Honors Thesis Guidelines

The Departmental Honors (PSYCH HN-CCDEPT) Program is intended for the serious psychology student who seeks challenging coursework and research training, along with the opportunity for individual mentoring by a faculty member. Graduates of the Departmental Honors Program receive essential preparation skills for graduate study in psychology and related fields. In addition, the experience gained by Psychology Honors students can be extremely useful in giving students an advantage in the job market if they seek employment immediately after graduation.

The PSYCH HN-CCDEPT Program consists of a track within the psychology department in which students take honors-level courses and complete an independent piece of research during the senior year (the Honors Thesis). The nature of the Departmental Honors track, application procedures, and requirements for graduation are described on this website.

Student and Faculty Expectations

Choosing to complete the degree requirements in psychology within the PSYCH HN-CCDEPT Program involves a serious commitment on the part of the student to taking an academically challenging route of coursework and independent research. Once involved in the PSYCH HN-CCDEPT Program, the student will choose a faculty member who ultimately will serve as the research advisor for the student’s Honors Thesis (completed during the student’s senior year). The student and faculty advisor initially develop an informal arrangement for the supervision of the student’s research, at the latest during the spring semester of the student’s junior year. This arrangement becomes formalized when the student registers for 3 credits of Psychology 499Y for Honors Thesis research (Fall) and then continues with 3 credits of Psychology 499T for Honors Thesis completion (Spring); registration forms are available on the Commonwealth Honors College website. In this section, the expectations for students and faculty advisors in this process are described.

Student Expectations

The independent research that forms the basis for the student’s Honors Thesis is typically begun in the second semester of the student’s junior year (or earlier). Often, this research develops through an Undergraduate Research Assistantship (Psych 398B or 496A) in which the student works under the supervision of a faculty member in that faculty member’s lab or research project. The student may then decide to approach the faculty member and request that he or she serves as the student’s faculty advisor for the Honors Thesis.

The Honors Thesis must be a scholarly endeavor that makes a contribution to the body of knowledge of psychology. It will typically include a review of the literature, description of methods and procedures, analysis of results, and a discussion relating the findings to the broader literature and field of psychology. The length of the thesis may range from 20 to 70 pages, depending on the scope of the project, the number of pages needed to attach research instruments to the thesis, and the number of references. Most theses are about 25 to 30 pages long, including references and appendices.

The Honors Thesis itself is a project that is completed within the period of the senior year. Students may choose to initiate their own research in consultation with the faculty advisor, or they may choose to develop a research project based on data collected by the faculty advisor (this is more typically the case). The Honors Thesis is not required to be of publishable quality, although publication or presentation of the results to the scientific community is certainly a desirable goal. It is important that students communicate with their faculty advisors about what is expected in the thesis research to avoid misunderstandings at later dates. It is in the student’s best interest to develop an original and interesting research project, but this must also be one that is realistic.

Apart from the Honors Thesis, students are expected to keep up with the requirements of the program. They should check in with the Honors Coordinator at least once a semester or look at the requirements on the official Commonwealth Honors College DH website to ensure that they are completing the requirements in a timely manner. Students are also responsible for making sure that they keep up to date on graduation requirements for the PSYCH HN-CCDEPT Program and for the Psychology major in general.

Another area that students should explore is funding for their research. Commonwealth Honors College has available Honors Research Grants for funding of up to $1000 (per semester) for student projects. Check the Commonwealth Honors College website for programs and deadlines. In addition, Psi Chi has a research grant program as well as awards for completed research. Check the Psi Chi official website for information. You must be a Psi Chi member to qualify for these awards; contact the University of Massachusetts chapter officers at umasspsichi@gmail.com for details on membership. Keep up with the bulletin board and general meetings for information on these opportunities.

At the end of your senior year, you will be expected to complete a poster that you will present at the Annual Undergraduate Research Conference sponsored by Commonwealth Honors College. You will be invited to workshops to help you prepare for these events.

Faculty Expectations

A faculty member who agrees to serve as the advisor for Honors Thesis research takes on some of the responsibility for ensuring that the student completes graduation requirements for the PSYCH HN-CCDEPT program. Therefore, it is expected that the faculty advisor makes himself or herself available to the student on a regular and reliable basis, and that his or her work with the student ultimately benefits the student’s undergraduate education experience.

Students typically need the most help in the planning stages of their projects. The Honors Thesis research itself is expected to be of high quality, but it must be of manageable proportions. The usual time commitment for an Honors Thesis project is about 10 hours a week for two semesters. Ideally, the scope of the project is consistent with this expectation so that students can graduate in May.

Faculty should make every effort to make clear to students what their expectations are for the Honors Thesis research. Each faculty member has different working models of what an Honors Thesis should be. Early communication with the student about these expectations will avoid problems later down the road. Students are usually quite unclear about what an Honors Thesis involves, and what a faculty member may wish to see in the student’s work may not be self-evident to students unless these expectations are made explicit.

Although students are responsible for ensuring that they acquire and complete appropriate signature and registration forms, it is helpful for faculty advisors to be aware of these paperwork requirements. Familiarity with the paperwork requirements provides a degree of insurance that the students will actually complete all necessary forms. Furthermore, it is helpful for faculty to know what they are expected to sign and when to avoid last-minute misunderstandings.

It is also advisable for faculty to clarify their timelines with students. Faculty should inform students if they will be on sabbatical, on vacation, or otherwise unavailable during all or part of a semester (if a faculty member will be unavailable for extensive periods they should not take on the commitment to supervise an Honors Thesis). Preferences for when and where to be reached by students should also be made clear at the outset of the project. Another issue that is of importance to discuss is that of authorship should any publication emerge from the thesis research. Faculty should discuss their expectations for (co-)authorship as early in the advising process as makes sense.

Finally, keep in mind that the student cannot graduate without faculty approval of the Honors Thesis. Faculty should try to keep suggested revisions to reasonable limits after the student has passed the oral defense of the thesis.

The Honors Thesis

At all times, students should consult the Commonwealth Honors College Honors Thesis guidelines. The following materials are intended to supplement this information. It is the student’s responsibility to keep in contact both with the Departmental Honors Coordinator and Commonwealth Honors College in Goodell for updates on thesis requirements. The student should also be sure to check Tobin Times for any additional news and information pertaining to honors requirements.

The Honors Thesis in Psychology

The only acceptable Honors Thesis in psychology consists of an empirical investigation of a topic relevant to the science of behavior. Portfolios and projects are not acceptable in this department. The thesis should follow the lines of a published article, containing introduction and review of the literature, statement of the problem and hypotheses, method, results, and discussion. Acceptable lengths vary from 20 to 100 pages, including relevant appendices and references.

Selecting a Research Advisor and a Research Thesis Committee

Students can find research advisors and research thesis committees in multiple ways. Psychology 295H, a one-credit course offered each Fall, is a useful starting point for finding a research advisor, as it provides the student with the opportunity to hear about a variety of research projects taking place within the department. Another route for finding a research advisor is to serve as a research assistant to a professor whose work is of interest to the student and to determine on that basis whether to consider this professor as a possible research advisor. The student’s research advisor will ultimately be the best source to provide the student with suggestions for the remaining committee member (a total of two faculty members are needed for a committee).

A second Committee Member is responsible for assisting you with research and participating in the final presentation. This Committee Member might play significant roles at particular points in the research or creative process, such as providing assistance with the creation of your artifact, statistics, or reference resources. The second Committee Member is usually a member of the UMass Amherst or Five Colleges faculty or post-doctoral fellow. With approval from the Committee Chair and Commonwealth Honors College, it might be possible to select a second Committee Member from another university or a professional in a related field. In PBS, the second committee member cannot be a graduate student, however, they can serve as a 3rd member if it is useful to the student and project. 

How to Select a Topic

The topic of the thesis is usually decided on a mutual basis by the student and the faculty advisor who serves as the chair of the student’s thesis committee. The topic should not be so narrow that there is little relevant material available on which to base a literature review, nor should it be so broad that it cannot be completed within the span of a year. Many topics within biological, developmental, experimental, cognitive, personality, clinical, and social psychology are acceptable. Preferably, the topic is one that is of sufficient interest to so that the student is motivated to work the many months required to complete the project.

Registering for Courses Related to the Senior Honors Thesis

It is best to begin planning the thesis in the student’s junior year. Toward this end, students should register as research assistants in the Fall semester of the junior year with the intended research advisor, and then plan to register in the Spring for Psychology 496, which is a graded independent study course that can be used to plan the thesis proposal. Ideally, the student will complete most of the work needed for the proposal in the Spring of junior year so that the majority of senior year can be spent working on the actual thesis. Credit for the thesis itself is obtained by completing two graded courses: Psychology 499Y and 499T.

Register for Psychology 499Y (the “Y” stands for “year long”) in the Fall semester of senior year (note that this requires registration for the 499Y in the previous Spring for a Fall 499Y). Registration for this course requires that the student complete the 499Y Registration Form through CHC 's PATHS system. This form requires the signatures of both members of the student’s Research Committee which must be obtained before the Honors Coordinator can sign the form. When the student is ready to register, make two copies of the form (along with the proposal) and bring them to the Honors Coordinator for signature, preferably during Office Hours (if the student cannot come during Office Hours, please email for an appointment). The form will not be signed unless the student has obtained all signatures and has attached the completed proposal. A full description of the 499Y contract can be viewed on the CHC website here.

Register for Psychology 499T during pre-registration for the Spring semester of the senior year (or the semester immediately following completion of 499Y) or during the add/drop period in the Spring semester. You can register for 499T through CHC 's PATHS system. A full description of the 499T contract can be viewed on the CHC website here.

Grades for 499Y and 499T are handed in by the research advisor at the same time, after the student has completed the thesis defense (described below). In some cases, however, the faculty advisor may decide to give a student a grade for 499Y at the end of the semester in which it was taken. The Honors Coordinator turns in all grades through SPIRE. Faculty advisors need to send their grades to Laurie Dove, the Undergraduate Secretary, so that they can be sent over to the Honors Coordinator for entry onto SPIRE. When 499T is completed, the faculty advisor will need to submit a change of grade form for 499Y to the Undergraduate Secretary in Tobin 401. This does not need to be signed by the Honors Coordinator.

Tips for Writing the Proposal and Thesis

The thesis proposal and the thesis itself must be written according to APA guidelines. The faculty advisor is the best resource for information on preparing these documents. However, the student is expected to be familiar with APA style. If the student does not have a copy of the APA Publication Manual, the student can purchase or order one at the bookstore. In addition, the student may wish to order an APA book called Dissertations and Theses from Start to Finish, available from the American Psychological Association. Finally, check with Commonwealth Honors College to get official guidelines for the proposal and thesis formats.

Human Subjects Procedures

The psychology department has very strict guidelines regarding the use of human subjects in research. Prior to writing the proposal, the student should consult these guidelines and make sure that the research will fit. The student can obtain these guidelines and a form to request the use of human subjects for research from Aggie Mitchkoski in Tobin 441. This must be completed and signed by the faculty advisor before the student undertakes the research, preferably at the time the proposal is passed.

The Thesis "Defense"

Commonwealth Honors College and the Department of Psychology require that honors students pass an oral defense of their thesis research. The student provides an oral justification to the research committee, including a short summary of the research itself which is followed by a period of questioning by members of the committee. The purpose of the defense is to give the student a chance to show his or her familiarity with the topic of the research and to gather the committee together to share comments and suggestions. The proper procedure to be followed involves distribution of a written version of the work to be defended prior to the defense meeting itself. Two weeks prior to the oral defense, the student should give a final draft (the student’s best effort) to the research advisor. After receiving the advisor’s approval, the student should then distribute the final copy of the paper to be defended to the remaining committee members. Distribution of the paper to committee members should occur at least a week before the defense so that the research committee members have time to become familiar with the student’s work before actually going into the meeting.

It is the student’s responsibility to prepare and make copies of all materials for the research committee and to arrange for time and place of the upcoming defense. It must be neatly done; include such amenities as title page, page numbers, any appendices such as measures; and be in legible typeface. Again, the best bet is to follow the APA Publication Manual guidelines to the “t.” Even if the faculty advisor does not request or require these guidelines to be followed, Commonwealth Honors College will eventually, so the student might as well save time. Further, it is a courtesy to the committee to hand out a document that is easy to follow and has a professional appearance. One suggestion for copying the final draft of the thesis for the committee members is to have it bound prior to the defense (this costs about an extra $1.50 from a copy store). This way, the student can hand the committee members a presentable “book” that will remain intact and that they can keep after the defense is over (keep one copy of the thesis unbound as this will be turned into the Honors Office after all signatures have been obtained). Allow at least two weeks to schedule faculty members for the defense, as it is often hard to find a time convenient for all committee members. All must be present at the actual oral defense, so if the student waits too long to arrange the schedule, the student may find that the thesis cannot be defended until the following semester or after graduation. Once the student has the date and time, schedule the room through Julie Pahl in Tobin 402. Most students prefer using Tobin 521B, which contains a computer and projector on which PowerPoint slides can be displayed. The student may invite others to watch the oral defense, such as research assistants who have helped with the thesis or friends who are interested and wish to provide moral support. Generally, the only faculty who attend the defense are the two who are on the student’s research committee.

Dress appropriately for the defense and conduct yourself in a professional way. This is a formal opportunity for the committee members to observe the student in a role other than “student.” The behavior during the oral defense gives the committee members an idea of how the student will perform in future roles in graduate school or the business world—information they may use in writing letters of recommendation on the student’s behalf. At the same time, be sure to communicate respect for each committee member’s ideas and suggestions, and even though someone’s suggestion may mean more work for the student, take it seriously. The faculty advisor can often be counted on to step in for the student if a committee member makes suggestions that are beyond the scope of the thesis research. Finally, in preparing for the defense, relax and enjoy! This is really a wonderful opportunity for the student to talk for an hour with two faculty members, often very renowned people in the field, about a topic that is close to one’s heart. Use the defense as a chance to learn from these people as well as to demonstrate knowledge of the area.

Be prepared for the possibility that at the end of the thesis defense the student will be asked to leave the room while the committee makes its final deliberation regarding the quality of the project. At that time, they may also make decisions regarding recommendations for the course grades for 499Y and 499T. Usually these deliberations take only a few minutes, after which the student will be invited back into the room and the results of the committee’s decision shared with the student.

Submitting the Final Thesis and Receiving Final Grades

The very last step in the final thesis defense is to submit a thesis completion form through CHC 's PATHS system, which will be signed by both members of the committee. Be sure to remind the chair at this point that he or she also needs to submit the grade for 499T and a change of grade form for 499Y. Once it has been signed, make two copies of this form (to which the student has attached an abstract of the research along with the title page) and bring it to the Honors Coordinator for a signature along with an unofficial copy of the transcript. Consult Commonwealth Honors College prior to this point to make sure that everything is in shape and that all appropriate forms have been submitted.

From this point on, it is up to the student whether or not to do anything further with the thesis. The student may wish to meet one more time with the faculty advisor and discuss the possibility of publication. In this discussion, it is important for the student to clarify authorship of any publication that results from the thesis research. If the student wishes to go on to graduate school and a professional career in psychology, publication of the thesis can be an important and valuable first step.

Final Comments

This set of guidelines is intended to get the student through the various procedures and requirements specific to the psychology department. If you have suggestions for improvement, please feel free to leave ideas with the Honors Coordinator. And finally, although there are many challenging aspects to completing an honors thesis, most students who do so feel that it was a positive and growth-stimulating experience. Completing this level of work is an important indication of one’s own resourcefulness, persistence, and maturity—qualities that can only work to one’s advantage in a future career. If the student is planning to continue education to the graduate level, having completed an Honors Thesis will help the student to anticipate what is required to complete a master’s thesis and even a PhD dissertation.

Go to Commonwealth Honors College