I heard summer grants are competitive. Is the bar just as high to get into the thesis program?

Contributor: B. Zakarin, Office of Fellowships, b-zakarin@northwestern.edu
Posted: 2011


Your goal in a thesis proposal is to convince the History Department’s Honors Committee—and your advisor—that your project represents a meaningful capstone to your experience in the major.  You can pursue a feasible and important thesis between September and May of your senior year; it is called the Senior Thesis Program for precisely that reason.  The Honors Committee does not privilege summer starters over fall starters when making admissions decisions.  The key criterion is the alignment of means and ends.  For example, if you plan to start in September, then your proposed thesis should rely on sources available locally, either in physical or electronic format.

A thesis proposal does not need a timetable for research or proof of contacts; such specificity is required only for grant proposals.  Even if you are not applying for a summer grant, however, you should address these details as soon as possible.  You will have to confront them at some point anyway, and early planning may preempt unpleasant surprises later.  Indeed, careful planning may be more important for those students not conducting summer research because they will actually have less time to act on their proposals come September.  


Each year, one third to one half of the History Department’s prospective thesis writers seek summer grants.  Some hope to incorporate materials from distant archives that they could not visit during the academic year.  Others sense that they need time to start on voluminous or complex sources that would be too daunting to delay until fall.

A grant proposal must convince an interdisciplinary committee of faculty to spend thousands of dollars in support of your research.  You cannot assume that readers will appreciate why a topic that you, a budding historian, find fascinating needs further scholarly attention.  Thus, you must pitch the significance of your project to a broader audience.  Your efforts to do so will pay dividends.  In the short term, you will be better able to articulate the importance of your research questions, and thus the questions themselves.  In the longer term, you will have more ways to describe the relevance of your historical research to prospective employers, admissions committees, or fellowship selectors.

Northwestern’s funding pool for undergraduate research is deep, but not bottomless.  Also, committee members read many grant proposals and sometimes have to make hard choices.  A good proposal makes their job easier: it is short (approximately 2 single-spaced pages), gets to the point, and anticipates reasonable questions about the project’s viability.  Your task is to convince the committee that your project is a worthwhile investment—that is, that you will advance the University’s educational mission by making your own contribution to knowledge.