What is a senior thesis?
A senior thesis is a year-long empirical research project carried out in close supervision and collaboration with a faculty member. It is an opportunity to engage in intensive, independent research and culminates in a written report and a public presentation to the department faculty. Departmental Honors are awarded upon approval of the final thesis by the Psychology faculty. Copies of theses from past years are available in Schow library (catalogued under the “BF 21” section) and perusing these will give you a good idea of what defines a thesis in psychology.
Who should consider doing a senior thesis in psychology?
Majors in psychology who are passionate about an area or topic in psychology, who think that such a hands-on project sounds interesting, who wish to further improve their research and writing skills, and/or gain experience for future employment or graduate school. Theses, as well as Independent Studies can be very fulfilling ways to interact more closely with your professors and get more involved in the field. Sometimes they lead to joint publications or presentations at professional conferences. You should make sure that your other academic and extra-curricular commitments can be worked around a thesis, which is a major commitment.
What is the timetable for a senior thesis?
Talk to professors and get involved in research. At any time during the junior year (or even earlier), students are encouraged to explore the possibility of getting involved in research with a professor who they have had or whose research interests them. To do this, simply contact the professor or professors, who will be happy to talk with you about what is going on in their labs, and what kinds of openings they might have for students to get involved at that time or in the future. There are several different ways to get involved in psychology research.
Arrange for an advisor. Ideally, by winter study or early in the spring semester of the junior year, you should have met with the professor or professors whose work interests you and indicated your interest in doing a thesis. It is occasionally possible to start planning a thesis as late as the beginning of your senior year, but difficult, and we encourage students to begin these conversations earlier. The professors will then consider the number of students that they can supervise in research in their labs and let you know if they can commit to supervising your thesis. It is a good idea to talk with more than one professor in case there are too many students interested in a particular lab. You do not have to do research in the exact area you hope to pursue later in your career; research in any subfield of psychology will be highly regarded by graduate schools and employers. The department will try its best to accommodate, but (given our number of majors) cannot guarantee, thesis supervision for all students who wish to do one.
Summer before senior year:
Many thesis students join the summer science research program, where they do research on campus with their advisors for up to 10 weeks. This is a very good time to plan the thesis, and in some labs pilot research or early data collection takes place.
Thesis proposals due, early October. Typically, the student and professor will work together on the design of the study beginning in late spring of the junior year, and through the summer and early fall. Proposals are 5-7 pages (double-spaced) and focus on the background, rationale, and methods of the study; your advisor will provide guidance on writing the proposal.The proposals will be accepted, read, and commented on by all department members on a rolling basis, with a final deadline (for this year, 2020) of October 11.
Thesis proposal oral presentations, mid October. Students will give short oral presentations of their thesis proposals to each other and to the Psychology Department Thesis Coordinator (for 2020-21, Professors Shivon Robinson and Eliza Congdon) in mid-October. This is an informal occasion for group feedback and support and will be followed by another such occasion during winter study. More details about these events will be provided by the Thesis Coordinator.
All projects have their own timetables, and yours will be determined by you and your advisor and the nature of the project. But generally, data collection begins in the fall; sometimes it also continues into winter study and the early spring semester. Fall is also a good time to continue your reading and literature review, and begin your writing of the methods and introduction to the thesis; again this is up to your advisor. You should also arrange for a second professor to be your “second reader.” Second readers are encouraged to get involved as advisors during the planning and middle phases of the project, as well as reading the entire thesis when it is completed and testifying to its honors quality. At the end of the fall semester, a decision will be made by the faculty supervisor in consultation with the student as to whether good progress is being made, and whether the student should continue working on the thesis over the course of the year, or drop the project and convert Psychology 493 to Psychology 397 (Independent Study) with a grade.
Data collection and writing continue; data analysis may also be starting. Winter study and spring semester are usually especially busy times for thesis work. You will register for WS Thesis (no other course is required), and the Thesis Coordinator will offer group workshops and support.
Lots of data analysis and lots of writing, with multiple revisions. Final copies of the thesis are due to the department a week before the second day of reading period. On the second day of reading period, all students present their theses in talks to the psychology department faculty, other thesis students, and interested others. Celebration follows!
Does the thesis count toward a course in the major?
Yes. You can take 8 regular psychology courses plus the thesis to fulfill your major requirements.
What are some other ways to get involved in research other than doing a thesis?
As an extracurricular activity/volunteer in the lab. If you would like to check out psychology research on a limited basis, you can volunteer to help out on ongoing research, perhaps helping to collect data, prepare materials, assist a thesis student, etc
As a paid (work-study) research assistant. Sometimes professors hire research assistants to help with research tasks such as data collection, data coding, entry, library research, etc. This is usually a 5-hour/week position.
As an Independent Study Psych 397 (fall) or 398 (spring), Independent Study, allows you to get involved in research more intensively and independently, but is not as involved as a thesis. Students work with a professor to design, carry out, and write up a project. Occasionally, students arrange an Independent Study that is library research and discussion based, studying a topic that is not offered in the regular Psych curriculum. In Independent Studies, students and profs meet weekly and the work is equivalent to a 300-level psych course. Independent Study requires making arrangements with the professor before the semester starts and completing the green independent study form that is available from the Registrar’s Office. This must be approved by the professor and the Psychology Department Chair before the end of the drop-add period so that if it is not approved you still have time to find another course. You can take an Independent Study for one, but not more, of your 300-level psych courses. This can be a good alternative to a thesis, if you are interested in the research but not the major writing and year-long commitment that a thesis involves.
Summer research assistantships A limited number of summer research assistantships are available in Psychology and Neuroscience, through the Summer Science Research program. These are paid positions for up to 10 weeks, doing research of various kinds. Depending on the nature of their work, professors may take anywhere from no summer students to several, and often but not always, give preference to thesis students. If you are interested, contact the professor during Winter Study or as early in February as possible.