Expectations and Standards for Senior Theses

Senior Honors Project

The Honors Project is a year-long research project supervised by a faculty member in the Department of Political Science and culminating in a written work. The thesis should be well written and properly presented. It should be logically organized, and the ideas should be clearly expressed. It should be without error in spelling, grammar, or punctuation, and should conform to professional standards of citation. There is no minimum page requirement for the thesis, but length is an (imperfect) indicator of whether the thesis is adequately developed. Successful theses typically range from 60 to 120 pages. Three copies of the completed thesis are due on April 15th of the student's senior year.


To qualify for honors, a student must graduate with an overall grade point average of 3.4 or higher, calculated according to all PSC and IR courses and any additional courses used towards the PSC or IR major. In addition, his or her senior thesis must meet the following minimum requirements:

  1. It must be organized to answer an original question that is answerable through the work done as part of the thesis project. "Original" means that the question has not already been asked and answered in existing published work. "Answerable" means that the argument and evidence produced and presented by the student could reasonably be thought of as answering the question. Note that meeting this requirement will in general require students to set realistic goals for their theses. Indeed, the best theses will often address relatively narrow questions. Rather than, for instance, setting out to determine the contribution of judges' racial attitudes to the racial disparities in federal criminal sentencing (a project that would require the student to collect a large amount of hard-to-obtain data and solve difficult methodological problems), a student might build a project around assessing such disparities in Monroe County and evaluating programs that community organizations in the county are implementing in response to that disparity.

  2. The thesis must bring original evidence or argument to bear on the question that is being examined. The evidence or argument may involve a collection of documents or observations that have not been used in previous scholarly work. In the example above, for instance, the student might conduct interviews with staff or donors to a sample of community organizations and base the argument, in part, on the transcripts of those interviews. The evidence or argument may also amount to fresh interpretations or analyses of existing and previously studied data, including the many data sets now available for secondary analysis, or other primary material. A thesis could also explore issues in normative or positive political theory by developing novel interpretations or explanations of important political concepts or patterns of political events. In all cases, the student's work must be effectively brought to bear on the question. In the case of a thesis relying on original evidence, this means that the student's methods of collecting and analyzing the data are appropriate to the question involved, subject to practical constraints on data availability. In the case of original analyses, interpretations, or theoretical formulations, this means that the analytical tools used—e.g. statistical or game theoretic models—are employed at a level of competence commensurate with the student's prior training and with his or her opportunities for learning new skills as part of development of the thesis during the senior year. In all cases, the student's thesis must provide a persuasive written argument explaining to the reader how the work addresses the question posed.

  3. The thesis must explain the implications of existing academic work in political science or international relations, broadly conceived, for the question it sets out to answer, and must explain how the student's original work relates to and potentially contributes to important debates in that literature.

A thesis that meets all three requirements and in addition achieves extraordinary merit on either requirement (2) or (3) will be awarded high honors. A thesis that meets all three requirements and in addition achieves extraordinary merit on both requirements (2) and (3) will be awarded highest honors. Highest honors is reserved for work of extraordinary achievement and is rarely awarded.


The most successful projects begin with student-faculty discussions in the junior year. Students are encouraged to discuss emerging ideas with faculty members in order to develop the question and method of analysis that will be the foundation of each student's thesis. Ideally, the question underlying the thesis will be identified before the fall semester starts, and the student and faculty member will have agreed on the methods that will be used to answer it. "Methods" means being certain that appropriate data is available or that it can be collected in a short enough time during the academic year that there will be sufficient time for analysis and writing. It should be expected that some work—often reading but sometimes collecting data or learning new skills—will be done during the summer prior to the senior year.

To write a thesis, a student must secure agreement from a faculty member who will serve as his or her thesis advisor, and from the Political Science Department's honors committee. Further, by the beginning of the senior year, he or she must have fulfilled the following course requirements:

If a PSC major, the student must:

If an IR major, the student must:

Finally, students must inform the political science honors coordinators if he or she also plans to write a thesis in another department. In most cases, the honors committee will not approve a student to write a political science or international relations thesis unless it is the only thesis he or she plans to write, and then only with the express written consent of the other departments in which the student is writing a thesis.

Procedurally, a student needs to fill out the Thesis Enrollment Form and have this form signed by the thesis advisor and the Honors Program Coordinator within 7 days of the first day of classes of the fall semester of the senior year. The student then enrolls in IR/PSC 393W for the fall and, subject to the advisor's approval, spring semesters.

The faculty advisor assigns a grade for each semester of work on the Honors Project. An incomplete grade is not awarded except under extraordinary circumstances. If the faculty supervisor feels that the progress and level of effort demonstrated during the fall semester do not merit continuation of the project, students may be withdrawn from the program. In such cases, a grade reflecting the one semester of work is assigned.

For each Honors Project, the Honors Coordinator appoints a faculty member in addition to the project supervisor to evaluate the completed work. Each independently evaluates the project and submits a recommendation as to the award of honors. By the end of the first week in May, the Honors Coordinator informs honors candidates of the decision on awarding of honors and provides a copy of written comments on which the decision is based.

Theses are awarded honors, high honors, or highest honors as noted above. Completion of a Senior Honors Project does not automatically entitle a student to the award of honors. If the project does not measure up to the expectations of excellence associated with honors, honors is not awarded. However, in all circumstances when satisfactory work has been completed, students are awarded course credits and a grade for each semester in which they worked on the Honors Project.