Honors Thesis and Independent Study

More information on the Honors Program and Honors Thesis is available in the MHC Handbook of Faculty Legislation (“Appendices: Section X: Guidelines for the Honors Program and Honors Thesis”), which should be consulted in conjunction with the information provided here.

Why undertake an Independent Study/Thesis?

One of the more important ways that students practice history is through research undertaken for an independent study course. As discussed in the Study History section of this website, independent study is an important component of the history curriculum, though it is not required for the major. The work involved in a single 295 or 395 course is valuable regardless of whether or not a student plans to pursue her research further, but for those interested in building their research into a larger project, the College offers another form of independent study known as a honors thesis. 

Senior independent study leading to an honors thesis brings together much of the knowledge and skills learned in previous coursework, and history alumnae regularly speak of their honors thesis work as being the most important and lasting aspect of their undergraduate education.

How to undertake an Independent Study/Thesis?

The honors thesis consists of two semesters of independent study, taken as 395 courses, though the final determination of whether or not a project qualifies as an honors thesis is not made until the end of the second semester of work. The work of planning a senior independent project, however, often begins well before the senior year, so interested students should contact potential faculty advisors towards the end of their junior year to give enough time to formulate an appropriate research question and plan of work. 

Early planning will also make it easier to apply for department funds for research, the latter of which is often done in the summer between the junior and senior year. Unlike in some department honors programs, however, there is no single pathway leading towards an honors thesis, and much will depend on arrangements made between a student and her faculty research advisor. For this reason, students should expect to be in regular contact with their advisor throughout their research experience.

The ultimate decision to designate an independent research project as an honors thesis rests with the faculty advisor, but as a general guide, honors theses have the following basic characteristics:

  1. A clearly articulated and original argument
  2. An argument built upon significant engagement with appropriate primary sources
  3. Sustained and original engagement with existing scholarly literature on the topic
  4. Clear, consistent and coherent writing

Fortunately, while independent research projects by definition involve time spent working alone or with one’s advisor, the department typically coordinates several informal meetings over the course of the year for students engaged in independent research to meet, share experiences and offer mutual support. 

The Thesis Defense

A more formal opportunity to engage others in one’s research is also provided at the thesis defense. Required by faculty legislation, the defense should be viewed as an opportunity to share one’s achievement with a community of interested and engaged readers. Like a chef inviting her guests to dine, the defense allows a student to share with others an intellectual feast carefully planned and prepared over the course of a year!

Guidelines for Submission of Honors Thesis:

  1. Deadline: 
    By noon, Thursday, April 26, the student is to deliver to Holly Sharac, Academic Department Coordinator, in the History Department Office (309 Skinner Hall) one bound copy of her honors thesis. In turn, this submitted copy will be given to the student’s thesis advisor.
  2. Thesis Committee: 
    In consultation with the thesis advisor, the student will take responsibility for contacting members of the faculty to serve on her thesis committee. Faculty legislation requires that a thesis be assessed by of committee of at least three faculty members, typically comprised of the thesis advisor, another member of the history department and an outside member (often, but not necessarily from the College).
  3. Additional Copies:
    It is the student’s responsibility to give a copy of her thesis to each member of her thesis committee. This copy does not need to be bound (see #1 above).
  4. Thesis Defense: 
    It is the student’s responsibility to schedule her thesis defense; once a day/date/time has been agreed upon by members of the thesis committee, the student should be in contact with Holly Sharac in the History Department to reserve the History Department Lounge in 310 Skinner for her thesis defense.
  5. Copies to LITS: 
    After her defense, and after she has made (if needed) any changes to her written thesis, it is the student’s responsibility to submit the corrected bound copy to the History department, as well as a corrected electronic copy of her thesis to the library. See more details on Submitting Honors Papers...