[IMAGE: Class of 2019 thesis writers posing together at the Thesis Poster Session.]
Congratulations! You’re thinking about a thesis in Psychology. This page will help you get started on this exciting endeavor. There are also many people in the Psychology Department who are happy to help you. Please don’t hesitate to ask questions. Best of luck!
Choosing to do a thesis.
The thesis is optional for Psychology concentrators (except those who are on the MBB track), so our concentrators get to choose whether or not to pursue a thesis. Whether or not you are considering a career in research psychology or a related field, thesis can be an excellent opportunity to pull together everything you have learned so far and develop skills and insights which can be useful in any field. There are a lot of reasons to do a Psychology thesis, including:
- Being part of contributing to scientific knowledge
- Opportunity to work closely with lab, develop relationship with supervisor(s)
- Learn more about research process
- Develop skills in managing your own project, solving problems, collaborating with others, and communicating your ideas
- Gaining insight into whether or not research is a good career option for you
We encourage all concentrators to give serious consideration to doing a thesis, and we’re here to talk through the potential considerations! Many concentrators ultimately decide that a thesis won’t fit well into their plans for their senior year -- they may feel that the time commitment will encroach too much on other priorities, or they may just not find it appealing. At the end of the day, the best reason to do a thesis is because you want to, and the best reason not to do a thesis is because you really don’t want to. We’re here to help you figure that out and make the choice that’s best for you!
There are some misconceptions that sometimes arise when students are weighing whether or not to pursue a thesis, including:
A thesis is the only way to do independent research.
There are a few different ways to do get course credit for doing independent research. All of them (including a thesis) involve similar responsibilities (e.g., finding a supervisor, choosing a topic and method of approach, figuring out funding for any possible expenses, gaining IRB approval if conducting human subjects approval, etc.). These including enrolling in a lab course or in 910R with a research advisor who agrees to let you take on a more independent role, or doing independent study.
I can’t do a thesis if I can’t think of my own, unique research idea.
While some students do come up with a thesis idea on their own, most students develop ideas with prospective supervisors. In fact, many theses are initially based on research ideas that the lab already had, but that the student can take on as the primary researcher.
My CV will suffer if I don’t do a thesis.
The experience of doing a thesis should help you develop skills you can reference in a CV, and give you experiences you can reference in a personal statement or interview, but most people won’t be checking your CV for a thesis. (If you’re concerned about this, though, seek advice from people in whatever field or subfield you want to pursue.)
I can’t do a thesis if I can’t stay the summer between junior and senior year.
We do recommend that thesis students plan to stay on campus over the summer to work on the thesis, but it’s not required, so students shouldn’t decide against a thesis just because they have conflicting summer plans. Most supervisors are willing to work with students to come up with a plan that will allow them to complete the thesis without the summer, especially students who ask early and are willing to work hard in junior year.
I need to do a thesis if I want honors // I will automatically get honors if I do a thesis.
It’s true that doing a thesis can improve the chances of getting honors, and open the possibility of getting High or Highest Honors, but thesis students do not automatically get honors, and there is an option for non-thesis honors. (find out more about honors).
There’s no reason to do a thesis if I’m not planning to work in research after college.
A thesis can be very fulfilling for students regardless of their future plans. The thesis helps students develop skills that are useful in any field (e.g., project management, communicating with supervisors, being a good consumer of research). Some students choose to do a thesis because they know it is probably their last chance to do hands-on research.
I can’t do a thesis because….
The department has lots of resources available to help students who want to do a thesis. If you want to do a thesis but think you can’t for other reasons not listed here, come talk to us. We can often help students who are motivated find solutions to problems and conflicts.
Where (and when) do I start my thesis?
A psychology thesis is a three-semester process, so you need to officially opt in during your junior year. Even before that, you can prepare yourself by getting research experience in a lab. If you’re not sure where to start, you can talk to your Concentration Advisor or someone in the undergraduate office (UGO) about finding a research lab and incorporating research into your academic plans.
As long as you are considering a thesis, it’s best to start early and stay on track. You can always opt out of the thesis if it no longer fits into your plans, but you may not be able to opt in later if you don’t lay the groundwork in the beginning. This means that you should be proactively coordinating with a research lab and with the undergraduate office to discuss your options no later than junior fall.
If you’re already thinking about doing a thesis as a freshman or sophomore, the best thing you can do is get research experience! If you’re not sure where to start, you can talk to your Concentration Advisor or someone in the undergraduate office (UGO) about finding a research lab.
See also: Thesis pre-requisites.
Who should do a thesis?
There are many different factors that can determine whether or not you decide to pursue a thesis, including your level of interest and motivation, your personality and temperament, your future goals, and your competing priorities and commitments. A thesis can be extremely satisfying for a person who is looking for an opportunity to take a very active role in the research process and feels passionately about contributing to the existing body of scientific knowledge in psychology. It is an opportunity to challenge yourself, become deeply connected to a research laboratory, and build skills in every stage of the research process as well as in critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication.
Ask yourself: What are your research interests? What kind of research question do you plan to pursue? Is your research project feasible? Do you have sufficient background in the topic that you wish to explore?
But perhaps the most important question is: Why do you want to do a thesis? A thesis is a fantastic and unique opportunity to thoroughly pursue a research question. Many students believe that a thesis will “look good” on their resumes, or that they "should" write a thesis, but this should not be the only reason you choose to write one. Ultimately, this is a personal decision that only you can make, but we encourage you to think about it and to discuss it with your Concentration Advisor.
What is the nature and scope of a typical thesis?
A thesis should tackle an interesting and ambitious topic, but the goals must be reasonable given the short time frame and limited resources. Theses should pose a specific research question, demonstrate a solid grasp of the existing theories around the topic, and make a novel contribution toward answering the question. This novel contribution is almost always accomplished via substantial empirical work (e.g., through experimentation, field observation of naturally-occurring behavior, or self-report questionnaires).
Although extremely rare, a purely theoretical thesis might be acceptable if it offered a substantial contribution to the existing thought and literature (e.g., by explaining existing data patterns in a new way which offers a significant and demonstrable improvement over existing models). In many cases, a theoretical work might not represent a large and unique enough effort in order to qualify as a thesis; successful theoretical theses might involve a computer simulation, a meta-analysis of existing data, etc. The bar for approval for this type of thesis is very high.
All thesis projects—experimental, theoretical, or otherwise—must be approved by both your thesis committee and the Committee on Undergraduate Instruction.
See also: Past thesis topics & sample theses
How independent does the thesis have to be? Do I have to come up with my own topic idea?
The thesis is independent in that you are responsible for shepherding the project from beginning to end. However, you are encouraged to engage with other researchers at every stage of your thesis and to get help when needed. Your supervisor(s) should be involved at every stage of the process; however, it will generally be your responsibility to keep them in the loop and get their help when needed. The key is not for you to do everything without help. The key is for you to take responsibility for keeping your project moving, for understanding everything that is going on in your project and why, and for knowing when to ask for help.
Some thesis students do come up with their own topic; however, many (if not most) students choose a topic through close discussion with their research advisors – sometimes working on research that had already been planned or in-the-works in the lab. If you are unsure if a particular line of research meets the criteria for a thesis, you can check in with the UGO.
The final written thesis (as well as the proposal for the thesis application, the prospectus, and the mid-year progress update) should be entirely your own work. However, you can and should be showing early drafts to your supervisor(s) for comments. (Note: you should talk to your supervisor(s) early on about their preferences for looking at drafts.)
What are the steps involved?
Continue to the Checklist!