Senior Independent Work


Each psychology senior works in close consultation with a faculty advisor to develop, carry out, and write a senior thesis.

Students can conduct an experimental thesis, a computational thesis, or a theoretical thesis. An experimental thesis should include a comprehensive literature review, findings from at least one original research study (an experiment or a field study) with appropriate statistical analyses, and a general discussion of the findings. A computational thesis should include a review of the literature and description and discussion of the computational models that the student has completed. A theoretical thesis should include a comprehensive review of the research literature on a psychology topic of importance, including an extensive evaluation of the findings and original interpretations, theoretical proposals, or a proposed program of research to add further scientific knowledge.

Students are encouraged to be proactive in finding a faculty advisor. Some students continue to work with the same advisor as in the spring semester of junior year, but this is not required. To find an advisor you are encouraged to read the research descriptions of faculty on the Psychology Department website to identify topics that are of interest to you. You can then contact faculty directly and arrange to meet with them to get a better sense of what they work on. Once you have settled on a preference you can request to be assigned to that mentor by contacting the Department of Psychology Undergraduate Administrator at Based on that request and consultation with the faculty, you will be assigned to an advisor.

If your senior thesis is an extension of your JP, then some of the background material, the design of an experiment, and in some cases even some of the data may overlap between the two projects. You will have to consult with your advisor about how much overlap is reasonable and how much more you will need to add to the senior thesis. However, when you write the thesis, if there is substantial overlap, you must include a statement at the beginning of the thesis detailing exactly what the overlap is.

Experimental Senior Thesis

Not all students decide to do an experimental thesis. You should discuss the possibilities with your advisor.

Many students join a lab in the Psychology Department and contribute to the ongoing program of research. In that case your research question will evolve from discussions with your advisor and will be closely related to other experiments in the same lab.

Some students elect to do a more independent experiment. The challenge in that case is developing a research question and hypothesis that are of an appropriate scale for a senior independent project. Students often have an easy time deciding on a general research topic but struggle with settling upon a focused research question. The best place to start in developing a research question is to review the literature and to have discussions with your advisor. A literature review will help you determine what is already known about a particular topic and what specific questions other researchers have not yet addressed. It will also expose you to a range of methods used to approach that scientific topic.

Designing the experiment is the most important part of the process. You should discuss the design with your advisor and make sure to get the details right before collecting data. Make sure the design will adequately test your hypotheses. Plan the specific statistical tests you will do, and plan on the right number of subjects to gain sufficient statistical power.

Before you collect data from animals, you must obtain approval from the University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). Before you collect data from humans you must obtain approval from the University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). See the section below on Resources for additional information about the IRB process.

Once the data are collected, you will analyze it, plot it in graphical formats to make the results easier to evaluate, and perform statistical tests to determine if the results vary significantly from what was expected by chance. There are a great range of statistical tests, and you will have to discuss with your advisor to decide which are appropriate. You may even need to collect more data once the initial analysis is complete. Statistical tutoring is available through the Psychology Department. For more information on tutoring and workshops, contact the Department of Psychology Undergraduate Administrator at

An experimental thesis usually has four sections: introduction, methods, results, and discussion.


The Introduction includes a comprehensive review of relevant scientific literature. Typically, you will have many references (sometimes as many as 50 or more) in your literature review. You do not, however, need to discuss every article in exhaustive detail. You might cite a main result from some articles while providing more details for others. As a general guideline, you should include only as much detail as needed to make your point. You should link the articles together so that your Introduction flows logically to your closing statements. Make sure you synthesize the previous research. The Introduction should be a story that explains and develops your understanding of the literature. As you close the Introduction section, you should set the stage for your research study. Briefly lay out your plan; tell the reader how your study is the next logical step in the research. What does your study add to the literature? Include your hypothesis and rationale. How do you plan to examine the unanswered question and what do you expect to happen?


The purpose of this section is to provide step-by-step instructions so someone else could carry out a reasonable replication of your study without your help.


The purpose of this section is to provide an objective description of your findings. Include descriptive statistics (such as means and standard deviations), inferential statistics (p values and statements of statistical significance), and graphs that display the data as clearly as possible.


The goal of the discussion is to provide readers with meaningful commentary about the interpretation, importance, and larger implications of your findings. It is important to remind the reader of your main hypothesis. Was it supported by the data? How does this finding fit in with or relate to past findings? What are the potential weaknesses of your study that you might change if you were  to repeat it? What future experiments might be done to gain more insight about the topic? Place your research in a greater context to show how or why it is important.

Oral Presentation of Thesis

You will be required to present your senior thesis to your primary reader (advisor) and secondary reader as part of the senior thesis oral exam.

  • Time
    You will have 10 to 15 minutes to present your thesis. You will not be able to present every finding in your thesis.
  • Slides
    You are not required to use slides during the presentation, but most students do. You should do what makes you feel most comfortable. If you use slides, remember that less is more. Don’t try to rush through 50 slides in 10 minutes. Rule of thumb: 1 slide per minute.
  • Clarity
    It is good to have 1-2 “take-home” points you want your audience to remember. Keep in mind that you have been studying your research question for a year (or longer) whereas this research could be relatively new to your audience.
  • Graphics
    As the saying goes, a picture (or graph) is worth a thousand words. Keep in mind, however, that pictures that are unrelated to your point can be distracting. The audience should be able to understand the meaning of the image without your explanation. Use graphics to facilitate understanding.


The Advisor

The advisor is a student’s most important resource. You should meet with your advisor as soon as possible to get started on the independent work. You are encouraged to discuss with your advisor their expectations about your research collaboration. Different faculty have different advising styles. Some require a weekly meeting, whereas others will leave the pacing of the work and the amount of student-advisor contact up to you. In the end, it is your independent work.

Below are a few important issues you should consider as you start the collaborative relationship with your advisor.

What is your advisor’s area of expertise? Consider which parts of your advisor’s guidance you will need for each part of the research and writing process.

Talk with your advisor to clarify and establish any expectations you have. Can you meet to brainstorm about ideas or get recommendations for reading? Will s/he read work in progress or only polished drafts? Is it essential to meet weekly or on another schedule?

How many drafts of the paper will your advisor read? Should you write a cover letter that directs your advisor to questions you have about the written work you submit?

Talk with your advisor about your schedule. You are likely to be more productive if you establish deadlines for submission of work and establish expectations for receiving feedback.

Consider what you want to accomplish in individual meetings with your advisor. You might suggest an agenda for each meeting.

Anticipate different ideas about how to approach your independent research. How will you decide which advice to accept and which to reject? How will you negotiate between your vision of the senior thesis and your advisor’s if that becomes an issue? Be prepared to defend the decisions you make about the work and the advisor’s feedback.

Library Resources

As a psychology concentrator, you will have access to an extensive collection of books and journals relevant to psychology in the Lewis Science Library. Moreover, you can use the Princeton University Library Homepage to search databases such as PSYCHINFO, PubMed, Web of Science, Lexis Nexis Academic, Mental Measurements Yearbook, PEP Archive (Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing), Scopus, MIT’s Cog Net, etc.; as well as the Online Catalog, and numerous other information retrieval systems. Many databases and journals are also available electronically and can be searched and read full-text from any computer on campus or through VPN or proxy service when off campus. Additionally, the Behavioral Sciences Librarian, Neil Nero (, can help you find resources that are difficult to reach. Neil can be reached at the Lewis Science Library Room 112 (258-8601).

Writing Center

Housed in Whitman College, the Writing Center offers free one-on-one conferences with experienced fellow writers trained to consult on assignments in any discipline. Special 80- minute conferences are available for JP and senior thesis writers, who may sign up to work with a graduate student fellow from the department of their choice. The Writing Center also holds 50- minute regular conferences seven days a week, and drop-in hours.

Statistics Tutoring and Consultation

The Psychology Department holds ongoing individual consultation on statistical analysis for empirical theses. Participation is voluntary. You will receive emails from the graduate student statistics consultants about how to schedule a consultation.

Training for the Ethical Use of Human Subjects / Animal Subjects

Human Subjects Certification Program

Every research institution, including Princeton University, has an Institutional Review Board (IRB) whose purpose is to protect the rights and welfare of human research participants. The purpose, design, procedures, and other features of all proposed human studies must be fully approved by the IRB before they can be conducted. Researchers must complete and submit copies of questionnaires and be certified by completing the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI). Students receive training on how to complete the IRB questionnaire and prepare for the certification in an extensive workshop that is mandatory for those conducting experimental theses.

Use of Animals in Research

All research involving non-human animals must be reviewed and approved by the University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). Students who plan to use animals for their research must contact the faculty member who is supervising the research project in order to abide by both Princeton University and government regulations.

Writing a Successful IRB: Undergraduate IRB Group Workshops

IRB group workshops are available to psychology undergraduates who are conducting human studies. The workshops are offered throughout the academic year, but students will attend sessions only during the weeks in which they are actually preparing and submitting their study applications to IRB.

The workshop sessions will guide students through IRB procedures and provide them with detailed supervision and feedback for their particular IRB applications, from start to finish – i.e., from their initial writing of the application until their study eventually receives IRB approval.


Independent work is expected to show independence of thought. Students often ask, just how independent does the thinking need to be? Because psychology is a scientific discipline with a large and complex literature, we are not looking for students to propose major new theories or make breakthroughs. For experimental work, independence means that the student has read enough background literature to propose a creative experiment and to design and conduct the experiment thoughtfully without the advisor having to micromanage each step. For a theoretical paper, independence means that the student has read the published literature on a topic, synthesized it, summarized it intelligently, and added some thoughtful critique or perspective.

Senior Thesis- Written Component

The senior thesis grade is determined jointly by two readers, the student's advisor and the second reader assigned by the department. These two grades are averaged together to obtain a single grade for the written component of the senior thesis. The student receives written comments from both readers.

Senior Comprehensive Oral Exam

The final departmental examination is administered at the end of the senior year. It is an oral presentation conducted by the two faculty members who graded the student's written senior thesis. The examination normally lasts 1 hour, and typically begins with the student presenting a brief (10-15 minute) summary of his or her thesis. This is followed by questions, first about the thesis itself and then about related and unrelated areas of psychology. Two equally weighted sub-grades, one for presentation and understanding of the thesis itself, and the other for broader knowledge of psychology are determined jointly by the faculty members present. These two components are averaged for a final senior oral grade.

Grading Categories
Unacceptable (F)

The student did not submit the independent work, or submitted work of such poor quality that it satisfies none of the expectations.

Minimally Acceptable (D range)

Student has reviewed some or all of the recommended material, or completed some of an empirical study. No independent thought is evidenced. The work has one or more of the following problems:

a. Coverage of the relevant material is insufficient, given the expectations that the faculty member established with the student. There is little evidence that the student has critically analyzed the primary literature.

b. The presentation of the material is poor (bad organization and/or bad writing).

c. Any empirical research is inadequately conducted, given the expectations that the faculty member established with the student. The methodological approach is unacceptable and the interpretation of the data is incorrect.

Adequate (C range)

Relevant material is covered and reasonably clearly described. Any empirical research is completed and presented at least partially consistent with the expectations that the faculty member established with the student. However, the student does not exhibit independent thought either in bringing the material together or in responding to it.

Good (B range)

Meets expectations for the assignment. Relevant material is covered. Empirical research is completed consistent with the expectations that the faculty member established with the student. The presentation shows at least some independent thought. However, it may lack complete follow-through or may fail to communicate entirely clearly.

Excellent (A range)

The student has exceeded expectations in some way. There are clear signs of independent thinking, an attempt to try out new ideas. The student has framed a scientific research question and organized the relevant material in a way that shows support for the question. The student critically analyzes the primary scientific literature. Any empirical research is of high quality, including the use of appropriate methodological design and statistical analyses, and the findings are interpreted and discussed meaningfully. The presentation of the material is clear.

Outstanding (A+)

The student has presented genuinely novel insights or ideas, well supported by scholarly and/or empirical research, that changes the fundamental nature of psychological theory. The research meets all of the criteria to be published in a top-tier psychological journal.

Late policy

Extensions are rarely granted for the senior thesis. The criteria include either the student's illness, for which a written medical excuse must be provided or a family emergency. Extensions must be approved by the Departmental Representative and the student’s advisor. For help regarding extensions, students may also ask their residential Dean or the Department of Psychology Undergraduate Administrator (

If an extension is not granted, a penalty will start to accrue on the student's grade beginning with the day following the deadline. Grade penalties for unauthorized late senior thesis submission follow a schedule wherein 1/3 of a letter grade is automatically deducted for every 48 hours (or part thereof) that the thesis is late, weekend days included. A senior thesis which is not received within two weeks of the deadline date will be given a grade of F. After the University deadline, no written work can be accepted for a passing grade without approval from the Dean of the student’s residential college.

If any of the components of the senior thesis are not submitted, the student will fail the senior thesis work for the year.

For specifics regarding independent work due dates and deadlines, see the Important Dates page.