Writing a Senior (Honors) Thesis – Introduction

Why Write a Senior Thesis?

The senior thesis, or senior honors thesis, allows students to independently research and write an original piece of scholarship around 40 pages about a topic of their choosing. The rigors and requirements of undergraduate education often prevent students from making a contribution to the intellectual community that is the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Indeed, blue book exams and term papers—the principle mediums of writing for history majors—typically have an audience of one. The senior thesis, however, allows students to pursue their own academic interests and answer the research questions that interest them the most.

Over the course of two semesters, the student will put to work the historian’s tools they learned as undergraduates. Under the supervision of a faculty member, the student will determine a course of study, examine the existing primary and secondary materials, and, most importantly, submit a paper that will be preserved in Memorial Library and the History department’s archive. In addition, the History department will also provide a forum where students can present their research to their peers.

Whether you are interested in attending graduate school or you are passionate about a particular topic or historical period, the History department strongly encourages all history majors to consider writing a senior thesis.

To write a senior thesis, you will need to:

  • Register as a History major
  • Take a variety of advanced courses in the History department
  • Consider taking History 600, the capstone research seminar, in your junior year
  • Save your materials from your History 600 seminar
  • Choose a topic by the second semester of your junior year
  • Approach a potential faculty advisor based on specialization and meet with her/him

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The History department considers the senior thesis to be the culmination of your undergraduate career. Faculty members have designed their courses to provide students with the tools required for independent research. Lectures, seminars, and independent studies serve as excellent introductions to potential fields of research and historiographical debates. Keep your notes from these classes because you will probably need them when you choose a topic. We also recommend that interested students enroll in History 600, the capstone research seminar during their junior year to gain experience in writing a long research paper before starting a senior thesis.

Choosing an Advisor

The History department’s website has profiles of each faculty member, their work, and their research interests. We recommend that you choose a faculty member with whom you have already worked. Contact potential advisors as early as possible. Discuss your specific research interests and inform them about your intention to write a senior thesis. Ask an interested faculty member if she or he would be willing to serve as your advisor. The sooner you complete these steps the better.

Funding Your Research

If you start on your project early, you can apply for an undergraduate research grant. We encourage students to apply for research funding, such as the Hilldale Research Grant (the application for which is due in early February) and a variety of History department-sponsored grants (with an April deadline). A list of grants and prizes open to undergraduate researchers available on the History department’s website.


We require students to register for thesis writing credits during both semesters of writing. In addition, each student must register for a one-credit senior thesis colloquium. The colloquium serves as a forum where writers can exchange ideas, methods, and materials related to research, writing, and revision. The catalog lists a version of writing credits and the thesis colloquium for the honors and non-honors tracks. Make sure you register for the correct courses.

For the first semester:

  • Non-Honors: History 691 & History 690 (the colloquium)
  • Honors: History 681 & History 680 (the colloquium)

For the second semester:

  • Non-Honors: History 692 & History 690 (the colloquium)
  • Honors: History 682 & History 680 (the colloquium)

How to Write A Senior Thesis