Honors Thesis and Distinction

Honors Program Director:  Professor Philip Stern, philip.stern@duke.edu

Applications due March 8, 2024.  Application is here.

Students pursuing distinction normally apply for a year-long senior honors seminar (HISTORY 495S/496S) in March of the junior year.  In special circumstances, students may also prepare a thesis outside this sequence. Either way, most students begin their thesis research during the summer before the senior year, and all students pursuing distinction 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.

Upon its completion, the thesis will be evaluated by a committee of at least three faculty to determine the honors level of the thesis:  Distinction, High Distinction or Highest Distinction.  The department also recognizes senior theses with two prizes:  the William T. Laprade Prize for most outstanding thesis, and the Raymond Gavins prize, awarded to an outstanding thesis in African-American history, the history of Civil Rights movements, and/or the history of the US South.  Both prizes are accompanied by a $250 cash award.

Students will also have the opportunity to archive their thesis work in the Duke University Library.

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 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 the thesis program director (another history faculty member) and other thesis writers in the weekly honors seminar (HISTORY 495S and 496S).

The benefits are both professional and personal. Writing a thesis demonstrates your capacity to become an expert in your chosen topic, develop extensive independent research skills, and to make an original contribution to historical scholarship. 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.

The thesis is due in April of the 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.  Duke and the History Department offer ample funding opportunities, such as for travel to archives or the acquisition of required research materials.  

To maximize the creative process as well as provide intellectual and emotional support, thesis writers will take the year-long Senior Thesis Seminar.  This seminar substitutes for the Capstone Seminar that all History majors are required to take.  Students participating in the Senior Thesis program must also take at least one independent study with their thesis advisor.  They may also take up to one additional independent study with the same advisor or (after consultation with the History DUS) a separate faculty member.  While the thesis seminar will provide a general framework and deadlines to shepherd you through the various stages of the project, thesis writers should take advantage of these independent studies to continue research and work on their writing.

The Thesis Seminar Experience

1) Full-year admits to the thesis seminar:

  • Thesis proposals will be subjected to highly rigorous standards
  • Advisors must have affiliation with the History department or have a History Ph.D.
  • Enthusiasm of advisors will play an important role in considerations, so early consultation with advisors is important

2) Second-semester admits to the thesis seminar:

  • Students whose proposals were deemed not complete enough to merit acceptance into the thesis seminar during the first round of applications are invited to work with an advisor and submit a revised proposal in the Fall in order to join the seminar for Spring
  • Students whose proposals were successful but who cannot make the Fall semester because they will be abroad are invited to the join the seminar for Spring. 
  • Note: in both cases, the initial proposals must be made Spring semester of the Junior Year, i.e. with all other thesis proposals (see schedule tab for information on deadlines) 

Enhanced Research Experience

Most students pursue Distinction through the Honors Thesis Seminar. However, there are some circumstances in which students may need instead to work independently on a research project. For these students, the History Honors program offers a separate track known as the Enhanced Research Experience.

What qualifies as an ERE project?

  • A conventional thesis produced outside the Seminar. These may include theses submitted on a different timetable from the Seminar (for example, for December graduation), or theses produced in Independent Studies without participation in the Seminar.
  • Other projects including digital projects, documentaries, exhibits, forms of creative writing conducted under the auspices of the History department and its sponsored labs.

ERE candidates will be invited to present at one or more of the Honors seminar workshops so that they can benefit from group feedback.  The timing will be determined by the nature of their project.

Requirements of ERE

  • A student who develops a project that does not take the form of a research paper must submit a fifteen-page paper on his or her project, demonstrating how it is a contribution to historical knowledge.
  • Candidates must inform the Honors Program Director that they will be submitting an ERE project for Honors.  The notification must include a proposal for the intended project, accompanied by a letter of recommendation by the advisor, and it is subject to the approval of the Honors program.
  • ERE projects will be considered for Distinction, High Distinction, and Highest Distinction. They may also qualify for the La Prade prize (note though that the prize is awarded annually in May).
  • ERE projects will be evaluated based on the same criteria as theses produced in the Seminar.

Please submit your proposal well in advance of the semester in which you plan to complete your ERE project, and no later than the end of the previous semester.

If you have a question about the ERE, please write to the Honors Program Director.

How your thesis will be evaluated?

Submitted theses will be evaluated by the Honors Committee, based on the following criteria:

For Honors with Distinction, students are expected to: 

  • Create new historical knowledge through a significant, original historical intervention based on extensive primary-source based research.  
  • Develop an original, source-based argument that both engages with and extends the existing historiography.  
  • Present information and argument with clarity and concision.
  • For ERE projects in a non-traditional format, creativity and impact may be given greater weight than other factors. However, engagement with primary and secondary sources is still required.

Exceptional theses may be granted High or Highest Distinction, and they will be considered for the annual LaPrade Prize. On top of the basic expectations, these theses must meet one or more of the following criteria:  

  • Demonstrate exceptional significance and relevance to larger debates on topics of historical importance 
  • Show originality, creativity, and technical mastery in the interpretation and use of sources 
  • Develop an argument that reflects the complexity of human experience 
  • Present information and argument with elegance, originality, and emotional/intellectual resonance.


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 Question

You should choose a topic, question, or set of issues that matters to you. You will then refine that question into something that is feasible with the time and sources available.

The best honors theses generally consider very focused topics, through which authors can explore broader questions of historical and contemporary importance.  You can see a wide range of past theses here.

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.  Many thesis students also take advantage of the vast archival holdings in Duke's Rubenstein Rare Books & Manuscript Library.

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 should take the form of an application essay,  approximately three to four pages in length.  Please include your name, phone number, email address, and the name of your faculty advisor. Make sure that your proposed advisor is both willing and able to oversee your research.  The completed application can be submitted here.  Faculty advisors should send their letters of recommendation directly to historydus@duke.edu. See top of this page for current deadlines.

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.
  6. (Optional) Funding application (1-2 pages)

(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. Will your research be rooted in a particular archive or archives? Digital collections? Bodies of printed or visual sources?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.

(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.

(6) Your Funding Application

If you would like to apply for departmental research funding—for example, to undertake archival travel over the summer—please include (a) a detailed budget, (b) a 1-2 paragraph description and justification of your request, and (c) if applicable, a list of other funding sources for which you have applied (and whether they have been received).

Relevant Deadlines

Junior Year

Spring semester
  • Discuss research interests with faculty and subject area librarians
  • Consult with relevant faculty and identify thesis advisor
  • March 8, 2024: Application deadline for admission to the History Honors Seminar.
    • You may apply for departmental research funding along with your thesis application, or subsequently. You should also explore funding opportunities elsewhere and inform the History department if you receive grants from other sources at the university.  See https://undergraduateresearch.duke.edu/opportunities for information on those grants.
    • Apply here.
  • Early April (course registration): If you are admitted to the thesis program, you will enroll in the thesis seminar (HISTORY 495S) and an independent study with your thesis advisor (HISTORY 393) for the following Fall.

Summer after Junior Year

Thesis Research

Senior Year


  • Take HISTORY 495S (Thesis seminar)
  • Take HISTORY 393 (independent study) with your thesis advisor


  • Take HISTORY 496S (Thesis seminar)
  • Take HISTORY 394 (independent study) with your thesis advisor (optional)
  • Late April:  Submit completed thesis

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 . 

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.  All applications and expenses must be approved prior to expenditure; if awarded funding, the department will work with you on the best way to disburse funds for your particular request.

Pre-Thesis Research

We invite students who might be considering a thesis earlier in their junior years, as well as 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.  Applications are accepted on a rolling basis and should be submitted to historydus@duke.edu with the subject line "Pre-Thesis Funding Request"

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.

  • An important aspect of the Honors program is the scholarly links it forges between students and the History faculty who agree to serve as their advisors.  Your participation in the program is greatly appreciated.
  • Students are required to submit a proposal that is supported by a letter from their thesis advisor.
  • Advisors must have an affiliation with the History department (or have a History Ph.D. if they are members of a different department or program).
  • Enthusiasm of advisors will play an important role in the consideration of proposals, so early consultation between student and advisor is important.
  • To that end, advisors must communicate the value of the project in their initial letters.
  • Students must take at least one independent study (and up to two) with the thesis advisor either in the Fall or Spring of their Senior year.
  • If they will be on leave for either semester, advisors should include that information in their letter of support
  • Faculty may not advise Honors theses if they will be on leave for the entire academic year; they may do so if they will be on leave for one semester.
  • In the event that they have to take leave unexpectedly, advisors should inform the Honors program as soon as possible

Evaluation process for Thesis Seminar Experience: 

Thesis advisors may:

  • Recommend simple Honors (cum laude) by a simple email to the DUSa, who will forward it to the Honors Program Committee.  There is no need to submit a letter of justification. 
  • Choose not to recommend Honors.  In this case the advisor must write a letter to the Honors Program Committee explaining the decision.
  • Propose higher Honors: in the event that an advisor feels higher Honors are merited
    • the advisor must write a detailed letter to the Honors Program Committee in support of their recommendation.  The Honors Committee retains the prerogative to make an award that diverges from the advisor recommendation.
    • if an advisor considers that the thesis merits a departmental prize, the advisor must write a detailed letter to the Honors Program Committee in support of this recommendation.