So, you want to write an Honors Thesis…

After the busy spring semester fades into the slower pace of summer break, the rising seniors of UNC might be thinking: I want to write an honors thesis.

If you’re one of those juniors (or would one day like to be), or someone who is considering undertaking a larger research project more generally, then this is the one-stop shop for you! Keep reading for a Q&A with one of our alums who defended their Honors Thesis with highest honors!

Q: So let’s start at the beginning. When did you know you wanted to write an honors thesis?

A: Honestly, as soon as I found out that it was an option. A lot of undergrads think you have to be in the Honors Carolina program to write a thesis, but that’s not true at all! As long as you meet the GPA requirements and a few other criteria, you can research ’til your heart’s content!

That said, the topic took a long time for me to iron out. I just knew I wanted to write one focused in comparative literature, but that was really about it. It’s funny — the ideas I had initially come up with throughout the years ended up being nothing like my final topic, so I would definitely tell folks not to stress if they don’t have an idea yet. Picking a good advisor is probably more important, anyway.

Q: You mentioned your advisor — how did you find yours? Any tips for someone unsure of where to find one?

A: Great question. I’d have to say taking classes to get to know professors is how I did it. I ended up taking multiple courses with the same professors, and I got to know how they taught, if they gave good feedback, how well we got along, etc. All this really played into my final decision. I also decided to write in EURO because my other major wouldn’t let me write with the faculty member I wanted; there’s a little more flexibility in EURO in terms of interdisciplinary work, which can be really helpful.

Beyond just taking classes with topics and professors that you’re interested in, I would talk to your academic advisors. They might know a person who knows a person, and those connections become very valuable when you’re looking for a mentor. Also, don’t be afraid to email professors you’ve never met before. During my search, I ended up writing to about 10 different faculty who I’d never met, and most of them answered, and were really helpful, or gave me suggestions for other people I could reach out to. So don’t get discouraged, and be authentic. I would say ask early, though. Often, professors who teach in EURO are pretty popular in their home departments. So if you’re even thinking about it, and you have someone you know you want to write with, ask as soon as you can.

Q: Let’s move more specifically on toward the project. What was the first semester like?

A: Wonderful and horrible. Granted, this was all happening during the mess of Fall 2020. EURO 691H is an independent study course and is essentially the research and reading semester. You’ll have made a learning contract and rough outline of your reading list with your advisor in mid-late summer, and then you just… start reading. You’ll read the books and articles on your list, and probably skim dozens that weren’t, and maybe switch topics, or narrow halfway through, or find a new text that completely shifts how you think about the topic, and then read some more!

If that sounds a little daunting, I would say not to worry. You’ll have weekly meetings with your thesis advisor to talk about what you’re reading and learning, and to give you suggestions on what to read next, or help you solidify your topic. One resource that I always wish I had used in the planning stage is the library’s Research Consultants. As far as I know, they sit down with you and essentially give you a crash course in best practices for designing a research project, which might save you some mistakes.

Q: And the second semester?

A: Haha, like the first, I have mixed feelings about the second semester. EURO 692H is another independent study. I really pushed myself to be finished writing very early, but I know a lot of people like to take their time. Whatever the case is, I would say just make yourself start as soon as you can. I had about a month of mental paralysis where I couldn’t even make myself write an outline. I would definitely recommend NOT doing that. Talk to your advisors — they’ve been there before, and they probably have some tips and tricks to help you get started. Once I got going, it was a piece of cake, although I definitely developed an addiction to sweet tea and cookie dough to fuel late-night writing. I also spent a lot of time going through the Writing Center’s Thesis page, which was so helpful.

Once you write your first draft, you’ll send it to your advisor, and possibly your reader(s), and you’ll discuss it, and then repeat the process in a round or two of edits. Once you’ve edited (by mid-late March), you’ll work with your advisor to pick a date for you to defend your research.

Q: Defend? That sounds intense…

A: It is a little bit, but mostly it’s a celebration of your work. You’ll explain your research to a panel of 2–4 faculty (one of whom is your advisor — you may or may not be responsible for selecting the other 1–3 readers as well), and then you’ll answer questions about your work. These questions aren’t meant to make you feel bad, or like you don’t understand — in my experience, the defense was more about helping me articulate the connection between my research and larger scholarly discourse. Everyone’s might be different, but I would say that this will probably be the calmest defense you’ll have in your academic career.

Once you defend, you’ll receive honors or highest honors, and then submit your thesis to the Carolina Digital Repository, which is also a great resource when you’re planning your thesis, to see what other people have done before you.

Q: So what happens next?

A: First, go pick up your gold Honors cord to wear at graduation! Then, take a break — you’ve earned it! In all seriousness, though, I’d say it’s really up to you. Maybe you present your research at a conference or two, or submit pieces of it to JOURney, or the NC Journal of European Studies (undergraduate journal housed by CES) among others. Maybe you throw it away in your virtual closet to gather dust until you find it five years later and realize what a genius you are. All of these are completely valid responses, but I would say take a moment to breathe, relax, and be proud. Not many people can say they’ve done what you did, and you’ve put to practice skills that will continue serving you throughout your career, whether you realize it or not.

Want to see what other research projects EURO students have done? Check out the Students section of our blog and the NCJES Inaugural Issue!

If you still have questions about the thesis in EURO, feel free to reach out to Brett Harris for a student’s perspective, or contact the EURO Advisor, Katie Lindner.