Senior Thesis / Independent Study

Writing an Honor's Thesis

Writing a senior thesis can be an incredibly enriching experience.In writing a thesis you will get the chance to explore a question of your own design. This question can be on a topic that has always interested you and intrigued you. It can be on a question that you have wanted to study but haven't yet had the opportunity. You will have a whole year to define that question and seek out an answer. Working on your thesis will likely be the most challenging academic experience you have had, and may well be the most rewarding. You will learn what it is to commit to a major project and bring it to completion. Your thesis work will be valuable whatever you do after graduation, but it will also introduce you to a central component of the study of religion: the intensive and sustained engagement with a religious phenomenon in all of its varied aspects. Lastly, it may help you decide whether you want to continue your study of religion in graduate school.

The department encourages students with sufficient background for independent work to enroll in the honors program for their senior year. Pursuing honors involves engaging in a significant amount of independent research, the culmination of which is a written thesis. To be admitted, students must have at least a 3.0 grade point average and must complete a successful application. To pass, the thesis must be judged acceptable by the honors committee. Writing an honors thesis is a considerable undertaking, and requires motivation and advance planning.

Process and Requirements

Spring Semester, Junior Year

  • Deadline April 25: Submit a thesis proposal to the department for approval. Notification of acceptance or rejection will be given before the end of the semester. Typically, proposals are not rejected, but students may be asked to modify or refine their projects.

In the spring of your junior year, you have the following tasks:

  1. Choose a topic.
    At this point, your topic can be quite general. For example, "Sufism and Anti- Colonial Struggles," "Women's Roles in American Buddhist Communities," or "Martyrdom in Early Christianity". 
  2. Assess your own preparation. Make a list of any courses and internship or research experiences that have prepared you for this project. Consider whether you are comfortable with the appropriate research methods. These could include textual analysis, archival and library research, ethnography, or knowledge of a language other than English. 
  3. Discuss your idea with your advisor and other Religion faculty. 
  4. Make an appointment with a librarian to help you develop a preliminary reading list. 
  5. Write a two to three-page research proposal.
    The proposal must: 
    • Include your name and the name of your preferred advisor. 
    • Set forth the topic you wish to address in your thesis. 
    • Describe how you hope to investigate this topic. 
    • Include a list of relevant coursework and research/internship experience. Include a preliminary reading list. 
    • Be submitted to the department by the Monday of the last full week of classes (April 25th, 2018; April 22nd, 2019).
  6. At the end of Spring semester, the department will review all proposals and decide whether to accept the student's proposal. If accepted, the department will assign an advisor to work with the student.

  7. If approved, enroll for independent study for the Fall semester. The honors program requires a minimum of 8 credits distributed between two semesters. Usually, the student registers for two semesters (usually fall and spring of the senior year) of 4-credit 395 (independent study). 
  8. If your project will require interviews, surveys, ethnography, or other involvement with human subjects, complete and submit the IRB approval form.

Summer After Junior Year

In the summer of your junior year (i.e., the summer before you begin your senior year), you have two tasks:

  1. Read the books and articles on your reading list. Write a short summary or response paper or notes for each article or book you read while you are working toward your thesis - this information becomes very useful as the thesis progresses. 
  2. Use your reading list to develop a fuller bibliography. (One way to do this is to use the "snowballing" method. I.e., find the relevant books and articles cited by the materials on your preliminary list. Add them to your bibliography, read them, and find the relevant books and articles that they cite. Continue that process until you cannot find any more relevant sources. Now reverse the process by locating more recent books and articles that cite the text you are reading. This can be done using JSTOR and Google Scholar. Again, continue the process until you find no more relevant books and articles.) 
  3. Conduct any necessary ethnography, interviews, surveys, or site visits.

Fall Semester, Senior Year

  • Deadline late November: the Monday after Thanksgiving break, evidence of research progress must be submitted to the department, along with a cover letter summarizing this progress. You will be notified before the end of the semester whether you have made sufficient progress to continue.

In the fall of your senior year, you should:

  1. Set up a schedule to meet with your advisor regularly, usually once per week or once every two weeks. 
  2. Narrow the focus of your thesis. Now that you know the field better, you must be more specific in the topic you are addressing - the odds are that the topic you began with in the spring of your junior year was too broad. 
  3. Continue reading, taking notes, and expanding your bibliography. Begin writing. 
  4. Finish any remaining interviews, surveys, site visits, etc. 
  5. Submit the following before Thanksgiving Break
    • Bibliography 
    • Abstract 
    • Outline of the entire thesis 
  6. Submit a 15-20 page writing sample (a draft of a chapter) by the end of Fall semester
  7. In consultation with your advisor, determine whether it is feasible to continue the project or not. 
  8. If you are continuing it, register for 4 credits of Religion 395 (independent study) for the Spring semester.

Spring Semester, Senior Year

  • Deadline May 1: Final draft of thesis due. Copies must be given to all three members of your thesis committee.
  • Deadline Exam Period: Orally defend your thesis. You will be notified immediately following the defense whether you have passed.

In the spring of your senior year, you should:

  1. Set up a schedule to meet with your advisor regularly, usually once per week or once every two weeks. 
  2. Write the rest of your chapters. 
  3. Constitute a thesis committee. In consultation with your advisor, select two other faculty members, one from Religion and one from another department or Five College campus. Ask them, courteously, if they are willing to serve on the committee. 
  4. Submit a completed draft of the thesis by the Monday after Spring Break
  5. In consultation with your advisor, determine whether the project should continue towards the defense or not. 
  6. Schedule a date and time for the defense. 
  7. Prepare your final draft, due on the last day of classes.

Further information on all of these steps will be given in conversation with your advisor and committee members.

Advance Planning

If you are writing on a topic within a field in which you have never taken a class, you will have to do a substantial amount of work during the summer before your senior year. On top of doing the reading and research immediately relevant to your topic, you will also have to complete extra reading and research on foundational topics in the field.

During the summer before your senior year you will not only have to read some of the important texts on your topic, but you will also have to read about some of the basic theories employed by authors writing on that topic.

With this in mind, the department recommends that you do not pursue a thesis topic in a field for which you have not taken the necessary courses. This does not mean that writing on such a topic is disallowed, or that doing so is impossible; rather, past attempts indicate that it typically involves more work than can feasibly be done in one year.

The best way to avoid this problem is to plan ahead. During January Term of your junior year (or earlier) begin thinking about what topic you want to write on. Then look at all the religion courses offered at the Five Colleges to see whether there are any courses that might prepare you for writing the best thesis you can. Take one or more such courses. Such a course might also be offered in your senior year - if so, take it. The more ways you approach your question, the better your thesis will be.