Physics Senior Thesis: A Guide for Seniors

Senior Thesis Timeline


* Complete in the semester indicated or risk an NC (No Credit) for that semester.
† Your adviser is not expected to read or comment on a draft submitted after this date.
‡ Failure to meet the deadline set by the Registrar could result in an NC (No Credit).


The yearlong senior thesis project, or senior Independent Study (I.S.), allows you to experience the beauty and cohesiveness of physics by working on an extended project closely with a faculty advisor. There are few projects, even though narrow in scope, that do not require a breadth of understanding and a dependence on the lecture and laboratory material covered in the major courses. Thus, the senior thesis is an integral part of your education. It can provide a stimulating climax to your college career while, at the same time, it can be a defining introduction to your profession.

This guide is written to clarify past questions and is not intended to dampen any of your enthusiasm for your senior thesis project. It does assume that you will enrolled in Physics 451-452 during successive Fall and Spring Semesters. The Physics Department reserves the right to update the guide at any time.

We do not expect you to embark on a project unaided by an advisor, but you should not expect your advisor to do the work for you (conduct the library search, construct the apparatus, develop the simulation, perform the calculation, take the data, and (re)write the thesis). Advisors advise and guide while you do the work.

Understanding the science in your project is extremely important and time should be taken to reflect on its meaning. This might mean, for example, not taking a last data run so you can understand the meaning of the previous data runs.

Thesis Topics

The Physics Department encourages you to consider your senior thesis topic early. During your junior year, the physics senior December talks and spring poster session can suggest multiple possibilities. You may test a topic during your Physics 401 self-designed project.

The most successful topics are often extensions of ongoing faculty research or take advantage of existing faculty expertise and available equipment. Self-designed projects are riskier, as you yourself are responsible for formulating the motivating scientific questions. Seniors considering a self-designed proposal must prepare a detailed project proposal, including a literature review, and convince a faculty member to advise the project.

During the summer before your senior year, the physics chair will email you with possible projects suggested by the physics faculty and ask you to rank your top three choices.

After receiving your preferences, the chair will then consult with the faculty to distribute advisors to seniors and report back to you, so you will know your project and advisor before the beginning of your senior year. Project limitations include:


You must keep a complete, written record of the project either in ink in a paper bound notebook or in a web-based electronic lab notebook like Lab Archives, which your advisor (or others) may read to learn the details of your work. Your notebook is a scientific diary. It should be kept current each day and contain all relevant information for future researchers to duplicate or extend your work. Upon completion of your senior thesis, your advisor will keep your notebook.

Oral Progress Report

Near the end of the first semester, you will give a 10-15 minute public slide-show lecture on your senior thesis progress. This public event will motivate you to early accomplishment, provide you with valuable feedback, and inspire younger students.

Thesis Manuscript

The thesis manuscript summarizes and communicates your research to your student and faculty colleagues. To do so with integrity and clarity will document your work for future investigators while providing perspective for yourself.

The manuscript should be complete but not verbose, be well illustrated including drawings or photographs of relevant equipment, and contain appropriate references to the literature. Below are some guidelines toward the construction of a scientific thesis manuscript.

Oral Exam

The oral exam will be scheduled at a mutually convenient time for you, your first reader (advisor) and your second reader during the period in the Spring Semester allotted by the Registrar. The only visitors allowed in this exam will be departmental faculty. Exceptions can be made by agreement of all those present, or if the thesis is interdepartmental.

You will be expected to present an uninterrupted 20-minute overview of your project followed by questions on the thesis by the faculty committee. The presentation will be interrupted if it exceeds the 20-minute limit. The questions can be expected to turn to a general nature by the end of the exam.


You will share your senior thesis results with the campus community by presenting a poster at the Senior Research Symposium. Guidelines for the three-foot by five-foot poster are at our poster page. The poster will remain in the department.


Especially important in determining the senior thesis grade are the quality of the I.S. Monday manuscript and the performance in the oral exam. Among other considerations are your level of engagement throughout the thesis process, the difficulty of the project, the quality of the notebook, and the caliber of the oral progress report and poster presentation. All considerations are translated into one of the following grades:

Additional College regulations regarding the senior thesis are sent to seniors and will apply. For more details, consult the College Handbook for Independent Study.