IST Honors Thesis Guide

This guide is for students completing a Schreyer Honors College (SHC) thesis in the College of Information Sciences and Technology. Additional requirements and information can be found in the SHC Honors Thesis Overview.

If you have questions, ask your honors adviser or your thesis supervisor. If they do not have the answer, feel free to contact one of the following people:

Additional Resources 

Completing an undergraduate honors thesis is a culminating academic experience for Schreyer Honors College scholars. The SHC Thesis Project Guide states:

  • [T]he purpose of the thesis experience is to develop your intellectual and professional identity in the field and to help you think about your future. Once complete, the purpose of the thesis is to advance knowledge, understanding, or creative value in its field.

As such, the thesis experience is designed to pique your intellectual curiosity, develop research skills, contribute to advancing knowledge, provide an opportunity to work closely with a faculty member, and help you explore the possibility of a graduate degree or other research-focused work.

There are two parts to a thesis project: the first is the project itself, and the second is the written document that describes the project.

The thesis project can take many forms, from laboratory experiments to artistic creations. The thesis document captures the relevant background, methods, and techniques, as well as describing the details of the completion of the individual project.

IST students have completed survey studies, interpretive analyses of multimedia artifacts, statistical analyses of large data sets, design studies, case studies, and more. You can view examples of theses on the Penn State Libraries website.

The thesis document is a written description of the entire thesis project. It typically begins with an introductory section that establishes the importance of the project’s research question. Most thesis papers then present a review of relevant work related to the project, a description of the project and the methods used, a presentation of the results, and a discussion of the findings. Some thesis papers also include a final conclusion section that may outline suggestions for future research. In addition to these main chapters, all theses include title page, signatory page, abstract, table of contents, list of figures, acknowledgements, bibliography, appendix items, and the Scholar’s academic vita.

Although the thesis is an independent project, your work will be guided and approved by two faculty members:

  1. a thesis supervisor
  2. an honors adviser in your area of honors

Learn more about identifying these individuals in the “Proposal, Supervisor & Area of Honors” section of the SHC Thesis Project Guide.

College of IST faculty members expect SHC students to take responsibility for managing their thesis projects. You are in charge of requesting regular meetings with your honors adviser and your thesis supervisor, carrying out the plans that you and your thesis supervisor discuss, setting and meeting deadlines for yourself, and knowing the SHC requirements for your thesis. Thesis supervisors and honors advisers are committed to guiding your work and will do their best to answer your questions.

SHC Thesis Requirements

College of IST scholars must fulfill all SHC honors thesis requirements, including the formatting and submission requirements. In addition, take special note of three deadlines related to thesis completion: the thesis proposal deadline, the mandatory thesis format review submission deadline, and the final thesis submission deadline.

College of IST Thesis Requirement: IST 489H

All College of IST scholars must have formal preparation for doing a thesis. Most often, students fulfill this requirement by taking IST 489H. This course is offered each spring and is intended to introduce students to all the steps of the research process. If a student has worked with the thesis supervisor in a research lab setting, the thesis supervisor may elect to provide one-on-one training for carrying out a study. However, thesis supervisor will often prefer that the student complete the 489H course. IST 489H can also be used to satisfy your ENGL 202 requirement.

The recommended timing for the research methods course is spring of the student’s junior year. Students typically have an idea of their general thesis topic by this time, and this is the last opportunity to provide training before they undertake a study the following year. If you planned to study abroad in spring of the junior year, you should take IST 489H in spring of the sophomore year. Although sophomores may not have a good sense of their thesis topic, they still benefit from walking through the course with a trial topic to learn the research process.

A thesis project unfolds in several phases, most of which begin long before you ever begin writing the thesis paper itself. The bulk of the work takes place over the final three or four semesters.

Phase 1: Notice and Explore Topics

Semesters 1 - 4 (Freshman and Sophomore Year)

The first phase entails noticing and exploring topics of interest. This occurs by paying attention to ideas presented in class, student listserv messages, research articles on the IST and Penn State websites, and announcements about visiting researcher seminars. In many cases, the instructor of a course, a researcher who gives a thought-provoking seminar, or an honors adviser can help direct you to resources on topics of interest.

Phase 2: Narrow Topic and Identify Thesis Supervisor

Semester 5 (Fall, Junior Year)

The second phase includes narrowing your potential thesis topic and identifying a thesis supervisor. You should communicate frequently with your assigned honors adviser to zero in on a topic based on your interests and choose a faculty member to supervise your thesis. Once a faculty member has agreed to be your supervisor, the two of you will continue to narrow your topic and formulate a research question for your study. Consult the “Beginning your Research Project” section below for suggestions on selecting a thesis topic.

Phase 3: Prepare to Undertake your Study

Semester 6 (Spring, Junior Year) & Summer between Junior/Senior Years

The third phase is a busy planning phase. You need to learn about what is required to carry out a study (this will be covered in the IST 498H research methods course), complete any required certifications for working with human participants, formulate your exact research question, read and review scientific literature to show that you have a good understanding of your topic, and design your research project. This is a semester to work closely with your honors adviser and/or thesis supervisor to complete the following: 

  • Take IST 489H, which is required for all College of IST honors students unless your thesis supervisor suggests doing one-on-one training with him or her.
  • Continue to meet with your thesis supervisor. Focus on determining a research topic area, beginning a literature review, identifying a specific research question, and a developing a rough research plan. This can occur while taking IST 489H.
  • Consult the “Beginning your Research Project” section below for a step-by-step guide to prepare you for conducting a literature review.
  • Consult the Libraries research guide for IST students for resources to conduct your research.
  • Complete Institutional Review Board (IRB) training and certification if your proposed study requires IRB approval.
  • Investigate research grants and scholarships to support thesis expenses or conference presentations.
  • Choose the area of honors in which you will do your thesis.
  • Determine the two faculty members who will read your thesis.
  • Submit your thesis proposal through the SHC Student Records Systems by the appropriate deadline.
  • Prepare readings and organize notes for your literature review.

Phase 4: Undertake your Study and Write your Thesis Paper

Semesters 7-8 (Fall and Spring, Senior Year)

The fourth phase includes carrying out your study and writing your thesis paper. Studies take a variety of forms, which will largely be determined by your exact research question and the methods you choose to complete your study. Your thesis supervisor will be your primary guide as you conduct your research and determine the different chapters to be written:

  • For each of the fall and spring semesters, register for three credits of the research project course (CYBER/DS/HCDD/IST/SRA 494) with your thesis supervisor. Credits are earned for weekly meetings with your thesis supervisor, writing the literature review, and gathering data. A maximum of six credits are allowed for the thesis.
  • Complete your study in the fall semester—or by early spring semester at the latest.
  • Begin writing and assembling chapters of your thesis using the SHC Word template in the fall and finish writing it in the spring.
  • Schedule three due dates to keep your thesis on track:
  • The date by which your thesis supervisor wants to receive your thesis so it can be read and reviewed by the two faculty members approving your thesis. This should be in advance of the SHC deadline. You are expected to provide at least one week for faculty to read your thesis, and to provide an additional week for you to make corrections.
  • The date for mandatory Thesis Format Review.
  • The date for final thesis submission. There are no exceptions to this date!
  • Submit your thesis for mandatory Thesis Format Review through SHC Student Records System.
  • Submit your thesis through the SHC Student Records System.

Begin early in the third year to identify a research topic and develop a relationship with your thesis adviser. Set aside a few hours each week to develop an awareness and understanding for your topic of interest. Work with your thesis supervisor to develop a plan specific to your research.

Defining a Research Question

The process of identifying a research question begins by identifying your topic of interest.  Next, you should gather literature from a variety of sources to identify current problems, common understandings in the field, and findings related to that topic. This information forms the foundation for you to further contribute to the topic in the form of a specific research question.

The process of articulating the research question is iterative and recursive, which means that at any point you may refine your research topic based on new literature findings and begin the process again. The process is repeated until a research question is identified representing a very narrow point of investigation within the much broader area of the research topic. The literature review becomes the critical bridge between your research topic and question.

Choosing a Topic

Begin by looking at whatever lists of topics you have kept in the previous year or by thinking about areas of study in which you have a strong and sustained interest. Choose one of the topics as a starting place for investigation. Take time to read two or three articles about this topic. Follow particular strands of interest by reading articles referenced in the two or three articles. If you find that your interest wanes, move to another topic on your list and restart the process. Once you land on something that seems viable, undertake a literature review to dig deeper.

Starting a Literature Review

To start a literature review, complete the following steps:

  1. Designate regular time each week to review the literature related to a research topic of interest.
  2. Determine the best sources from which to retrieve articles. It is important to use more scholarly search engines like Google ScholarCiteSeerx, and Penn State’s LionSearch.
  3. Investigate resources to make the job easier.

To get started, review Bryman & Bell’s online Research Project Guide, particularly sections A.3 Preliminary Literature Review and C.5 Literature, Research Skills, and Key Words. When conducting the review of the literature, document key words and publications that provide useful and consistent results.  Consider the bibliography in scholarly papers to be another source of ideas, and remember that full, online text copies of these publications can often be found using LionSearch.

Use technology like Diigo and Mendeley to help keep track of literature, save interesting links for later review, and manage citations and bibliography information. The Penn State Libraries provide excellent guides for using these citation managers.

It is important to give credit to the sources you use in the research paper. Discuss the citation style you will be using, such as APA, with your thesis adviser. The Purdue OWL and KnightCite offer guidance on working with these styles.

Scholarly writing is a unique style of writing that is both formal and without bias. Evidence is logically presented to convince the reader to agree with the presented argument. Review this writing guide example for tips on how to caption and cross-reference figures, as well as common pitfalls to avoid.

The electronic databases below are available through Penn State Libraries and can be very helpful in your thesis project.

Finding Scholarly Articles and Technical Information

  • LionSearch - Online catalog to find specific journals, magazines, and books in print and electronically.
  • ACM Digital Library – Full text of every publication of the Association of Computing Machinery.
  • IEEE Xplore and Compendex / Inspec - Comprehensive technical and scholarly coverage of topics in computer science, information technology, electronics, engineering, and related fields.
  • Web of Science – Citation indexing with particular strength in science and technology.

Finding News and Data

Other Useful Resources

  • The Pew Internet & American Life Project - Reports that include demographic data about users of the internet, technology, and special topics such as social networking websites.
  • Safari Computer Books Online - Electronic access to current computer manuals from a variety of publishers.
  • Interlibrary Loan - If Penn State doesn’t have the research material you need, request it using this service.
  • KnightCite citation generator - Web-based citation generating tool that includes the three main citation styles: MLA, APA, and Chicago.

Time Commitment

How long does it take to complete a thesis?

  • From first conception (often in the required research methods course, IST 489H) to final submission, most students take 3 semesters to complete a thesis. Typically, the actual study (collecting survey data, or designing a product and testing it, etc.) occurs in the fall of senior year. Typically, the analysis of the study and the writing of the thesis paper occur in the spring of senior year.

Scope of the Thesis

How long is a thesis?

  • A thesis is as long as it needs to be to answer the research question that the student seeks to answer. Your thesis needs to establish the importance of your question, explain relevant work that has been done related to your question, describe the study that you designed, present the results, and explain your findings. In general, 20 pages would not be enough room to accomplish all of this. Is 40 pages enough? Do you need 100 pages? You cannot answer that question until you have defined your question and planned your study (and, in some cases, looked at your results). The length should not be a goal; nor should it be a deterrent. Seniors who have completed a thesis will tell you that once you’ve completed the study, the thesis writes itself.

Where can I find examples of theses from IST students?

  • All available SHC electronic honors theses are catalogued in the Penn State library and can be accessed at the honors library site.

Thesis Preparation

In addition to a research methods course, what would prepare me for undertaking a thesis?

  • Working in a faculty member’s research lab with other undergraduate and graduate students or working individually on a faculty member’s research project are excellent preparatory experiences for undertaking an honors thesis.

Area of Honors

What is an “area of honors” and how does it impact my thesis?

  • Areas of honors correspond to the majors offered to undergraduate students at Penn State. Students must designate an area of honors when they submit their thesis proposal. This signals to Schreyer Honors College which honors advisers are appropriate representatives of a disciplinary area to read and approve the thesis as an appropriate study for the area of honors that is designated.

May I choose an “area of honors” outside my major?

  • In principle, students who begin in SHC as incoming freshman at Penn State may choose an area of honors outside the major. However, even if you were admitted to SHC as an incoming freshman student, you must check with the Department or College offering the area of honors to be sure that they will allow you to complete your thesis in their area—and, if so, whether there are additional requirements that you need to complete. Gateway students are approved for an honors thesis only within the College that recommended they be admitted to SHC. For a more detailed response, including different scenarios, see the “Proposal, Supervisor and Area of Honors” section of the SHC Thesis Project Guide

Thesis Readers

Can I add a third reader to my thesis?

  • Yes, you can add a third person to read your thesis. (Most students do not add a third person.) In cases where a student works in a research lab with a faculty member who is not an honors adviser and who is not the thesis supervisor, but who has helped as much as the thesis supervisor and the student wants to recognize the contributions of the additional faculty member, it is possible for the student to list a third person on the thesis signature page. Note that if a third person signs on the signature page, that person’s name must also be included on the title page. If you are considering this option, contact the Coordinator of Student Records at SHC (Ms. Debra Rodgers, for directions.

How do I go about designating faculty members to be a supervisor, an honors adviser, or a third reader on my thesis?

  • As is the case any time that you want to use someone’s name to assist you (with letters of references, character reviews, independent studies, etc.), always ask faculty members before using their names—and wait for their response before adding their names to any forms. You cannot assume that a faculty member will have time to supervise your thesis, so never add a faculty member’s name to a thesis proposal or other thesis-related form without asking the faculty member, first, whether she or he would be willing to serve in the capacity that you desire. Once you have confirmation that the faculty member agrees to work with you, you may add the person’s name on appropriate online forms—typically by choosing a name from a dropdown menu. If you find that the people you wish to designate do not appear on SHC forms, contact the Coordinator of Student Records at SHC (Ms. Debra Rodgers, for assistance.

Thesis Proposal

When do I have to submit a thesis proposal to SHC?

  • A proposal must be submitted by the SHC deadline at the end of the semester that occurs one year prior to intended graduation (e.g., spring semester of the junior year, if the student is planning on graduating in spring of the senior year). See SHC Important Dates page for specific dates.

Whose names do I need to list on my thesis proposal?

  • Two faculty members must be listed on the online thesis proposal form: a thesis supervisor and an honors adviser. In cases where the thesis supervisor is the student’s honors adviser, another eligible faculty member from the chosen area of honors may be chosen. See the SHC Thesis Project Guide for more details.


Is there funding at Penn State for any of the following: materials and equipment, presenting my thesis at a professional conference, collecting data in other cities or countries, remaining in State College for a summer to work on my thesis?

Where else, outside of Penn State, might I look for funding?

Submitting a Thesis

Who must sign the thesis?

  • Two faculty members must sign the thesis: a thesis supervisor and an honors adviser. In cases where the thesis supervisor is the student’s honors adviser, another eligible faculty member from the chosen area of honors may be chosen. See the SHC Thesis Project Guide for more details.

By when do I need to give the completed thesis to those who will be signing it?

  • You need to determine a date with your thesis supervisor. Typically this will be 2 weeks prior to the SHC deadlines, so that a) the faculty who will be reading your thesis will have a week to comment and b) you will have a week to implement their requested changes.

What are the SHC thesis deadlines?

  • You need to submit a completed thesis by the SHC deadline that is set for the semester in which you intend to graduate. Note that there are actually several deadlines, which are listed by semester at SHC>Current Students>Important Dates.

Where do I find the requirements for formatting and submitting my thesis?

  • For information on formatting and submitting a thesis, see formatting and submission guides on the SHC website.

Where do I actually submit my thesis?

Guidelines for Topic Choice, Writing Schedule, Citing and Referencing

Where can I find tips and lessons learned for things like choosing a topic, creating a schedule for writing, and citing appropriately?

  • SHC offers a Thesis Project Guide that is full of reminders and tips that come from lessons learned from many thesis projects.

Combining an Undergraduate Thesis and a Graduate Thesis (for IUG)

If I want to pursue an Integrated Undergraduate Graduate (IUG) degree, does that change my thesis requirement?

  • When pursuing an IUG, a student is required to produce a master’s quality thesis. The master’s thesis will also count as the undergraduate honors thesis. For those students who would like to complete two studies, they may submit two separate theses but at least one must be master’s quality.

What is a common schedule for completing a master’s level thesis for students pursuing an Integrated Undergraduate Graduate (IUG) degree?

  • There is no common schedule, because each master’s thesis project will differ in its requirements, depending on the research question and the actual study that is designed. Many master’s thesis projects require students to spend a summer doing research—often in State College or wherever data is collected. The timeline for completing a master’s thesis is generally longer than that required for an undergraduate honors thesis. Still, most IUG students finish their undergraduate and graduate work in 5 years or 5 years plus one additional summer. (Note: In order to keep within a 5-year time frame, students should have advanced standing from multiple AP or other credits, such that they would otherwise be able to graduate a semester or more early; they should expect to take summer courses; and they should expect to spend at least a summer doing research.)