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Senior Thesis Guidelines

Purpose of the Thesis Project

The Religion Department believes that the opportunity to successfully execute a sustained, independent research project is a key value in our discipline. We seek to give our senior majors the opportunity to delve deeply into research that engages with the work they have already done in the major but extends it into new areas. We expect this process will provide a culminating experience for our majors, giving them opportunities to demonstrate mastery over key skills in our field (including formulating a thesis, demonstrating knowledge of context and/or historical background, applying theoretical models where appropriate, and analyzing primary sources in a well written, appropriately cited, effectively argued original research paper). Moreover, we want this endeavor to create an opportunity to further build our intellectual community as fellow scholars of religion—by fostering serious conversation not only between individual students and their thesis advisors, but also among all senior thesis writers and faculty as we navigate thesis projects together.  In order to foster success, we have developed the following timetable for the project.

Stages of the Project

The formal process includes six stages:
1. Topic development
2. Thesis proposal
3. Presentation of the proposal
4. Presentation of a sample of the work in progress
5. Writing of a full draft of the thesis, and its revision
6. Oral examination


1. Development of a Topic

Junior Year.  Identification of a topic; assignment of an advisor.  Look back over your coursework in the department and consider which kinds of projects have been the most engaging, challenging, and fulfilling for you, and start conversations with different faculty members about your thinking in process.  Submit to the department Chair by the first day of Block 7 a description of your thesis topic and an initial bibliography of key research sources (2-3 pages total).  Faculty and students will then meet together to discuss the proposals, and approval of topics will occur in time for pre-registration in Block 7, when you will register for RE405, the extended-format thesis preparation in the fall, and save a specific block in the spring for RE406.

Summer before Senior Year.
 Preliminary reading from initial bibliography; annotated record of research; formulation of questions, possible directions.


2. Formulating a thesis proposal

Block 1.  2nd Friday, Lunch, 12:30-2:30.  Collective meeting for all thesis writers and department faculty, during which we will review the schedule, discuss guidelines for the formal proposal, and entertain questions.  Students will give a brief report on their summer research.

Block 2.
 Date and Time TBA.  Required meeting with Tutt Library Humanities Liaison Steve Lawson on research resources available through Tutt for your individual projects.  Sometime in Block 2, students should also meet with thesis advisors and thesis consultants as they define projects more clearly, narrow approaches, and begin to formulate the formal proposal.  

Block 3.
 Submission of a draft proposal to your thesis advisor and thesis consultant (see below, on content and format); revision and continued research.


3. The presentation of revised proposals

Block 4.  2nd Friday, Lunch, 12:30-3:00.  Collective meeting for all thesis writers and department faculty.  All attendees, students and faculty alike, will have read all proposals in advance and will offer comments, questions, and suggestions. After this meeting, you should consider the suggestions of the group as you progress toward your Thesis Block in the spring.  Formal proposals should be submitted to the department Chair by the second Monday at noon in order to allow sufficient time for distribution and preparation.


4. Thesis Outline, Bibliography, and Writing Sample

Winter Break and Half-Block. Continue research and writing.

End of Half-Block.  Submission (by Thursday at noon) of three things:  1) an outline of the entire thesis project; 2) a bibliography in a standard format; 3) a five-page sample of your writing on the topic.  For the writing sample, you can select an excerpt of the paper in progress that represents, for example, the central claim or argument, a crucial piece of interpretation based on a primary source, or the key to the whole that you see emerging (you should not necessarily try to write the introduction to your thesis first).  Submit these materials to both your thesis advisor and your thesis consultant.


5. Thesis Block

Submission of 1) a complete draft, and 2) a final and fully revised thesis, with high standards of proofreading and clear writing, as well as effective argumentation and well executed analysis of primary sources.  During the block you will be expected to meet regularly with your advisor and to present portions of your thesis in progress.

Second Week
.  A full draft is due to your advisor by Friday of the second week of your Thesis Block.  Your advisor will read this draft and quickly return it with comments.  You will be expected to take those comments into account as you revise the thesis before the final due date, which at the latest will be the last day of your Thesis Block.  Submit a 200-300 word abstract with the final version.  Failure to complete the thesis by the stated deadline may result in your not fulfilling the requirements of the major, which may prevent you from graduating on time.


6. Oral Defense

An oral defense will be scheduled in the block immediately following your Thesis Block.  Each thesis student will have a defense, with department faculty present and other Religion majors welcome, unless the thesis writer requests a closed session.

Credits and Grading

Your thesis work will count for 1.5 credits: one unit for RE406 and one-half unit for RE405. You will receive a single Thesis grade. In determining your grade, your advisor will consider your participation in the entire process (including prepared, engaged attendance at required events, and regular meetings with your advisor), your final written work, and your performance in the oral examination.

Writing Requirements

The thesis should be submitted as a single document, including title page, abstract, and bibliography.  The total length of the work should be between 10,000 and 11,000 words, including notes and bibliography.  Proper citation (Chicago style) is essential, including a complete bibliography of sources consulted; use footnotes rather than endnotes.  The work should be double-spaced, 12 point, in Times, Times New Roman, or Arial font, with 1” margins.  All theses should be submitted electronically to Tutt Library following the instructions on the Library’s homepage.

Summary of Thesis Schedule

Junior Year

  • Block 7:  Topic submission, collective meeting, advisor assignment
  • Preregistration: Register for RE405 in the fall and save a block for RE406 in the spring


  • Preliminary research

Thesis Year

  • Block 1: Collective lunch meeting with all thesis writers and faculty 
  • Block 2: Meeting with Steve Lawson in Tutt Library
  • Block 3: Draft proposals due to thesis advisors and thesis consultants
  • Block 4: Submission of formal, revised proposals; collective lunch meeting
  • End of Half-Block: Submit to thesis advisor and thesis consultant: 1) outline, 2) bibliography, and 3) short writing sample from draft
  • Thesis Block: Submit completed thesis, and its revision, including abstract
  • Following Block: Oral defense

Preparing the Senior Thesis Proposal

The first draft of your formal thesis proposal, submitted in Block 3, should reflect your current thinking and research on your project. We do not require you to have a fully defined argument at this point, but we do expect your proposal to identify a thesis topic, a body of primary and secondary source material, and a set of research questions. It is important to define your topic more narrowly than you might be inclined to do. Remember that at this preliminary stage less is often more, and it is always possible to broaden an area of research, but it is hard to get started on an impossibly broad topic.

Format of the Proposal

(2-3 double-spaced pages + bibliography)

The thesis proposal should identify: 1) the topic of your thesis and the question/s you will ask; 2) the theoretical approach or method you hope to apply to the material in answering your questions, if relevant; 3) any preliminary conclusions; and 4) a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

  • Your proposal should indicate what your research question/s are and what evidence you will investigate. You should include enough context about your subject so that a general audience can understand you.
  • You should tell us something about others who have investigated this subject, what they’ve said, and how you understand your project contributing to the ongoing scholarly conversation.
  • You should also tell us why you are exploring this topic and what you hope to prove. In other words, answer the “so what” question (at least as much as you can for now). Why does your project matter?
  • Your thesis proposal should also include a properly formatted bibliography of your reading on the topic to date.

In order to compose an effective, successful proposal, you need to demonstrate that sufficient data or evidence is available for the project; you need to engage key sources; and you need to ask good questions. Good research questions are manageable; they are also contestable and do not simply seek right or wrong answers or factual recounting of information. The answers to a good set of questions will require interpretive work, leading you to take a position among conflicting or possible interpretations as you respond to previous scholarship.