The Mettle of Honors

With a little more than a month left, most students are already dreading finals and looking longingly to the end of the school year. But many juniors and seniors have more than just their immediate classes and summer plans to consider — they are frantically working to start or wrap up their capstone research projects.

(CRIS BAUTISTA/The Stanford Daily)

It’s honors thesis season.

Although the honors programs vary across departments, all share the common aspect of being one of the most intellectually rigorous experiences that a Stanford undergraduate can undertake.

The path of honors is not for the indecisive. Significant preparation and time must be invested prior to starting the honors process. For most departments, particularly the natural sciences, students must not only clear the necessary GPA and coursework requirements before declaring honors, but have already started on research early.

“Students need to have a 3.0 GPA in the major so that they qualify numerically,” said Jennifer Mason, the undergraduate student services officer for the biology department. “However, they also usually join labs [at the] end of sophomore year or early junior year to work on research projects.”

While most departments are fairly rigid in which courses honors students must take, interdepartmental honors programs are much more flexible. One such program is the honors track at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), which is unique in that it is both interdisciplinary and interdepartmental, so majors ranging from management science and engineering to human biology to public policy are encouraged to apply.

“We look for diversity in our honors program at CISAC,” said Stephen Stedman, a political science professor and a senior fellow at CISAC. “We love majors from engineering, biology, physics, econ. First of all, what the committee looks for is a real commitment to internal security, which we gauge by seeing whether or not the student has taken certain prerequisites in that particular area.”

Planning and pacing is a critical component even in the early stages of the honors process; for many departments, applications are due late winter quarter or early spring quarter.

“You’ll need an advisor, recommendation letters, a synthesis of what topic you’re interested in researching, a resume, all of these materials,” said Shannon Tori Anderson ‘11, who is majoring in political science. Anderson is part of CISAC’s honors program and her proposed honors thesis topic will be an evaluation of America’s airline security policies post-9/11.

Stedman and Mason both said that the number of applications for most honors programs has remained fairly constant within the last five years. However, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that there is no competition in the application process. Some honors programs, such as CISAC and international relations, are competitive in that they have a set quota on how many honors students they will accept each year.

“We typically take about 12 students,” said Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, deputy director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), which is a relatively new concentration track within the IR major. “Although our program is only about four years old, the number of spots for honors is usually full.”

Other honors programs, like that of the biology department, do not cap the number of students accepted into the honors program. The competition instead lies elsewhere, specifically the selection of faculty members that one chooses to work with.

“It takes longer than they want to, to find a lab,” Mason said. “Some students are surprised by how long it can take, and how many e-mails they’ll have to send. A student who wants to do research pretty much can, but the amount of time and effort needed to set it up can be frustrating.”

In other situations, finding and establishing communication with a faculty advisor can be fortuitously effortless.

“I got to know my advisor personally during my work at Sierra Camp,” said Garner Kropp ‘10. “So I was lucky in that I got to know him mostly in a non-academic setting.”

Writing a thesis is intensive and extensive and demands over a year-long commitment. The tangible aspect of 15 months worth of effort is a thesis that can range from 15 pages (for natural science programs) to over 100 pages (for some ambitious humanities and social sciences students). To prepare for that process many departments offer an honors seminar class which juniors pursuing honors can take in winter or spring quarter.

“The juniors honors seminar really helps you get oriented with the thesis process,” said Kropp, who is majoring in economics. His honors thesis will investigate gender trends in a school program implemented in the 90s that helped alleviate poverty in Bangladesh. “The goal of that class is to have a prospectus, so by the end of winter quarter of my junior year, I had an intro, a literature review, a tentative methodology and a pretty good bibliography of sources. That class really set me on the right course.”

Honors students also agree that passion in one’s research topic is critical to making the most of the honors experience.

“You have to be in love with your topic,” said Miriam Marks ‘11, who is majoring in public policy. Her honors thesis topic will be an analysis of the labor market for suicide bombers in Palestine. “Spending a whole year on it can be kind of scary.”

Yet despite the challenge, students like Kropp are feeling the pay-offs.

“Writing my thesis has been one of the most useful things I’ve done here at Stanford,” Kropp said. “Reading other people’s research is helpful but knowing how to write a literature review and learning how to read a lot of material and condensing it is really helpful . . . these skills will be helpful in the long run, whereas you don’t learn as much from doing problem sets.

“It’s definitely worth it,” he added.