A Senior Thesis in Psychology

Sigmund Freud mosaic

Though every thesis is different from every other, there are some questions that are commonly asked and there are some difficulties that readers commonly find. Here are some answers and some advice.

What is a Psychology Senior Thesis?

A thesis is a report of an original research investigation in which you propose an hypothesis that explains some aspect of human or animal behavior, you construct a meaningful context of prior research and thought into which the hypothesis fits, you test your hypothesis empirically, and then you explain what the results allow you to conclude about your hypothesis. (An empirical test means that you base your conclusions on data that you collect and analyze, rather than, say, on library research. It does not mean that the research must be based on an experiment!) A good working model for the paper is that it should be a blend of a critical analysis of literature in an area such as those published in the Psychological Bulletin together with the kind of research report you would find in journals such asDevelopmental Psychology, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, or the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Research reports in psychological journals typically devote only a sentence or two of the introduction to describing the broader context in which the research fits and then focus on to those few studies that led directly to what will be reported. In a thesis, it is very important that you fill in this broader context with an evaluative review of the relevant literature. For example, a thesis on the stress of dormitory life would be supported by a review of the general literature on environmental stress and the developmental characteristics of college students.

What are you looking for?

The senior thesis is your culminating opportunity at Scripps to show that you have developed the skills and abilities to make a significant, meaningful contribution to the body of knowledge in psychology. The thesis should show that you have digested prior research in the field with thoroughness and with insight, that you have identified a theoretically important unanswered question, that you have a sophisticated command of the methodological tools of scientific psychology, that you have mastered statistical analysis, that you can think creatively and completely about the implications of statistical results, and that you can accomplish all that working within the constraints of time and resources of a one-semester project. Grades of “A” are reserved for work that is exceptional in each of these rubrics. As you might guess, they are relatively rare (rarer than grades of “A” in many courses). Work that shows adequate strength in all areas typically receives a “B.” Work that fails to show strength in one or more areas generally merits a “C.” (That doesn’t mean you aren’t strong in that area. It means that this piece of work didn’t demonstrate it in the opinion of your readers.) Another way to say all this is, “Yes, all those courses—particularly statistics and research design—really were important!”

Occasionally we hear the complaint, “My thesis doesn’t really show what I can do. If I only had more time, more resources, and more participants, it would be really be representative of my talent.” This misses the point. It is up to you to conceive a thesis that does show what you can do within the constraints that are imposed. Think of your task as like that of an architect who must design a creative and superbly engineered house working within the time frame and the budget she is given.

What is the format of the thesis?

Follow the guidelines in the American Psychological Association Publication Manual.

The order of parts of the thesis is as follows (optional parts are in [brackets]): Title, [Acknowledgments], [Table of Contents], Abstract, Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, References, [Appendices]. Unlike the format for papers submitted for publication, figures with captions and tables should be on separate sheets; they should be inserted into the manuscript as close as possible to the point they are first mentioned. Some common difficulties noted by readers in the past have concerned the Introduction, Method, and Discussion sections. The Introduction must present a thorough, balanced survey of prior research findings. It is your job to organize and summarize the research. Do not simply present a series of precis of one study after another. Extract generalizations. Do not rely on secondary sources. Go directly to the primary source and read it yourself. Also, do not ignore evidence that disagrees with your hypotheses. Remember that it must be a balanced survey. If there are findings that do not conform to your hypotheses, you need to describe them and then defend how you can maintain your hypotheses in the face of that evidence. In the Method section, be sure that you provide enough information for the reader to understand why you made the choices of instruments and procedures you did, and to ensure that your description is clear and detailed enough for another researcher to repeat your study. Make your operationalizations clear and explicit, and defend them. Describe the psychometric properties of instruments you use and explain why other alternatives were not selected. In the discussion, when you offer explanations for what you observed, be sure to defend them. Don’t expect your audience to accept your claims on faith. Muster whatever empirical evidence you can to defend your assertions. For example, don’t assert that you failed to find expected differences because the N was too small, and let it go at that. You might calculate the power of your design to reject the null hypothesis and show that many more participants would have been needed to establish a difference of the size you found as significant. You should try to anticipate explanations other than yours that someone might propose. Present those explanations and explain why they might or might not be plausible.

How long should a thesis be? It is a safe prediction that every student will ask this question and that none will receive a satisfactory answer. Here’s the answer: “As long as it needs to be”. Your obligations are to evaluate critically the relevant research, to describe your methodology and rationale, and to present, analyze, and interpret your findings. The space that meeting those obligations requires will be a function of your research topic and your writing style; thus, only you can answer the question. If it helps, acceptable theses in psychology have ranged from about 25 to 150 pages of text (that is, excluding references, figures, tables, appendices, and other supplementary materials.) Your readers can show you samples of theses from prior years.

What are my ethical responsibilities?

It is your obligation to safeguard the rights and welfare of individuals (or animals) who participate in your research. This is your moral obligation as a psychologist and your legal obligation as a researcher at a college that is supported in part by funds from the U.S. government. The general imperative is that the benefits to the individual or to society must greatly outweigh any risks to the individual participant. The Psychology Department will review your final Method section (see below) to determine whether your proposed research will adequately protect the rights and welfare of your participants. You may not begin collecting data until your methods have been approved and the course instructor has given you a written OK to proceed.

Under certain circumstances, Scripps College in accord with federal regulations must carry out a close review of your proposed research. This occurs most commonly when the research involves individuals who are not legally able to give free, informed consent to participate— young children, prisoners, individuals compromised by illness or disability. This review must be carried out by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) constituted by the President of the College. If the Department determines from your preliminary descriptions of your research or from your consultations with your readers that your research is likely to fall in this category, you will need to follow special procedures. Your completed Method section will be due at the same time as the Introduction and you must also complete and submit an Application for Review of Research Using Human Participants at the same time. You can anticipate very close scrutiny by a blue-ribbon panel (which is not the Psychology Department) and the possibility that they will ask you to revise your methods and resubmit.

The IRB will meet once each month to review applications. Completed applications that are on file by the 1st of the month will be reviewed by the 15th. Experience has taught us that the review process may very well delay your anticipated time-able for data collection.

Inventing or altering data is a fraud. There is no defense or justification for it, whatsoever. If it is determined that you have committed scientific fraud, you will receive a grade of “F” for the senior thesis and you may not revise or resubmit the thesis nor may you reenroll in the course in the future.


When You Return

When you return from Summer Break you should have a clear and focused idea about the area in which you want to do research. Ideally you will have a specific hypothesis. The best ideas come from scanning the journals in your areas of interest. You can see what methods are being used and what populations of participants are being studied. This will allow you to build on prior research in an area that you know to be important.

Interim Due Dates

There are no general required due dates for intermediate work. Nevertheless, given the short time frame of the thesis, it is essential that you establish a time table and stick to it. Last year we tried fixed, firm due dates with grades on interim work. This was very successful in getting students to stay on an appropriate timeline, but the faculty weren’t particularly comfortable with it. This year, instead, we simply have strongly suggested deadlines. Either or both of your readers may impose stricter standards (different or additional deadlines, grades on interim work, etc.). If so, they’ll inform you and those requirements will supersede the general course policy.

Data Review

We expect that you will begin data collection by the beginning of November. You must meet with both of your readers to review with them both your raw data and your SPSS data file. When you meet with them, you should bring your raw data (all of it) with you and you should have your SPSS data file in a location on the network that will allow you to access the file during your meeting. The data review is not graded but is required.

Written Thesis

The final, bound version of the thesis is due in the Office of the Registrar on or before December 7, 2007. The grade for the final version of the thesis will be based 40% on the first reader’s grade, 40% on the second reader’s grade, and 20% on the course instructor’s grade. If the grade on the final version is higher than the grade on the interim assignments, it will replace that earlier grade.


You will give a short oral presentation of your research, probably on Sunday, December 12. You will be evaluated by all of the psychology faculty. Your grade will comprise 10% of your final grade for the course. Your attendance at all the presentations is required.

There are no Incompletes…

You should be aware that an Incomplete is given in Psychology 191 only in the case of incapacitating illness or injury. Students who fail to submit on time are given a grade of “F” and, under the rules of the College, have one month to submit a revision that can receive no higher grade than “C.”

…but there are awards.

The Margaret Siler Faust Award is given every year at the Awards Convocation that is part of graduation weekend. It is given to the senior whose thesis, in the judgment of the faculty, best exemplified the application of sound, rigorous, imaginative science to important problems in human behavior. The Lois Langland Prize is given for the best completed research project on women as individuals or as members of society. Although it is not restricted to seniors, it is often awarded for senior thesis research.

Honors and Two-Semester Thesis Projects

Our experience has been that the normal thesis research project in psychology can be designed, carried out, and written in one semester. However, some projects are sufficiently complex that they might justify two semesters of credit. Such a project might involve a series of experiments or might involve developing, pilot testing, and refining a new psychological test before the actual study can be carried out. Students who wish to have their project considered for a two-semester thesis may petition the Psychology faculty. It is your responsibility to do this. We will not ask. The petition must describe the topic and the proposed series of studies and explain why the additional semester is necessary and appropriate. Time alone is not sufficient justification. That means a study that is modest in scope will not be approved for a two-semester thesis just because you expect the data collection to go slowly. In such a case, you should redesign your study so that it can be completed in one semester. Students who are candidates for Honors in Psychology are required to develop two-semester projects. However, even those students must petition; approval is not automatic.

If you are approved for a two-semester thesis, you will enroll in Honors Senior Thesis (PSYC191H) for the Spring term. (Approval of a two-semester thesis does not mean you are in Honors; for that, you must apply for and be accepted to the Honors Program.) At the end of the Fall term, you will submit a report (in APA/Thesis form) of the work completed to that point. This will include a literature review, methods, and analysis and discussion of the studies completed to that point.

Dual and Double Majors

Since different fields structure the thesis very differently, you should consult with the instructor at the earliest possible date if you are a dual or double major. We can than work together with the thesis director on the other field to coordinate the requirements. Whatever arrangements are made, we do require everyone to give a presentation.

Meeting with your readers

How often should you meet? That’s up to you and your readers. In the past, the range has been from students who meet weekly (or more frequently) with both readers to those whose completed thesis is “supervised” by only a casual note or two. However you work it out, remember that your readers should be fully informed about what you plan to do and about any deviations from your plan. They must be consulted before any data are collected! It’s probably best to think of your readers as resources and sounding boards. We may well be able to offer advice that will help you through difficulties in locating readings, in refining procedures, and in selecting appropriate analyses. We’re also good places to try out your interpretations and ideas before you incorporate them into your procedure or your writing. In this vein, let us offer a pragmatic suggestion. While there is very little disagreement among the faculty on the overall quality of a thesis, each of us has specific things on which we put particular emphasis. For example, some faculty base their grade more on the amount of effort you put into the work, some more on the progress you make from your starting point, and some more on the quality of the final product. Close communication will prevent you from learning about those things too late.

One (but not both) of your readers can be a faculty member from another of the Claremont Colleges. It is also possible to have an individual from outside the Claremont Colleges when it is appropriate and their credentials have been established.

And, on the positive side…

It may all sound thoroughly intimidating and full of formalities. When you get to feeling overwhelmed by it all, stop and think what it’s going to be like when you come out the other end. You will have conceived, carried out, and reported your very own piece of creative, independent work! Of course, that’s exactly what graduate and professional schools and employers look for as evidence that you can work independently and produce. Or, said another way, this is exactly what the “real world” will expect of you. What’s even more important is the sense of accomplishment you’ll experience. Let us caution you about another block you may face. Your thesis doesn’t have to be a magnum opus, doesn’t have to answer every question a person might ask about your topic. It’s just one study. You’ll want to bring all of the arts and science of being a psychologist you’ve acquired to bear on the problem, but you’ll almost certainly think of a dozen more studies you could do to follow up on this one. That’s exactly how knowledge progresses, small careful steps carved out by skilled scholars. You’ll be surprised what pride of ownership of a well-carved step will provide you.