Writing a Senior (Honors) Thesis – First Semester

Having picked a topic, found an advisor, and registered for thesis credits, it is time to start the project.  Begin the research project by writing a tentative, two-page proposal. This preliminary proposal should address the topic, the time period, and the major research questions you would like to explore.

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Preliminary Research

Before you begin research, determine a method for taking and saving your notes. Start taking from the very beginning. Whether you keep notes in a digital format or the old fashioned way—notebooks, legal pads, index cards—keep all your information in a single place. More information on notes can be found at Tips for Data Organization.

Saving your notes is as important as taking them. Develop a routine that involves saving your work in multiple places.

With your first proposal in hand, it is time to begin research. Your preliminary research should focus on answering two questions: what are the major secondary works and is my research project feasible? During the following steps, keep a running list of books, articles, and resources related to your topic.

Preliminary research should start in the library. Do not just start with random searches in MadCat or WorldCat. If you are completely unfamiliar with the research process or the library system, consider taking a tour, a workshop, or a class.

In this first stage of research, make use of the library’s staff. The reference librarians and subject specialists are invaluable resources during the research process. They have an extensive knowledge of the primary and secondary sources available at UW-Madison. Moreover, they can help you acquire material from other libraries and research centers.

When meeting with the reference librarians and subject specialists, tell them about your thesis and your research interests. Ask them about whether your topic or field has a bibliography, annotated bibliography, or encyclopedia. Many such sources have been digitized and are available online. Although they can be outdated, these compendia will point you to the major monographs and articles on a given topic and save you a lot of time.

Once you have identified the major books and articles, find out which online databases will be most useful for your project. Here again, the library staff will be of much value. Particularly valuable resources for the historian are digital collections of newspapers, periodicals, and old books. These databases will allow you to consult primary sources without having to travel. After you have met with librarians and subject specialists and consulted the research compendia related to your topic, it is now time to search MadCat and WorldCat. There are a lot of tricks you can learn from the librarians that will make your searching more effective.

Starting a Bibliography

Building a project bibliography is an important and on-going process. The sooner you start a bibliography and the more frequently you update it, the less searching you will have to do later. Moreover, keeping an organized and updated bibliography will help you figure out where to situate your own work and where you can make a contribution.

During your preliminary research, your list of sources will have grown quite large. Now, it is time to organize it. Start by separating out the primary and secondary sources. From there, organize the bibliography in some way besides alphabetically. Remember: you will not put this bibliography at the end of your thesis. The project bibliography should make research and writing more manageable. Here are some organizational schemes:

  • Chronological – A chronological organization of secondary sources will provide a sense of how the historiography has developed and indicate new directions for research. A chronological list of primary sources will help visualize gaps in the information.
  • Thematic– A thematic bibliography is useful for projects that have a well-developed historiography. Organizing secondary sources that share a similar focus or approach (“Commerce”, “Post-Modern Theory”) will make clear which topics have been well covered and which have not yet been treated. Primary sources can also be organized thematically.
  • Geographic – A bibliography organized by geography is particularly useful for comparative history. All fields do not have equivalent historiographies. Moreover, many geographical areas have a profusion of primary sources while other areas have comparably little. By organizing your bibliography geographically, you can better understand the disparities in the historiography and the available sources.
  • Typological – A typological organization is particularly useful for primary sources. Separating sources by their types (newspapers, memoirs, autobiography, diaries, archival, etc.) will reveal whether your thesis will rely on a particular type of source. With this knowledge, you can either try to broaden your source base or anticipate criticism.

Project Assessment and Rewriting the Proposal

Having explored the resources available through the library and determined the major primary and secondary sources for your project, reassess your project. Consider the following questions:

  • Has another student or scholar already written my thesis?
  • Is the project feasible?
  • What are the major and minor obstacles I will encounter during research?
  • How have scholars written about my topic?
  • Will I make an informational, methodological, or conceptual contribution?
  • Does a narrowed, expanded, or different periodization make more sense for my project?

Primary Sources

Once you have completed your first bibliography, you can start to look for primary sources. Finding useful and available primary sources is critical to the feasibility of your topic. For this reason, keep three running lists of sources.

  • Ideal – This list should include sources that you would like to use but might you not have the time, money, or skills necessary to consult them effectively. Documents preserved in foreign archives or written in a foreign language would be on this list.
  • Accessible – You should be able to access sources on this list with relative ease. Documents in archives in the United States, published materials available through interlibrary loan, or documents written in a foreign language you know are all examples of accessible sources.
  • Available – This list should be the foundation of your senior thesis. It is important to identify sources that you know you can consult immediately. Put together a list of sources that are available at any of the University of Wisconsin System libraries or through one of the many online databases. If possible, download digital copies of documents from online databases, reproduce pages preserved on microfilm or microfiche, or make photocopies of relevant pages from published sources.

Annoted Bibliography

A well-written annotated bibliography makes research and writing much easier. Once you have determined the most important articles, monographs, and primary sources for your thesis, start writing annotations as soon as possible. When writing an annotation, focus on describing, analyzing, and evaluating the contents of the work. Concentrate on the author’s interpretation, her/his use of sources, his/her thesis and how she/he defended the thesis. Note that the annotations do not address the subject itself. Annotations should not contain elaborate explanations of the historical event at the center of the study.

There are a number of types of annotations you can write:

  • Summary – Provide a summary of the work, its content, and its argument. Summary annotations do not critically engage with the text but rather provide the reader with the work’s contents.
  • Informative – This type of annotation will provide a summary of the contents of a work and information on the text itself and/or the author who wrote it. This type of annotation is particularly useful for primary sources.
  • Evaluative – This type of annotation provides a critical analysis of the work. Remark on the author’s argument, use of evidence, suppositions, or interpretation. If a work is especially innovative or faulty, be sure to put that in the annotation.
  • Combination – Most annotations provide a mix of summary and analysis. This type is most useful for secondary sources, especially in the early stages. A combination annotation provides a summary of the contents of an article or monograph, explains the main argument and how it is defended, and, finally and most importantly, critiques the work in total.

The Research Proposal Explained

A research proposal, also known as a research prospectus, describes an intended course of research and the intellectual merit of this research. In the process, you are expected to explain its intellectual context and how you intend to complete it. The following paragraphs will introduce the standard sections of a research proposal in a step-by-step guide and offer some ways to write each section for maximum effect.

Writing a research proposal is one of the most important skills an aspiring historian can learn. Indeed, the proposal is perhaps equally important as research itself because it is the proposal that determines whether or not research can begin. Unfortunately, proposal writing is not a standard part of training. Moreover, there is no single, universally accepted format and style. A style that might work for one audience might not appeal to another audience. For this reason, a proposal should be written with its target audience in mind.

The feasibility of researching and defending a particular thesis will only become apparent well after your proposal has been approved. For this reason, writing a proposal will feel speculative and tenuous. Indeed, the ideal time to write a research proposal is after you have completed your senior thesis. By then, you will have identified a historical problem, advanced a particular hypothesis, found a mass of useful primary sources, arrived at a workable methodology, and demonstrated its importance. However, you need to get approval, and sometimes money, before you begin the arduous tasks that are part of research and writing.

There is a slight difference between a prospectus and a proposal, even though the words are often used interchangeably. Prospectuses are often written for a familiar audience, typically your advisor. As a result, prospectuses tend to be descriptive. Since your advisor ostensibly supports the chosen topic, a lot of nuance can be jettisoned. Proposals are written for a third party who may or may not be familiar with your field, such as a review committee of a grant. Unlike a prospectus, a proposal will be argumentative. A well-written proposal should demonstrate that your project is superlative and necessary. In each context, knowledge of your target audience is key. The following will guide you through writing both a prospectus and a proposal.

The Research Proposal/Prospectus at a Glance

  • The Introduction –  Question to Answer: What is the focus of the study?
  • The Research Project – Question to Answer: What is the time period to be studied?
  • The Literature Review – Question to Answer: How have other scholars addressed this subject?
  • The Significance – Questions to Answer: What is new about your study? Why should anyone care?
  • The Methodology – Question to Answer: How will I investigate this topic?

A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Proposal

Step 1: Pre-writing Exercise

As an exercise, answer the following three questions with one sentence:

  • Question 1 – What is your topic and/or main argument?
  • Question 2 – Why is your study important?
  • Question 3 – How will you investigate your topic?

If you feel that these are difficult questions to answer at such an early stage, it is because they are difficult. Arriving at succinct answers to these questions will strengthen your proposal. As your project develops, continually return to these three questions.

Step 2: Describe the Project

This section should be the easiest to write. You want to address the following aspects in one paragraph:

  • The Subject – Clearly state the focus of your study. Use this space to introduce the importance or salient details of the place, person, product, project, idea, or organization at the center of your study. The reader should have a very clear idea of the who, what, and where of your project.
  • The Periodization – Give your study a specific beginning and end. It will be useful to think of other periodizations for the same subject as a safety measure. Historians often have to expand the temporal parameters of their study due to insufficient primary sources. As a general rule, avoid projects that examine multiple centuries because you will inevitably come across too many sources to consult over the course of two semesters.
  • The Approach – Clearly state the type of history you intend to write. Will your thesis be a social, economic, political, intellectual, or diplomatic history? Is there an overarching theoretical framework (critical social theory, gender theory, or post-structuralism) or theorist (Derrida, Foucault, or Lefebvre) that will inform your analysis?

Step 3: Analyze the Historiography

When discussing the historiography, you do not have to prove that you have read the entire field. Instead, focus only the works that directly and significantly address your topic. By concentrating on the most important texts, you will have more room to discuss two aspects of this critical section:

  • Describe Previous Approaches – How have scholars addressed the topic you are working on? Divide the historiography into groups (such as by theoretical approach, date of publication, or archives used) and describe their contribution.
  • Address the Gaps – Balance your compliments of the previous scholarship with criticism. Make sure you mention the time periods, personalities, relationships, events, or archives that have been ignored, undervalued, or misunderstood. This approach will allow you to discuss deficiencies of the existing research without getting bogged down in the details of each work and clue the reader into how your study will provide new insight into the field.

Step 4: Explicate the Project’s Significance

The success of your proposal rests a great deal on its significance. For this reason, it is important to articulate why your topic deserves and requires in-depth research in primary documents. When writing this section, constantly ask yourself, “so, what?” Asking and answering this question early and often will be invaluable.

Step 5: Explain Your Research Plan

This is perhaps the least complicated part of the proposal. The methodology section should convince the reader that the project is feasible and, more importantly, that you can do it. In this section, lay out for the reader how you intend to research your topic.

  • Primary Sources – Tell the reader the primary sources you will use. If you plan on using archival sources, mention the archives you will visit, when you will visit them, and the specific collections you will examine. If you are using published materials, explain what they are and how you will use them.
  • Special Training – Be sure to mention any special training or experience you might have that will make the research process easier, such as previous research experience or language training.
  • Timeline for Research – Develop a tentative calendar for research. Ask your advisor if your schedule makes sense. Presenting a calendar will suggest to the reader that you have thought about the research process.

Step 6: Write a Catchy Introduction

It might seem counterintuitive to write the introduction at the end. The goal of the introduction is to grab the reader’s attention and frame the rest of the proposal. A good introduction should tell the reader your proposed study and allude to its significance. If you write the introduction first, it might not fit with rest of your proposal, which will confuse the reader. Since a proposal is a short work, every part should fit together seamlessly and writing your introduction last will help achieve this goal.

There are various strategies for introducing your proposal. The introduction is also where you can show off some stylistic flare and creativity. Consider starting your proposal in one of the following ways:

  • Declare the Subject of Study – If you have a clear and refined idea of your topic and how you will approach it, a declarative introduction could be useful. With this style, you want to establish your topic, its period, the primary sources, and your methodology. You can use the rest of the proposal to elaborate on each aspect.
  • Provide a Personal Anecdote – If you have a very personal connection with the subject of your study, starting with an anecdote can be quite useful. An anecdote will not only make your proposal appear unique and original but also suggest that the historical topic you intend to study has current relevance. The anecdote, however, must be clearly tied to the subject; connecting yourself tangentially to a historical issue will not strengthen your proposal.
  • Introduce a Quotation from a Historical Document – The introduction is a good opportunity to show that you have undertaken preliminary research. Indeed, sometimes a sentence from a newspaper, a private letter, an official report, or a diary can succinctly capture the crux of the issue you intend to explore. Moreover, a quotation demonstrates that the problem you will investigate was contemporary and not a presentist projection. When using a quotation, do not try to fill it with meaning that it does not already have or manipulate the author’s intention. A quotation that has to be massaged or explained extensively is probably not strong enough for the introduction.
  • Describe a Current Event – Current events often motivate historians to examine the past in new ways. There is nothing wrong with tying your proposed study to a particular recent phenomenon, such as an election, a conflict, a treaty, a court ruling, or a World Series. When using a current event, avoid simply stating that one event in the past caused a current situation. You can connect current and historical events without saying that one directly led to the other. It is fine to mention that you want to examine how a current relationship played out in another time and context.
  • Discuss a Historiographical Dilemma – A lot of historical studies begin as fresh examinations of topics that have been either neglected entirely or approached narrowly. If this is the case with your topic, and you are confident that you can provide a new perspective, consider starting your proposal by outlining the problems with the historiography. This approach will not only reveal your topic and the relevance of your study but will also suggest your methodological innovation.

Step 7: Put it Together!

  • Section 1 – The Introduction
  • Section 2 – The Research Project
  • Section 3 – The Literature Review
  • Section 4 – The Significance
  • Section 5 – The Methodology

Step 8: Submitting your Proposal

Send your prospectus to your advisor or apply for a grant for research funding.

If you are applying for a grant application, you will probably need to draft a budget. Budgets include all the expenses required for research. Do not include extra expenses (such as the cost of souvenirs) because they will ultimately compromise your success. The following expenses are standard: Travel (airfare, train ticket, gas, visa), living (rent, food), local transportation (subway fares, parking, gas), and research (document reproduction, access fees). Applications often carry specific budget restrictions; be sure your budget conforms to the application’s specifications