Senior Theses



Why write a senior thesis?

This is the culmination of your undergraduate history education. You’ll draw on all the skills of research, analysis, and argumentation that you’ve acquired as a history major. It’s a chance for you to dig deeply into one area of history and to emerge as an expert on that topic. The finished product will be a more thorough and polished piece of writing than is possible in just one semester, and it will hopefully be an accomplishment on which you will look back proudly for years to come.


What is the senior research seminar in history?

This is the class that will lead you step by step through the process of brainstorming a topic, familiarizing yourself with the relevant historical debates, collecting your sources, organizing your argument, and writing and revising your thesis.

In addition to your thesis advisor, you’ll also be assigned a peer editor, with whom you will exchange drafts over the course of the year. Some meetings will be run as workshops, where you’ll discuss your progress and receive input from the group as a whole; in other meetings you’ll meet individually or in pairs with your professor. You’ll get plenty of detailed feedback at every step.

The various sections of the senior thesis seminar all follow the same syllabus with set due dates and assignments. Individual advisers may sometimes tweak the schedule according to the needs of the students in their group.


Do I need to sign up for the thesis seminar? Do I need to pick a thesis advisor?

You should preregister for the thesis seminar, BC3391/3392, when you register for your senior fall classes. However, you do not need to pick a thesis advisor. At the beginning of the fall semester, there is an informational meeting for all thesis writers where you’ll be asked to fill out a brief questionnaire in which you identify your broad topic.  Based on that questionnaire, you’ll be assigned to a group of six or seven students with related interests and taught by an appropriate member of the history faculty--your advisor.

All sections of the senior thesis meet during the same time slot, Wednesdays 4:10-6:00, both spring and fall semester (though you will not necessarily meet every week as a group, since some weeks are devoted to independent research or writing or to individual consultations with your advisor). You should keep this time slot available in your senior year schedule.


What makes for a good senior thesis topic?

A good topic is like a narrow pinhole through which a much wider picture comes into focus. It must be limited enough to allow you to master it in a matter of months, yet significant enough to illuminate larger historical trends. It must also lend itself to original research, meaning that you’ll need to find a rich collection of primary sources to work with. These might be located in a library or archive in the New York area, online, or anywhere you can travel easily. Or you might choose to apply for a grant to travel to do research in the summer before your senior year.


How and when do I choose a topic?

You won’t be required to submit a preliminary topic until the fourth week of the fall semester, but the sooner you start choosing one the better. Maybe you’ve written a term paper on a topic that you’d like to develop further? Maybe you’re concerned about a current event and would like to investigate its history? Maybe you have a family connection to a certain place and time that intrigues you? Here are some tips for finding a topic:

  1. Talk to your professors. Go to office hours, tell them about your interests, and ask them to point you toward promising questions and sources.
  2. Read footnotes. Often you’ll find that historians mention juicy sources and unanswered questions in their footnotes.
  3. Browse the Barnard library’s guide to primary source collections in history to get a sense of what’s out there.

Note that if you can generate a general topic and relevant sources during the spring of your junior year, you can apply for research grants for the summer before your senior year.


What should I expect of the research and writing process?

It may be grueling at times, but it will be exhilarating at others. The best way to avoid panic at the end is to set aside a significant chunk of time each week to work on the thesis. The senior seminar is designed to break the process down into manageable steps, so you should never feel overwhelmed.


Are there any opportunities to do research outside New York?

Yes! There are both college-wide and departmental funding sources for research trips, typically taken in the summer before the senior year.  Identifying a topic early on will permit you to apply to these fellowships (typically, applications are done in the spring of the junior year).