Honors Thesis

The honors thesis is an opportunity for students in the computer science departmental honors program to engage in an academic research project under faculty supervision. The research project should be primarily driven by the student’s interest. The thesis itself is a scholarly paper that describes the research project and documents its results. The following is a list of procedures and suggestions for starting and completing an honors thesis. An FAQ follows.

You can also look at the theses completed by previous graduates for an idea of the different types of honors theses possible.


Completed Honors Theses

Procedures and Guidelines

  1. Think about possible topics. Think about the classes you have taken. Were there questions still lingering in your head about some topic? What aspect of computer science do you enjoy? theory? systems? hardware? These are all good questions to ask while you are thinking about a research topic. If you have done independent study or if you are already working in a professor’s lab, those are excellent starting points.
  2. Find a faculty advisor.You need a faculty advisor to supervise your research project. The selection will mostly be based on research areas — your favorite theory professor might not be the best person to supervise a systems project. It is OK to shop around and find someone you will work well with. Your thesis advisor should be a full-time faculty member in the CSEE department — exceptions to this will be handled on a case by case basis.
  3. Submit a written research proposal. You and your faculty advisor should discuss and agree upon the scope and extent of your research project. You should negotiate what you can reasonably accomplish within a limited time-frame and set milestones for your research project. By mutual agreement, the project can extend beyond a semester (winter and summer break are good for projects that include a lot of programming). Write up your agreement in a research proposal. Be sure to include a description of the project, major milestones ands that you hope to achieve. The proposal, signed by you and your faculty advisor, must be submitted to the departmental honors program director for approval.In general your research project must include some level of original contribution. Of course, the original content need not be at the level of a PhD thesis, but at the other extreme, merely doing a literature survey is not sufficient. It is not possible to give explicit guidelines for how much originality is enough, since it will vary by area and topic. This is why you need to include a description of expected results in your research proposal. Research Proposal Forms: MS WordPDF.
  4. Register for CMSC 495. You must register for CMSC 495 the semester during which you will submit your thesis. Each faculty advisor has a separate section number for CMSC 495, so make sure that you sign up for the correct section. You must take CMSC 495 for a grade (i.e., you cannot register for the course for a Pass/Fail grade).
  5. Submit a written thesis proposal. As you are thinking about your research topic, you should also think about what parts you will write up in your honors thesis. Discuss this with your faculty advisor. Negotiate and agree on the scope and extent of your thesis. Write up your agreement in a thesis proposal. (This can be done at the same time as your research proposal.) Make sure that the agreement contains enough detail so there is not any misunderstanding later. For example, if you are required to summarize previous work in this area, how much detail will the summary include? Is it simply a list of references or will it be a self-contained review? Submit the signed thesis proposal to the departmental honors program director for approval. Thesis Proposal Forms: MS WordPDF.
  6. Conduct the research project. The most difficult part here is scheduling the time to do the project. Deadlines for classes and your regular extracurricular activities seem to take precedence. You will need to schedule time to work on the project. Meet with your faculty advisor on a regular basis to keep him/her informed of your progress. Changes to your research project might well be expected, but many missed milestones do not bode well for the eventual completion of the project.
  7. Write your thesis. After submitting the thesis proposal, both you and your faculty advisor should already know what your thesis will look like. Nevertheless, it is not a good idea to turn in your thesis on the last day of class. Submit drafts, make revisions and, above all, leave time to write.
  8. Submit your thesis. A copy of your thesis, signed by your faculty advisor to indicate approval, must be submitted to the honors program director. The thesis is a public document. Copies will be made available for future participants of the departmental honors program. Please submit a hard copy of your thesis as well as a PDF version.
  9. Be proud. Write a thesis you will be proud of. For years to come, your thesis is how you will answer the question “What did you do for your CS degree at UMBC?”

Frequently Asked Questions

Q:  When should I do my honors thesis?

A: Sooner is better. In particular, if you are interested in applying to competitive graduate schools, you should consider doing an honors thesis during your junior year. Then you would have something concrete to write about in your statement of purpose when you apply to graduate schools in the fall of your senior year. You can be a lot more convincing when you claim to want to work in a certain research area, if you’ve actually done some research in that area.

Q:  How long does it take to complete an honors thesis?

A: Ideally, everything is finished within one semester. However, some students might prefer to do the implementation part of the project over winter or summer break and write up the results afterwards. Writing the thesis and conducting the research can be accomplished concurrently. This will take time, but remember that CMSC 495 is a three-credit course!

Q:  Why should CMSC 495 Honors Thesis be taken for a grade instead of pass/fail?

A: Let us speak plainly here. Your typical honors student is an expert in getting good grades. They know how to juggle half a dozen courses and walk that A/B line. When the average in a course dips below 90.0, it gets special attention. Without a grade, it is difficult for CMSC 495 to compete for your time. We consulted professors from departments that have had departmental honors programs for much longer, and their advice is to have graded theses because it is really sad to see your top students not put in their best effort on their honors theses, which should be the crowning achievement of their undergraduate studies.

On the positive side, you and your thesis advisor should agree ahead of time what you need to do to get an “A” for CMSC 495. There really shouldn’t be any surprises. So, perhaps not an “easy A”, but it should be a “straightforward A.”

Q:  What’s with all the paperwork?

A: Compared to the paperwork required for a Master’s or PhD thesis, the paperwork here is minimal and helps us keep track of who’s doing what. Signatures also add a level of significance and formality that we need for the majors steps of completing an honors thesis.