Detailed Information for Honors Students
The student should enroll in Biology 401-404: Independent Research (or conduct an Excel project) with a faculty mentor in their sophomore or junior year. The possibility of Honors Thesis should be discussed with your research mentor by spring of your junior year. The student should then begin to develop a research plan for the Thesis work in consultation with the faculty mentor and obtain the department head’s permission to enroll in Biology 495: Honors Thesis. Be aware that research conducted for pay (e.g., Excel) cannot also count for academic credit; the Honors Thesis research must be distinct in some manner from research experiences for pay.
Work on Honors Thesis Proposal and begin making arrangements for the thesis committee. At the discretion of the faculty mentor, one or more drafts may be required prior to the beginning of the fall semester.
Having enrolled in Thesis (Biol. 495), the Thesis candidate begins research, initially by performing a thorough search of the scientific literature, getting experiments underway and finishing the Honors Thesis Proposal (see Appendix 2: Departmental Standards for Written Work; Appendix 3 Sample Thesis Proposals). Candidates will receive a copy of the rubric that faculty will use to assess the quality and merit of Honors Thesis research. An Honors Thesis must demonstrate the student’s capacity for quality research and give evidence of mastery of the material. Typically, students meet at least weekly for project discussions and review of several Proposal drafts.
A Thesis Committee for the student will be approved at the first regularly scheduled department meeting of the semester. The Committee will consist of two department members plus the mentor. An additional member from outside Biology may be appointed at the department’s discretion. The Committee will be formed through discussion, but the department head will have final say on committee composition. The responsibilities of the Thesis Committee are:
After the mentor has signed off on the proposal, the completed Honors Thesis Proposal is submitted to the department head for departmental comment and approval by 5 pm of the Friday of the 4th week of classes in the fall semester. This Proposal must contain the following elements:
Sample Honors Thesis Proposals are included in Appendix 3. The proposal will be circulated to departmental faculty for their comments. Honors candidates are responsible for clarifying with departmental faculty any comments on the Proposal and the Thesis prior to any subsequent meeting of the Committee. Such comments and constructive criticism may affect design and/or conduct of the research project, as well as the interpretation and/or validity of data to be collected.
The student will initiate a Thesis Committee meeting to discuss the Proposal and attendant faculty comments. At this time, any changes to the planned research can be discussed. The Committee also will adjudicate the suitability of the Proposal for producing an Honors Thesis and the acceptability of the Proposal as a whole. If the student and mentor chose to deviate significantly from any proposed elements during the year, they must consult with members of the Thesis Committee for their consensus.
During the last week of October, all students will present and orally defend their Thesis Proposal to the department. The actual presentation will be 5 minutes long; there will be 10 additional minutes for questions. At this point, biology faculty can provide input to the student and the Committee regarding any concerns. Students should initiate a discussion with their faculty mentor regarding research plans over the interim session (see below).
Students should use the fall semester wisely regarding completion of experiments, sample analysis, data management, and interpretation of results. It is unlikely that the entire body of research will be completed in one semester, and thus students are unlikely to receive departmental honors if they expect to conduct the majority of the lab- or field work during the spring. Thus, both fall and spring must be utilized for making research progress (see Spring Semester, Item 1, below).
If required by the mentor, the student will write and submit a progress report by the end of classes in the Fall semester.
The student should enroll in Biology 40X: Independent Research for the spring semester.
The Committee’s review of the Proposal, a progress report (if required), and an evaluation of the student’s conduct as an investigator by the mentor will contribute to the grade given in Thesis for the fall semester.
During Interim, Thesis Committee members will meet to evaluate the progress of Honors candidates and to discuss whether the candidate is performing at, above, or below the “acceptable” level in all evaluation categories (refer to Rubric for the Honors Thesis in Biology downloadable here as ThesisRubric_final). After the Thesis Committee renders a decision on truncating or continuing Honors Thesis candidacy, the faculty mentor will communicate that decision to the student.
It is strongly urged that, with the permission of the mentor, candidates elect to use much of their Interim Session on campus doing research, returning early when possible. While not specifically required, engaging in research during this concentrated period can advance progress significantly because the student is free from competing demands of other coursework and activities. This should be discussed by the candidate and mentor well in advance of the intersession.
During the last week of classes (typically that Friday afternoon), all Thesis students will present in a public venue their thesis work to the Biology faculty, one or more outside examiners, and any students and invited guests. Students must keep in mind that many in the audience will not be familiar with the research jargon that is peculiar to their sub-discipline and should make every attempt to clearly and simply present their results and conclusions. The Thesis presentation is not just a reading of a scientific paper in a format suitable for publication, but is aimed more broadly at a scientifically literate audience.
Typically, 15 minutes are allowed for presentation of each Thesis and 15 additional minutes are allowed for questions and answers. After the Thesis is presented, the outside examiner(s), then Biology faculty, and then other audience members may ask questions. We expect students to demonstrate mastery of their research area, understanding of the basis and execution of methods employed, and how their particular research findings fit into the larger body of knowledge in the research area. Here is a sample PowerPoint thesis defense slide show.
Following the Thesis presentation, the student also must be able to defend it against reasonable criticism in the form of questions from the audience. This is a critical part of securing Honors in Biology, and it is your task to convince the biology faculty and outside examiners with pertinent evidence. Admission of ignorance is never a sin, and if the answer to a question will not come to you, do not despair. Faculty are noted for their gentle attempts to lead thesis students toward a correct or, at least, acceptable response to a difficult question.
Successful presentation of the Thesis by the student, submission of an acceptable final draft of the Thesis during the final examination period, and earning grades of A in Thesis (Biol. 495/496) will satisfy the departmental requirements for graduation with Honors in Biology, provided the candidate also meets the College-wide GPA requirements. During the last faculty meeting of the academic year, the Academic Progress Committee moves that the faculty recommend to the Board of Trustees that all successful Honors candidates be allowed to graduate with Departmental Honors and, unless there are objections, the faculty passes the motion. When the trustees accept this recommendation at their last meeting of the academic year, a notation of “Graduation with Departmental Honors” is made on the transcript of each student so designated; students graduating with departmental honors also are noted on the commencement program.
The summary timeline below is a resource intended for those who have already read all of the above information. If you do not pay strict attention to the information above, you risk missing important information that will eliminate you from consideration for Honors.
Spring semester junior year
Summer between junior and senior year
Fall senior year
Interim senior year
Spring senior year
During the last week of classes, the Honors candidate will publicly present and defend the thesis research.