Senior vs. Junior vs. Graduate Thesis: What's the Difference?


(Updated on March 15, 2020)

A senior thesis is a lengthy, usually investigation-based text completed in the final year or semester of an undergraduate's study.  Senior theses are typically completed in the area of a student's major and are intended to demonstrate the student's expertise in his/her field of study.  In this way, a senior thesis can be understood as the undergraduate equivalent of a master's thesis or doctoral dissertation—it it intended to be a large undertaking that proves a student's mastery in his/her chosen field.

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Senior Thesis in College

Some undergraduates are confused when they first hear the term "senior thesis," because they have probably only used the word "thesis" to describe a thesis statement—a sentence or group of sentences that encapsulate the essential point of a text.  A senior thesis isn't a sentence or a group of sentences but a multiple-page document.  However, it also encapsulates an essential point—the essential point or focus of a student's area of study.

Senior vs. Junior vs. Graduate Thesis: What's the Difference?A senior thesis will likely be the largest academic undertaking a student does in his/her undergraduate experience.  Many universities realize this, and require that students enroll in courses designed specifically for assistance with the composition process.  However, even with this type of guidance, the expectation for senior theses is that students work independently and individually to generate a unique academic text.  Therefore, it's imperative for students to carefully plan their projects in order to meet the deadlines and expectations of their institution.  This usually requires beginning the process months before the thesis is due.

The first step for a senior thesis is selecting a specific topic.  This topic should be related to the student's major (or sometimes minor) field of study.  Sometimes, students come to their senior thesis topics by talking with professors in their field in order to establish an area of interest.  Other times, students choose a topic on which they have already worked or written, and use the thesis to expand that previous work into something of greater depth and originality.  Regardless of how the topic is chosen, it's important for the student to select a topic that intrigues her, as the composition process is long and requires considerable devotion.

After the topic has been selected, the senior should form a thesis committee.  This committee is typically comprised of three professors at the student's institution.  One of these will be the thesis advisor—the primary source of guidance for the student.  The other two will be auxiliary committee members.  The committee is designed to assist a student in all aspects of the composition process; therefore, the student should openly and regularly communicate with the committee in order to receive valuable feedback and guidance throughout the duration of the thesis project.

Senior theses require a significant amount of data collection.  It is advisable to perform this research before the writing process begins, as the student can't write an informed thesis without being aware of the relevant literature existing on his/her thesis topic.  This research will likely take several weeks or even months, and should be done under the close advisement of the student's committee.

Once the research has been completed and a student is ready to compose his/her senior thesis, it's important that he/she construct a plan that includes both a general organization of the thesis and personal deadlines to keep the student on track.  Senior theses are frequently required to be thirty pages or more, which means they will take a while to write.  Furthermore, they will require the student to write in an in-depth and detailed way.  Therefore, it's advisable to leave at least one month for just the writing aspect of the senior thesis process.  This will give the student enough time to compose multiple drafts—all of which should be submitted to the student's committee for review.

Junior Thesis in High School

A junior thesis is a common, academic researching and writing assignment for juniors in high school.  When students must complete a junior thesis as part of high school curriculum, an entire high school's junior class will generally work on theses together throughout the year.  In some cases, teachers provide junior thesis topics to their students.  In other cases, students are at liberty to select their own topics.

For many high school students, a junior thesis is the largest body of work that they will have attempted to date.  The junior thesis researching and writing may occupy an entire year or an entire semester, depending on the student and the traditions in a high school.  No matter how a junior thesis schedule is set up, one thing is certain: students should never wait until the last minute in order to research and write their junior theses.

The first step in completing a junior thesis involves selecting a topic.  When a teacher assigns the topic, the student may be able to select a subtopic that interests him/her.  However, when a student is able to select his/her own topic, he/she is at an advantage as he/she can write the junior thesis about something that grabs his/her interests.

In most high schools, learners will be assigned an adviser, who will help them research, develop, and write the junior thesis.  When a student works closely with an adviser, the adviser will check to make sure that the student is staying on track with his/her research and that the student is truly challenging himself/herself to learn more about the topic.  Advisers not only help to ensure that students don't slack off when completing their junior theses, but they can also provide insight and direction to students who are developing the body of work.

After a student has researched a topic about which he/she wishes to write the thesis, he/she should create the thesis outline.  It will provide direction and flow.  Plus, when a student works with an outline, he/she will know that there's room to include all of the information that he/she wishes to include in the thesis before beginning the hypothesis writing.

The format for the document should include an introduction, body, and conclusion.  The introduction needs to have a thesis statement, which is a one-sentence assertion that explains what the thesis will be about and briefly defines the conclusion.  Each body paragraph needs to support that thesis with new information or ideas.  The conclusion pulls together the body paragraphs in order to provide a conclusion that ties the thesis together and makes the information presented sensible.

A junior thesis is very similar to a reference project.  Both papers are academic bodies of work that students spend months researching and developing.  Junior thesis projects often dictate what subjects a student might be interested in when he/she goes to college.  Dissertations help to define a student's career just before he/she receives a Ph.D. Therefore, both works are generally very important and eye-opening for students.

However, junior theses are completed by high school juniors and are generally not as academically advanced or challenging as dissertations.  Such documents are completed by graduating Ph.D. students as the final hurdle towards obtaining a doctorate.  Therefore, dissertations are often more substantial and ground-breaking than junior theses, though they may be equally as important for the different academic levels.

Graduate Thesis at a University

A graduate thesis—also called a master's thesis or a doctoral thesis, depending on the graduate student's degree status—is a lengthy, original document completed in the student's field of expertise.  Graduate theses are intended to demonstrate a student's knowledge in his/her field, as well as his/her ability to contribute significant work to the data in that field.  Graduate theses are thus both culminating projects and rites of passage—they reveal students' readiness to progress to the next levels of their academic careers.

master's theses and doctoral theses differ primarily in length and depth.  A doctoral degree takes longer to complete and requires more in-depth study than a master's degree.  In keeping, a doctoral thesis is expected to be significantly longer, more in-depth, and more original than a master's thesis.  Besides this, there's little difference between the two.  All graduate theses must demonstrate students' advanced knowledge in their areas of study and must present some type of new insight regarding their topics.  In this way, a graduate thesis is radically different from a standard graduate paper.  Graduate theses must advance some type of original knowledge.

A graduate thesis is intended to be a work of independent and original scholarship; however, all graduate theses should be completed under the guidance of a supervising professor and committee.  These individuals are advanced professors in the student's field who assist in every step of the composition process in order to mentor the student and monitor his/her progress.  Every graduate student completing a thesis is required to have such a committee.

The format and style of graduate theses will vary according to a student's field and discipline.  However, most graduate theses will follow a general format that includes:

  1. a few pages of front matter, including a title page, abstract, and table of contents;
  2. an introduction;
  3. the main body of the document;
  4. a conclusion;
  5. a list of references;
  6. an appendix, if necessary.

The most important aspect of any graduate thesis is, of course, the main body.  The format of the main body is determined by whether the thesis is a critical analysis or a research study.  A critical analysis thesis is typically completed in the humanities, and examines a text or theory in an original way.  The main bodies of these types of graduate theses can typically take a format of the author's choosing.  A research study, on the other hand, usually follows a standard format, consisting of:

  1. an introduction of the research problem and a statement of the study's purpose;
  2. a review of existing literature on the topic;
  3. a methodology section explaining the study's procedure;
  4. a results chapter outlining the study's findings;
  5. a discussion chapter that suggests the implications of the results.

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