Honors Thesis and Distinction

Students pursuing distinction normally apply for a year-long senior honors seminar (HISTORY 495S/496S) in March of the junior year by submitting a research proposal and a faculty recommendation to the seminar director(s). Students may also prepare a thesis outside this sequence and talk to their advisors about developing other forms of thesis projects. Either way, most students begin their thesis research during the summer before the senior year, and all students pursuing distinction also work closely with a faculty thesis advisor, usually through an independent study each semester.

Thesis writers are expected to produce a well-written research essay substantially engaged with primary sources and engaged with ongoing historiographic conversations. Most theses run 80-120 pages. The department recognizes the most outstanding senior thesis of the year by awarding the William T. Laprade Prize.

To earn Graduation with Distinction a committee of at least three faculty must evaluate the thesis. The committee will determine the honors level of the thesis:  Distinction, High Distinction or Highest Distinction.

The Graduation with Distinction program is the most challenging – and rewarding – undergraduate experience that the History Department offers.

What is a Senior Thesis?  

The thesis is your own work of original scholarship. The process begins when you select a topic – a question that you wish to explore in more detail and that promises larger insights into an historical time period, event, or issue. While much of the research and writing is done on your own, you work in consultation with your advisor – usually a history department faculty member – and receive critical direction and feedback from other participants in the weekly honors seminar. The thesis is due in early April.

The benefits are both professional and personal. Writing a thesis demonstrates your capacity to master a topic work independently and to make an original contribution. Just as important, the senior thesis program offers the rare opportunity to engage in a creative process that will challenge you to both gain and produce new knowledge.

Distinction Outside the Honors Thesis Seminar

Most students pursue Distinction through the Honors Thesis Seminar. However, several students every year obtain honors by working independently on a research project. For example, you might decide to pursue a thesis on your own if you get excited about a research project in the fall of your senior year, or if you have scheduling conflicts that prevent you from participating in the seminar.

If you decide to write a thesis outside the seminar, you should enroll in a Research Independent Study (RIS) course with your faculty advisor. If you choose this route, there are two deadlines to keep in mind in addition to your thesis deadline:

  • January 15 – your faculty advisor must notify the department chair by January 15 with an email that includes your name and the working title of the thesis.
  • Early March (before spring break) – you must submit your title, abstract, a chapter outline and a sample chapter to the Director of Undergraduate Studies (historydus@duke.edu).

The Undergraduate Studies Committee will review these applications to determine whether the thesis will be sent forward to the Honors Committee. If the committee does not advance your thesis, you still will receive course credit for the semester (pending the approval of the faculty advisor) but will not be considered for departmental honors.

Get to Know Your Professors


The more you interact with your professors, the better sense you will have of their interests and approach, which are important considerations in selecting an advisor. In turn, professors are more likely to take you on as an advisee if they know your work.

Explore Historical Research

To write a history thesis, you'll need to conceptualize a historical problem, to identify primary sources that can help you answer that problem, to contextualize and assess the evidence contained in those sources, and to construct an effective analytical argument based on that evidence. Gateway seminars and the upper level research seminars furnish great opportunities to learn the historian's craft and see whether you like this kind of work.

See Study Abroad as an Opportunity

While abroad, you can define new interests and pursue research far from Duke’s campus. Before you go, you might schedule an appointment with the librarian at Perkins who specializes in your area so that you can use your time abroad to take maximum advantage of archives and resources unavailable through Duke.

Develop Competency in a Foreign Language


Many prospective thesis writers in history would like to tackle a historical problem concerning the non-English speaking world. In many cases, students without extensive foreign language skills are able to do just that, either by relying on English-language sources, sources translated into English, or some combination of the two. But your range of options will be far, far greater if you come into the senior year with a solid ability to read a foreign language.

Identify and Frame a Topic

You should choose a topic, question, or set of issues that matters to you. Make sure it is feasible with the time and sources available.

The best honors theses generally consider very focused topics through which the authors explore broader questions. Tackling "The Impact of the Enlightenment on Women's Education in Europe" would be impossibly broad. Even seasoned historians tend to shy away from such large questions. By contrast, a topic such as "Veterans and the Attica Prison Riot of 1971" might work quite well.

You will need to ground your thesis in primary sources, which may be written (such as documents), visual (such as posters), aural (such as recordings), or a combination (such as films). For topics in recent history, you might also consider collecting oral histories, although in most cases you will need to seek approval from Duke Institutional Review Board (IRB) before you begin your interviews.  The librarians at Perkins-Bostock can provide indispensable guidance for tracking down primary sources at Duke and beyond.

Your thesis should make a contribution to historical knowledge. If you frame your research appropriately — by choosing a compelling historical question for which adequate sources are available — your thesis will meet this standard. In some cases, you may look at sources that no one has considered before. In other cases, you make look at the same sources used by numerous other historians, but extract evidence from them that they have overlooked, or ask questions of them that no one has previously thought to pose.

The Proposal

Your proposal is due three weeks before the start of fall registration. It should be approximately three to four pages in length and include your name, phone number, email address, and the name of your faculty advisor. A faculty member, preferably your advisor, must submit a letter of recommendation on your behalf directly to the Honors Thesis Program Director. Make sure that your proposed advisor is both willing and able to oversee your research.


The body of the proposal should cover the following main elements:

  1. Descriptive title succinctly defining your topic.
  2. Brief description of your topic, including your principal research question.
  3. Brief description of the primary sources that you will use to answer your questions.
  4. Brief description of the scholarly literature that bears on your topic.
  5. One-page bibliography listing the most relevant primary and secondary sources to your inquiry.

(1, 2) Your title and topic

In two to three paragraphs, identify the historical problem that you propose to investigate, suggest how you propose to investigate it, and explain why anybody should care about it. In doing this, you should be able to craft a title for your overall project.


(3) Your primary sources

Here, in a further two to three paragraphs, you should show that you have begun to identify accessible sources that will allow you to answer the questions you would like to pose. You should also indicate how you intend to make use of those sources. You can find leads to possible sources can come from several places, including the bibliography and footnotes of relevant historical scholarship, online databases and catalogs available through the Duke library portal, and consultations with your faculty advisor as well as library or archival staff.

As you think about available primary sources, remember that nothing inherent in the source makes it “primary” — it all depends on the questions you ask of the source. For example, a novel by Ngugi wa’Thiongo would not be an appropriate source if you were investigating how black Kenyan civilians experienced life in detention camps during the guerrilla war of in the 1950s, but it would if you were examining how Kenyan intellectuals depicted life in detention camps.


(4) Your secondary sources

Writing a piece of original research involves joining a conversation already taking place about your topic. You want to familiarize yourself not only with what already has been said but also with the terms of the discussion. Engaging some of the relevant scholarly debates distinguishes a more engaged, analytical research project from a merely descriptive one.

(5) Your bibliography

List the primary and secondary sources you have identified to date.

The proposal you submit constitutes only a starting point; a way to show your seriousness of purpose and viability of your task. Research likely will take you in unexpected directions and topics may shift significantly, but the proposal offers a good vantage point from which to begin.


Finding that vantage point need not be a lonely task. Enlist the help of librarians, the honors program director, and other faculty members in addition to your advisor. One of the most rewarding aspects of the thesis experience is the chance to work closely with other scholars. Those students who make the most of the advising process generally craft the best proposals, and get off to the best start with their research.

The proposal is due about three weeks before fall registration. If you are accepted into the honors thesis seminar, you ordinarily take both the seminar and an independent study with your advisor (HISTORY 393/394) in both the fall and spring semesters of your senior year.

Thesis writers usually begin research during the summer before senior year. It is important to have some research in hand by the start of the fall semester because the seminar begins with writing assignments that require a significant research base. A first draft of the thesis is usually due in March and the final version in April, but you will be informed of submission deadlines.

Theses are evaluated by the honors program director and a committee of History Department faculty who award projects distinction, high distinction, or highest distinction. Committee members also award the William T. Laprade Prize to the thesis deemed to be of exceptional quality.

Every year many History Senior Honors Seminar students conduct research away from Durham, including travel outside the United States. Rising seniors often undertake such trips during the summer before the senior year with additional research travel undertaken while enrolled in the honors seminar (during Fall and Spring Breaks, as well as between semesters). Even if your sources are concentrated in Durham, it may be advisable to stay to begin your research in early summer or to apply for support to return at some point over the summer. Additionally, almost all History honors students will incur non-travel related research costs (such as photocopying) that can be covered by the program.

There are several opportunities for funding that students can pursue to support their research. A good place to begin is with the Undergraduate Research Support Office (some of the more relevant programs are described below). In addition to summer funding sources, there are also additional sources available during the academic year and even beyond Duke.

The History Department has funds for summer research as well – both for rising seniors to do thesis research and for rising sophomores and juniors interested in exploratory research. This year, applications for History Department summer research funds are due March 23, 2015.

For current First-years and Sophomores

We invite students in their first and second years to submit proposals to pursue preliminary research on a topic that might develop into an honors thesis. We will prioritize proposals to pursue primary research (such as archival or library research, oral history projects, developing digital resources, or obtaining access to primary sources held by private individuals and organizations), but also will consider proposals for training in languages or methodologies that might further your future research. We also will prioritize declared History majors, although the competition is open to non-majors. Please submit a two-page proposal describing your research and/or training plans and a one-page budget including travel, living, and research expenses as well as a note indicating any other funding for which you have applied. You should also arrange to have a History faculty member submit an email supporting your research plan.

For current Juniors

We invite current juniors to submit proposals for research toward an honors thesis. This competition is open to all prospective thesis writers, whether or not you plan to join the honors seminar. This competition is open only to current History majors and will prioritize proposals to pursue primary research, such as archival or library research, oral history projects, developing digital resources, or obtaining access to primary sources held by private individuals and organizations. Please submit:

  • a two- to three-page proposal describing your research agenda
  • a short bibliography of secondary work you have consulted
  • a one-page budget including travel, living, and research expenses as well as a note indicating any other funding for which you have applied.

You should also arrange to have a History faculty member submit an email supporting your research plan and agreeing to advise your thesis. For more information about writing inside and outside the honors seminar, see the Graduation with Distinction webpage.

The Honors Program strongly encourages applicants to pursue such support. The application process will not only sharpen the thinking behind your honors project, but also prepare you for planning and writing proposals in the future. Receiving support for your research will both enhance your thesis and provide concrete evidence of achievement for your resume. Please note that deadlines for many Duke competitions are in early March. The Honors Program Director is available to offer comments and suggestions on your applications.