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!
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.
But a thesis is not for everyone. It is not the only way to get independent research experience, and it is not the only way to graduate with departmental honors. A thesis is a major time commitment, and some individuals may feel they are not well-suited to the demands of a thesis, and/or that they have other priorities that would conflict with the time commitment that a thesis involves. 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 adviser.
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!