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The Senior Thesis

All majors will complete a one-semester thesis in Linguistics as their culminating experience. Honors majors will write their thesis in LING 195, and course majors will write their thesis in LING 100. LING 90 Advanced Research Methods is highly recommended for students to help prepare them for thesis work, but is not required. Ling minors are welcome to write a thesis if they wish, but do not usually do so. 

The thesis is usually completed in a student’s senior Fall, but a Spring thesis seminar with limited spots is generally available at Haverford. Students who are student teaching or writing a thesis for another major in their senior Fall will often choose to write in the Spring semester of their junior or senior year. Honors theses must be completed by January of the senior year.

Linguistics does allow joint theses with other departments so long as the final product includes substantial linguistics content. Reach out to the chair if you are interested in this option.

Students should start thinking about possible thesis topics by the spring of their junior year. Students must have sufficient background in their proposed research area to do advanced work on the topic. This can usually be fulfilled by some combination of two or more relevant courses or research experiences. We encourage students to build on previous work such as term papers or final projects. A student’s advisor may veto a thesis topic if the student has insufficient prior background in the area, if the topic is not sufficiently relevant to Linguistics, or if it is too broadly or narrowly scoped or otherwise inappropriate for a thesis. 

During pre-registration, students may register for any thesis section. Specific faculty will be assigned to co-teach the thesis seminars as part of their normal teaching load, and they will advise all of that semester’s theses, usually 5-6 advisees per faculty member as first reader. In early April, the department will send out a survey to all rising seniors and other thesising students asking them to submit their thesis ideas. After these have been collected, each student will be assigned to a thesis advisor. Assignments are made on the basis of several factors. While we try to match each student to an advisor whose area of expertise overlaps with their proposed topic, this is not always possible. Some students will be assigned to an advisor at a different TriCo campus, in which case they will attend the thesis seminar at their advisor’s campus. Once advisors are assigned, students’ registrations will be moved to the appropriate seminar section. All sections are roughly equivalent in terms of syllabus, content, scheduling, and due dates.

Students will also be assigned a second faculty reader, who will give them additional feedback throughout the process. Occasionally the Chair or another faculty member not teaching the seminar will serve as first or second advisor, based on enrollments or expertise.

Thesis orientation meetings will take place in the Spring. Students are expected to attend this meeting if at all possible, and to let their thesis advisor know if they can’t make it (for example due to study abroad). Students are encouraged to be in touch with their advisor over the summer, and to begin to make progress on tasks like background reading or running experiments/gathering data. If a proposed thesis requires IRB approval, students are strongly encouraged to apply during the summer, as the process can be lengthy. Swarthmore students and BiCo students working with Swarthmore advisors whose projects pose no more than minimal risk can obtain departmental human subjects approval; all others must go through their campus IRB committee. Students doing work with human subjects should discuss this with their advisor.

The department currently budgets $50 per student to cover thesis expenses such as payments to language consultants or experimental subjects. Students may use this form to apply for funding.

A completed thesis usually consists of a 20-35-page research paper on the students’ topic, written for an audience of fellow senior linguistics majors. Beginning in Fall 2024, the department has approved a pilot policy to allow thesis which take alternative formats. Guidelines for these formats are below. There are a number of intermediate steps, drafts, and checkpoints along the way; students are expected to meet these.

Students will normally complete their thesis by the end of the semester, and present the completed project in a defense or public presentation. The grade is assigned by the faculty advisor in consultation with the second reader primarily on the basis of the finished product, though process and timeliness with regards to intermediate deadlines can affect the final grade as well.

Guidelines for alternative thesis options:

  • Our current thesis format remains the (default) option. Other formats must be approved by the advisor.  Advisors may say no based on student preparation or the appropriateness of a given format for the student’s topic, usually after some discussion.
  • Students may propose a project whose presentation takes a shape other than that of a traditional written research paper. Possibilities could include:
    • 40-60 minute plenary style talk with handout or slides
    • 15-20 minute film
    • podcast
    • policy brief/proposal
    • software package or implementation
    • website
    • curriculum
    • other format of the student’s choosing
  • Work must still reflect individual research on a defined research question; only the format of presentation is different.
  • The student must already possess the skills necessary to produce the alternate format — e.g., they should already be experienced at video editing if they want to produce a film. Advisors should take this into account when deciding whether to approve an alternate format. The advisor need not have expertise in that area. 
  • Intermediate deadlines for alternate format theses may need to differ from those for traditional theses; these should be discussed with the advisor at the start of the semester. As with a written thesis paper, the project should be carefully scoped for the time available.
  • Alternate formats should be proposed as early as possible. Some options will be foreclosed as time passes: For example, pivoting to a video format isn’t practically feasible later in the semester, while a plenary talk format may well be. Approval of a format change is at the advisor’s discretion.
  • The execution of the final product should count towards the final grade in the same way that writing quality counts towards the final thesis grade. E.g., a sloppily edited podcast presenting strong research should be graded in the same way as a poorly-written thesis paper on strong research. The product should be intentional and explicit about its audience and designed with them in mind. The intended audience of a written thesis is generally an academic audience / "fellow ling majors".
  • For formats other than a plenary talk or traditional thesis, the final product should include a short (~3-5 page) companion paper including a brief lit review/references, discussion of the research questions addressed, a reflection on product itself and whether it met the student’s goals, and discussion of the process and what the student felt they gained.
  • All theses, regardless of format, should take accessibility into account and follow established best practices. Videos and podcasts should include an accurate transcript and/or subtitles. Written papers should be accessible to screen readers, with the document structure properly formatted (e.g. headings should be in Heading format, not just bolded regular text) and alt text for images and figures. See