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Senior Seminar Research Paper Example

I. Framework
II. Structure of a thesis proposal
III. Order in which to write the proposal
IV. Tips
V. Resources

I. Framework

Senior research projects in Environmental Sciences have the following elements in common:

  1. An environmental issue is identified.
  2. Other people’s work on the topic is collected and evaluated.
  3. Data necessary to solving the problem are either collected by the student, or obtained independently.
  4. Data are analyzed using techniques appropriate to the data set.
  5. Results of the analysis are reported and are interpreted in light of the initial environmental issue.

The final outcome of this process is a senior thesis that you will complete in the spring semester.  The  goal of the fall semester is that you identify a research topic, find a research mentor, formulate a hypothesis, understand the background of your project, develop or adapt appropriate methods, and summarize the state of your project as a thesis proposal. The goal is to progress as far as possible with the elements listed above during the fall semester. The more you can accomplish during the fall, the further you can drive the project in the end, and the more relaxed the spring semester is going to be for you (and us).

The purpose of writing a thesis proposal is to demonstrate  that

  1. the thesis topic addresses a significant environmental problem;
  2. an organized plan is in place for collecting or obtaining data to help solve the problem;
  3. methods of data analysis have been identified and are appropriate to the data set.

If you can outline these points clearly  in a proposal, then you will be able to focus on a research topic and finish it rapidly.   A secondary purpose of the proposal is to train you in the art of proposal writing.  Any future career in Environmental Sciences, whether it be in industry or academia will require these skills in some form.

We are well aware that the best laid out research plans may go awry, and that the best completed theses sometimes bear only little resemblance to the thesis planned during the proposal. Therefore, when evaluating a thesis proposal, we are not trying to assure ourselves that you have clearly described a sure-fire research project with 0% risk of failure. (If there was no risk of failure, it wouldn’t be research.)

Instead, what we’re interested in seeing is if you have a clear handle on the process and structure of research as it’s practiced by our discipline. If you can present a clear and reasonable thesis idea, if you can clearly relate it to other relevant literature, if you can justify its significance, if you can describe a method for investigating it, and if you can decompose it into a sequence of steps that lead toward a reasonable conclusion, then the thesis proposal is a success regardless of whether you modify or even scrap the actual idea down the line and start off in a different direction. What a successful thesis proposal demonstrates is that, regardless of the eventual idea you pursue, you know the steps involved in turning it into a thesis.

II. Structure of a thesis proposal

Your thesis proposal should have the following elements in this order.

  • Title page
  • Abstract
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction
  • Thesis statement
  • Approach/methods
  • Preliminary results and discussion
  • Work plan including time table
  • Implications of research
  • List of references

The structure is very similar to that of a thesis or a scientific paper. You will be able to use a large fraction of the material of the thesis proposal in your final senior thesis. Of course, the state of the individual projects at the end of the fall will vary, and therefore also the format of the elements discussed below.

Title page

  • contains short, descriptive title of the proposed thesis project  (should be fairly self-explanatory)
  • and author, institution, department, research mentor, mentor’s institution & email address, advisor’s name, instuitution and email address, and date of delivery


  • the abstract is a brief summary of your thesis proposal
  • its length should be 200-400 words
  • present a brief introduction to the issue
  • make the key statement of your thesis
  • give a summary of how you want to address the issue
  • include a possible implication of your work, if successfully completed

Table of contents

  • list all headings and subheadings with page numbers
  • indent subheadings


  • this section sets the context for your proposed project and must capture the reader’s interest
  • explain the background of your study starting from a broad picture narrowing in on your research question
  • review what is known about your research topic as far as it is relevant to your thesis
  • cite relevant references
  • the introduction should be at a level that makes it easy to understand for readers with a general science background, for example your classmates

Thesis statement

  • in a couple of sentences, state your thesis
  • this statement can take the form of a hypothesis, research question, project statement, or goal statement
  • the thesis statement should capture the essence of your intended project and also help to put boundaries around it


  • this section contains an overall description of your approach,  materials, and procedures
    • what methods will be used?
    • how will data be collected and analyzed?
    • what materials will be used?
  • include calculations, technique, procedure, equipment, and calibration graphs
  • detail limitations, assumptions, and range of validity
  • citations should be limited to data sources and more complete descriptions of procedures
  • do not include results and discussion of results here

Preliminary results and discussion

  • present any results you already have obtained
  • discuss how they fit in the framework of your thesis

Work plan including time table

  • describe in detail what you plan to do until completion of your senior thesis project
  • list the stages of your project in a table format
  • indicate deadlines you have set for completing each stage of the project, including any work you have already completed
  • discuss any particular challenges that need to be overcome
  • use a gantt chart for your time table (look for a template under the ‘forms’ menu)

Implications of Research

  • what new knowledge will the proposed project produce that we do not already know?
  • why is it worth knowing, what are the major implications?

List of references

  • cite all ideas, concepts, text, data that are not your own
  • if you make a statement, back it up with your own data or a reference
  • all references cited in the text must be listed
  • cite single-author references by the surname of the author (followed by date of the publication in parenthesis)
    • … according to Hays (1994)
    • … population growth is one of the greatest environmental concerns facing future generations (Hays, 1994).
  • cite double-author references by the surnames of both authors (followed by date of the publication in parenthesis)
    • e.g. Simpson and Hays (1994)
  • cite more than double-author references by the surname of the first author followed by et al. and then the date of the publication
    • e.g. Pfirman, Simpson and Hays would be:
    • Pfirman et al. (1994)
  • cite newspaper articles using the newspaper name and date, e.g.
    • ….this problem was also discussed in the press (New York Times, 1/15/2014)
  • do not use footnotes
  • list all references cited in the text in alphabetical order using the following format for different types of material:
    • Hunt, S. (1966) Carbohydrate and amino acid composition of the egg capsules of the whelk. Nature, 210, 436-437.
    • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (1997) Commonly asked questions about ozone., 9/27/97.
    • Pfirman, S.L., M. Stute, H.J. Simpson, and J. Hays (1996) Undergraduate research at Barnard and Columbia, Journal of Research, 11, 213-214.
    • Pechenik, J.A. (1987) A short guide to writing about biology. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 194pp.
    • Pitelka, D.R., and F.M. Child (1964) Review of ciliary structure and function. In: Biochemistry and Physiology of Protozoa, Vol. 3 (S.H. Hutner, editor), Academic Press, New York, 131-198.
    • Sambrotto, R. (1997) lecture notes, Environmental Data Analysis, Barnard College, Oct 2, 1997.
    • Stute, M., J.F. Clark, P. Schlosser, W.S. Broecker, and G. Bonani (1995) A high altitude continental paleotemperature record derived from noble gases dissolved in groundwater from the San Juan Basin, New Mexico. Quat. Res., 43, 209-220.
    • New York Times (1/15/00) PCBs in the Hudson still an issue, A2.
  • it is acceptable to put the initials of the individual authors behind their last names, e.g. Pfirman, S.L., Stute, M., Simpson, H.J., and Hays, J (1996) Undergraduate research at ……

III. Order in which to write the proposal

.  Proceed in the following order:

  1. Make an outline of your thesis proposal  before you start writing
  2. Prepare figures and tables
  3. Figure captions
  4. Methods
  5. Discussion of your data
  6. Inferences from your data
  7. Introduction
  8. Abstract
  9. Bibliography

This order may seem backwards. However, it is difficult to write an abstract until you know your most important results.  Sometimes, it is possible to write the introduction first.  Most often the introduction should be written next to last.

IV. Tips


  • “Pictures say more than a thousand words!” Figures serve to illustrate important aspects  of the background material, sample data, and analysis techniques.
  • A well chosen and well labeled figure can reduce text length, and improve proposal clarity.  Proposals often contain figures from other articles.  These can be appropriate, but you should consider modifying them if the modifications will improve your point.
  • The whole process of making a drawing is important for two reasons.  First, it clarifies your thinking.  If you don’t understand the process, you can’t draw it. Second, good drawings are very valuable.  Other scientists will understand your paper better if you can make a drawing of your ideas.  A co-author of mine has advised me: make figures that other people will want to steal.  They will cite your paper because they want to use your figure in their paper.
  • Make cartoons using a scientific drawing program.  Depending upon the subject of your paper, a cartoon might incorporate the following:
    • a picture of the scientific equipment that you are using and an explanation of how it works;
    • a drawing of a cycle showing steps, feedback loops, and bifurcations: this can include chemical or mathematical equations;
    • a flow chart showing the steps in a process and the possible causes and consequences.
  • Incorporate graphs in the text or on separated sheets inserted in the thesis proposal
  • Modern computer technology such as scanners and drafting programs are available in the department to help you create or modify pictures.


  • Poor grammar and spelling distract from the content of the proposal.  The reader focuses on the grammar and spelling problems and misses keys points made in the text.  Modern word processing programs have grammar and spell checkers.  Use them.
  • Read your proposal aloud – then  have a friend read it aloud. If your sentences seem too long, make two or three sentences instead of one.  Try to write the same way that you speak when you are explaining a concept. Most people speak more clearly than they write.
  • You should have read your proposal over at least 5 times before handing it in
  • Simple wording is generally better
  • If you get comments from others that seem completely irrelevant to you, your paper is not written clearly enough never use a complex word if a simpler word will do

V. Resources/Acknowlegements

Developed by Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D.

Dept. of History, Bethany Lutheran College, Spring 2007

Research and Writing

A. Selection of Sources:

  1. Does the essay draw from at least five* distinct primary sources? (Multiple primary documents reprinted within a single anthology may each count separately toward the required minimum number of primary sources.) [*In special cases, this requirement may be reduced.]
  2. Does the essay draw from at least ten credible secondary sources written by scholars within an appropriate discipline—at least five books and at least five journal articles?
  3. Does the essay draw from a total of at least twenty sources (i.e., five additional primary or secondary sources beyond the required minimum of five primary and ten secondary sources)?
  4. Does the student’s selection of secondary sources demonstrate an awareness of the most recent scholarship on the topic (even if the student nonetheless decides to revive an earlier interpretation of the primary sources)?

B. Analysis of Sources:

  1. Does the paper directly reference at least five primary sources?
  2. Has the student analyzed—not merely quoted—the most significant portions of the primary sources employed, and kept block quotations to a minimum (both as to frequency and length)?
  3. Has the student integrated multiple sources within the same section of the research paper, rather than basing a substantial portion of the research paper on just one source?
  4. Has the student placed the sources and their subject matter in their respective contexts (historical, literary, philosophical, theological, etc.), using discipline-appropriate methods?
  5. Has the student demonstrated an awareness of the range of credibility among the claims stated in the sources and exercised an appropriate degree of acceptance or rejection of those claims?
  6. Has the student intelligently arbitrated among disagreements, whether of fact or of opinion, among various sources?
  7. Has the student offered original and convincing insights?

C. Thesis Presentation:

  1. Has the student supported the thesis with compelling reasons that are backed up by credible evidence?
  2. Has the student fair-mindedly acknowledged competing claims and responded in a manner that adequately defends the thesis?
  3. Has the student admitted to any background assumptions without which the argument(s) supporting the thesis would be unwarranted?
  4. Has the student indicated the broader implications that follow from an acceptance of the thesis, particularly in relation to the Christian faith (insofar as it may be relevant)?

D. Clarity of Organization:

  1. Does the introduction state the thesis clearly (or pose a clear thesis question) and suggest how the thesis will be argued (or explored) in the body?
  2. Does the body develop the stated thesis in distinct parts that are connected by clear transitions?
  3. Does the conclusion tie together the main ideas from the body and restate the thesis from the introduction?

E. Quality of Writing:

  1. Has the student avoided spelling mistakes? If not, are the mistakes attributable to minor oversights, or do they indicate more severe deficiencies in the student’s academic skills?
  2. Has the student avoided grammatical errors? If not, are the mistakes attributable to minor oversights, or do they indicate more severe deficiencies in the student’s academic skills?
  3. Has the student composed compelling sentences, avoided clichés, and employed action verbs in the active voice?
  4. Has the student organized sentences into paragraphs, each of which emphasizes a singular, clear theme?
  5. Has the student presented the topic in a manner that is relevant and understandable to a broad, college-educated audience?

F. Plagiarism:

  1. Has the student employed quotation marks and citations properly to give credit for all borrowed phrasing? If not, is the degree of plagiarism apparently a minor oversight or a more severe deficiency in the student’s academic responsibility (meriting a failing grade)?
  2. Has the student employed citations properly to give credit for all borrowed ideas and arguments, and specialized knowledge? If not, is the degree of plagiarism apparently a minor oversight or a more severe deficiency in the student’s academic responsibility?
  3. Is the essay a product of substantially new research and writing, not borrowing from the student’s previous coursework except in incidental ways (e.g., considerably expanding upon a small portion of a prior paper, revisiting a previously explored topic with a significantly different methodology, or pursuing a thesis that was explored in a preliminary fashion in HI 490: Introduction to Historical Research and Writing)?
  4. Did the student personally perform all steps involved in the research and writing processes, relying upon others only for advice, peer-evaluation, proofreading assistance, and other forms of routine assistance that promote, rather than compromise, the student’s own efforts?

G. General Specifications:

  1. Is the essay printed in a 12-point, double-spaced font, on plain white 8.5x11-inch paper, with 1-inch margins, and stapled in the upper left-hand corner?
  2. Is the essay 20 pages long (in the case of in-text citations) or 25 pages long (in the case of footnotes), excluding the table of contents, bibliography, illustrations, and appendices?
  3. Does the essay include a title page, table of contents, and bibliography?
  4. Does the essay fully and accurately document all research sources by conforming to the MLA (for EN 495) or Chicago (for HI 495/LA 495) style manual?

Oral Presentation and Defense

A. General Specifications:

  1. Has the student distributed a one-page handout to the audience (it can be single-spaced)?
  2. Is the handout free of errors in spelling and grammar, and does it communicate in a clear format?
  3. Does the presenter dress professionally, stand with good posture, project his or her voice confidently, while speaking extemporaneously and making regular and sustained eye contact with the audience?
  4. Does the presenter complete his or her presentation in about 30 minutes (not including audience questions)?
  5. Does the presenter use visual aids (if appropriate) effectively? 6. Does the presenter proceed at a comfortable pace, with a clear beginning, middle, and end?

B. Presentation of Thesis:

  1. Do both the handout and the oral presentation state the thesis of the research paper with clarity and precision?
  2. Does the oral presentation (and possibly the handout) summarize the kinds of sources that were consulted, explain why those sources were selected, and how they were analyzed?
  3. Do both the handout and the oral presentation identify evidence in favor of the thesis?
  4. Does the oral presentation (and possibly the handout) fair-mindedly acknowledge competing claims and respond in a manner that adequately defends the thesis?
  5. Does the oral presentation (and possibly the handout) address broader implications of the student’s project, in relation to his or her undergraduate education and other areas of life?

C. Defense of Thesis (Question/Answer Session):

  1. Does the presenter demonstrate a clear understanding of his or her thesis when answering questions from the faculty committee and general campus audience?
  2. Does the presenter appropriately defend or qualify his or her thesis when challenged by questions?