Honors Thesis Handbook


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 undergraduate research or creative scholarship completed by an undergraduate honors student. Completing an honors thesis is required in order to graduate from the Lee Honors College. More importantly, your honors thesis is an opportunity to demonstrate what you are capable of contributing to your chosen field rather than just what you know. 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. 

Your honors thesis will be published online in ScholarWorks alongside your fellow Lee Honors College graduates dating back to the 1960s. Publication allows you to use this accomplishment to market yourself to future employers and graduate schools. Your thesis title and thesis mentor will be listed on your official university transcript. 

Please note that this handbook is a generalized overview designed to support honors students enrolled in all majors at the university. More detailed information may always be obtained by attending a thesis workshop and/or meeting with an honors advisor. 

PLEASE NOTE: Students with majors in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (except for graphic and printing sciences), graphic design, product design and data science may use their senior design projects for their honors theses. Applicable students will need to refer to specific instructions received via email during their senior year to count their projects as their honors theses. Please also see the ‘creative works and group projects’ section below in Step 9. 

Steps and Timeline

Step 1: Attend a thesis information workshop (during sophomore year) 

Workshops are facilitated by honors advisors and designed to help you learn the process of completing an honors thesis specific to your major and help you begin thinking about potential topics and faculty mentors. 

Step 2: Enroll in your thesis preparation course (varies by major)

Most honors students will enroll in HNRS 4980: How and Why to Write an Honors Thesis, but some academic programs have approved substitutions for HNRS 4980. A full list can be found on the honors college requirements page of the website. Students required to enroll in HNRS 4980 should complete the course by the end of their junior year. This course is designed to prepare you to begin your thesis and counts toward your honors course credit hour requirement. 

Step 3: Select a thesis topic (during the junior year)

It is never too early to begin thinking about a thesis topic! Ideally, the thesis topic should be chosen early in the junior year for most majors. Please note that students majoring in biology, biomedical sciences, chemistry, physics and psychology should meet with faculty in their department about gaining access to a research lab to complete their thesis and NOT select a topic on their own. 

When thinking about potential thesis topics, ask yourself: 

  • What interests me about my major?

  • What areas of expertise do my department’s faculty have?

  • What project will most effectively demonstrate my education, skills and abilities to future employers and/or graduate schools?

  • What skills do I possess (e.g., bilingualism, video editing, graphic design) that could help make my project more unique?

  • What project is robust enough to help leverage it as an honors graduate AND practical to complete within my degree plan?

  • What projects are published in ScholarWorks written by students in my or similar majors?

  • If I plan to pursue a career or graduate school outside of my major, what thesis project could allow me to demonstrate my ability to successfully transition outside my major?

  • What experiences have I had in classes, internships, study abroad, etc., that I can incorporate into my thesis?

Do not worry if your ideas are still a bit nebulous when you proceed to step three. It may be helpful to schedule an appointment to discuss your ideas and questions with an honors college administrator or advisor. 

Step 4: Choose your thesis committee chair (in your junior year)

With a thesis topic in mind, the next step is to find a thesis committee chair (also referred to as the thesis mentor or advisor). The thesis chair should 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: The thesis chair must be a full-time faculty member at WMU, and may not be a family member, even if they are full-time WMU faculty.

There are many ways to find a thesis chair. It may be a faculty member from a course you took; or it may be a professor you identify through looking up their research interests, work, and publications that align with your interests (look at their profiles on departmental websites). Also check ScholarWorks to see which faculty have served as chairs for prior students. Another option is to schedule an appointment with an honors advisor to see if they can help you find an appropriate honors thesis chair or introduce you to a faculty member you found by searching the internet. Hint: Faculty will be the most receptive to students who are professional and well prepared.

How to reach out to a faculty member:

  • Email.

  • Office hours.

  • After or before class if you are currently one of their students.

  • Networking – use connections such as peers, graduate students, or individuals in the honors college to help introduce you to a faculty member.

When deciding on a thesis committee chair remember that this is a long-term professional working relationship. Below are some things to consider when choosing a thesis committee chair:

  • Expertise/Knowledge: a faculty member need not be the world’s expert on the exact topic of all aspects of your thesis. Below are some areas of expertise that a chair could help with.

  1. Discipline expertise – familiarity with the discipline, ideas, theories, or concepts you are using.

  2. Area/Location/Population expertise – familiarity with the place and people you may work with.

  3. Methods/Skills – familiarity with how you will go about doing your thesis.

  • Availability: how available do you need your chair to be for you?

  1. Busy – faculty can often be quite busy. If they are up for tenure, in demand for guest lectures, or travel often, these can limit the amount of time they have available for you.

  2. Graduate and honors students – if a faculty has a large number of graduate or honors students, that they have already agreed to work with, this will also cut into the amount of time they are available.

  • Communication/Working Relationship:

  1. Hard to know beforehand but knowing what type of working relationship you want with your committee chair may help you decide.

  2. A good working relationship or ability to communicate will make the whole thesis process much smoother.

  3. Note: a good working relationship is also important as your thesis committee chair will be a prime candidate to write you letters of recommendation for future endeavors (graduate school or job applications).

Make sure that your first contact, whether by email, or an in-person appointment, leaves a good impression. Be on time for your appointment, and if you must reschedule, do so early - do not be a no-show! Keep in mind that faculty are very busy, and certain times of the semester may not be ideal to set up a meeting with them, especially if they do not know you.

Prepare to demonstrate that you have done preliminary research on your topic by reading some textbooks, journal articles or other scholarly or artistic materials. Be ready to discuss what you are interested in and why you think this faculty member would be a good fit. The more prepared and enthusiastic you are about your potential project, the more likely it is that a busy faculty member will want to take the time to serve as 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 (you are coming to them for their expertise, after all), but do make sure that you settle on a topic that is interesting to you, as well as to your thesis chair.

Step 5: Submit your thesis declaration form (in your junior year)

Ideally, you should submit this form at least three semesters before you intend to graduate. You can find it in the forms section of the honors college website. 

To submit your declaration form, you will need a less-than-one-page description of your project that has been approved by a full-time faculty member who has agreed to serve as your thesis chair. Your thesis declaration form will either be approved or recommended for amendment by the honors college; this decision will be communicated to you and your thesis chair via WMU email.  

Recommendation for amendment usually occurs for one of three reasons: (1) questions or concerns exist regarding institutional compliance; (2) the proposed thesis chair is not a full-time WMU faculty member, or is ineligible to serve as chair for some other reason; or (3) the thesis topic is not sufficient in scope with respect to your field of study and/or honors standards. You will be informed what the problems are that must be addressed before the proposal can be reconsidered and are encouraged to make an appointment to come in to the honors college if you need more information. 

On the declaration form, you will be asked four compliance questions relating to the following: 1) will you be collecting data from humans; 2) will you be using vertebrate animals; 3) will you be using recombinant DNA; and 4) will your project be funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) or National Institutes of Health (NIH). Below is more information on each.  

  1. The WMU Institutional Review Board (IRB) is responsible for oversight of all research related to human subjects. This includes the use of surveys, even if they are completely anonymous. If you write a thesis that needs WMU-IRB approval, and you have not received it before you begin your research, the study is invalid and the thesis must be destroyed. This is also a research ethics violation which may subject you to discipline by The Office of Student Conduct. This is a federal, not a University or honors college regulation. Only the WMU-IRB can determine whether approval is required, and only the WMU-IRB can grant approval for research that involves people. If there is any question that your proposed research might need WMU-IRB approval, you should check with your thesis chair, an honors advisor, or directly contact the WMU-IRB before you proceed with your work. CITI training is a required set of modules that all researchers must complete before beginning IRB-approved research and will be extremely helpful to prepare you for the IRB process. Depending on the population you would like to study and the methodology you have chosen there are varying levels of IRB review, so please be sure to submit early in the process and not collect ANY data prior to approval. If your research changes after you have received IRB approval, you may need to update your IRB protocol or submit a new one. More information is available on the WMU-IRB website.

  2. If your project involves animals, you must contact the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at (269) 387-4484.  Only the IACUC can grant approval for research that involves animals. Further information on conducting research with animals is available on the animal care website

  3. If your project involves the use of recombinant or synthetic DNA, or microbiological agents and their products, or life sciences research, you must contact the Institutional Biosafety Committee (WMU-IBC) at (269) 387-8293. Further information on conducting research with any of the materials listed above can be found on the biosafety website.

  4. Check with your thesis chair to make sure you are aware if your project will receive any funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

When you complete your thesis declaration form, you will answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the above questions. You do NOT have to be approved by the respective compliance offices prior to submitting the thesis declaration form.  

Step 6: Choose additional committee members (in your junior year)

In addition to the honors thesis chair, you must select at least one, ideally two, other expert(s) to serve on your committee. You should consult with your thesis chair regarding possible members of your committee soon after you choose a topic. The committee members need not be WMU faculty but should have expertise relevant to your topic of study. When deciding who will be a good committee member, discuss with your thesis chair how the potential member would add to your project, provide diversity of thought, or provide expertise outside of that possessed by your chair. 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 of only a faculty member and a graduate student who is advised or supervised by that faculty member. Also note that you may NOT include family members, partners or significant others on your committee. If you wish to include a graduate student advised or supervised by your thesis chair, you may do so, but you must then select an additional committee member who does not work in the research group of your thesis chair. 

Step 7: Register for HNRS 4990: Honors College Thesis (for the semester you plan to defend your thesis)

Most honors students will enroll in HNRS 4990: Honors College Thesis, but some academic programs have approved substitutions for HNRS 4990. A full list can be found on the honors college requirements page. Honors students must enroll in and complete at least one credit (up to a maximum of three credits) of HNRS 4990: Honors College Thesis, or an approved substitute, prior to graduation. This course must be completed the semester you plan to defend your thesis, and not before. This course counts toward the Experiential portion of the honors credit hour requirement. The thesis chair serves as instructor of record for your credit(s), which means that the thesis chair will be responsible for assigning the grade for your work on your honors thesis. 

In order to be registered for HNRS 4990, you must complete and submit the HNRS 4990 registration form at least one week prior to the semester in which you wish to enroll in the course

Please note! If HNRS 4990 credits are being used to meet your minimum credits required for university graduation, you must successfully complete and defend your thesis by commencement to graduate on time. Be sure to discuss HNRS 4990 credits with your academic college advisor when applying for your graduation audit. 

Step 8: Submit your thesis defense certificate request form (at least one month before thesis defense)

Once you have decided on a thesis defense date, you should submit your thesis defense certificate request form. This form must be filed at least 30 days before your thesis defense. This form includes 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 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 semester. The defense request form will be used by the 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. Your packet will be delivered to you via email and should be taken to your defense to be completed by your committee members, and then returned to the honors college according to the instructions included in the packet.

Step 9: Defend your thesis (before you graduate)

We recommend that you defend your thesis at least one semester before you intend to graduate, but most honors graduates defend during their final semester. You MUST defend 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 one week, (preferably two), before your defense so that they have plenty of time to review it. You should plan for your defense to take about an hour– check with your thesis committee in advance. Rooms are reserved for one hour during the Thesis Celebration Days at the honors college. If your committee anticipates that more than one hour will be needed for your defense, please make certain that your room is available or make plans to continue the closed-door portion of your defense in another location.

The defense consists of three parts: 

  • An oral presentation of your work, open to the public; 

  • A public question and answer session; 

  • A closed-door oral examination with your thesis committee. 

The oral presentation typically consists of a 15-20 minute overview of your thesis work. In the sciences, social sciences, business and education, this is generally a PowerPoint or Prezi 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 defenses are typically handled a little differently (see below). 

After you complete your presentation, allow 5-15 minutes for questions from the public audience. Following this period, your committee (at a minimum, your thesis chair and one committee member must be present for the exam) will conduct a closed-door oral examination. Many students are very worried about the oral exam – don’t be! This is your 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. 

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

Fine Arts Students: BFA students in curricula in the College of Fine Arts typically review their creative work and artifacts such as portfolios and/or recordings with their committee during their oral defense because their public portion is typically a recital, performance or exhibit that occurs at a separate time. 

Creative Works and Group Projects: A brief reflection paper is required for creative works and group projects. For creative works, this paper should address why you made the choices you made for your creative project and a self-evaluation of the final product along with any other information you wish to include, as well as any additional writing required by your thesis advisor. For group projects, this paper should address the role you played in the group project, how your own education, experiences and contributions are demonstrated in the final copy, as well as any additional writing required by your thesis advisor.

Step 10: Submit your final approved thesis

After your successful thesis defense, your committee may recommend some further revisions to your written thesis. You have 30 days after you graduate to turn in your final, revised and approved thesis. The thesis and the abstract should be submitted electronically as a PDF or MP3, MP4 or WAV file, together with a signed copy of each of the documents in your thesis packet (completed and signed ScholarWorks agreement and signed defense certificate). For detailed instructions on the submission of your final thesis project, please read carefully the instruction sheet included in your defense packet. 

Note: For some students, 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 via the regular process laid out above, but students should select the appropriate level of publication visibility as described in the ScholarWorks agreement included in the thesis packet. If you have questions about the ScholarWorks form, please contact Jennifer Townsend

A cautionary note! Please consult with your thesis chair before responding to any requests from publishers or conferences regarding your honors thesis. Predatory publishers send unsolicited requests for articles, may send false information about their journals and typically charge large fees to authors. Likewise, sham conference organizers will send targeted emails asking for abstract or article contributions with substantial submission fees. 

Questions? Schedule an honors thesis advising appointment

Thesis Checklist

Now that you've carefully and thoroughly read through the thesis handbook, bookmark or print out this handy thesis checklist to help keep you on track during your thesis process!