Undergraduate Thesis Guidelines

Psychology Department Undergraduate Senior Thesis Guidelines

The senior thesis is an independent research project undertaken in collaboration with a faculty advisor. The project takes place over two semesters in the senior year. 

Prior to the senior year

A thesis advisor is ideally identified by the end of the sophomore year. This gives the student and advisor time to develop a working relationship, and it gives the student time to start the process of developing a thesis plan. Faculty advisors may be Psychology Department faculty or affiliate faculty. Thesis students may also be mentored by postdoctoral fellows or graduate students, but the official advisor for the thesis must be a faculty member.

A thesis advisor and research lab must be determined prior to enrolling in Psych 380: Junior Honors Seminar. Students must complete the course authorization process prior to enrolling in Psych 380; the course authorization form requires students to list their advisor. Psych 380 is only offered in the fall, and should be taken during a student’s junior year. Students pursuing Honors in the Major must take either Psych 380 OR Psych 686 (see below). Taking both Psych 380 and Psych 686 is recommended for all students completing a thesis project in Psychology.

The central theme and approach for the thesis are typically identified in the junior year. The topic and scope of the thesis are determined by the student and their faculty advisor; the advisor approves the thesis plan. 

All students are encouraged to submit a formal plan for their thesis for consideration by different award programs on campus during their junior year, including the Hilldale and Senior Honors Thesis Fellowship. Students enrolled in Psych 380 will receive substantial help preparing award proposals.


Senior year

During the senior year, the student will complete the research project and produce a final written paper reporting on the project. Students must register for Psych 681/682 (Honors) or Psych 691/692 (non-Honors). Doing so is how the student receives credit for completing the thesis.  Students must complete the course authorization process for Psych 681/682/691/692 prior to enrolling, which includes approval from the thesis faculty advisor.

During their senior year, students are encouraged to also enroll in Psych 686 in both the fall and spring semesters; Psych 686 is designed to provide support to students completing a thesis in Psychology.  When students complete the course authorization form for the thesis credits, they will be prompted to request authorization for Psych 686 at the same time.

The student’s faculty advisor is responsible for mentoring and evaluating the thesis. The student should meet with their faculty advisor on a regular basis during both semesters, providing updates on project progress and submitting drafts of the written thesis. The faculty advisor will provide guidance on the research and feedback on the paper. This feedback should be assimilated in revisions of the paper. 

The written thesis should be composed in the format of a scientific journal within the topic area of the project. The paper includes: title page, abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, figures (if relevant), tables (if relevant), literature cited, and appendices (if relevant). The paper is due at the end of the student’s final semester. Students should work with their advisor to determine the exact due date for the written thesis.

All students completing a Psychology thesis are invited to present their work at the Psychology Student Thesis and Research Showcase (STaRS). Participation in STaRS is required for Honors students and students receiving departmental research awards. Students should consider other venues for presenting their thesis work, including the UW-Madison Undergraduate Research Symposium (URS) and scientific conferences. Students are encouraged to apply for travel awards to support attendance at a scientific conference.

Special circumstances

Students who are following an atypical timeline (e.g., early graduation) or who are planning to study abroad should talk with their Psychology Academic Advisor and their faculty thesis advisor about their thesis timeline.

Students who are pursuing a Dual Honors Thesis should consult guidelines here.


Typical timeline

Sophomore year: 

  • Fall-Spring: Identify a faculty research mentor. Prior to enrollment in Psych 380 in their Junior year, students should be in a research lab and have a faculty advisor who has agreed to serve as the thesis mentor.
  • For students planning to study abroad in their junior year, or planning for early graduation, the timeline for the thesis is likely to include earlier identification of a mentor and earlier completion of Psych 380. 

Junior year: 

  • Fall: Identify research topic and work with faculty advisor to design research plan. Enrollment in Psych 380 will facilitate this process. 
  • Early February: Submit Hilldale or Senior Honors Thesis proposal (optional). 
  • Literature searches and reading to inform the background (Introduction) of the thesis. 
  • Training in the techniques to be used in the research (i.e., methods for data collection and analysis). May include beginning data collection for the thesis. 
  • Present research proposal in lab meeting (optional). 
  • Note: During the junior year students are typically enrolled for research credit in the laboratory in which they will conduct their senior thesis. 

Senior year: 

  • Register for thesis (Psych 681/682: Senior Honors Thesis OR 691/692: Undergraduate Thesis). You will enroll for 2 semesters. 
  • Register for Psych 686: Senior Thesis Seminar in Psychology. You will enroll for 2 semesters (optional, but strongly recommended).
  • Fall: Thesis Advisor approval of final thesis proposal (if new or revised from junior year).
  • Fall: Establish a specific due date for draft Introduction and Method section to be submitted to the thesis advisor and a specific date for the thesis advisor to provide feedback. This feedback date should be no less than two weeks before the last day of classes. 
  • Revise and submit the final Introduction and Method section to the instructor for Psychology 686 (if relevant) and the thesis advisor. 
  • Data collection. 
  • Spring: Data analysis, write results, and write discussion. 
  • April/May: Research presentation at STaRS (required for all Psychology Department thesis and travel grant awardees; strongly encouraged for all thesis students). Optional presentation at the Undergraduate Research Symposium or other conference. 
  • May: Final thesis paper due. The paper will take the form of a journal article (see above). Work with your faculty advisor to determine the exact due date for the written thesis.