Senior Honors Thesis

Honors Program Guidelines

Latin Honors involves a demonstration of acquired knowledge based on two components: an original research project and a cumulative GPA of 3.65 or above. Policies implemented in the 2014-2015 academic year by the College of Arts & Sciences changed the way in which students are awarded Latin Honors. Prior to graduation, the Anthropology department must certify that the honors candidate has obtained a minimum 8-semester GPA of 3.65, both overall and in Anthropology, and that the Honors thesis has been satisfactorily completed. Based on this initial certification, the student is subsequently awarded, by the College of Arts & Sciences, A.B. cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude according to the following proportions: the top 15 percent in overall grade point average of Latin Honors candidates in Arts & Sciences who complete the necessary requirements of their major departments graduate summa cum laude; the next 35 percent magna cum laude; the next 50 percent cum laude. The maximum level of honors is established by student’s GPA, however the quality of the thesis is important in determining the actual level of honors that will be awarded. Specific questions about eligibility or requirements should be addressed to the Departmental Honors Coordinator (Professor Bret Gustafson,, McMillan 332) or to the teaching assistant assigned to the program for the year.


New graduate students often discover on reaching graduate school that there is a considerable gap between what they have learned about a subject from books, and actually formulating and carrying out original research in the field. Making this transition is one of the most important challenges they face as a graduate student. Doing an honors thesis gives you the chance to take this step as an undergraduate through participating in original research in an area in which you are especially interested. 

There are also several practical benefits to doing an honors thesis: you learn how to frame a research question, develop methods and analytical techniques with which to address it, and discuss your results in the context of relevant anthropological literature. In doing so, you are able to work closely with one or several faculty members. Why consider writing an honors thesis?

  • This is one of the best opportunities for undergraduates to conduct and report independent research beyond the level possible for a one-semester course.
  • If you are potentially interested in going on to graduate school, this experience helps you to evaluate whether or not you are really interested in research.
  • This experience also enables faculty members to get to know you well, and to make any recommendations that they may write much more substantive.
  • You receive university recognition for this work in the form of university Latin Honors.  This is one of the most impressive awards a student can receive, and it will distinguish you as an outstanding scholar for life. 
  • Undergraduate honors research can be shared through Washington University’s Open Scholarship portal .  Outstanding thesis work may also be published, in various formats, in peer-reviewed journals, etc.


Doing an honors thesis is very demanding academically and takes a great deal of time and effort. Students can find that the process, which involves multiple participants, significant planning and collaboration, and various institutional components (such as securing IRB approval, gaining access to labs and undertaking lab work, etc.) can be not only time consuming but can pose unforeseen challenges. Developing a sound research methodology, learning to craft an extended argument, and even the mechanics of referencing figures and tables, making proper citations, and putting together extensive bibliographies, can be more time consuming than students had ever imagined. Occasionally, honors students are unable to complete the thesis in time for the spring deadline. It is advisable to think well ahead and to begin conducting research or to prepare for that research, during the junior year prior to registering for the honors program in the senior year.

There are two other factors you should consider when weighing the advantages and disadvantages of honors research:

  • Although faculty will help you as much as they can, you will have to work independently more than you may be used to.
  • Since the final results of your work towards an honors thesis are not known until after applications for graduate school are due, the fact that you are doing an honors thesis may not help with those applications.

The Honors Process

Choosing an Advisor and a Topic

If you are interested pursuing Latin Honors you need to select a professor in the anthropology department who is willing to sponsor your research project and serve as your primary honors advisor for the duration of the project. This may be as early as the sophomore year, but ideally will be during the junior year. The first semester of the senior year is late to begin planning an honors thesis. 

It is important to work in an area in which you are especially interested, and with which you have a solid academic groundwork, i.e., on which you have completed upper-level coursework, written a paper, or done some preliminary research in class. Before agreeing to supervise an honors thesis, your faculty advisor will generally expect you to have taken upper-level courses that relate to your topic. Past honors theses are on file and can be accessed through Kirsten Jacobsen, Academic Coordinator. It is useful to review these for ideas about topics, as well as for many aspects of working on a thesis, such as methods, length, and format. You will need to discuss potential thesis topics with faculty that agree to advise an honors thesis.

Other important considerations

Securing IRB Approval:  Any student conducting research with human subjects must obtain Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval from the Human Research Protection Office (HRPO) before beginning research. Even studies in which students do not plan to conduct formal interviews, but only to observe public behavior and to speak informally with individuals (without collecting any personal identifiers from subjects), require IRB approval. The student must have a good sense, for the purposes of applying for this approval, of the kinds of research methodologies that will be utilized, the approximate number of research subjects, how the confidentiality of data will be maintained, and the risks to human subjects minimized. Guidelines for the IRB process are available online at The majority of students who have conducted research abroad as part of an SIT program, and have received initial human subjects approval in their host countries, must still apply to transfer that SIT approval to the Washington University IRB when they return to campus. This approval must be obtained before the student shares any of the results of their research.  It is important to keep in mind that while, in some cases, IRB approval can be obtained quickly, it can also become cumbersome and take a substantial amount of time and energy to secure IRB approval. When possible, it is preferable to complete the IRB process before the fall semester of the senior year. More information on the IRB process, and specific information relevant to SIT students, is available at the end of this document.

Access to Laboratory Facilities: Students who are doing laboratory-based theses will need to obtain special permission for extra access hours to laboratory facilities. You will need to discuss this with your advisor and other professors ahead of time.

Research Methods: Methods will vary greatly with subject, and should be discussed in detail with your advisor. Methods classes in the relevant subdiscipline of anthropology will be helpful. 

Academic Integrity: All students should abide by Washington University’s policy academic integrity and certify that all of the work they submit is their own

Honors Registration & Timeline

The first step in declaring your serious interest to complete a senior honors thesis is to submit the honors interest form during the spring of your junior year. The form can be found at the end of this booklet. 

Most thesis writers carry out preliminary research in the summer before the senior year, especially if the thesis involves fieldwork (see below for information on getting summer funding). Thesis projects based on lab analysis or use of other types of evidence may also require summer work. The point is that by the fall of your senior year, you should be well on your way to analyzing your material, not just getting started on collecting it.

In the fall semester of your senior year you will register for L48 4960 Senior Honors Research (and in the spring for L48 4961 Senior Honors Research). As part of the honors course, which will meet on Fridays at 9:00 a.m., you will have the opportunity to get to know the cohort of students writing honors theses, to participate in workshops, and to access educational resources available to undergraduate researchers.  During the fall semester, you are expected to meet with your advisor frequently and also to report on your progress to the honors coordinator and the students in the honors cohort during weekly meetings. Ideally, you will have written a substantial portion of the thesis by the end of the semester. At the end of the term, your progress will be evaluated by both your thesis advisor and the Departmental Honors Coordinator, Professor Bret Gustafson.

As a continuation of this research and coursework, honors students are also required to register for L48 4961 in the spring, although only one of the two honors courses can count for the Anthropology major. Adjustments to the registration requirement may be considered on a case-by-case basis. Class meetings incorporate workshops on how to prepare a research poster and thesis abstract, how to present a research poster, group writing sessions, and progress exercises. Your thesis advisor, in consultation with the Honors Coordinator, is responsible for assigning you letter grades for both courses. Students planning to graduate in December should contact Professor Bret Gustafson, as a different timeline applies.

Most advisors ask for a near-final draft of the thesis in mid-February in order to read it carefully, suggest revisions, and give the student time to make necessary changes before early March, when two other committee members must receive their copies. The honors thesis is evaluated by a three-member examining committee whose members are selected by the sponsoring advisor in consultation with the student and the Honors Coordinator. This three-member committee evaluates the quality of the thesis and suggests revisions. A full draft of the thesis must be received by all committee members by a set deadline, typically just before Spring Break. Shortly thereafter, the committee makes its recommendations to the College of Arts and Sciences on the highest level of honors to be awarded to the thesis. While the level of Honors is contingent on GPA, the quality of the thesis is also a substantial consideration. At least one member of the committee, other than the principal thesis advisor, must be an anthropology faculty member. The third member can be from another academic department. The final, spiral-bound copy of the thesis, with all changes required by the committee, is due by the last day of classes. For students graduating in December, please see the Honors Coordinator for time schedule.

Thesis Format and Length

As a rough guide, honors theses typically consist of about 60 pages of text. In consultation with a thesis advisor, each student should choose a professional stylistic format and follow standard bibliographic and citation techniques appropriate for the relevant subdiscipline. The published style guide of a lead journal such as American Anthropologist (for cultural), American Antiquity (for archaeology), or American Journal of Physical Anthropology (for biological) can provide necessary details. Electronic versions of these style guides, and other anthropological resources relevant to thesis writers, can be found on Olin Library’s page for ‘Senior Thesis Writers in Anthropology’ The student is required to supply the department with a final copy of the thesis to be filed in the anthropology library. This copy must be spiral bound with a clear plastic cover. It is customary to provide the thesis advisor (and often committee members) with final copies.  

Undergraduate Research Support/Expenses 

You might consider applying for funds from the Office of Undergraduate Research to conduct summer research, or to travel to a conference and present your research results. See the following website for more information: Keep in mind that, when working with human subjects, you must obtain human subjects approval from the Washington University Institutional Review Board prior to beginning that research, as detailed at the end of these guidelines. There are also small grants available from Sigma Xi. Short proposals are required and you should discuss these with your advisor. The deadlines for proposals are in November each year. Forms are available in the Anthropology office. You should also bear in mind that you get academic credit for doing honors research, but do not have normal expenses such as the purchase of textbooks or laboratory fees. You should save this money toward research expenses such as printing and binding.

Canvas Website  

Students will have access to a Canvas website for the Senior Honors program. Important information about the program, accompanying forms, and descriptions of the tasks and activities to be undertaken at the various class meetings, scheduled below, will be posted on the website. Students will also have the opportunity to use Canvas’s collaborative tools to share their research projects, receive feedback from their peers, and similar functions.

Anthropology Honors Thesis Information Session
April 15, 2021

Click here to watch a recording of the session