Departmental Honors in Biology

Honors in Biology can be earned through an advanced experience conducting a research project under the guidance of faculty members.  The project must synthesize related scientific literature and/or endeavors to answer an original experimental question.


Who is eligible to do an Honors Thesis?  To qualify for the Honors Program, a student must:

  • Finish a Biology major with a minimum GPA of 3.5 in all semester Biology courses completed at Gustavus, plus the required Chemistry and Math courses.
  • Complete an original research project and write a thesis OR write an extensive literature review, preferably with some experimental components. 
  • Convene a Committee of three faculty members who agree to supervise and review the student's research project (see details below).
  • Complete an oral examination
  • Present a public presentation (poster or oral).
  • Provide a brief written summary to the department, listing completion dates of all requirements.

Students interested in applying to the Departmental Honors Program are strongly encouraged to begin developing their research plans, in consultation with potential research advisors, by the spring of their junior year or the following summer.


How do I start?  If you are interested in pursuing Honors’ research, first identify a professor whose research interests coincide with yours.  That professor will serve as your Honors Committee Chair and research collaborator.  Together, you can discuss what possibilities exist for Honors research and you can begin to develop a Honors Committee.  Honors Committees are created to help the student and their project to succeed. Research committees typically consist of your research advisor/collaborator, another Gustavus Biology professor in a related field, and a third person outside of Biology (the “external” member, who may be on or off campus) who can provide yet another kind of expertise. Your Chair can help suggest what kinds of expertise should be represented on the committee. Past Honors committees have included persons who helped with software usage, mapping, data analysis, chemical processes, mathematical modeling, physical forces, and more.  When creating your committee, you must ask yourself, “What problems is my project likely to encounter?  Who would serve as an important resource?” or “Who might be able to provide timely and valuable feedback structured to improve multiple aspects of my thesis experience?”

The Committee will read and comment on the student’s proposal and determine their recommendation regarding the proposal. The Committee Chair will forward the recommendation on behalf of the student to the Biology department. After approval the proposal may be posted on the Department Moodle site. Final approval of the proposal is granted by the Department. Thus, proposals to the Department are recommended by the 12th week of the spring semester, however, all appropriate proposals must be submitted no later than the drop/add date in fall semester of the candidate’s senior year.

A draft of the final project will be given to the student's Honors Committee no later than five weeks before the end of the senior year (last day of classes) and will be in the format of a scientific publication selected by the Honors Committee. A final revised copy will be submitted after the committee reviews the draft(s). This will be followed by the oral exam given by the Honors Committee and the public research presentation or poster. The exam will be scheduled for no later than two weeks prior to the last day of classes in the senior year.


What is an Honors Thesis project? Projects vary among students, but typically the successful Honors student investigates an original idea within the framework of a collaborator’s research. Broadly, there are two types of projects considered for Honors thesis work:  experimental projects that test original hypotheses, and extensive literature reviews that critically synthesize our current knowledge.

  • For experimental projects the student should (in collaboration with your advisor) propose a testable hypothesis.   This will include a literature survey, appropriate methodologies, timelines and potential results.  This option is suitable for a student seeking lab or field experience and who has adequate experience in the field to conduct the proposed research.
  • For literature surveys the student should (in collaboration with your advisor) propose the breadth and depth of the topic you intend to investigate.  This will include specifically the topic being investigated, potential sources, timelines and goal of the literature synthesis. This option is suitable for a student who topic is not easily testable in a traditional hypothesis driven setting or for a student who is seeking to synthesis what is know about a particular area.  This option may also be available for students wishing to learn more about applied areas of biology.

What does a proposal consist of/look like?    Because proposals are customized to each scientific question, there is no universal format or page length.  Instead, the proposal provides clear objectives, concise phrasing, and rigorously logical structure.  The proposal should be detailed enough that everyone knows the full extent of the work to be accomplished. It should contain a significant explanation of the work leading to the proposal and the work to be pursued; the proposal should include sufficient background citations, clearly articulated objective(s), potential methodology and may include preliminary data. It should also include details about the amount of time that will be devoted to the project as well as a timeline. Formats often follow the professional standards within a particular discipline (i.e., in the writing style of major journals like Cell, Ecology, Nature, etc.). Proposals differ by project types:

  • Experimental Thesis.  A successful thesis proposal provides context (i.e., a literature review), defines a question (with hypotheses and predictions), explains and justifies methodological approaches, and provides an estimated timeline of accomplishments.  The proposal concludes with an explanation of how the student, with committee supervision, is qualified to successfully complete the project.  
  • Literature Review Thesis.  A successful thesis proposal provides the goal of the literature synthesis, what types of literature will be included (and why these choices) and additional resources.   (Additional resources might include conversations with experts in the field you are investigating.)  The proposal will include a timeline and explanation of what the student needs to achieve to successfuly complete the project.   

The committee (not solely the advisor) will determine the extent of work to be performed, set standards and specify, preferably in writing, the expectations. An application form must be completed and submitted with your proposal. This form is available in the Biology Department Office or you may print out this PDF document. Biology Honors Application.  If the proposal is judged acceptable by the Committee (preferably after a committee meeting), then a recommendation is forwarded to the Department.

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What does the final Thesis look like?  The honors paper or thesis will be in the format agreed upon by the Committee. There should be a minimum length established, with criteria for font and margins. The introduction should constitute a review of the relevant literature and appropriate citations must be included. Methods and Results should be detailed and follow the format of a selected journal. Copies of all written materials shall have publication quality figures and photos (not copies) included in the archival copy for the department files.

Past Honors Theses may be reviewed in the Biology Library, Nobel 224.  (These copies must remain in the biology library.) If you would like to check out a specific honors thesis, you may do so from the Folke Bernadotte Library. Search using the key words 'Biology Honors Thesis' or by the specific title, if you have it.


What are the other requirements for an Honors distinction? There are three other requirements for a degree with Honors.  You must pass an oral exam will be both on the content and methods associated with the honors project, and may include general knowledge in the candidate's area of specialty. A minimum and maximum time range shall be established for the exam so that students realize this is an important part of the honors process, and can budget their time accordingly.

Second, you will give a public presentation to peers and colleagues can take the form of a poster or an oral presentation.  It is preferable that a public presentation occurs at Gustavus before the end of the spring semester of the senior year, but Honor’s students are also encouraged to present at a regional or national meeting.  Please consult with your Honor’s Committee to determine the appropriate venues to present your work publicly.

Finally, a written summary with dates and signatures should be submitted to the Biology Department no later than two weeks before the end of the academic year for final awarding of the Honors Designation.


What is the timeline to complete my Honors thesis? It is vitally important that you discuss the thesis potential of any project AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, particularly in the junior year.  Projects initiated during the senior year can be done, but it often involves a lot of stressful preparatory work in the first two weeks of the semester.  Here is the optimal timeline of the successful Honors thesis:

Junior Year, Spring Semester

  • Select a Gustavus research advisor/collabator. Discuss project ideas and committee composition.
  • Submit thesis proposal to Biology Department (mid-April).  [Note: It is possible to submit a thesis proposal in the fall before the drop/add registration deadline, but spring submission is recommended.]

Senior Year, Fall Semester

  • Research is conducted throughout the fall, January, and during the first half of the spring semester.  Students may also take advantage of the summer prior to their senior year if their proposal is approved in the previous spring.

Senior Year, Spring Semester

  • Even before data collection is complete, the student should develop outlines of the final thesis document in collaboration with the thesis committee in early Spring. At this time the student and committee to schedule the final oral exam.
  • Submit your thesis draft to your committee no later than early March.  Committee members should plan on returning comments within 10-14 days.
  • Revision of the draft follows, and will occur no later than late March to the first week April.
  • The final thesis is submitted to the Biology Department near the first week of April (no later than 5 weeks before last day of classes).
  • The final oral examination should be scheduled no later than 2 weeks before last day of classes.  This oral exam may be scheduled after the public presentation of your research if your presentation is based on completed work (see below).
  • You also need to present your results before the last day of classes.  The presentation can be at a variety of different forums (Sigma Xi, professional meetings, etc.). You can discuss this with your advisor.  Note that you may not have to finish all data collection in order to present your research.  In fact, it is common for researchers to present incomplete projects in order to seek advice from the scientific community.  Discuss with your research advisor if an earlier presentation date (e.g., during the Celebration for Creative Inquiry in early May) would be advisable.

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