Planning an Honors Thesis

Writing an honors thesis is undoubtedly a valuable experience and a great way to end your undergraduate career.  While it is certainly a big undertaking not for the faint of heart, you develop incredible skills along the way and if you truly love your topic, you will enjoy the process.  Starting the process of writing a thesis can be daunting, so here are some general tips to get you started.

1. Brainstorm. Yes, brainstorm. Go back to your elementary school days, get a piece of paper and a pen and just write.  You can even add drawings of lightning bolts to illustrate your brainstorm, if you’re so inclined.  If you’re looking to write a thesis in political science, make a list about what interests you about politics. Why did you choose to study political science? What news stories get you worked up? Why is that? Which classes have you found particularly interesting?

2. Evaluate. Take a look at your brainstormed list and think about which of these topics you could study.  If two or three ideas are jumping out at you, take a look into the literature to see what has been written on it.  This might lead you to develop a more concrete idea about which direction to take your research in.  It might also help to jot down a few notes while you’re reading to see what we know about your topic and what we don’t know.

3. Chat. Chat with a professor and/or advisor about your thesis topic ideas. This person does not have to necessarily be your ultimate thesis advisor, but talking about your ideas with a faculty member is really important.  They will be able to help steer you toward more literature to look at and other faculty members with expertise in your interest area.  It’s also a good idea to chat with some seniors or recent graduates who are writing or wrote theses to see what they think of your topic and to bounce some ideas around.

4. Specify. At this point, your nebulous thesis topic should be starting to take the form of a research question.  It doesn’t have to be pretty and polished yet, but you should know which concepts you are trying to understand with your thesis.  Now would be a good time to start thinking about how you are going to answer your question.  What data will you need? How will you get it? What tools will you need to accomplish it?  Figuring out the answers to these questions will help you determine the feasibility of your project and (if necessary) help you rework your research question so it is feasible to accomplish given the time and resources you have to complete the thesis.

5. Propose. You don’t have to get down on one knee, but you will certainly be making a commitment to this thesis, and your proposal is of utmost importance.  Although most departments do not require a lengthy proposal, it will undoubtedly help you really think through the details of your project if you write out a detailed proposal of your thesis.  Some good sections to include are:

  • Statement of Research Question
  • Literature Review
  • Why you care about the project
  • Why we should care about the project
  • Theory
  • Hypotheses
  • Empirical Strategy (unit of analysis, scope of analysis, variable constructs, data collection for dependent variable)
  • Data sources
  • Validity (construct, internal, external)

6. Solicit Feedback. As you are writing out your proposal, you will probably want to start thinking about who your thesis advisor will be–and ask early!  Think of a professor you have a good relationship with and who has expertise in your interest area. Advising an honors thesis is a pretty large time commitment for faculty members, so make sure that you ask potential advisors early on.  Have your advisor take a look at your proposal and get some feedback! You should also ask for feedback from your peers. It’s much better to get this feedback early, before you’ve started data collection, than in April of your senior year, when there’s no time left to fix it.

7. Funding.  If you think you want to work on your thesis over the summer before your senior year, you should think about applying for a Charles Center Summer Scholarship or an Honors Fellowship. More information about these awesome opportunities can be found here. You should also check out this page for more information on deadlines and the bureaucratic side of writing a thesis.

Best of luck to you as you embark on your honors thesis journey! It truly has been an incredible experience for me so far and I hope that you consider taking advantage of this opportunity.

Research: Behind the Scenes

So you finally found the perfect research topic, the appropriately scoped research question, and have a cutting edge research design that’s bound to knock APSA’s socks off.  You submitted your proposal to the IRB (Institutional Review Board) to make sure it’s up to ethical standards and it was approved in a timely manner.  Bring on the participants!

While getting to this stage in a research project is truly exciting, there is still a lot of work that must be done behind the scenes that you might not know about.  How are you recruiting participants? How are you scheduling them? Do you have access to a lab or space to use for your study?  If you are paying them, do you have cash on hand? Do you have all of the paperwork you need to fill out if you are getting reimbursed for paying the participants? Do you have the materials you need for your study? Not all of these questions will apply to every study you do, but they are definitely things you will want to think about (and have solutions for) before you start collecting data. Before you panic, here are some tips for thinking about the behind the scenes side of experimental research.

1.  While you’re waiting for your proposal to be approved by the IRB, try to get everything else ready so that once it’s approved, you can get started right away.  For example, if you need research assistants or volunteers to help with your experiment, look into recruiting them while you wait for IRB approval.  You might want to get a feel for the availability of your research assistants and sketch out a schedule of when you would be able to run participants through.

2. Create a folder with all documents and forms that you will have to print. This might sound obvious, but it really helps make sure you keep them all in one place and helps you think about everything you will need. These items might include your informed consent forms, debriefing forms, reimbursement forms (if you’re paying participants), instructions, and any other materials you might need for your particular study.  Depending on the nature of your study, you might consider making as much of this electronic as you can to conserve printing costs and the hassle of coordinating all of that.

3. Practice! Find a friend, colleague, classmate, labmate, sibling, anyone to help you practice running your experiment.  Walk through the steps from start to finish as if you were running a real participant through your experiment.  Keep a notepad handy to jot down things you forgot or still need to do.  This will also help calm your nerves!

4. Ask questions.  As you’re preparing for data collection, don’t be afraid to ask questions.  I recommend keeping a notepad handy because sometimes these questions come to you at odd, random times, when you’re not even working on your project.  Ask other students who have gone through this process before, ask your professors or advisors, and ask who to ask about some of the finer details. For example, find out from  your department who to go to about reimbursement forms and other paperwork.

5. Set up your data storage system.  The way you store and organize your data will depend on your project, but it is important to think about how you want to do this.  If you will be manually entering data after each experiment session, prepare your spreadsheet ahead of time so that all you have to do is type the numbers in.  You might also think about your coding scheme (if that is relevant for your project) and creating your codebook.  Make sure you format your dataset in such a way that allows you to conduct the analyses you will eventually be conducting without having to make many changes.  Keep your data in password protected files and always back up your data.

Conducting a research project is a truly exciting and rewarding experience, but it certainly comes with its fair share of frustrations.  Some of these frustrations and the chaos surrounding the launch of a study can be attenuated by careful preparation.  Through it all, don’t forget to take a step back and reflect on your hard work! Remind yourself of the puzzle you’re trying to solve and why you are doing this project.  Enjoy the experience!