College honors programs typically culminate in a significant academic project in addition to the student’s coursework for his or her major. The Evidence & Inquiry Capstone thesis satisfies this tradition in the spirit of the Polymathic Scholars program, which encourages students to forge connections across traditional disciplinary boundaries as they develop their academic interests. Capstone projects may also open opportunities for acknowledgement through awards or publication, and they add depth to applications to graduate schools, professional schools, or jobs after graduation. Most importantly, however, graduates often tell us that the Capstone thesis is the most rewarding accomplishment of their undergraduate career.
The Capstone project satisfies the College of Natural Sciences’ honors program thesis requirement for Polymathic Scholars.
Students pursuing the Evidence & Inquiry certificate usually develop their unique fields of study in the fall of their second year at UT. In their third year, they take a series of one-hour workshops designed to help them start planning for their theses, including brainstorming possible topics and finding faculty mentors. At the same time, they are taking field courses that facilitate exploration of their fields of study. Students who plan to conduct primary research should initiate this process in the third year as well. Ideally, students complete field courses before beginning their final year in the program so that they may draw upon a broad range of work as they narrow their thesis topics.
Students formally embark upon the thesis process in the fall of their final year, when they enroll in NSC 323, Topic 1: PS Capstone Thesis Preparation Seminar. This seminar supports the research process. Working with one or more faculty mentors as well as peers during class meetings, students consider appropriate thesis topics, write a short thesis proposal, and develop an initial plan for drafting the thesis. NSC 323 typically meets one hour per week, allowing extra time for independent reading and research.
Polymaths do the bulk of their writing and complete the thesis during the spring of their final year in the program, when they enroll in NSC 371: Capstone Thesis Seminar. This seminar structures the writing process, supports the development of a public thesis presentation, and offers students opportunities to receive feedback on their work-in-progress. The course syllabus includes a series of deadlines for incremental assignments and drafts of the thesis. NSC 371 typically meets two hours per week, allowing extra time for independent research and writing.
|Fall 4th Year (NSC 323)
|Spring 4th Year (NSC 371)
|Field courses & workshops
|Finalize thesis mentor
|Talk with mentors
|Draft and revise thesis
|Give thesis presentation
|Begin primary research if applicable
|Proposal & outline
Your Evidence & Inquiry Capstone thesis must be connected to your E&I field of study, and should emerge out of expertise you develop in your field through courses and research. Although topics vary widely, every thesis is expected to pose a question (or a set of interrelated questions) and present evidence appropriate to the disciplines involved to develop an argumentative answer to that question.
Developing a topic takes time. To explore possible thesis topics within your field of study, we encourage you to talk with professors, classmates, mentors, and advisors and to read independently and extensively.
As you consider topics, think not only about questions you want to investigate and things you are curious about, but also about goals you may have for your Capstone work. Most students develop topics that may be readily explored through secondary research. Theses based on secondary research may involve the systematic review and synthesis, analysis, and interpretation of existing sources of evidence, such as peer-reviewed journal articles, data sets, government reports, and scholarly books. Though students pursing secondary research may not collect original data, they do present original arguments based on their own analysis and new ways of looking at existing data. Your own conclusions, based on research and evidence, are central to the secondary research thesis.
Some students may wish to collect original data and base their thesis on primary research. This research often involves designing a study and collecting data through surveys, interviews, lab work, or research in the field or in an archive. As is the case for secondary research, the student’s faculty mentor(s) should be involved in choices about how to approach the project. Primary research is usually begun no later than the student’s third year.
Polymaths are also encouraged to consider primary research projects based on analysis of archival records such as those housed in UT’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the Briscoe Center for American History, the LBJ Library, the Benson Latin American Collection, or even a national repository such as the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Archival materials take many forms, from historical photographs and clothing to personal letters and government records. Though archival research is typically complex and time-consuming, it offers rich opportunities for truly original work. At UT, archivists are often excited to help students brainstorm how their holdings may be used in new and unique ways.
Thus, as you consider possible thesis topics, also think about the methods with which you hope to gain experience through your Capstone work, whether it is based on primary research, archival research, or secondary research.
Students typically seek guidance from one or more faculty mentors as they develop and refine a thesis topic. Though you are encouraged to talk with multiple faculty members about your ideas, you will choose one primary mentor who is willing to formally supervise your thesis process.
Your primary thesis mentor should be a UT-Austin faculty member with expertise in at least one significant area related to your field of study. Mentors may be faculty members of any rank, typically either a professor or a lecturer. Graduate students are not eligible to serve as primary thesis mentors, but may provide secondary mentorship with the consent of the primary mentor.
Briefly, the role of a faculty mentor is to guide your research, critique your ideas and drafts, and participate in evaluating your final thesis. You are expected to meet with your mentor regularly; meeting at least once per month in the fall and at least every other week in the spring of your thesis year is recommended. Make sure that you and your mentor share clear expectations regarding topic, disciplinary conventions, and meeting times. Some faculty mentors may require students to demonstrate evidence of progress beyond the deadlines outlined in the NSC 323 and 371 syllabi.
THE CAPSTONE THESIS
The Capstone thesis is a substantial scholarly work that represents the pinnacle of your academic achievement at the undergraduate level. As noted above, each thesis is unique, and develops out of each student’s individual field of study. However, the guidelines below apply generally to all Capstone theses. If you have concerns about whether your project will meet the expectations outlined below, consult with the NSC 371 instructor before beginning your work.
Different disciplines have different standards. Consider standards of evidence, for example; numeric data and inferential statistical analyses back up many sociology professors’ arguments about the nature of poverty in America. However, archived photographs of the poor—combined with subjective interpretations of their meaning—constitute evidence for many American studies professors. Different disciplines also have different conventions for appropriate methodologies, writing style, citation, formatting, structure, and argumentation. You will work with your faculty mentor(s) to determine the appropriate standards specific to investigating and writing about your topic.
The thesis must be a persuasive, evidence-based paper that answers a genuine research question (or set of interrelated questions) related to your field of study. Research questions should address complex problems that cannot be resolved by a simple, binary response or accepted facts. Your research question should position you to offer an answer that adds something unique to scholarly conversations on your topic. Though you will certainly include brief summaries of some of the most influential work that has already been published in your field, your analysis will reveal new ways of understanding this work. The answer to your question(s) should take the form of an argument—an original claim with supporting reasoning and evidence, communication of research findings, acknowledgement of alternative viewpoints, and a cogent conclusion.
Your thesis should reflect conventions typical of the main discipline(s) in which your topic is situated. You and your faculty mentor should agree on what methods you will employ and how to communicate them accurately and effectively. For instance, if you are synthesizing a large, complex body of literature on a topic, you need to develop and implement clear decision rules for when to include or exclude sources to answer your research question(s). These decisions must be made apparent to your readers so that they know how you arrived at your answer.
Write this paper for well-educated, intelligent people who are not necessarily experts in your particular topic area. Your immediate audience will be your peers in Polymathic Scholars and your mentors and instructors for the thesis. Therefore, if you need to use technical terminology in your work, strive to define this discipline-specific jargon. You should include enough background in your introductory material to ground a non-specialist in the field and help this reader understand the significance of your argument.
Students who hope to publish their work in a discipline-specific journal will revise their paper for a more specialized audience after submitting the thesis. Because the purpose and conventions of a Polymathic Scholars thesis differ from those of a published article, substantial revision prior to publication is typical.
Please keep in mind that E&I theses cannot be kept confidential. In addition to sharing your work with fellow students, you are expected to attempt to publish your thesis by submitting it (or a revised version of it) to an approved peer-reviewed publication. Thus, you should write about topics and ideas you are willing to share with others.
Although the program furnishes general thesis guidelines, Polymaths and their faculty mentors ultimately agree on the scope, format, and style of a thesis that reflects the conventions of their discipline(s) and publication outlets. We encourage all Polymaths to join the scholarly conversation on their topic by submitting their work for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Students who pursue publication research appropriate journals, work with editors, and end up adapting and improving their work in the process. Here are examples of recent Polymathic Scholars' theses:
- Clarice Guan: “Relative Roles of Native Herbs and Foreign Spices in 13th-17th Century European Medicine”
- R. Michael Reul, Jr.: “Memory Modifications and Ethical Implications”
- Jennifer Den: "Bioenergy for Electricity Generation"
- Evan Alvarez-Keesee: "Focusing on Now: Mindfulness in the 21st Century"