Thesis Guidelines

Department of Physics & Astronomy

Senior Thesis Guidelines

Senior thesis is the culminating experience of the physics major. Students should have conversations with faculty members about potential projects early in the winter semester of their junior year. They should also discuss whether they will pursue a one-semester thesis, a full year thesis, or honors thesis. Students choosing a one-semester thesis should also discuss whether it will occur in the fall or winter semester. Students opting for a full-year thesis must make satisfactory process in the Fall semester to be permitted to register for a second semester of thesis. After the first mid-semester progress report, the advisor, in consultation with the full department will decide if sufficient progress has been demonstrated, and decisions will be issued before the October break. Honors thesis is discussed in more detail below. 

Independent of which option is chosen, Juniors (including students abroad) must notify the department chair of at least two potential thesis advisors by a March 10. Based on student preference and faculty availability, the physics department will assign thesis advisors soon after. If you are abroad, you will need to coordinate finding a thesis advisor and submitting your thesis plan by email. Students will need to have the registration hold on Physics 457 and/or Physics 458 removed during the appropriate preregistration period.

During the semester(s) in which a student is registered for thesis, two seminar presentations will be scheduled. These include a mid-semester progress report and a final thesis presentation, as described below:

  • Mid-Semester Progress Report – a 10-15 minute formal presentation using visual aids that describes progress to date and future plans.
  • Final Thesis Presentation – a final formal presentation of the thesis, with visual aids, that is open to the public. Talks are scheduled in half-hour slots, typically during the latter half of the last week of classes. Students will prepare a ~20 minute presentation, leaving time for questions from the audience. Students finishing thesis in the Winter semester also have the option to present at the Mt. David research summit in lieu of presenting at the department seminar.

Finished theses are due on Monday of exam week, at 4 p.m., when one written copy and a pdf version must be turned in to the department chair. Students are encouraged to view past senior theses on display in the department’s seminar room, Carnegie 321, to get a sense of previous finished products, and to consult their advisor about technical writing issues. Each thesis is read by the advisor and a second reader, another faculty member who is assigned by the department. Following final thesis presentations, the department discusses each student’s written document and oral presentations before recommending a thesis grade to the advisor.

Honors Thesis

Students who have a strong academic record and are particularly motivated independent learners may be nominated to participate in the Honors Program. Details of the Honors Program and schedule are available at Honors thesis requires a full year in which students receive credit for both Physics 457 and 458, and involves a substantial integration of skills from a broad array of physics classes. It should focus on a novel topic of interest to a community of physicists that might ultimately provide results appropriate for acceptance in a peer-reviewed journal. As indicated in the college’s honors guidelines online, an honors thesis should be an exceptional thesis. Working with their advisor, students define a research question of interest and develop an appropriate experimental plan or theoretical approach. Students should be conversant with relevant background literature, and must take primary responsibility in moving the project along. In so doing, they may learn how to design apparatus, acquire and analyze data, develop theoretical models or write computer programs, while at the same time becoming more fluent with the language of physics at the advanced undergraduate/early graduate student level. By the end of the project honors students are expected to develop “expert” knowledge, in the sense they can explain all elements of the project including the motivation for doing it, describe its accomplishments in the context of related work in the literature, and note directions in which future work could move. Successful students should be able to engage in a technical discussion of the project with experts such as the advisor and outside examiner, and should also be able to articulate to non-experts the basic findings of the project and their significance.

The written document should be considered the equivalent of an “A” thesis. It should be composed in clear, concise and grammatically correct language that is accessible to non-experts while still conveying sophisticated physics content to experts. Writers should consult advisors regarding technical issues of scientific writing and formatting the thesis. Most writers find scientific word processing software such as LaTex particularly helpful for incorporating equations and graphs into the text. A useful resource for writing a technical scientific document is the American Institute of Physics AIP Style Manual ( Students also gain a sense of effective scientific writing from reading the literature in preparation for the project and discussing it with their advisor.

In addition to the written document, students give an oral presentation open to the public and then submit to an oral examination by the honors panel. Guidelines for the oral examination are spelled out on the honors thesis webpage ( Just prior to the oral examination, students give a 20 minute formal presentation suitable for a general audience, in order to share their accomplishments with department faculty, students and friends. After taking questions from the audience for a short time, everyone leaves the room except for the members of the examination panel, the advisor and the candidate, at which time the oral examination process commences. During the oral examination students should be prepared to discuss the thesis work as well as any relevant background material, displaying their level of mastery of the project and understanding of physics in response to questions from the panel. Ultimately the honors panel evaulates the written thesis and oral exam, and averages these in a suitable way to determine whether honors shall be awarded, as describe in the general honors guidelines.

Honors Nomination Process

Students should discuss the possibility of honors thesis with potential advisers early in the winter semester of the junior year. Usually, honors thesis students have achieved at least a 3.5 GPA at Bates. Students should indicate interest in honors thesis on the one-page thesis description due March 1, and if the department approves, register for Physics 457 for the coming fall semester.

Often, honors thesis students conduct relevant research during the summer prior to the senior year. The nature and extent of this work is to be agreed upon by the student and advisor. Similarly, advisor and student agree upon a schedule and plan for communicating about thesis progress throughout the semester.

Honors thesis students give mid-semester progress reports as described above. They also give a formal presentation during the last week of classes, with visual aids. This presentation is an important stage in the honors process. In it students describe their progress, outline future plans and give a timetable for completion of the thesis. Prior to the beginning of the winter semester, the physics department decides whether to formally nominate the student for honors. These nominations are due at the end of the first week of the winter semester.

At any time prior to the submission of the written thesis, if the thesis advisor thinks that the student is not meeting the expectations of the department for a satisfactory honors thesis, the advisor has the authority to withdraw the student from the honors program.

A student formally nominated for honors may decide to withdraw from the program at any time prior to the thesis submission date or oral examination date.