A senior honors thesis is likely the biggest project a student will complete in his or her undergraduate education. Some university history departments require a senior thesis in order to complete the degree. Others offer an optional honors program requiring a certain grade point average and departmental approval as a prerequisite.
Regardless of the individual school’s policy, if a student has to or wants to complete a senior thesis in history, there are several steps to take in working toward achieving this goal. Identifying a topic, doing preliminary research, and writing a thesis proposal are the first steps in writing an honors thesis.
Identifying a Topic and Beginning Research
The first step is for a student to identify a broad topic of interest, captivating enough to devote an entire year of intensive independent research to. To provide an example, if a student is interested in women in nineteenth-century Europe, this is not even a narrow enough topic for a doctoral dissertation, let alone a senior thesis. How about women suffragists in nineteenth century England? This is better, but still not narrow enough of a focus. The key to finding a great topic is identifying interesting or perplexing questions about the subject of interest. Using the above subject to illustrate, some more specific questions to address could include:
- What sorts of obstacles (financial, personal, political) did women suffragists face at the time when the movement began to pick up speed?
- Who were some of the lesser-known English suffragists, and what role did they play in the movement?
- What kind of support from men did women suffragists in England receive? Why did these men support the suffragists?
- Did the suffragist movement have an effect on women’s fashion trends in England during the nineteenth century? If so, how did fashion change?
- How much did English and American suffragists interact during the late nineteenth century? What did this do for either movement?
All of the above are more specific than writing a simple narrative. The who, what, where, and when of the thesis subject need to be addressed for the sake of providing a background. But the important questions are why and how something happened.
A student should also talk to professors about the feasability of the project. What sources exist on the subject? Is the topic still too broad to fit into a 50-100 page paper? Too narrow? Who else has written on the subject whose work is worth reading?
Drafting a Thesis Proposal
A thesis proposal is an essential component of the thesis-writing process. This is where a student outlines questions to address and primary and secondary sources to use. Typically the history department needs to approve the thesis proposal in order for a student to continue with the project. The basic structure of a thesis proposal is usually:
- Statement of the topic and questions/problems to be addressed in the thesis.
- Brief literature review/historiography: major historical works in the field, questions already addressed on the subject, how these works will be used in the research project
- sources; it can also be listed in bibliography format
There are, of course, variations on the structure of the thesis proposal; a student should consult with his or her thesis advisor for advice, particularly with regard to departmental policies.
Once a thesis proposal has been approved, it’s time to get started with the in-depth research, and the overall writing process. This is a challenging task, but by identifying a solid topic and doing preliminary research, and drafting a winning thesis proposal, students of history are on the right track for producing a quality work of research and writing.