Photo C/O Grant Holt
As students return from the winter break to begin new classes, a large population of students will be returning to their undergraduate thesis or seeking a thesis supervisor for the following year. The undergraduate thesis is a characteristic, and sometimes required, component of many four-year honours degree programs. Regardless of program, senior theses are designed to allow upper-year students to hone their research skills and prepare them for graduate studies.
I am completing my undergraduate thesis in an analytical chemistry lab alongside five other undergraduate students. While our projects vary in nature, the expectations of our thesis in terms of time commitment and research goals are essentially the same. However, the assessments for my thesis as an integrated science student differs from that of the chemistry students in the lab, which differ even from the chemical biology students — despite being in the same department of chemistry and chemical biology.
For example, the thesis report for students in the chemistry program is worth 40 per cent of their final grade whereas the same document for students in the chemical biology program is worth only 25 per cent. Besides the differences in weighting for the same assessment, students in chemical biology are required to complete different assessments like project outlines and interim reports while chemistry students must only complete their report and final presentation.
While all senior theses conducted by students in the department of chemistry and chemical biology are worth nine units, senior theses that conduct arguably similar work from students in the department of biochemistry can be worth up to 15 units. This becomes especially alarming when students from departments outside of biochemistry complete their thesis in a biochemistry lab and receive less units than their biochemistry student counterparts.
It makes little sense to have students that are under the same expectations and striving towards similar research goals receiving different academic credit.
Rather than the assessment for senior theses dictated by the program to which these students belong, assessments should be decided by the supervisor. This will not only ensure that students completing virtually the same work are assessed equally, it will provide supervisors more control over the research conducted under their supervision and allow them to create assessments that better reflect students’ achievements.
Additionally, as all senior theses share the same goal to improve students’ research capabilities, and considering students, for the most part, can conduct their thesis under the supervision of a supervisor outside of their program’s department, there is no real need for program-specific thesis courses. If the fear is that students within the same program will not develop the same transferable skills or be graded equally, the faculty rather than the program can mandate that all senior theses must include specific components and the same time commitments.
It may also be useful to consider implanting a mandatory seminar session for undergraduate thesis students to attend. The integrated science program already has such a seminar in place, where thesis students within the program are required to present updates on their research and peer-review literature reports and other related assessments.
If seminars like these were to be implemented faculty-wide, the typical undergraduate senior thesis could be restructured so that it is in total worth a standard number of units where the large per cent of a student’s grade is determined by their supervisor, and a certain smaller per cent is devoted to seminar assessments.
No matter what action is taken, it is clear that the current structure of undergraduate senior theses does not create fair opportunities for all students involved and requires serious restructuring.