Carnegie Mellon University

Senior Theses

Senior theses are independent research projects that students complete in close collaboration with a faculty mentor.  Students who complete a senior thesis project select their own research topic, meaning that you will have the opportunity to find answers to the research questions that you find most compelling. 

Any student in the department may elect to complete a senior thesis project, provided that they have a Psychology faculty mentor who agrees to supervise their work.  Students with QPAs that are 3.0 and above may be invited to apply to the Dietrich Senior Honors Thesis program in the second semester of their junior year (Learn more about the Dietrich Honors Thesis). 

Students who do not meet this QPA requirement can still complete a thesis, but should instead apply to the psychology department thesis program.

Senior thesis projects vary depending on the student’s research interests, but you always involve the direct application of the skills that you have learned in your Research Methods courses.  To complete your project, you may:

  • Conduct a literature search in which you review and synthesize previously published research on your chosen topic
  • Generate a hypothesis
  • Collect and design experimental stimuli
  • Collect data (often including recruiting and testing participants)
  • Analyze data
  • Write an APA-style research paper describing your hypotheses, methods, and findings

Many students who complete a senior thesis also present their work at Meeting of the Minds, a university-wide research symposium held each May on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus.

Students typically spend one academic year (two separate semesters) planning, conducting, analyzing, and writing up the results of their research projects.  Students typically apply in the spring semester of their junior year and begin work on their projects in the fall semester of their senior year.

You should begin the senior honors thesis application during the spring of your junior year.  Note, however, that many potential advisors will only agree to advise a thesis if a student has already been trained in research procedures.  As such, to have the best chance of a successful thesis application, you should try to find a research assistant position by the beginning of your junior year.

If you have already worked in a research laboratory, the PI of that lab may be an excellent advisor for your senior thesis.  But if your research interests diverge from those of the lab in which you have worked, you should find a faculty mentor whose research interests are closer to your own.  To do so, you should read through faculty web pages to find a faculty member whose area of research fits your own interests.  Once you have identified a potential advisor, get in touch with them via e-mail to set up a meeting and discuss your research ideas.  In your initial e-mail, you should include your qualifications (e.g., a CV/resume, any prior research experience) and a brief summary of the area of interest you hope to explore in your thesis.

Once you have identified an advisor, you will need to submit a thesis proposal. This should be developed in collaboration with your advisor; so all proposals will be different. Typically, however, a good thesis proposal is 2-3 pages long. The first page provides a brief summary of the literature in your area of interest, and identifies an unanswered question that can be addressed by your research project.  The remaining pages provide the details of your proposed research project: hypotheses, method, predicted results, and a discussion of how these results would answer the question you set out to explore.

Students often work on thesis projects that complement the research that their faculty advisor is currently conducting. Below are some of the senior thesis projects of recent graduates.


Hayley Rahl (DC’14)

Title: Brief Mindfulness Meditation Training and Stress Reactivity: Mechanisms and Outcomes


Mindfulness training has long been shown to improve both mental and physical health.  Hayley created training programs that separated awareness and acceptance, two critical components of mindfulness training, to see if they have different effects.  As part of the study, Hayley analyzed participants’ responses to computer tasks that measured whether the training programs altered participants’ attentional control and emotion regulation.


Anna Van de Velde (DC ’15)

Title: Towards Improving Diagnosis of ADHD: Assessing Diagnostic Potential of a New Clinical Test


Anna collaborated with the Being Well Center, a clinic dedicated to the assessment and treatment of attention disorders.  Through their work they have developed a tool they believed to be helpful in diagnosing ADHD.  She was trained on the tool and then administered it to undergrads at CMU who do not have an ADHD diagnosis.  She then compared the results to those of the patients at the Being Well Center to determine if the tool was an effective way to diagnose ADHD.  


Halley Bayer (DC ’15)

Title: Offline Associative Learning


Halley tested whether offline processing, or continued thinking of information outside of conscious awareness, could help promote learning. The study used real-world stimuli (teaching participants names of owls) and investigated what type of distractor task worked best to facilitate offline processing.  The study was designed using Qualtrics survey software and was run online using Amazon Mechanical Turk, allowing participants from across the United States to participate in the study.

When you apply for a SURG or SURF grant, you must choose a faculty member who will supervise your project.  Students often choose faculty members for whom they have already worked as a research assistant, but you should choose a mentor who is conducting research that you find exciting because students’ projects are often related to their faculty mentor’s work.

Schedule a meeting with the faculty member to ask if they are willing and able to supervise a project in the coming semester.  After they have agreed, you and your mentor will discuss the details of your project and you will begin drafting a proposal.

Many students from every college in the university apply for SURG and SURF grants each semester, and the university only awards grants to the best applicants.  To be granted funding, you must submit a strong proposal.

Start early

SURG and SURF proposals have several components, including a personal statement, a letter of support from your faculty advisor, a resume, and a detailed statement describing your research project.  To write a strong research statement, you will need to read and cite related literature, clearly explain the methods and importance of your project, and convince the Undergraduate Research Office that you have the skills and resources to accomplish your project within your proposed timeline. 

You will likely write and revise several drafts of your proposal based on feedback from your faculty mentor. To prepare a strong application, you should begin your application at least one month prior to the due date.

Seek feedback

Ask your faculty mentor for examples of successful proposals—many students within our department have received both SURG and SURF grants, and it is helpful to have a strong model while writing.

The Undergraduate Research Office also holds workshops to help students write strong proposals.  Consider attending one of these workshops, or meeting with a member of the Undergraduate Research Office.  Visit URO’s website to learn more.