The Senior Thesis
The senior thesis is designed to be the culminating experience of a student’s career at the South Carolina Honors College. It is a chance for students to ask and answer meaningful questions about the natural world, social or political systems, history and culture, artistic expression, the creative process or the application of knowledge to specific challenges. Students are free to choose their thesis topics and may elect to write a thesis or complete a project outside their majors. The senior thesis should be something students can point to with great pride and satisfaction.
Though the thesis is primarily defined by the individual student working with a thesis director and second reader, the Honors College asks all students to fulfill the same basic requirements. This guide answers some general questions students may have about the senior thesis. Students and thesis directors can contact Dr. Tracy Skipper, senior thesis director, by email or phone at 803.777.9737 if they need additional guidance. Students are also welcome to schedule an appointment with a member of the thesis team via EAB.
All thesis projects meet the same general requirements, which these guidelines will describe at greater length. To graduate with honors from the South Carolina Honors College, students must:
- Submit a thesis proposal for approval by SCHC
- Complete a minimum of three credit hours of SCHC 499 or an approved course equivalent with a grade of C or better
- Successfully defend the thesis project
- Submit a final, approved version (i.e., the thesis director and second reader have signed the title page) of the thesis by the date established by SCHC for the semester in which the student completes thesis coursework
Students have flexibility in the type of thesis project they pursue. Typically, students pursue an original research project or engage in a creative or applied project.
A traditional research thesis is an extended original project designed to answer a question of interest to the student. Some common research aims might include interpreting and comparing primary texts; constructing and testing models that reflect theories of human behavior, social or political systems, or the natural world; making human action, symbols and communication intelligible at the individual and collective levels; exploring how social meanings are constructed; and evaluating current practices and suggesting more effective ones (see Lipson’s How to Write a BA Thesis, 2018).
A project-based thesis might be a creative endeavor, such as original artwork, performance, novella or volume of poetry. Alternatively, students may pursue an applied project, such as developing a business plan, creating a podcast series or informational pieces for a community organization, or designing an app or video game. In addition to the project, students must submit a paper offering a critical introduction to their project.
BARSC candidates are required to complete a thesis of at least 9 hours. While many of the requirements for the BARSC thesis mirror those of the traditional thesis, students are encouraged to review the BARSC thesis guide for specific requirements.
Despite being labeled the senior thesis, students are encouraged to begin thinking about—and planning for—the thesis well before the final year of undergraduate studies. You may begin research as a first-year student that culminates in a thesis project during your senior year. You may enroll in a class during your sophomore year that captures your interest and serves as a springboard for an applied project. A hobby you have pursued for most of your life may be very appealing as a potential creative thesis. This printable resource offers a suggested timeline for incorporating a thesis into your four-year plan. Spend some time mapping out your plan for the senior thesis.
Regardless of when students begin the thesis, they are expected to defend and submit the project during the semester in which they enroll in their final SCHC 499 (or approved equivalent) credit hour(s).
Students often underestimate the time required to complete their projects. Allowing two or more semesters for thesis work and strategically using breaks can be critical in completing the thesis and graduating on time. This week-by-week planning guide is for a two-semester thesis. Suggested activities and space for students to map out their schedules are included.
An independent study or undergraduate research experience can be a great launching pad for the senior thesis. Such experiences help students gain valuable research skills and self-discipline while providing an opportunity to work independently before confronting the more challenging task of completing the senior thesis. For example, Honors students majoring in the natural sciences will find that doing an independent study or research allows them to "work out all the kinks" before starting the thesis. This, in turn, enables students to begin the thesis without delays related to unfamiliarity with scientific research protocols and laboratory procedures.
That said, undergraduate research opportunities are available in all disciplines. The Office of Undergraduate Research maintains a faculty research database that can help students identify faculty who are pursuing projects in the students’ areas of interest.
Students can pursue undergraduate research through SCHC 497 or a departmental independent study course (e.g., BIOL 399, ENVR 399, SOCY 561). Check with your major advisor first about which course would be most appropriate. The Honors College research grants, a Magellan Scholar award, or an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REUs) are possible pathways for funding an undergraduate research experience prior to the thesis.
While the thesis/project may be a continuation of work students began as a research fellowship, in a course or independent study, it may not be a repetition of work for which students have already received academic credit.
SCHC 390: Thesis/Project Planning course is a one-credit hour, pass/fail course offered each semester and typically taken in the second semester of the junior year. Successful completion of the course includes submitting a thesis proposal deemed appropriate for an Honors College thesis.
SCHC 390 is required for all Honors students, except those in the College of Engineering and Computing (CEC), who will use the required engineering capstone as their thesis project and pharmacy majors. While these students are not required to take the thesis planning course, they must submit a thesis proposal by the deadline established by the Honors College.
Students who plan to study away for all or part of the junior year, graduate early or complete the thesis before the senior year to accommodate program of study requirements should discuss the most appropriate time to enroll in SCHC 390 with their Honors advisor.
What does approval of the proposal mean? The Honors College review is not designed to certify the feasibility or methodological soundness of the thesis proposal. If not involved in the original crafting of the proposal, the thesis director and second reader may suggest or require revisions to satisfy disciplinary conventions, fit the project into a larger research agenda or manage external constraints such as time and resources. Modifications made in conjunction with the thesis committee support the student’s ability to plan and execute the thesis project. Such revisions are expected and generally do not require the resubmission of the proposal.
To meet the requirements for graduating “with honors from the South Carolina Honors College,” students must complete at least three credit hours of SCHC 499 with a grade of C or better each semester the course is taken. Most students distribute the credit hours across their final two semesters at the university, taking one credit hour in the penultimate semester and two credit hours in the final semester. In a typical university course, students are expected to work approximately three hours per week for every credit in which they are enrolled. Students enrolled in SCHC 499 for one credit hour can expect to spend 45 to 50 hours working on the thesis that semester. That said, all projects are different, and students may need to spend more time than that working on the thesis to reach their goals.
Students receive a letter grade for each semester they enroll in SCHC 499. The grade in the final semester takes into account the student’s performance throughout the entirety of the project, along with successfully defending and submitting the thesis project. The grade in the first semester is based on progress toward mutually defined thesis tasks. Students are encouraged to draft a learning contract for the first semester of SCHC 499 to clarify expectations and success criteria. All grades for SCHC 499 are assigned by the student’s thesis director in Self Service Carolina.
The thesis director is the instructor of record for SCHC 499. Students without a faculty thesis director may take up to one credit hour of SCHC 499 under the direction of the SCHC thesis director. Students without a director at the end of the first semester of SCHC 499 will not be allowed to continue with the thesis process until a director has been identified.
SCHC 499 is offered only during the fall and spring semesters.
Additional thesis credits. Students (except for BARSC/BARSC-MD) may not enroll in more than three credits of SCHC 499 without prior approval from the SCHC thesis director. Students may request to enroll in additional thesis credits if the scope of their thesis project would likely take significantly more than 150 hours to complete. Requests for additional credits must be accompanied by a letter from the thesis director outlining the scope of the thesis project and the estimated number of hours needed to complete the project as outlined.
Several majors offer capstone or thesis courses that allow students to receive distinction in their major. SCHC recognizes these as equivalent to SCHC 499. Pharmacy students and students in the College of Engineering and Computing will automatically use a course equivalent for their thesis. Other students seeking to employ a course equivalent for the thesis should confirm with the Honors advisor that it is an approved equivalent and must meet any departmental requirements for enrolling in the class. Completing at least three credit hours with a grade of C or better is required to satisfy the thesis requirement. If students are enrolled in a multi-semester capstone, they must earn a C or better in each semester of capstone work. Students planning to use a course equivalent must complete SCHC 390; they may submit a fully signed departmental independent study contract instead of the SCHC thesis director contract.
Effective August 24, 2023, the following courses can be used in lieu of SCHC 499:
AESP 428 - Design I (3 Credits)
ANTH 498 - Senior Thesis (3 Credits)
BMEN 427/428 - Senior Biomedical Engineering Design I & II (6 Credits)
CSCE 490/492 - Capstone Computing Project I & II (6 Credits)
ECHE 465/466 - Chemical-Process Analysis and Design I & 2 (6 Credits)
ECIV 470 - Civil Engineering Design (4 Credits)
ELCT 403/404 - Capstone Design Project I & 2 (6 Credits)
EMCH 427/428 - Design I & II (6 Credits)
ENGL 490 - Topics in Advanced Study (3 Credits)
ENGL 499 - Thesis (3 Credits)
EXSC 499 - Independent Study (3 Credits)
HIST 497/498 - Senior Seminar (3 Credits)
HIST 499 - Senior Thesis (3 Credits)
ITEC 564 - Capstone Project for Information Technology (3 Credits)
MATH 499 - Undergraduate Research (3 Credits)
NSCI 499 - Senior Thesis (3 Credits)
PHIL 495 - Senior Thesis (3 Credits)
SPTE 499 - Senior Thesis (3 Credits)
All SCHC students will form a committee consisting of a thesis director and a second reader to support the development and completion of the thesis project. Additional readers are permitted. Students may not have family members, friends or undergraduate students fill any role on the thesis committee.
Deadlines: The thesis director should be identified before enrolling in SCHC 499. Students should have the director complete and sign the thesis director contract and then upload the contract via Formstack. Working with their thesis directors, students should identify and confirm a second reader by the midpoint of their first semester in SCHC 499. Second reader contact information should be uploaded via Formstack.
The thesis director must be a full-time faculty member (e.g., professor, assistant/associate professor, clinical professor, research professor) at USC. Other full-time members of the USC community may be approved to serve as thesis directors on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the SCHC deans. The thesis director guides the student through the research and creative process and serves as the instructor of record for SCHC 499, establishing the criteria for grading and assigning a grade for each semester students enroll in the course. The director is primarily responsible for supervising the thesis's content and research/creative process. Criteria to consider when selecting a thesis director include the following:
- Expertise in the thesis topic or primary method to be used in the project
- Teaching style, expectations for independent study students and grading methods
- Availability for regular meetings/email check-ins during the entirety of the thesis project
Students sometimes settle on a topic before attempting to locate an appropriate director and may need help finding a faculty member willing to work with them on their proposed topic. The following strategies help identify potential thesis directors:
- Search the faculty research database using keywords related to the thesis topic to see who might work in that area.
- Look at past thesis submissions on Scholar Commons, searching by department or keyword. You can see who the director and second reader were by clicking on the title.
- Determine whether specific courses related to the topic are offered at USC. Find out who typically teaches those courses and reach out to them.
- Consider the discipline(s) in which the thesis topic falls. Find the department website for that discipline and look for a link that says “Our People.” Individual pages for faculty members with a brief bio, research interests and a list of recent publications may be linked to the faculty directory. Search these pages for information that suggests an interest or expertise in or aligned with your thesis topic.
After identifying a list of three or four possibilities, students should craft an email requesting an opportunity to meet. The email should incorporate a brief synopsis of the proposed project and how you see this connecting to the professor’s research interests or courses taught. The Office of Undergraduate Research offers useful tips for emailing faculty.
Students are encouraged to reach out to a member of the thesis team for assistance with identifying a director. If a student cannot find a director, they may need to alter or change the thesis topic completely.
The second reader brings specific knowledge or expertise to the thesis project, offering support and feedback throughout the project and during the thesis defense. The second reader might be someone who helps the student fill a knowledge or skills gap related to the thesis project. With an interdisciplinary project, the second reader may represent a discipline different from the director. In other cases, the second reader might offer technical assistance with data collection, coding, analysis or writing the thesis. Because the director bears primary responsibility for overseeing the thesis project, students should identify and select a second reader in concert with the thesis director.
Unlike the thesis director, the second reader does not have to be a faculty member. In fact, the second reader does not have to be affiliated with the university. Criteria to consider when selecting a thesis director include the following:
- Expertise related to the thesis topic or method that complements the areas of expertise of the director
- Availability for regular meetings/email check-ins during the entirety of the thesis project
The thesis director should be a student’s first stop for help identifying a second reader. That said, the suggestions for finding a thesis director also apply to finding a second reader. Students struggling to identify a second reader should make an appointment with a member of the SCHC thesis team as soon as possible.
As noted elsewhere, we anticipate that students will narrow or occasionally expand their thesis topic; however, significant changes (e.g., switching from a research study to a creative project or choosing an entirely new topic) may require the development of a new proposal. Changes in thesis topic after initial approval by SCHC can only be made with the support of the student's thesis director and the SCHC thesis director. Topic changes must be requested before the end of the second week of classes during the final semester of thesis preparation.
Likewise, students occasionally need to change thesis directors. This should happen only in extraordinary circumstances and MUST be cleared with the SCHC thesis director first. The student must submit a new thesis director contract upon approval.
Students may elect to pursue a group thesis project, providing the project warrants giving each student involved a minimum of three hours of credit. Completing a project over the long term with multiple people can significantly complicate scheduling time for research, writing, revisions and thesis defense. Students should carefully consider these factors before undertaking the thesis with a classmate. Group members collaborate to write a single thesis proposal, but each student must submit the proposal individually. Similarly, the group can hold a joint defense and develop a single thesis paper, which each member will submit for fulfillment of the thesis requirement.
USC defines undergraduate research as a scholarly effort, generally beyond the classroom, aimed at developing a student's skills in inquiry through opportunities to contribute to or pursue original intellectual or creative work. Essentially, this is a research experience undertaken for the student’s benefit. It is not research as defined in regulation and policy; therefore, IRB review is not required.
The thesis director is responsible for ensuring students understand and abide by ethical obligations in carrying out their projects. The IRB recommends that, at a minimum, students complete the training modules available through CITI. Additionally, instructors are responsible for reviewing student projects to ensure that the methods and procedures are ethical and appropriate. This includes monitoring student activities during the project to ensure that the rights and welfare of participants are adequately protected. SCHC recommends that students use the undergraduate research consent template provided on the university IRB website.
Honors College students can receive up to $1,500 in grant funds to support the development of a thesis project. Grants are available for research, creative and applied thesis projects. More information is available on our senior thesis funding page.
The thesis defense (part presentation/part conversation) allows students to demonstrate what they have learned throughout the thesis process. The purposes of the defense are:
- To examine relevant questions that did not arise during the thesis/project process but do arise during the defense
- To discuss how the student might change the thesis/project given additional time or resources
- To provide a sense of closure to everyone involved in this process
- To give students the valuable experience in oral expression gained from conducting the defense
- To provide a public venue for students to present the work
The defense also allows the committee to offer further feedback and engage in a dialogue with the student about the project. The director and second reader must be present at the thesis defense, and students are welcome to invite friends, family members and interested others to participate. The defense can be held virtually.
The length of a defense usually ranges from thirty minutes to an hour. The thesis director and second reader determine the format. The usual procedure is for the student to make a brief presentation on the thesis/project and then respond to questions. Suggestions for revisions will be made both during and after the defense. At the defense's conclusion, the students and any guests are excused while the committee members determine any modifications that must be made before the thesis is accepted. Finally, the student is recalled and informed of the committee’s decision and required changes. At this point, arrangements should be made to deliver the final thesis or project paper to the thesis committee to acquire their signatures on the title page. Electronic signatures on the thesis title page are permitted.
Following the defense, the thesis director will submit a defense evaluation form to SCHC, which is required to certify students for graduation from the South Carolina Honors College. The link to the form is included in the confirmation of the defense evaluation date/time sent to thesis directors and second readers. Note that the confirmation email is triggered when the student completes the thesis date submission form.
The defense should take place at least one week before the submission deadline of the semester in which the student completes thesis coursework at a time and place agreed upon by the student and committee members. It is the student’s responsibility (possibly with help from the thesis director) to schedule the defense, find a location and inform the SCHC office of the thesis defense plans (via the thesis date submission form) by the deadline established by SCHC for the current semester. Any scheduling difficulties should be brought to the attention of the SCHC thesis director. Rooms in HRH can be reserved by completing this online form.
Two weeks before the defense, the student must submit a complete draft of the thesis paper to the thesis committee members to ensure they have adequate time to review the student’s work before the defense. This should not be the first time thesis committee members see the student’s thesis. Successful thesis projects involve regular cycles of drafting, feedback and revising.
Details such as length, style and format are left to the discretion of the thesis director. Generally, the length of a research-based thesis should mirror the length of a chapter or journal manuscript in that field. Some typical page ranges might include:
- Humanities: 45 – 60 pages
- Social sciences: 30 – 40 pages
- Math, natural sciences, or pre-professional disciplines: 25 – 30 pages
All thesis projects are required to have a written component, and the paper must include the following elements:
- Thesis title page (Use the template provided online). The thesis director and second reader must sign the title page for the thesis to be approved by SCHC. Electronic signatures are permitted. The title page should include a space for Dean Lynn’s signature, but students do not need to have him sign the title page before submission. Students can request a fully signed title page (including Dean Lynn’s signature) from the SCHC thesis director after the thesis has been approved.
- Thesis summary or abstract. For traditional, research-based thesis projects, an abstract is preferred. This is a brief description of your research aim or purpose, the methods used, key findings and implications for research or practice. A summary written in less formal language than an abstract or introduction might be a more appropriate choice for creative or project-based theses.
- Table of contents.
- Body of thesis paper with pages numbered consecutively. For a research-based thesis, the paper may adopt the organization of a manuscript that could be submitted to an academic journal. For a project-based thesis, students will submit a critical introduction as the written component, a short essay (seven to 10 pages) that explores the various aesthetic, theoretical, social or historical influences on the project. It identifies specific individuals, artifacts or genres that shaped the approach and may describe pitfalls the student sought to avoid. The introduction describes the overall approach to creating the project and situates it within the context of the specific influences cited. The essay might also discuss a specific question the work explores or its purpose.
Appendices. Depending on the type of project, students may choose to include appendices or supplementary information (e.g., documentation of a creative or applied project, plan set for engineering capstone) in their thesis submission. These can be incorporated into the primary thesis submission or uploaded as a separate file. Supplementary files can be DOCX, PDF, JPG or MP3; however, file size is limited. Large supplementary files should be stored on an accessible cloud server with a link embedded in the thesis paper.
Grades for SCHC 499 and approved course equivalents may range from A to F and are at the discretion of the thesis director. Grades are posted to Self Service Carolina by the thesis director each semester the student is enrolled in thesis credits. The grade for the final semester should be assigned once the student has submitted the final version of the thesis to SCHC. Receipt of a grade in SCHC 499 or an approved course equivalent without evidence of the thesis defense and submission of the final thesis paper will not satisfy the Honors thesis requirement.
Students may receive an incomplete in the final semester of thesis work if they have requested and received an extension from the thesis director and SCHC. If a student is unable to complete the thesis, they need to follow the procedures for withdrawing from a class outlined by the registrar to avoid receiving a WF for SCHC 499. If the WF deadline has passed, students may be able to negotiate a grade based on work completed in SCHC 499 for that semester. Again, the grade for SCHC 499 is at the discretion of the thesis director. Students are strongly encouraged to meet with their Honors advisor or a member of the thesis team before withdrawing from SCHC 499.
Any student who completes the requirements to graduate with honors from the Honors College (including all portions of the senior thesis/project) AFTER they have graduated from the University of South Carolina will NOT be able to have the distinction "with Honors from the South Carolina Honors College" retroactively added to the transcripts or diploma. Therefore, it is imperative that students complete ALL requirements for the senior thesis BEFORE graduating from the university, including holding the defense, receiving final grades and submitting the final version of the thesis/project paper to SCHC.
Students are expected to remain in close contact with their thesis director and second reader, providing regular updates about their progress, asking for help when they feel stuck and submitting drafts of thesis sections throughout the project. It’s essential for students to attend scheduled meetings and send updates if they have gotten behind or feel overwhelmed. The most significant cause of thesis distress is inadequate communication between students and directors. Students must also have realistic expectations about director responsiveness and allow a reasonable amount of time for committee members to review their work, especially before the thesis defense. Setting mutual expectations about how and how often to communicate early in the thesis timeline can avoid many issues. If any problems arise, students should contact the SCHC thesis director.
Students are encouraged to save copies of their work in progress in multiple places: on a secure cloud server, sent as email attachments to themselves or on an external drive. Labeling files with the date or a version number ensures students can easily find the most recent version. Such practices will save much anxiety and time in the event of loss, theft or accidental erasure of a file.
Most problems arising with a senior thesis can be fixed relatively easily when students seek the necessary help and do so sooner rather than later. In addition to the senior thesis team, students can access support from the following campus resources: