense committee.

“Usually, if a student makes it this far, he or she is successful,” Mann said. “An honors thesis isn’t really a good fit for every student. It is mainly for those who have a specific research interest that they want to pursue. Curiosity, commitment, and persistence are the three main qualities required.”

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