University of Vermont

The Honors College

The Honors College Thesis

Why write a thesis?

A thesis is a test, there's no doubt about it. It summons all the scholarly and creative skills you'e acquired. It requires a focused intelligence, substantial research, tremendous self-discipline, a lot of time and patience, and a thick skin.

And it is tremendously worth it.

The Honors College requires all its seniors to write a thesis because it is the project that marks your arrival at the place towards which we've been encouraging your explorations: intellectual independence and intrepidness. It is exactly those qualities that the thesis communicates to graduate and professional schools, and to potential employers. It also makes your parents very proud of you - and that counts for a lot all by itself!

The aim of this online handbook is to give you some of the necessary starting points for the thesis project, to answer some of the commonly-asked questions, and then to give you very specific thesis procedures from each UVM college or school.

What is a thesis?

A thesis, or a thesis project as we will refer to it throughout this handbook, is a substantial, and (mainly) independent research project (research can be defined in a number of different ways) that offers a contribution to the scholarly or creative world of your discipline. It is a not merely a long term paper or report; it is a piece of work that demonstrates a genuine commitment to the field as a whole and that therefore shows a familiarity, even a kind of expertise, with previous work in your field and is committed to and engaged in advancing that field.

There are many different kinds of thesis projects - they vary depending on your discipline and even, sometimes, within disciplines. Because the Honors Thesis process at UVM is decentralized, you'll want to examine closely the definitions and processes of each college and school as contained in Appendix A at the back of this handbook. [ Appendix A (pdf) ] But here is a quick and not entirely exhaustive characterization of the nature of thesis projects in the seven different colleges and schools at UVM:

Just as the nature of your thesis project will vary depending on your field and discipline, so will the length of your thesis. A typical undergraduate non-scientific thesis project, for instance, might be about 50 pages long; a typical undergraduate thesis project in the sciences might be 20 pages long; and a creative thesis project will likely only partially be measured in pages, and the number of pages will thus vary greatly. There is, in other words, no hard and fast rule about page length.

A quick word about creative thesis projects, defined here as a thesis that is presented in a non-standard academic format: a film, a play, a piece of music, creative writing, a series of paintings, etc. Students who have majored in a discipline that has trained them in a creative field are, of course, welcome and encouraged to conceive of a creative project for their theses. In every case, the creative thesis project will also include a significant artist's statement. Just as a science thesis does not simply articulate the results of an experiment, but also fully contextualizes that experiment, so will the artist's statement fully contextualize the project; like that science experiment, the creative project does not exist in a vacuum.

One more thing needs to be said about creative projects: Some students, feeling the need to express their creativity from the midst of an otherwise very analytical college career, ask if they can do a creative thesis project. While a creative project would no doubt be an enriching experience for them, we usually discourage their plans, for a couple of reasons. First of all, on the purely practical level, very few professors will work on a creative thesis with a student who is a relative unknown to them; for very good reasons, they will only work with students who they've already taught. Really good creative work - creative work at the level of a thesis project - requires a lot of practice and a lot of training. Secondly, the aim of the thesis project is not actually to take a break from the work , analytical or otherwise, that has made up the core of your undergraduate training. Rather, it is to challenge you to go to the level of "expert" in a field that you've been working hard to master for three (or more) years. It's a tough but gratifying undertaking that's meant to take what you've learned in your upper-level courses and your research and turn it into something of real substance that means a lot to you and, hopefully, other people in your field.

This is not to say that a thesis project must be in your major; it is to say that if you choose to do a thesis project outside of your major it will be because there are nonetheless clear connections between the project and the upper level courses you've taken both in and out of your major. For instance, a student majoring in Anthropology might chose to undertake a thesis project in Public Health with someone in the medical school... because their Anthropology course work came to focus on issues of health and culture.

Regardless of what form your thesis eventually takes, one rule of thumb applies to all: your thesis needs to matter to you and, from your point of view (and the point of view of your advisor) to your field. Like any major undertaking, it should be a little bit scary, at least at the outset; and like any major undertaking it will result in an almost inexpressible feeling of gratification when you see it to completion.

How do I find a topic?

This question is intimately related to the next question, so we'll discuss them both there.

How do I find an advisor and what is the advisor's role?

Often, your topic will arise from work you've done in a course with a professor who has been a genuine inspiration to you. That does not necessarily mean that the professor has been your buddy. Although it's wonderful to have a friendly relationship with your advisor, it is not necessary to have an advisor whom you call by his or her first name, or with whom you might sit down to have a coffee in the Davis Center. It is necessary to have an advisor whose ideas excite you, who is reliable and regularly accessible in office hours, and who treats both you and your project with seriousness and respect. In some cases, a student has an idea for a thesis that is completely independent of specific course work; it will be more difficult to find an advisor for that kind of project. For, while it is not essential that your advisor be a recognized expert in exactly the area you have in mind (particularly for an undergraduate thesis), not many professors will take on a project that lies completely outside of their area of expertise. So, better to get your thesis ideas from courses you've already taken, or field work you've already done, or an experiment that's already underway. It's worth noting that some of the most successful undergraduate theses have come from students first identifying the professor with whom they'd like to work and then making an appointment to talk with that professor about possible topics. So, two routes: topic then professor; or, professor then topic. Sometimes it ends up being a little bit of a compromise between the two, though the resulting projects would never be described as compromises.

If you are in a field that involves lab or field research, your thesis advisor will often be the professor with whom you have worked doing undergraduate research in the years leading up to the senior year; your topic will often be an offshoot of that research. There are many opportunities on campus for undergraduate students to get involved in faculty research (and not only in the natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics), and it is important for students to take advantage of those research opportunities as early as they can in their undergraduate years. The Undergraduate Research Coordinator, Ann Kroll Lerner, whose office is housed in the Honors College, is available to advise students on how to locate those opportunities.

However you come to your topic, it is important to realize that the relationship you have with your advisor will certainly be one of the most important academic relationships you will forge at UVM. Your advisor will determine whether or not you graduate as an Honors College Scholar, will write your most substantive letters of recommendation for graduate or professional school or for employment, and will be in perhaps the best position to give you advice about your future. Choose that person wisely, and if necessary, let the topic of the thesis follow that choice. (One suggestion might be to do a junior-year independent study with the professor you think you'd like to work with both to start investigating the topic that might become your thesis, but also to see what it's like to work with that professor.)

Please note that in some colleges and schools your thesis advisor must be a tenured or tenure-track professor at UVM. In other colleges and schools an adjunct instructor can serve as a second reader, but before asking an adjunct instructor to be a reader, check with your home college or school's procedures to see what their protocol is. If you are uncertain about the academic status of a professor, simply look them up in the UVM online directory - it will tell you what their title is. Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Professor all indicate either tenure or tenure-track appointments.

It is the role of the advisor to:

  • guide you through the proposal process
  • help you define the scope of your project and establish a realistic timeline
  • make suggestions about research areas
  • meet with you regularly as you work on the thesis to discuss your ideas, read your drafts, and give you feedback
  • help identify an appropriate committee for the defense (if necessary)

It is very important that throughout the thesis process you remain mindful of the fact that faculty have many demands on their time. Make sure that you're never late for your appointments, be respectful of their office hours and don't simply pop in to chat when you haven't made an appointment, and always come prepared to your appointments with specific questions or issues to discuss. If you are submitting written work for feedback, make sure it shows up in a timely way and in the form your advisor requests (don't simply assume that an electronic copy is fine; many professor prefer to comment on a hard copy of your work).

Occasionally, though not frequently, things go wrong with an advisor-advisee relationship. In those cases you will want to talk immediately with the Honors College Coordinator in your college/school for advice about how to proceed. But you should know that if things cant be fixed between you there are options that don't require you to drop the thesis project altogether.

Thesis preparation

In addition to three credits of junior-year Honors work that will be required from you in your home school or college, the Honors College offers to all juniors HCOL 101, the 1-credit thesis preparation course. In the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education and Social Services, HCOL 101 is required for all Honors College students. In the other five colleges and schools, the course is strongly recommended (and may be required in the future). In some cases, the course can register on your transcript as carrying 0 credits (if you're in danger of exceeding the allowed number of credits in the semester you need to take HCOL 101).

HCOL 101 is mainly an advising course: its aim is to provide HCOL students from every school or college on campus with consistent advising on how to prepare for the thesis project, and to maintain some of the intellectual community you've formed in your first and/or sophomore years in the HCOL. The course (sections of which are offered both semesters) consists of five 90-minute sessions over the semester: four at the beginning of the semester, and then one after mid-semester. The early sessions will concentrate mainly on general but valuable advising information: What is a thesis project? How do you find your advisor? What resources exist on campus to help you execute the project (reference librarians, funding, etc)? How do you write a literature review? How do you craft a thesis pre-proposal? Students will then spend several weeks working through the process of formulating a pre-proposal (finding an advisor, identifying a research question, working on a literature review), and then will meet again in one session after mid-semester to participate in an organized peer review of the documents each student will produce, the Thesis Pre- Proposal. Students will then transform their pre-proposal into a formal thesis proposal that follows the specific guidelines specified by each school or college.

Writing the thesis

Of course, there are no "rules" for thesis writing (though "don't procrastinate" would certainly be at the top of the list if there were!). But here are some tips that might be helpful to you:

  • Take really good notes while you're doing all that research in the first months of your thesis work. It pays to be very organized with notebooks, or file cards, or computer files, or whatever. But do devise a system for note-taking and stick with it.
  • Map out your project (and keep revising that map as you revise the thesis). It's good to keep the big picture in mind, at least as a sketch, while you're working on the individual sections.
  • Start with the section of the thesis about which you feel most confident. It might not be the introduction; in fact, it probably won't be the introduction (most writers save the writing of their introduction for last).
  • Don't panic if you experience a little writer's block, there are ways to cure it: freewriting (turning off your internal editor and just writing whatever comes to mind even if it starts as nonsense); talking it out with your advisor or a patient friend; going for a walk (this is actually remarkably effective for getting past a mental block); having a good night's sleep; temporarily leaving behind the part that's blocking you and working on another piece of the thesis.
  • Stick with it. While there will certainly be times of the year when it feels like all you're doing is reading and other times in the year when you're writing like a mad person, don't ever allow the thesis to sit completely idle on the back burner. The best way to make sure that you don't lose sight of the work is to have regular (ideally bi-weekly) appointments with your advisor, but also to remember that the thesis is a 6-credit project, which means that you should be expecting to devote an average of 10 hours/week to your project.
  • Get together regularly with others who are also working on thesis projects. All you may do is commiserate, but at least you won't feel completely alone.
  • This has already been stated, but it bears repeating all by itself: keep regular bi-weekly appointments with your advisor throughout the year, even if just to report on your research progress, or to ask questions that come up during your reading.
  • Frequently refer to the Lipson book (see Making it easier) for excellent advice and guidance on every aspect of the undergraduate thesis process.
  • SAVE YOUR WORK! In particular, get used to saving your work every day on zoo, the UVM server (use Fetch or Fugu to do this quickly and easily). If anything ever happens to your hard drive or, god forbid, your computer goes missing, everything you've put on the server will be fully intact. Forever.
The defense

Not every thesis project concludes with a defense, but many do, and while your college or school may have quite specific requirements or recommendations for your defense (some require their students to do a PowerPoint presentation, for instance), there are some general things we can say about thesis defenses here that should be helpful.

First of all, a defense is only very rarely as combative as the word suggests (some prominent colleges don't even use the word defense; they call this final stage of the thesis the Final Public Oral).

Most defenses are a conversation between the thesis writer and her or his committee. The committee - and these will vary from college to college - will always be composed of your advisor and at least two other faculty members. Often, one of the faculty members is from outside the department in which you conducted your research. Some colleges (like Engineering and Math) require that students form their committees during the proposal process; other colleges require you to have a committee only for the defense of the finished thesis project. Check with your college to see what the practices are surrounding the composition of your committee. In every case, though, your advisor will be able to help you constitute your committee.

As a rule of thumb, you will need to deliver your completed thesis project to all the members of your committee at least one full week before your defense (which will have been booked at least one month in advance). This will give them adequate time at a very busy time of the year to read and formulate questions and opinions.

The defense itself will usually last about an hour (though this, again, will vary from college to college). In almost every case, the defense will begin with a presentation from the thesis writer. Sometimes that presentation is simply a 5 or 10-minute discussion of the genesis of the project, a short summary of the project, and possible future directions. Other times, that presentation will be a much longer and more formal PowerPoint presentation. In any case, you will almost certainly have the first word. The committee members will then ask you questions and possibly make suggestions for revision.

You will then be asked to leave the room while the committee deliberates, and after a time (it could be 5 minutes; it could be 25 minutes) your advisor will call you back in and the committee will share with you their assessment of the thesis.

On occasion, a student will not pass the defense. This does not necessarily mean that any or even all the work you've done on the project "fails." It does, however, mean that the work that's been presented to the committee at the defense has not met the standards of a thesis. This usually means that the work is not deemed to be conceptually significant enough to qualify as a thesis (in which case, it will almost always receive some credit as a Readings and Research course). But it might also mean that the thesis is inexcusably sloppy in execution, or that you have willfully ignored the suggestions of your faculty advisor(s). If you've been working closely and conscientiously with your advisor throughout your project (and this cannot be overemphasized), you can usually be confident that the project you present to your committee is passable as a thesis.

Less rarely, a committee will offer suggestions for revision at the end of a defense. Often those revisions are very minor - for instance, technical changes that take just an hour or so to execute. In some cases, however, revisions are more significant; sometimes a committee will even hold off on a grade until they see the revisions. Your advisor, in any case, will be able to clarify for you any revisions that are suggested, and will also set the due date for you to complete those revisions.

One word about final due dates for the thesis project, set by every college and school: they are completely non-negotiable. Unless there are profoundly compelling reasons why the finished thesis, together with all official paperwork associated with that thesis (the signed defense form, for instance), is not presented by the due date set by the college or school in which the work is undertaken, the student will not graduate as an Honors College Scholar.

Making it easier

Let's face it, the word easy is not one usually associated with the thesis project, but there are several wonderful resources available to you that can help make it just a little less difficult. Here are some of the most important of them:

  • Money. The Honors College has money available in the form of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or UROP. There are twenty UROP grants this year for up to $300.00 each - see the Honors College website under Research for details about UROP.
  • The library. Not only do you have extended borrowing privileges at Bailey-Howe (you can take books out for an entire semester), you have your own reference librarian extraordinaire, Patricia Mardeusz. Pat, who is fondly known to many Honors College students as the Information Goddess, is a truly invaluable asset to the research process. Set up an appointment with her in order to introduce your self and your project. She can be reached at Patricia.Mardeusz@uvm.edu.
  • The bible. Another wonderful resource is Walter Lipson's How To Write a B.A. Thesis, a book that is available to Honors College students pursuing a thesis project. We have several of them in the Honors College; feel free to stop by and sign one out. This book is an invaluable resource for thesis writers.
  • A copy card. We're aware that there will be many occasions when you need to copy or print things during the thesis process. So, while we can't supply you all with printers, we can give each of you a copy card. Please stop by the Honors College to pick one up once your project has been approved.
  • The Writing Center. The Writing Center in L/L is not just for grammatical problems! Writing Center tutors can offer feedback on your written work that will help you think critically about your own writing. A visit to the Writing Center often helps students overcome writer's block.
  • Honors Thesis Archives. A listing of previous thesis titles can be found at the Special Collections desk in Bailey-Howe. If you find a title you'd like to explore further, you can have the bound copy of the thesis sent over from the Library's Research Annex. Beginning with the class of 2009, most Honors thesis projects can be found in an online archive on the Honors College website.
Can I do a thesis if I study abroad?

The simple answer to this question is "yes, if you are well organized". Here are some suggestions that might help with that organization:

  • It is very difficult, if not downright impossible, to write a thesis if you are abroad during your senior year. So, if you wish to study abroad, make plans to do so before your senior year.
  • If you are going abroad for one semester and in your junior year, please consider being away in the fall semester. Thesis preparation courses are typically offered in the spring semester of the junior year, and it would be well worth your while not to miss that course.
  • If you will be going abroad in your junior year, try to have a conversation with the professor with whom you wish to work before you leave. Professors have real limits on the number of students they can supervise in independent projects, and since most students will be contacting potential supervisors at some point in their junior year, you may find yourself without a supervisor if you haven't contacted someone prior to leaving. (The other benefit to doing some thesis planning before you leave involves the opportunities for research that you may discover overseas.)
Is it possible to write a thesis if I'm planning to graduate early?

Yes, just as with study abroad, this is entirely possible if you've done adequate planning with your advisors. Recognize, in planning for this, that your thesis work will almost always be conducted in the final two semesters of your degree. You must therefore plan to take HCOL 101 in the semester immediately preceding those final two semesters (this may be the final semester of your second year at UVM). In any case, if you are planning to graduate early as an Honors College Scholar, you must discuss your program of study with an advisor in the Honors College (Patty Redmond, Lisa Schnell, or Abu Rizvi) who will help to clarify the process and timing of your pre-thesis and thesis work.

What if I can't complete the thesis?

We sincerely hope that you never reach this stage with your project, but every year a number of students do indeed find themselves facing this situation. If you feel that it has become impossible for you to complete your thesis project - and there are a variety of reasons why this might happen - we want you immediately to talk to either the Honors College Coordinator in your college/school or the Dean or Associate Dean of the Honors College.

Last modified October 18 2011 09:08 PM