Senior Thesis and Senior Research
Undertaking a senior thesis, senior essay, or independent study is a unique opportunity for you to develop and hone your intellectual ability to conceptualize, implement and complete an original environmentally focused research project under the direction of your adviser.
The Environmental Studies Program offers three opportunities for students interested in pursuing independent research beyond their regular class offerings
- Senior Thesis (two-semester course)
- Senior Essay (one semester course)
- Independent Study Project (one semester course)
The Senior Thesis provides students with the opportunity to take their studies beyond the regular classroom. They are ideal for students who are motivated by academic curiosity and intellectual challenges, including those who have been inspired by and want to expand upon a term paper; are seeking to build upon study abroad or a summer research experience; or simply want to get a sense of what independent research is like. They also open up professional opportunities, demonstrating diligence and drive, analytical ability and writing skills to prospective employers and graduate admissions committees. Note that to receive the highest level of Latin honors (summa cum laude) upon graduation at Brandeis, students must first receive departmental honors; in ENVS, departmental honors are achieved by completing an honors thesis.
Who is Eligible?
To qualify for departmental honors, students must enroll in two semester-long courses under a faculty member’s supervision (ENVS 99A Senior Research and ENVS 99B Senior Thesis). The expected workload for an honors project is at least equivalent to two full advanced seminar courses. Honors candidates are expected to design a significant and independent year-long research program, culminating in the writing and oral defense of an original thesis. Honors theses are typically 75-100 pages in length and should be formatted according to professional disciplinary standards (determined in consultation with the thesis advisor).
Honors thesis committees are composed of three members: the primary faculty advisor and two additional readers. The primary advisor must be a member of the ENVS core faculty or affiliated faculty. The rest of the committee may be either Environmental Studies faculty affiliates, non-Environmental Studies faculty members, or faculty members at other universities. Specialists holding professional positions outside the academy may also serve with approval of the UAH. Typically the committee consists of a minimum of two members of the Environmental Studies faculty.
Environmental Studies is an interdisciplinary field and accordingly provides students a great deal of flexibility in the selection of potential thesis topics. A key consideration is whether the project makes a clear contribution to scholarship, to society, or both. Leading research questions may be empirical ("how does wetland management policy differ by region in the United States"); normative/advocacy oriented ("how can the carbon economy be adjusted to address social and political-economic disparities in forest management policy"); theoretical ("why have some indigenous activists rejected the concept of 'sovereignty' and what alternatives exist to help secure native land rights"); or some combination of the above. "How" and "why" questions open up particularly fruitful lines of inquiry. In all cases, students are expected to follow rigorous research protocols and meet robust evidentiary standards.
The Brandeis Scholar Works contains Senior Honors Theses submitted in previous years and may provide ideas on how to select and define a researchable topic. (Use the "search within this collection" option to navigate the database). You may also visit the Brandeis library to view Senior Honors Theses that are held in the Brandeis archive. View the library's archive online through the One Search database.
Preparation of a Research Proposal
The research proposal provides a road map for the honors project. Typically, such documents begin by identifying a problem to be investigated, detailing the leading questions that animate the research and explaining why the chosen topic is important and interesting. They include a research design, which explains which case studies, geographical and temporal units of analysis, methods and data sources will be used, and importantly why those choices were made. They also include a working bibliography.
Honors Project Timeline
The scope of an honors project should be carefully calibrated to ensure successful completion within a single academic year. To that end, it is important that prospective honors students begin thinking about their research projects and seeking out potential advisors as early as possible, ideally by the end of junior year. Students who enroll in ENVS 99A Senior Research and ENVS 99B Senior Thesis should have sufficient course credits to graduate even if they chose to drop either ENVS 99A or ENVS 99B. The following timeline may be helpful in planning thesis work:
- We strongly recommend that students hold an initial meeting with their prospective faculty advisor before the end of junior year. It may be helpful to prepare and share a brief concept paper at this point, outlining preliminary ideas for a thesis topic. Students should also plan to consult with the UAH for advice on identifying an advisor if needed.
- If you plan to use data collected during study abroad in your junior year or during the summer between your junior and senior year, and if that data involves research with human subjects (such as interviewing or participant observation), you need to apply for and receive permission from the Institutional Research Board (IRB) in advance of conducting the research. Without prior IRB approval, you may be prevented from using your data in your thesis. The IRB approval process unfolds in two steps: students first complete a series of online training modules to learn how to conduct ethical research (CITI training in human subjects research); they then apply for research approval by providing a detailed description of their research. Note that the application approval process can take up to two months, and that the IRB committee frequently requires revisions. Some students find it helpful to complete their training and/or apply for IRB permission in, or at the end of, their junior year; others apply first thing in their senior year. The IRB process is detailed here. We also recommend reviewing the Human Subjects Research Page from Anthropology for more information.
First Semester of thesis (typically fall):
- Third week of term: Students should submit a final draft of their thesis proposal (2-3 pages) to their advisor.
- By the end of term: Students should have completed a substantial portion of their research, and an initial draft of one thesis section (e.g., the introduction, a literature review or a specific chapter).
- By the end of term: Student and advisor should discuss the make-up of the full thesis committee and the student should invite the additional members.
Second Semester of thesis (typically spring):
- First week of term: Student and advisor establish a clear schedule for submitting draft thesis chapters for feedback.
- Tenth week of term: Student will submit a complete final copy of the thesis to the advisor and all members of the thesis committee and ideally at a minimum of two weeks in advance of the oral defense.
- Final week of term: Student and full committee meet for an oral defense of the thesis. (But see the note re: the Cohen Award below.)
- After oral defense: Student deposits one copy of the thesis at the University library and another copy in the departmental archive for future students and scholars to read! Please consult the Brandeis Library webpage for the online submission of the undergraduate thesis.
- At the defense, the thesis advisor completes and submits the Environmental Studies Thesis Form
Honors Project Assessment
Grades in ENVS 99a and 99b will be set by the thesis advisor. These grades reflect evaluations of the process of researching and writing the thesis. If, at the end of the first semester, the advisor and student determine that the project has not made sufficient progress, the advisor will assign a grade for ENVS 99a, and the student will not continue with ENVS99b. ENVS 99a alone can fulfill the Applied Learning Experience.
The oral defense of the thesis typically lasts about an hour, and can be open to the public at the student's discretion. During the defense, students make a brief (approximately 10 min.) opening statement laying out what interested them in the topic, how they did the research, what their key findings were, what difficulties and successes they encountered, etc. The members of the thesis committee then take turns posing questions that probe the candidate’s understanding of their topic and strength of their conclusions. The committee may also offer suggestions for revisions, publication and future research. The thesis advisor will provide the exact structure of the oral defense, this process should be discussed early in the spring semester.
The level of honors is determined by the thesis committee at the oral defense and is based on both the oral defense and written thesis. Majors who complete the thesis can graduate with Departmental Honors, High Honors, or Highest Honors.
Doris Brewer Cohen Award Competition:
Each year Brandeis recognizes the most outstanding honors theses submitted by undergraduates with the Doris Brewer Cohen Awards. ENVS is allowed to nominate one student/thesis for this competition. In order to be considered for this highly competitive award, the first draft if the completed thesis is due to readers the first week in April; the oral defense must be scheduled in early to mid-April; and a final revised thesis must be submitted to the ENVS program by late April to allow for internal review in advance of the nomination.
The Senior Essay is similar to a thesis in that it is an opportunity for students enrolled in the Environmental Studies program to take a project to the next level. Students select a topic, recruit a faculty advisor and enroll in ENVS 97A. The research, analysis and writing are proportionally reduced in scope in comparison to a full honors thesis to allow for completion within a single term. The resulting essay, for example, is typically only 50-60 pages in length.
Independent study options (ENVS 98A, ENVS 98B) are more widely available to students outside their senior year and to students who are not ENVS majors. Typically this option is invoked to allow students to explore topics not otherwise covered in the Brandeis curriculum. All independent study courses in ENVS must be supervised by a faculty member affiliated with ENVS.
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