Honors Thesis


The honors thesis is a long-standing tradition in honors programs and colleges, including the Lee Honors College at Western Michigan University. An honors thesis is defined as an original work of scholarship or creative activity completed by an undergraduate honors student. The honors thesis is required to graduate from the Lee Honors College. The thesis should reflect the academic standards of the field of study, and must be approved by a full-time WMU faculty (the honors thesis committee chair) and at least one additional committee member with significant expertise in the area of study or a closely related discipline. Examples of honors theses include senior engineering design projects, creative works of fiction, original documentaries, novel educational curricula, original performances or works of art, and traditional research papers. Visit our online collection in ScholarWorks to view samples of recent theses and a list of titles going back 40 years.

The honors thesis experience is intended to provide you with an opportunity to hone pertinent skills and knowledge in your major field of study, or in another area of significant interest to you, under the close guidance of content experts. The honors thesis culminates in a capstone project that reflects the expertise you have gained by completion of the thesis project. It is intended to provide you with an opportunity to demonstrate the knowledge and skills developed during your undergraduate studies at WMU. Students typically find that completion of an honors thesis is viewed quite favorably by professional and graduate school admission committees, as well as by prospective employers. 

Steps and timeline

Step one: Selecting a thesis topic (by the beginning of junior year)

It is never too early to begin thinking about a thesis topic. Ideally, the thesis topic should be chosen by the beginning of the junior year. Most students find this step to be the most difficult, so do not worry if you are struggling to select a topic. Remember that the thesis topic does not have to be within your major program of study. To find a topic, reflect on courses, topics in courses and experiences (e.g. study abroad, field experiences, internships) that you have found to be especially interesting and engaging. Explore these ideas with some additional reading and conversations with other students, staff and faculty. Your preliminary research on the topic should include some background reading of textbooks, published papers or other scholarly (peer-reviewed) materials. You should aim to find a topic that really appeals to you; your preliminary reading and conversations may suggest some areas that are prime for additional research. Do not worry if your ideas are still a bit nebulous when you proceed to step two. 

Step two: Choosing your mentor and committee chair (in your junior year)

Once you have settled on a preliminary topic, the next step is to identify a thesis committee chair (also sometimes referred to as the thesis mentor or advisor). Ideally, the thesis chair will have significant expertise not just in your general program of study, but in an area closely related to the topic you have chosen for your honors thesis. Note that the thesis chair must be a full-time faculty member at WMU. There are many ways to find a thesis chair. If you choose a topic based on a course you took at WMU, make an appointment with the course instructor to discuss your idea. Even if the instructor is unable to serve as your thesis chair, they might be able to suggest a faculty member who is available and who has expertise closely related to your topic. If you do not already know the person they recommend to be your thesis chair, ask your instructor if they would be willing to introduce you to that person. Another good idea is to check the Web to see if there are faculty at WMU with expertise closely related to your chosen topic. Most faculty identify their specific areas of expertise on their faculty departmental websites. If you find someone with appropriate expertise, you can introduce yourself to them through a “cold” phone call or email, or you might ask a faculty or graduate student you already know to do an introduction for you. Another option is to contact the Lee Honors College academic advisors or dean to see if they can help you find an appropriate honors thesis chair or introduce you to a faculty member you found by searching on the Web. Hint: Faculty will be the most receptive to students who are professional and well prepared. Make sure that your first contact, whether by email, phone or an in-person appointment, leaves a good impression. Of course, you must be on time for your appointment, and if you must reschedule, do so early. Do not be a no-show! You should demonstrate that you have done a little preliminary research on your topic, by reading some textbooks, peer-reviewed articles or other scholarly materials. You should be able to articulate what interests you about this area of scholarship and why you would like to pursue an honors thesis related to it. The more prepared you are, and enthusiastic about your potential project, the more likely a busy faculty member will want to take the time to become your thesis chair. Also, be open-minded in your discussions. It may be that your topic will be difficult to research, or that there is already a great deal of work that has been done in that area. A potential thesis chair might suggest some other ideas for a thesis topic—listen to these and consider them carefully, but do make sure that you settle on a topic that is interesting to you, as well as to your thesis chair. You might also bring a copy of the letter to thesis mentors which provides some info about the thesis process, especially if you work with a faculty member who has not previously chaired a thesis committee. 

Step three: Filling out your thesis declaration form (in your junior year)

Ideally, you should file your thesis declaration form at least three semesters before you intend to graduate.

You will need to fill in your proposed thesis topic, a general description of the work to be done and have your thesis chair sign the form. If you decide to change topics, thesis mentors, or date of graduation, you can simply fill in a new or amended form. Your thesis declaration form will be approved or rejected by the Lee Honors College Dean. Rejection usually occurs for one of three reasons: incomplete form, proposed thesis chair is not a full-time WMU faculty or thesis topic is not sufficiently scholarly. You will be informed of the reason for rejection, and are encouraged to make an appointment to come in to the honors college if you need more information.

Note that if your project involves research involving people or animals, you must contact the Human Subjects Institutional Review Board at (269) 387-8293. This is vital to the approval of your thesis. If you write a thesis that needs the board's approval, and you have not received it before you begin your research, the study is invalid and the thesis must be destroyed. This is a federal regulation, not one of the University or the honors college. Only the Human Subjects Institutional Review Board can determine whether approval is required, and only the board can grant approval for research that involves people or animals. If there is any question that your proposed research might need the Human Subjects Institutional Review Board approval, you should check with your thesis chair, an Lee Honors College advisor or directly contact the board before you proceed with your work.

Step four: Choosing your thesis committee (in your junior year)

In addition to the honors thesis chair, you must select at least one additional expert to serve on your committee, although it is highly recommended that you select at least two committee members in addition to your thesis chair. The committee members need not be WMU faculty, but should have expertise relevant to your topic of study. The committee could include faculty from the same or another department or college at WMU, faculty from another institution, graduate students, WMU staff or members of the broader community. Note that your committee may not be comprised only of a faculty member and a graduate student who is advised by that faculty member. In that case, you would need to select an additional committee member who does not work in the research group of your thesis chair.

You should consult with your thesis chair regarding possible members of your thesis committee soon after you choose a thesis topic. Ideally, your committee members will meet with you before you begin work on the thesis so that they may give you advice and ideas regarding your proposed work. It is a good idea to arrange an initial meeting with your chair and committee in which you present a brief thesis proposal. This need not be formal, although your committee will likely appreciate it if you provide them with a one or two page summary of your proposed work a few days before the meeting. This will allow them time to consider your proposal and offer you valuable guidance. Use your initial committee meeting to get feedback about your topic, and to put together a preliminary timeline for your work. This will help you to get started on your project, and to get insight into what constitutes an appropriate timeline for the proposed work. Once you get started on your project, you should send periodic updates on your progress to your full committee and should also consider scheduling regular meetings with them. You should definitely have regularly scheduled meetings with your thesis chair.

Step five: Filling out your thesis defense certificate request form (at least one month before thesis defense)

Once you have decided on a thesis defense date (see step six), you should file your thesis defense certificate request form.

This form must be filled out at least 30 days before your thesis defense, but turning it in sooner is highly recommended. This form should include your final thesis title, as you would like it to appear on graduation materials, your intended date of graduation, the date you will defend your thesis, and names and contact information for all of your committee members. We strongly encourage all students to defend during Thesis Celebration Days, which are held in the honors college at the end of each fall and spring semesters. Theses defended during these days (and only during these days) will be judged and will be eligible for best thesis presentation prizes. The defense certificate form will be used by Lee Honors College staff to record your thesis title for graduation, to advertise your thesis defense and to generate a packet of materials for your thesis committee. You should pick up your packet at the honors college before the defense.

Step six: Defending your thesis (before you graduate)

You have completed your project and have written up your findings. Well done—you are almost finished! We recommend that you defend your thesis at least one semester before you intend to graduate. You must complete your defense before you graduate, or you will not graduate from the Lee Honors College.

You should make sure that your whole committee has a final version of your written thesis at least a week before your defense (preferably two), so that they have plenty of time to review it. You should plan for your defense to take one to two hours. Most are completed within one hour, but some committees prefer to have a longer time—check with your thesis committee in advance. The defense consists of three parts: an oral presentation of your work that is open to the public, a public question and answer session and a closed-door oral examination with your thesis committee. The oral presentation typically consists of a 15 to 20 minute overview of your thesis work. In the sciences, social sciences, business and education this is generally a PowerPoint presentation including a description of the motivation for your work, a summary of related work, the approach you used, the results obtained, your conclusions and their significance. In the humanities, this might include a reading from your original paper. Engineering and the fine arts are typically handled a little differently (see below). After you complete your presentation, allow five to 15 minutes for questions from the public audience. After this period, your committee (at a minimum, your thesis chair and one committee must be present for the exam) will conduct a closed door oral defense. Many students are very worried about the oral exam—don’t be! For most students, this is an opportunity to have an in-depth discussion with your committee about the work you have completed. View it as a chance to show off your knowledge, discuss what you might have done differently in retrospect and what you would do if you were to continue this project, for example, as a graduate student. Many students actually report that they enjoyed the oral exam and the chance to discuss their project and findings in detail with their committee.

College of Engineering and Applied Sciences students typically use their senior design project as the honors thesis. In this case, the presentation given at the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences Senior Design Day will serve as a substitute for the oral defense of the thesis described above. These students may also present their work at the Thesis Celebration to compete for best thesis prizes. In this case, the committee does not need to be present and no oral examination follows the presentation.

College of Fine Arts students typically complete a senior recital, performance or exhibition in lieu of an oral thesis defense. These students should consult with Lee Honors College staff about the Music Celebration and opportunities to exhibit original artwork in the honors college facility. Fine arts students may wish to present an overview of their work during the Thesis Celebration to compete for a best thesis prize. See an honors college advisor for details.

Step seven: Turning in your final, approved thesis

After your successful thesis defense, your committee may recommend some revisions to your written thesis. You have until 30 days after you graduate to turn in your final, revised and approved thesis. The thesis should be submitted electronically as a PDF file, together with all of the information in the thesis packet you receive after turning in your defense certificate request form (i.e., ScholarWorks agreement, signed defense certificate, evaluation rubrics). Ask your thesis committee members to turn in the evaluation rubrics you will receive in your thesis packet.

Note: For some students (especially in engineering and applied sciences), research conducted for the honors thesis contains proprietary information that cannot be released to the general public. In that case, the final thesis should be submitted to the dean of the Lee Honors College for approval, and a short abstract should be included for general dissemination. Likewise, fine arts students who complete performances that cannot be recorded or reproduced due to copyright restrictions should also inform the honors college dean. These students should plan to turn in a write-up detailing their experience, the context or history of their performance (e.g. liner notes) or other relevant information in lieu of the recorded performance. Please see an honors college advisor for details. 


For your convenience, you can download the above information in the Lee Honors College honors thesis student handbook.