The senior thesis is an excellent opportunity for Religion majors to sustain thoughtful and creative research on a significant topic of his or her choosing. The thesis serves for many as the capstone experience of their undergraduate career. The senior thesis presents the opportunity to conduct independent research, to work closely with a faculty advisor and to develop and test analytical and interpretive skills.

Majors in the Religion Department are encouraged but not required to write a thesis in their final year of study. This opportunity is available to all majors in the department.

Most students choose a topic relevant to some of their previous course work in the study of religion. Choice of a topic should be made under the guidance of a faculty member who will approve your proposal and supervise your project. In every case, the thesis topic should be specific enough to allow for depth of treatment. At the same time, however, the topic should not be so narrowly or technically construed as to allow you to lose sight of its relation to the broader issues in the study of religion. All majors who choose to write a thesis must have their proposed subject approved by their thesis advisor and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the spring of the junior year. During the senior year, the student enrolls in guided reading and research with his or her advisor. The final draft, usually around 40 pages in length, is due in the first week of April.

Students who write a senior thesis and who maintain a GPA of 3.66 or above will be considered for departmental honors. Writing a senior thesis qualifies the student for consideration for departmental honors but does not assure it. In most years, only 10 percent of majors receive departmental honors.

The junior year

All junior religion majors and concentrators should enroll in Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion (the Junior's Colloquium). The main purpose of the Colloquium is to ensure that all majors and concentrators have a grasp of some of the major theories and methods employed by scholars in their explorations of religious phenomena. Students who intend to write a senior thesis should approach the junior’s colloquium as an important setting in which to think about theoretical and methodological approaches that he or she might apply in writing a senior thesis.

In the beginning of the spring term, all junior majors are sent a reminder about the senior thesis application, which is due the first week of May. The senior thesis application can be obtained from the Religion Department website, or from the Director of Undergraduate Studies, and must be approved by the Director of Undergraduate Studies. The thesis application consists of a 5-7 page prospectus (guidelines are listed below) and approval from a Religion department faculty member who will serve as your advisor.

Juniors who plan to study abroad during the spring of their junior year and who wish to write a thesis should consult with the DUS during the fall term about alternate due dates and requirements.

The senior year

Students writing senior theses should enroll in Guided Reading and Research with their senior thesis advisors. This should be discussed with the faculty member who will be your thesis advisor in the spring of the junior year. A total of three points of guided reading may be counted toward the major. Students should make sure to negotiate the requirements for this course with the faculty member supervising it as professors run independent research courses differently. As the department sets few formal deadlines for the thesis, you should work with your advisor to create a set of intermediate due dates. (A sample timeline is noted below.) Grading of Guided Reading and Research (letter-graded) is separate from that of the senior thesis (graded pass/fail/distinction).

The “timeline” outlined below provides one example of how you might pace your thesis writing and research.

  • Early October: Revised Project Proposal Due
  • First week of December: Outline of Project Due
  • Last week of January: Draft of one chapter due
  • First week of March: Draft of project due
  • First week of April: Completed project due

Selecting a senior thesis project advisor

During the spring of your junior year you will need to enlist a Religion department faculty member to serve as your advisor during your senior year. The first step in selecting an advisor is to make an appointment with one or more faculty members who have some familiarity with the field, period, tradition, or topic you propose to investigate. Talk over your ideas with the faculty member and discuss your project. You may go to several faculty members to discuss the project but you must single out one as your primary advisor. That faculty member should be available to oversee the thesis process throughout your senior year. This does not preclude you from seeking advice from other faculty members during the course of your research project, rather, you are encouraged to do so. Seniors’ theses are read and evaluated by two readers, one of whom is your thesis advisor; in many cases the second reader is a faculty member with whom you have discussed your thesis.

Make sure to clarify your expectations and your advisor's early in the process. When you have questions, thoughts or concerns regarding your senior project your advisor is the first person you should approach. You should not feel that you can only meet with your advisor with printed text in hand. In fact, one of the most important times to see your advisor is when you are confused or have writer’s block, or just want to sound out various ideas or strategies. Talking over ideas is a very important part of the advisee-advisor relationship. However, at various points it is very important to present written outlines and drafts, to see if your ideas are being clearly expressed in writing.

Length and grading of the senior thesis

The length of a senior thesis is usually around forty pages, and is determined by the demands of the particular topic as well as the limits set by your thesis advisor. Remember that length is no guarantee of quality and that different subfields within the academic study of religion may have different expectations that affect the final format of your thesis. Senior theses are evaluated by two faculty members (one being your thesis advisor). Theses are awarded grades of fail, pass, or distinction.