Undertaking an Ethnographic Senior Thesis Project

recommendations by Dr. Lee Cronk

Completing a senior thesis is a major accomplishment that gives students the opportunity to conduct original research and analysis, share their findings with others, and prepare for life after graduation. That said, a senior project is a major undertaking that takes time and careful planning. Here are a few things you should know about the process before you start.

Define your purpose.

Identify why you want to undertake a senior project, and if that is the most efficient way to achieve your goal. Ethnographic thesis projects take several semesters of planning and work, and require significant commitment, initiative, and discipline from the student.

Find a thesis advisor.

You want to develop a working relationship with potential advisors early, during the fall semester of your junior year, ideal. Take their courses, go to their office hours, see if you can get help with their research in any way. Do not wait until you absolutely need an advisor to try to develop a relationship with one of your professors, and don't put all your eggs in one basket either. Do not assume a professor will be around or that she/he will have the time to advise you. Professors do go on leave, and Visiting Assistant Professors (or lecturers) may not be affiliated with the department by the time of your defense. If you really want to work with somebody, ask about their availability and whether or not they will be in residence the semester of your defense.

When you ask a professor to become your thesis advisor, you are asking him/her to take time from his/her research to work with you on your project. This is a very serious request so prepare judiciously. Approach professors who already know you and your work—particularly those who think have a favorable view of your performance. Only ask if you are ready to commit to undertake serious research independently. The only compensation your professor will receive from supervising your thesis is the satisfaction of seeing you develop an excellent project. The exception to this is when your research topic closely aligns with the professor's current research, in which case the potential for mutual benefit is a strong incentive. Just make sure to have a clear understanding of how, if at all, your advisor may cite your work or use data that you collect.

Before you approach a potential thesis advisor, draft a short statement describing the issues, trends, sites, or people you will be studying and presenting your research question or interest. This will provide a good starting point for you and your professor to discuss a viable project.

Can you work with more than one professor?

You will need to have at least one more professor on board to serve as a reader. Readers are less involved in the design and execution of the project.

What kind or research project should you undertake?

Because students have a chance to undertake library research through a variety of courses, I tend only to consider advising students pursuing ethnographic research. I take particular interest on projects that propose original research on broader social issues (i.e., project in which Rutgers student are not the main object of observation or analysis). Overall, thesis projects should enable students to offer and develop new insights into sociocultural phenomena. Since you will be doing your research mostly independently, you should propose a project you are confident you can do well by yourself taking into account the amount of time you have to complete it and resources available to you.

What should my senior thesis look like?

There are many formant options, and you should look at examples from previous years. In my opinion, a paper of publishable quality should be the main component of the thesis. For a senior thesis that basically means a paper that resembles an article manuscript in format, length, and intellectual caliber—a nicely-written 25-30-page paper presenting a novel argument or idea that is supported by collected data and is sufficiently contextualized within the relevant existing scholarship. Ideally, students should aim to submit their thesis papers for review to journals that publish undergraduate research.

The final thesis document may include other components either as chapters or addenda. This may include your project proposal, additional ethnographic writing or analysis, charts and images, or sized-down versions of your conference posters, etc.

A final version of the thesis is deposited with the department, and you should provide your advisor and reader(s) final copies too. It is not necessary to bind the final document, but I do appreciate a digital copy in addition to the paper one.

What kind of honors will I get?

You must do quality research work to receive honors. Students who simply complete their work in a lackluster manner will receive a grade for their independent study credits but no honors. Faculty who participate in your defense determine the level of honors given.

What is a thesis defense?

A thesis defense consists of (1) a short presentation students give before their advisor and reader(s) in which they outline the project, its thesis or argument, findings, and its overall significance; and (2) a Q&A period in which the student responds to queries from the committee.

How long does a senior project take?

During their senior year, thesis students enroll for 3 credits of Anthropology Honors for two semesters (6 credits total). During this time, students work independently on their theses, but under the mentorship of their advisor. For projects requiring ethnographic research, the preparation process starts at least one semester before.

When should you start?

Early! You want to start in your junior year—yes, "Senior Thesis" is a bit a misnomer. Since doing research with human subjects entails much more preparation than library research—one needs to obtain IRB approval, look for funding, secure access to research sites, build rapport with subjects, and even learn a language—students should start preliminary work at least the semester prior to their first independent study. Students who spend time designing a good project and clearing all the administrative and logistical requirements the semester before their senior year have more time to develop to research and writing, which results in work of much higher quality. A suggested timeline below outlines what students need to or should do and when if they wish to pursue a successful senior thesis project. Don't be discouraged if you are a little "late." Some of our students have done great work under far from ideal time constraints.



Recommended by Prof. Rocío Magaña


  • Develop a relationship with potential advisors.
  • Reach out to students currently writing senior theses.
  • Take a look at past senior theses. Our Undergraduate Program Administrator keeps copies in her office.
  • Write a short statement about the project you would like to do. Include your research question and provide a little bit of context on the issue(s), site(s), subjects/participants, etc. This will help you discuss your project with potential research advisors.


  • Enroll in the Department's Ethnographic Methods Course. The course is not mandatory to write a senior thesis but it is highly recommended.
  • Secure a thesis advisor. There are some forms that need to filled out before the semester is out.
  • Write a full project proposal that includes a statement of problem, a preliminary review of relevant literature and methodology.
  • Submit an IRB protocol for review.
    • For summer research: submit by April 12th.
    • May 12th should work to start in the fall.
  • Look for funding and sources of support.
    • The Anthropology Dept. reviews applications for Bigel Fellowships at least once a year.
    • Visit the Aresty Research Center for Undergraduate Students and ask about their programs.
  • Develop a preliminary bibliography on your topic. Have your advisor review it.
  • Attend the Department's Undergraduate Research Colloquium (late April).
  • Develop a plan of action and communication for the summer with your advisor.


  • Read, read, read.
  • Start your research. Please note that your IRB protocol must be approved before you start any activities with human subjects.
  • Start writing.


  • Continue research.
  • Take Ethnographic Writing course.
  • Read, read, read.
  • Start or continue writing.
  • Sign up for honors credit (3 ind. study credits).
  • Meet with your advisor and establish a plan of action and expectations for the semester.
  • Data analysis: You want to complete all data analysis during this semester.
  • Thesis outline. Discuss with your advisor when you should have a thesis outline. (I prefer to see one by early November).
  • Look for undergraduate student conferences and other opportunities to present your research.


  • Write!
  • Conclude any pending data analysis.


  • Start the semester with a complete rough draft of your thesis. It does not need to be perfect or polished, but it should be as complete as possible.
  • Sign up for honors credit (3 ind. study credits).
  • Meet with advisor and outline a plan for revisions.
  • If you haven't already, identify a Second Thesis Reader. Discuss your project and set expectations.
  • Complete thesis and submit it to advisors by mid March.
  • Secure a defense and defend (early April is ideal). All defenses must take place by mid April.
  • Prepare a poster for the Undergraduate Research Colloquium in late April.
  • Present your research anywhere you can.
  • Complete suggested revisions.
  • Deposit a final version of your thesis with the Anthropology Undergraduate Administrator and give copies to your advisor and reader(s).
  • Consider submitting your research to journals that publish undergraduate work.