The Thesis Process
The senior thesis experience remains as one of the most distinctive and attractive attributes of the College’s curriculum. In the Biology Department, we find that many students are eager to engage in research, even as freshmen. The most frequently asked questions from prospective or incoming students are typically, “what opportunities are there for research?” or “how long must I wait to begin research?” Parents ask the same questions. The opportunity to pursue research with faculty who are actively engaged in their field is a widely-‐‑known feature of Reed and a major factor in attracting students of high quality. There is a distinct ethos amongst our majors in which upper-‐‑level courses are perceived as a step towards the ultimate goal: namely, the thesis. Furthermore, there is a pronounced “culture of science” that is self-‐‑perpetuated by our students in which research really defines their sense of belonging much in the way that other social organizations do at some universities. Many of our students (about 65%) go on to graduate school and continue along the lines that they have defined for themselves during their thesis work. In most cases, even students who do not continue in graduate study retain the thesis experience as one of the defining events of their lives because of the fulfilling sense of purpose that can come only from being thoroughly immersed in a subject in which they have developed some expertise. To be supported and appreciated by their peers in this endeavor is a strong reinforcing factor. Not only do they have to know what is known, but also what is not known, i.e., where the collective knowledge of humans ends beyond which point new and hopefully useful knowledge can be gained. To take that step (i.e., the thesis) requires a strong background and the ability to accumulate and assimilate substantial factual knowledge (i.e. course work in preparation for the thesis). Putting accumulated facts to use requires understanding of how to use the scientific method: the universal guiding principle of all scientists that involves developing hypotheses and then testing those hypotheses through empirical experimentation. The only way to develop those skills is to actually practice them.
The thesis is a long, arduous process that is best entered into with the close guidance of an accomplished practitioner in that field, namely the faculty mentor. Since each member of the faculty in the Biology Department maintains an active research program, our students are able to mesh into a program with momentum and resources in such a fashion that they can quickly accelerate to the point of contributing to a meaningful scientific endeavor with true potential. The success of this strategy is evidenced by several criteria, including the frequency by which our students appear as co-‐‑authors on publications and professional presentations. Many of our students have received graduate fellowships (especially NSF); and they enjoy high acceptance rates for admission to graduate programs in top research universities.
Evaluation of each senior's performance in their thesis research is evaluated primarily by the thesis advisor, but with important contributions from the full department faculty. Each thesis student presents their research during a two-‐‑hour oral exam, and the department assigns both the thesis advisor and one additional department member to each oral exam (along with two additional faculty from the MNS division and outside the division). The department faculty meets to assign the faculty who will serve as second readers to each thesis, and the assignments are made with the intent to spread ourselves broadly so we stay aware of the kinds of thesis activities being undertaken by students working with department colleagues. Once all the oral examinations have been completed, the full department meets to confer about the final grades assigned for each thesis student. Faculty advisors are
invited to explain the reasoning for the grade they propose, and second readers are asked to contribute their opinion. The detailed knowledge that faculty hold for their own students, and the shared experiences across the department provided by the second readers both contribute towards the department goal of evaluating students fairly and equitably. The discussion gives the department the opportunity to learn from the faculty experiences of working with both exemplary and weaker thesis students, and also allows the department to reflect on how the current year compares to thesis performance in past years.
Upon completing a senior theis in Biology as student will have demonstrated the abilit to:
- choose and define important and contemporary topics of inquiry from the major field;
- independently investigate that topic with the support of an advisor;
- develop new knowledge and/or ideas;
- apply a wide variety of skills learned in their coursework including active involvement in the development of hypotheses and in experimental design, methodological refinement, analysis and interpretation of data, discussion and criticism of research findings, and formal presentation of their work;
- apply ethical standards to research;
- write a coherent document that is substantially longer than a traditional term paper or project; and
- defend their work orally to scientific and non-scientific audiences.
During the first few days of classes in your senior year, you should visit several Biology faculty members to discuss your academic interests and learn about potential research projects available in their laboratories. We do not expect that you have designed your own thesis project at this point. Indeed, it is preferable for you to develop a thesis project in conjunction with your thesis adviser. The thesis can be one where data are generated in the laboratory or field; a model is developed as part of a theoretical approach; or literature is extensively utilized to generate a comprehensive analysis of a particular problem. If you are interested in doing a thesis project with someone off-campus (see below), you still need to discuss the project with a faculty member in the department who will serve as a co-advisor and the advisor of record.
Once you have met with faculty and discussed options, you must submit TWO short descriptions of potential research projects and LIST A THIRD adviser in which you would like to work, in the event that your other choices are unavailable. In each case, include the name of the faculty member with whom you've spoken who could serve as an adviser for the work. Faculty members on sabbatical/leave will take thesis students by special arrangement only. Rank the three potential project areas/faculty advisers in the order of your preference.
Proposals must be submitted to Kristy Gonyer, Administrative Coordinator, no later than noon on the second Wednesday of classes. (The faculty will meet the following week to consider your proposals and assign advisers.)
We are receptive to your use of off-campus resources and advisers for your thesis work. While we may be able to provide leads to finding potential off-campus advisers, it is your responsibility to develop an agreement to use the time and resources of a scientist at another institution. An information sheet is available and must be given to any potential off-campus thesis adviser. The decision on the suitability of the project and the advisory relationship will be made by the department faculty. Regular meetings with a biology faculty member who will serve as the advisor of record is required for any thesis conducted off-campus. To learn more about the logistics of developing and completing an off-campus thesis, speak with your biology department academic adviser.
Note: Thesis offices will not be assigned to individual during 2020-21. Thesis students will be able to check out thesis office keys from their adviser to use thesis office space one at a time during business hours.
In general, thesis offices are assigned in accordance with the adviser and proximity to the research laboratory. If you have special requests, include them on the sheet with your thesis proposal. (Note: All rooms are designated non-smoking and non-pet, and all have network access.) Office assignments will be posted at the same time as the adviser list. Kristy Gonyer will submit key requests for thesis offices/adviser labs to Facilities who will e-mail you when keys are ready for pick up. Consult with your thesis adviser if additional keys are necessary and if so, obtain a key request form from Kristy. Please remember that your office space will be shared with other hard-working students. Consideration should be the watchword. Do not offer your workspace to another student on a permanent basis. Any rearrangements must be coordinated through Kristy.
Several possible sources of funding exist for thesis projects. Learn about how to apply for funding here.
Instructions from the Reed Guidebook.
Upon completion of the senior thesis, each student must take a comprehensive oral examination. Oral exams normally occur during the period between the end of classes and the beginning of final examinations. A schedule of oral exams is prepared by each division or department and is posted at the registrar’s office.
The oral exam, approximately two hours in length, is conducted by an examination board composed of Reed faculty members and, in some instances, other experts. This examination includes the thesis topic and should relate the thesis to the larger context of the student’s studies.
Any Reed faculty member may visit the examination. At least one faculty member of the division should be present. Some departments require at least one examiner from another department within the same division. One examiner from another division should be present. An examiner who has professional competence in the candidate’s field and is not a member of the Reed faculty may be present. Other guests who are not faculty members will be admitted only with permission of the examining board and the student.
If a student fails the oral exam, the student may be re-examined in a later semester. A student who fails a second time in the same field shall be ineligible for graduation in that field.
In Biology, your first reader will be your thesis adviser and your second reader will be another biology faculty member. If you have a preference for your second reader you should communicate this to them and your thesis adviser before the departments meets to set the orals schedule after spring break.
After spring break the department will meet to assign second readers and to schedule all major’s oral exams. Once available, the schedule will be posted outside of B115.