Honors Thesis and Independent Study

RL&C students can undertake an independent study to pursue a research topic of interest to them, but it is not a requirement for the major.

Before proposing an independent study, the student should have already done some advanced work at the 300 level in the language they choose to write in. Students must have an excellent command of the language and the necessary skills and training to communicate clearly and effectively.

Any student who decides to pursue an independent research should have a genuine interest in a well-defined subject and should be willing and be able to work to an agreed upon timetable with faculty supervision.

The honors thesis is a true test of intellectual curiosity, originality, and critical thinking. Students and faculty involved in the independent/honors process should be familiar with the College’s Guidelines for honors program and honors thesis, which the Dean of Faculty has prepared. See our student research page for examples of student honors theses.

Program guidelines for independent study and thesis work

A. Independent Study 

  1. Any student may request the independent course option in her sophomore, junior, or senior years. The College limits the number of independent credits to eight in the sophomore and junior years. A senior may take an independent course in the fall and change the course status to honors in the spring. The procedures to be followed are detailed below.
  2. The student should select a faculty member in the program who is knowledgeable in her chosen field of inquiry as soon as possible. The faculty member and the student together should determine the scope and range of the topic area of concentration and discuss a tentative list of readings, the course expectations, and the work required.
  3. Before the third week of the semester, the student must submit an abstract that describes and defines the course of study that they propose to follow. This proposal should explain why they want to take an independent course and why they have selected the subject matter. This is particularly important for a senior thinking of writing an honors thesis.
  4. Independent study students must work on topics and areas of research that fall within the professor’s field of specialization or interest. The program offers the possibilities of working in one or more languages and cultures of her choice. A project in creative writing may be acceptable, if the student is a committed and serious writer, and if there is a member of the program experienced in that area. Interdisciplinary work is particularly encouraged.
  5. If a course on the same topic is already being offered in the program, an independent study cannot be requested. Majors and minors should always take courses when they are offered as part of the program’s curriculum. If the student’s area of interest is not covered in any of those courses, or if the subject will not be offered during her time at MHC, they may then propose to study it independently.
  6. An independent study student must meet with her adviser regularly, if possible every two weeks. These meetings should focus on material reading, critical analysis, discussion of assigned short papers, etc. The professor may or may not elect to assign papers during the semester, but a final paper is required. In the case of an independent that will lead to an honors thesis in spring of senior year, this final paper must be a proposal of her project.
  7. Finally, an independent course is not simply a list of books to be read but rather a dedicated dialogue between a student and a professor that will stimulate intellectual curiosity and original thinking, improve reading, writing and research skills, and encourage critical analysis. Independent study takes extra time and energy on all sides. Students should be aware that professors are not obligated to supervise independent coursework, and they may have to refuse if they are overloaded in a given semester.

B. Honors program and honors thesis 

Fall Semester 

  1. Students considering writing an honors thesis in the spring semester must follow the rules of an independent study in the fall semester of her senior year.
  2. By the end of the fall semester, and no later than the second week of December, students must submit a proposal to her independent advisor. This proposal must include a summary of the work they will pursue, a methodology to be followed, and a distribution of chapters for her work as well as a work schedule (15-20 pages). This proposal will be sent to the program chair, who will consult with the rest of the program for approval.
  3. With the program’s approval, any senior who has maintained a minimum cumulative average of 3.00 in her major field or in her college work, and who is well prepared in the language in which the thesis will be written, may extend the four-credit fall independent study course into a full-year eight-credit honors project. The independent study advisor then becomes the thesis director. The director’s role is to guide and challenge the student in a constructive manner, but the quest for information and supporting material is the student’s job. Any student beginning an honors project should be prepared to write a thesis of between 75-125 pages. 

Spring Semester

  1. By the end of "ADD PERIOD" in February — If the student and their thesis adviser agree that the student should continue with their thesis, the student needs to make sure they have signed up for 4 more credits of independent study (RLC 395). The thesis committee must be formed. According to legislation, the thesis committee must consist “of at least three members: two or more members of the department in which the thesis work has been done, including the director of the project and, ordinarily, the chair of the department, as well as a member of another department at Mount Holyoke or an examiner from outside the College.” 
  2. The first week of April — The first complete draft of the thesis should be submitted to the student's thesis advisor. Then the RL&C Program, in consultation with their thesis advisor, will review their work and decide if the student is a candidate for honors. If the work receives a favorable review, the student will receive a letter from the chair in early April asking them to confirm that they will be submitting the final draft of their thesis to their thesis committee by April 30th. 
  3. April 30th — Final draft of thesis due. Copies must be given to all members of the student's thesis committee. The copies need not be bound.
  4. Honors Examination (or "defense"): During the first week of May, honors examination (or "defense") of the thesis takes place. Legislation states that "a candidate for an honors degree by thesis or project shall take a special honors examination [...] designed to test her command of the special subject of her honors work and her ability to see its significance as part of the field. The length of the [oral] honors examination shall be no more than one hour [...] and shall be given no later than 10 days before Commencement."  The student will be notified immediately following the defense whether they have been awarded honors.

    Students are responsible for determining the date and time for this oral examination or "defense" of their thesis. Most students prefer to schedule a defense during one of the two reading days prior to the exam period.

    Schedules fill up very fast at this time of the year, we recommend that students schedule their honors examination by mid-April at the latest. After consulting with their thesis adviser, students should contact the other members of their thesis committee and settle on a date and time for the oral examination. It may be wise to select several different dates and times so that committee members will have some choice. The committee normally asks the student to give a brief overview of their thesis and explain how they became interested in their topic. This is followed by a series of questions posed by members and attendants (if opened to the public). After the student completes the examination, they will be asked to wait outside the room. Committee members will consult and, after a short time, notify the student as to whether or not they are recommending they be awarded honors in RLC based on their thesis and oral examination. If the student is recommended for honors, the committee will also decide what level of honors to recommend to the Academic Administrative Board. The student will receive a letter from the AAB before graduation informing them of the level of honors they have earned.

  5. By July 1st at the latest — The final copy of the thesis must be submitted to the library. Although July 1st is the official deadline, we strongly recommend that students prepare the final copy of their thesis and submit it to the library before they leave campus. This copy should incorporate any additional suggestions made by the student's thesis committee.