Requirements for the Honors Program

Any physics or astronomy major who satisfies the following criteria is eligible to participate in Departmental Honors:

  1. An overall GPA of 3.3 or higher
  2. A GPA of 3.3 or higher in all physics, astronomy, and mathematics courses.
  3. A refereed publication or an honors thesis (see below for details)
  4. At least 2 quarters of Physics/Astronomy 398 (Honors Independent Study) or Physics/Astronomy 399 (Independent Study) spent working on the publication or thesis project.

Students who meet the above criteria and wish to participate in the Honors Program must notify the Director of Undergraduate Studies during or before fall quarter of senior year.  All necessary documents (see below) must be submitted to the Director of Undergraduate Studies by May 1 of senior year. 

Why Pursue Departmental Honors?

Departmental honors is a great way to highlight the skills you have learned, pursue a project you are interested in, teach others about your research and potentially publish a paper. For more information and reasons to do an honors thesis, talk to your advisor and to the director of undergraduate studies. 

Details of the Honors Program

The core of the Honors Program is participation in research supervised by a Physics & Astronomy faculty member.  Physics and astronomy are highly technical fields, and thus it is quite unusual for undergraduate students to make completely original research contributions.  It is more feasible for students to participate in ongoing research projects within the department, and to make self-directed contributions to those projects.  Also, it is rare for research projects in physics and astronomy to be “tidy” enough that they can be completed in less than six months.  Students should therefore expect that their Honors research will extend over at least two quarters, and more typically over a year.

To this end, Honors candidates must be enrolled for at least two quarters of Physics 398 (Honors Independent Study). However, Physics 399 (Independent Study) can be used in lieu of 398 if the Director of Undergraduate Studies determines that the work done is directly relevant to the student’s Honors research project.

Honors candidates must present evidence that they have contributed in an original way to an ongoing research program in the department.  This may be done in one of two ways.

1. Honors Thesis

The thesis must describe a contribution to a research project, and must consist substantially of work performed by the candidate.  A paper that only reviews or summarizes a research field will not merit honors.  The mere presence of data, without application or interpretation, will also not normally qualify as an honors thesis.

In certain cases, the construction or development of experimental apparatus or computer software may be of sufficient originality as to merit Departmental Honors. The student may submit a thesis describing these technical contributions, and detailing how these have contributed to the work of the research group. 

The thesis should be concise, and written in the style of a professional journal publication.  Long, pedagogical treatments are not appropriate. The thesis should contain the following parts: 

  1. Title page
  2. A one-paragraph abstract
  3. A brief overview of the research problem, and a short discussion of why physicists are interested in this problem.
  4. A discussion of the research performed by the student. Evidence should be presented that the research involved a substantial amount of independent thought and/or self-directed effort.
  5. Acknowledgements
  6. References

Sample Thesis from previous years' Best Thesis Winners:

2. Professional Publication

If the student makes a contribution to a research group of sufficient importance as to merit inclusion as a co-author on a refereed publication, a copy of the paper may be submitted to the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee instead of a thesis.  In addition, students must submit a short report describing their specific contribution to the published journal article, and outlining how their work fit into the overall research project of which they were a member.

In all cases, the necessary documents must be submitted to the research advisor for review and approval by April 15. After revisions if any, the research advisor then sends the documents to the Director of Undergraduate Studies by May 1, along with a letter (typically 1-2 pages) in support of the student’s claim to an Honors degree. An independent letter of evaluation from another P&A faculty member is also required, and this is normally solicited by the student’s advisor. This letter (typically less than one page) should be sent directly to the Director of Undergraduate Studies by May 1.


Spring of Junior Year/Fall of Senior Year: Students who meet the above criteria and wish to participate in the Honors Program notify the Director of Undergraduate Studies.  

April 15 of Senior Year (or earlier): Honors candidate submits all necessary documents to the research advisor for review.  Any corrections or changes recommended by the advisor should be made by May 1.

April 15 of Senior Year (or soon afterwards): Research advisor identifies a suitable evaluator (normally a faculty member in Physics & Astronomy), sends the draft documents to him/her, and requests a written evaluation (less than one page). 

May 1 of Senior Year: Research advisor sends the final documents to the Director of Undergraduate Studies, along with a supporting letter (1-2 pages). The evaluator also sends a letter directly to the Director of Undergraduate Studies.


For more information, email the Director of Undergraduate Studies at dusphysics@northwestern.edu