Senior Thesis

As a BS Physics major (not applied physics, though applied majors can do a thesis or a capstone), you are required to complete a senior thesis research project as part of your educational experience. You should start thinking about this experience early in your education. Here we've compiled answers to many of the questions that students ask about the senior thesis.

Why do I have to do a senior thesis?

Your work on a senior thesis is perhaps the closest thing to a "real-world" experience that you will have in college. Nobody solves textbook problems or takes exams for a living. Soon, others will judge you primarily by your creativity, initiative, and ability to obtain and communicate research results; your college grades will be superfluous. We designed the senior thesis requirement to prepare you for this new reality.

In your thesis, you will craft and define a problem which inevitably will be murky in the beginning. There will be no "answer at the back of the book" to lean on. You will have to find and explain the context for that problem, including a clear summary of the related works of others. You must justify why your research problem is worth pursuing. The research for a senior thesis will require initiative, imagination, and hard work to complete. Once completed, you will have the opportunity to develop a clear written description of your work and a coherent and concise argument for its conclusions.

You should know that the professors who made the senior thesis requirement added a significant burden to themselves by agreeing to mentor your research and edit your thesis. We are willing to do it because research and writing are essential to a successful career (even if you don't end up in physics), and they can only be mastered with practice.

How do I get started?

Read the first couple of chapters in these instructions for writing a senior thesis.  The document is formatted in the style of a senior thesis, and gives lots of good pointers for getting started on undergraduate research.

When should I start?

Get started right away. The most important first step is to get involved with a research group. Browse through the research opportunities listed on the research page and find something that interests you. Then contact the faculty member in charge of this research to see if they have space for you to join their group. Often faculty members have project ideas already thought of for you to work on. Usually there is a learning curve before you can do useful research, so you shouldn't expect to immediately start your senior thesis project. Join a group early so you can learn the ropes early in your program and have sufficient time and skills to complete a project that you find interesting.

What about an Honors thesis?

If you are working through the Honors Program, be aware that you can use the same thesis to satisfy the senior thesis requirement and the Honors thesis requirement. The research and writing process will be the same as for a regular senior thesis, but the Honors Program has a few additional requirements. Work with the Honors office to make sure you fulfill the honors requirements. You use the same formatting guidelines as the senior thesis for the Honors thesis, but you'll need to add a slightly different cover page. To fulfill the senior thesis requirement upload the thesis into the department online system. The only consideration here is that to fulfill the department requirement the honors thesis must have sufficient physics and astronomy material as determined by your advisor.

What is Phscs 498R?

You are required to take two credit hours of Phscs 498R to satisfy the senior thesis requirement. This course is the university's way of bookkeeping to make sure you finish your thesis before you graduate. There are no formal lectures or course materials for Phscs 498R, and you can register for the course any time during your research.  We recommend that you register for it during a semester when you are already paying full-time tuition so it won't cost you any extra money.  However, it can also be a convient way to stay full-time without adding other classes.

To sign up for Phscs 498R please see Heather Schuldt in the department office. She will give you a form that must be filled out and signed by your thesis advisor and the department research coordinator. Alternatively, you can will out on online form. For the senior thesis you may do research outside the department, but you must have a faculty member within the Department of Physics and Astronomy who will certify that there is a sufficient physics and/or astronomy content in the thesis to fulfill this requirement. Once the form is complete, return it to Heather who will give you an add code. You may sign-up for as much as 3 hours of Phscs 498R in a given semester. We allow a maximum of 6 total hours of Phscs 498R, but at least 2 credits total are required.

Your grade for Phscs 498R will be a "T" (which has no effect on your GPA) until you have submitted your final thesis. When you submitted your final thesis the department undergraduate research coordinator will consult with your advisor and change the "T" to a normal letter grade reflecting your performance in the research and writing process. This is true for both Honors and Senior Theses.

How much work is involved?

This depends a lot on you, your advisor, and the project you choose. It's unrealistic to expect to complete a quality thesis in as little time as the minimum two credit hours of the 498R Senior Thesis requirement suggests. The research and writing typically take a few hundred hours (and students are often given financial support…see the student employment section). Talk in depth with your advisor to make sure you both have realistic expectations about the project.

Why so much focus on writing? This isn't English!

Good writing is foremost an exercise in clarity of thought. Everyone in physics at one time or another has experienced the frustration of being on the receiving end of a poor presentation, the natural result of insufficient attention paid to clear thought. No matter how well you understand physics and no matter how imaginative your research, if you cannot communicate your ideas clearly, they benefit no one. Good writing skills will be crucial in any career you choose. If you do not acquire them now, you will have to develop them later, most likely in an ad hoc fashion under embarrassing and unpleasant circumstances.

What is Physics 416?

Your senior thesis will probably be the most challenging writing that you do as an undergraduate. A thesis is much more involved than a final paper that you may write for other classes. The physics department has developed Physics 416 specifically to help you work through the thesis-writing process. We offer the course each Winter semester, and you need to have the research phase of your senior thesis essentially finished before you can enroll in the course. This class also fulfills the advanced writing requirement in GE, and will teach you many skills which will be directly useful in a physics career which are not covered in the general advanced writing classes.

Sometimes a student's research timetable doesn't lead to a finished result in time to allow participation in Physics 416. In these cases you can take the general advanced technical writing course (which is offered more frequently than Physics 416), and they will usually let you write a draft of your thesis as the final paper for the course. The following guide gives a good summary of how to write a senior thesis, which you should refer to whether taking Physics 416 or the general technical writing class:

What format should I use for the written document?

The submitted PDF of your thesis will need to conform to the formatting standards illustrated by these sample documents:

These example documents were created using the LaTeX typesetting system, and some of the instructions in the sample text are specific to that system. You may write the thesis using any software you choose, as long as you produce a correctly formatted PDF document for submission. LaTex may not be right for your thesis, but we recommend you at least take a look at the LaTex resources page to see what it is. We recommend that you discuss your choice of writing software with your advisor.

What is the deadline for submitting my thesis?

The deadline to submit your senior thesis to the department website (through the Submit a Thesis/Capstone link) and have it approved by your advisor is the last day of the final exam period of the semester/term you are graduating. You need to give the coordinator enough time to review your document and submit a grade before the grade submission deadline. If your senior thesis is doubling as an Honors thesis, please check with the Honors program as they have an earlier deadline.

How do I turn in my thesis?

  1. Complete research and be writing your thesis. The writing and revision process typically takes 40+ hours, so don't wait until the day before the final draft is due to start writing. The thesis should have gone through many revisions with your advisor before the first submission deadline.
  2. Create a PDF of your thesis that is less than 40 MB. A huge file size for a PDF usually comes from using raster images with very high resolution. You should use vector graphics or limit the resolution of your raster graphics to 600 dots per inch. If you don't want to limit your graphics size during the creation process, the student lab computers have Acrobat professional, which allows you to compress your PDF graphics appropriately via File -> Save As Other -> Optimized PDF...
  3. Before the first deadline listed above make all changes suggested by your advisor. Then upload your the latest version of the thesis using the electronic submission system.
  4. Work with your advisor to get them to electronically approve the thesis. Just having your thesis uploaded by the deadline is not enough. If the advisor doesn't grant their approval by the first deadline, the thesis may not be considered for that semester's graduation.
  5. After your advisor approves your thesis, the department senior thesis coordinator will review it. You will likely receive a few corrections at this point. Make the corrections and upload the new PDF file into the electronic submission system. All changes requested by the research coordinator must be completed and approved before grades are due for that semester/term. Once again, if the approval is not completed by the deadline the thesis will not be processed for that semester's graduation

Do I Need to Give an Oral Presentation?

A short oral presentation of your completed research project is strongly encouraged, but not required (a presentation is required for Honors theses).  For students graduating in April this requirement is most naturally satisfied by giving a 12-minute talk at the annual College Student Research Conference, usually held in March. Students can also arrange other times/locations with their faculty advisors.

Thesis Coordinators

The "Senior Thesis Coordinator" and the "Honors Coordinator" may be found on Advising.

How Will My Thesis be Graded?

You will initially receive a temporary T grade if your capstone report is not completed during the term in which you registered for credit. Note that T grades do not count towards graduation (or to your GPA)! A letter grade, determined by the Capstone Coordinator in consultation with your project advisor/mentor, will only be assigned after the capstone report is submitted in the Thesis/Capstone system and both the advisor and coordinator have reviewed it. A letter grade is required for graduation. The grading scale used to evaluate your capstone report is as follows:

A-, A The student has completed a quality thesis.  The advisor is primarily responsible for deciding whether the thesis should receive this grade, although the Undergraduate Research Coordinator must agree. The thesis reflects on the advisor's reputation. It should be something that the advisor would be proud to show to an external reviewer.

B-, B, B+ The student has produced a significant written report on his or her research that falls short of a quality thesis. (A written report does not preclude the possibility of a lower grade if the quality of the research and/or writing is poor.) This grade range indicates a completed thesis that follows appropriate formatting guidelines, but is not a thesis the advisor feels should be considered a quality thesis.

C-, C, C+ The student has documented his or her research but failed to produce a thesis. This range of grade is justified for students who, for example, participate in the Spring Research Conference and who produce meaningful (and reasonably extensive) technical notes to be passed on to other students who continue the work.

D-, D, D+ The student has been involved in meaningful research, appropriate for the number of credit hours (i.e. 15 x 6 hrs = 90 hrs for 2 credits). However, the student has failed to produce a written report.

An independent reviewer may also evaluate your thesis to see how well students are achieving the goals and standards we have for this very significant part of your undergraduate experience. This review will not affect your grade, but we want you to know what these reviewers are looking for. Your advisor will also be using many of these criteria in determining your grade.

  1. Conceptual understanding and explanations of the physics in the research topic is at the senior level of coursework
  2. Understanding and correct use of mathematical descriptions of the physics in the research topic is at the senior level of coursework.
  3. Good design of experimental, computational and/or theoretical approach
  4. Experimental, computational and/or theoretical skills appropriate for the research are demonstrated.
  5. Work was continued until a meaningful result was achieved
  6. Statistical significance of results is treated correctly.
  7. Significance of project is not exaggerated, and is demonstrated by its relation to previous work.
  8. Writing: clear and concise
  9. Writing: correct grammar, spelling
  10. Writing: appropriate style and tone
  11. Writing: credit and references given for work of others
  12. Graphics are clear and appropriate

Can I Get a Bound Copy of My Thesis?

You can purchase a bound printed copy of your thesis if you want one for your personal collection, but this is not required. If you want a bound copy of the thesis, go to to submit a .pdf of your thesis and order it for printing.  That web site will give you an estimate of the cost before you order.