Polymathic Scholars (PS) is a multidisciplinary honors program for undergraduates in the College of Natural Sciences. Students who fulfill all the requirements of the program, including the capstone thesis project, will also earn an Evidence & Inquiry certificate.
In their second year at UT, PS students develop their Polymathic “field of study,” the broad area of study at the intersection of two or more disciplines that they wish to explore through coursework during their sophomore and junior years in the program. Polymaths take a minimum of four faculty-approved courses in their self-designed field. This coursework prepares them to define and explore a related but narrower topic through their capstone thesis.
During their final year in the program, students write their capstone thesis. The thesis is a persuasive, well-reasoned, evidence-based paper that answers a question (or interrelated set of questions) aligned with the student’s field of study. Students engage in and contribute to scholarly conversations on their thesis topics as well as reporting on their own findings. Some students will revise their theses for publication, either in an undergraduate research journal or in a discipline-specific journal related to the field (with their faculty supervisor’s support).
The PS program encourages students to seek multiple mentors for their capstone projects, but requires students to secure the support of at least two UT faculty members (or, for a second reader, another appropriate and approved mentor with relevant expertise) to supervise their thesis work. Students are responsible for maintaining contact with their faculty mentors, setting up meetings, and asking for discipline-specific guidance. Faculty mentors are responsible for offering guidance on conceptual development and feedback on the written draft. They are also responsible for submitting a grade recommendation for the thesis at the end of the spring term. For additional detail, see below.
PS students must meet programmatic expectations for the thesis in order to complete the PS program and the E&I certificate. The typical Polymath thesis is about 30–40 pages (or 60 for students double majoring with Plan II), double-spaced, plus references and any graphics or appendices the student may choose to include. It should be written for a well-educated but non-specialist audience.
The PS thesis is inspired by a student’s experiences, observations, discussions, and readings in their field courses, which help the student to identify and refine a research question or related set of questions for the thesis project. PS thesis projects may involve original data collection, or they may present original analysis of existing data or scholarly literature. For example, students have performed content analyses, systematic literature reviews, policy reviews, and developed proposals for future research as part of satisfactory PS theses. We encourage students to talk with faculty mentors about appropriate and feasible methodological approaches early in the student’s thesis year, if not before.
Students who want to conduct human subjects research will need IRB approval, and should start the IRB process no later than the summer before their thesis year.
In addition to their four field courses, PS students take the program’s thesis seminar sequence, NSC 323 in the fall and NSC 371 in the spring of their final year in the program. Broadly, these seminars offer scaffolding, support, and accountability for the student, and we hope that they reduce the burden of supervision on the student’s faculty mentors. The seminars typically meet once per week.
In the fall semester seminar (NSC 323), the seminar instructor, Dr. Rebecca Wilcox, leads students through the process of refining their topic in response to existing research; exploring library research databases relevant to their area of interest; reading at least one sample thesis; developing a log of at least 20 academic sources for the thesis (though students will need to continue to read additional sources well into the spring semester); writing a detailed annotated bibliography to help prepare them for the kind of writing and analysis we expect of the thesis itself; beginning an outline for the thesis project; evaluating their own writing and the writing of peers; and drafting the first few pages of their thesis. Students work in pairs and small groups regularly to brainstorm and share feedback. In addition, students meet one-on-one with their instructor and a graduate teaching assistant at least once per semester.
In the spring thesis seminar, students are required to submit incremental rough drafts of the thesis about every two weeks, adding at least five pages to their draft with each submission. Each draft receives feedback from either an instructor/graduate TA or a CNS Honors classmate. Students also refine and expand their outline; write and revise an abstract; workshop use of sources and citations; reflect on feedback they receive from instructors and peers; and peer review visual aids and practice for their thesis presentations (which occur in April and are graded as part of the course). As in the fall, students meet one-on-one with their instructor and a graduate TA at least once.
Thus, the PS thesis seminars provide structure and support for the student’s development of their thesis, allowing faculty supervisors to focus on methodological and discipline-specific considerations in the student’s research and drafting. Please keep in mind that the thesis seminar serves students in a wide range of disciplines studying an even wider range of self-designed topics; our emphasis is on broadly-applicable process development for literature research and writing.
The student must secure the support of at least two UT faculty members to serve as mentors for the thesis project: either a primary supervisor and a second reader, or co-supervisors. Co-supervisors may be particularly appropriate if the student’s mentors need to share time commitments or offer complementary disciplinary expertise, or if the student identifies a strong mentor with expertise in the field who is not a faculty member in an academic department at UT. In general, supervisors and second readers will be affiliated with UT Austin; exceptions may be granted on a case-by-case basis. An advanced doctoral student with expertise in a relevant area may be approved to serve as second reader with the permission of the primary supervisor.
Students seek out faculty in departments and research units related to their fields of study in order to identify mentors who bring different perspectives to their topics. Mentors help guide the student’s research and they help brainstorm directions, approaches, and methodologies. They are not responsible for defining the student’s thesis topic for the student. Our honors students are responsible for identifying and setting up meetings with relevant faculty members; the thesis seminar instructor is happy to support the student through brainstorming if necessary.
Students should identify a primary thesis supervisor no later than the beginning of the fall semester of the thesis year. The student should identify a second reader or co-supervisor before the fall (Thanksgiving) break of the senior year. Students will ask their faculty mentors to sign their thesis registration forms, assuring the NSC 323 instructor that they have faculty support for their projects.
The student should meet with the primary supervisor(s) occasionally to discuss readings, possible thesis topics, methods, data collection (if applicable), structure, and written content appropriate to the disciplines in which the student’s project is grounded. At minimum, the thesis supervisor should be willing to meet (or communicate) with the student at least once per month during the fall of the thesis year and at least every two to three weeks during the spring of the thesis year. In addition, the thesis supervisor should be willing to complete a very brief progress report, comment on at least one rough draft of the thesis in the spring, and provide a grade for the final thesis at the end of the spring term. Loose grading guidelines are offered below.
The responsibilities of the second reader are similar to that of the primary supervisor, but somewhat reduced in scope. We suggest that a second reader be willing to meet with the student at least twice in the fall semester for brainstorming and/or to review the student’s reading list, and to meet at least twice again in the spring to discuss the thesis itself. Second readers should plan to offer the student feedback on at least one rough draft of the thesis in mid- to late spring. Starting in the 2022-23 academic year, we ask that second readers participate in evaluating their student’s thesis, either independently or in coordination with the primary supervisor, by submitting a recommended grade at the end of the spring term.
Thesis Submission and Evaluation
For Polymathic Scholars, the student’s final thesis has traditionally been due on the Tuesday after the last class day in the spring semester. Given recent changes to the academic calendar, the thesis seminar instructor will be sure to communicate with supervisors about our deadline in the spring semester. If you will need your student to submit their final thesis to you before the CNS Honors deadline very soon after the last class day, please make sure to communicate this to your student as soon as possible.
Thesis grades are integrated into the course grade for NSC 371; thus, the thesis seminar instructor is responsible for submitting student’s grades to the Registrar. The student’s faculty mentors will be prompted to submit their thesis grade recommendations to the seminar instructor via a secure Qualtrics form.
The following guidelines are intended to support the evaluation of undergraduate student theses across multiple disciplines; please use your own best judgement in evaluating how your student has met these expectations within the context of your shared discipline.
- A grade of A (exemplary) on the final thesis should demonstrate thorough research through a familiarity with authoritative sources and methods of the discipline, a well-reasoned analysis of the research methods and sources used, direct application of the research to the argument being made, a cogent conclusion based on the research, and superior written presentation of the thesis argument.
- A grade of B (better than required) should demonstrate all of the above, but may use fewer or less appropriate research sources and methods, and sufficient (rather than superior) written presentation.
- A grade of C (as required but no better) will indicate a basic grasp of the data and appropriate sources, limited application of the research towards the argument being made, and merely acceptable written style.
- A grade of D (barely passable) indicates minimally acceptable research findings in addition to poor analysis and writing standards.
- A grade of F is appropriate where the thesis represents a crudely thrown-together last-minute effort or even evidence of unoriginal work.
If you have questions about the evaluation of your student’s work or if you suspect academic dishonesty, please contact Rebecca Wilcox, the thesis seminar instructor.
Common Student Challenges and Suggested Responses
Many faculty members have worked with undergraduate researchers before and have developed a repertoire of responses to common student challenges. However, faculty members who are new to undergraduate thesis supervision may find some of the suggestions below helpful in understanding and responding to students facing common challenges or pitfalls as they develop their thesis projects.
Lack of experience in the field
- Ask the student about their coursework and reading to determine relative level of knowledge and experience.
- Point the student to key publications or researchers in the field.
- Gently challenge assumptions and misconceptions. Point them to more nuanced or up-to-date perspectives in the literature.
- Help the student identify a paper providing a positive example of the methodological approach.
- Remind the student that subject librarians can help identify and navigate relevant databases.
- Remind the student that the thesis is the most significant academic project they have undertaken, and everyone struggles with their first big research project.
- Remind the student that there's no such thing as a perfect thesis.
- Suggest that the student list and prioritize their commitments, and consider letting one go.
- Remind the student that they are not expected to produce publishable work (in scope or quality).
- Remind the student that we were all beginners once.
- Remind the student that they are doing the best they can under the circumstances they are in now; they can’t control external factors.
Lack of communication
- Remind the student that you want to help them meet their goals.
- Ask the student if they are embarrassed about their writing and remind them that rough drafts are meant to be rough. Focus on ideas over expression.
- Schedule biweekly meetings, and set expectations and agendas in advance to promote accountability.
- Ask the student to send you weekly updates on their progress.
- Consider contacting Rebecca Wilcox to nudge the student.
- Suggest that the student list and prioritize their commitments.
- Ask the student about their goals and values. What is most important?
- Suggest that a counselor may be able to help them evaluate priorities.
Mental health concerns
- Ask the student if they have spoken to a counselor or therapist about managing anxiety, stress, conflicting priorities, or personal hardships.
- Contact BCCAL at 512-232-5050 or https://safety.utexas.edu/behavior-concerns-advice-line.
If you are not confident that you are able to continue working with the student for any reason, please contact the thesis seminar instructor at email@example.com as soon as possible. Perhaps she can mediate between you and the student; if not, she will try to support the student in finding another faculty mentor.
PS PROGRAM CONTACTS
Questions about thesis supervisor eligibility may be directed to Dr. Sara Corson, Director of CNS Honors. Questions about the thesis seminar and thesis evaluation may be directed to Dr. Rebecca Wilcox, the thesis seminar instructor. Students with questions about updating their field of study or other academic considerations should contact their academic advisor and PS Program Coordinator, Cortni Williams.