For Krista Honomichl, completing the Honors thesis requires a full deck of cards.
The junior criminal science and political science double major is centering her study on the effects of winning on rape empathy—how power reflects empathy in cases of sexual assault.
“We know from other studies that people from social power often times accept rape or blame victims more than those that are socially powerless,” she said. “So the question was ‘how do we operationalize power?’”
To simulate a power spectrum, Honomichl’s participants first play a card game similar to Blackjack. Some win, some lose. Then, they read a series of sexual assault vignettes and describe their view on who was at fault—the perpetrator or the victim.
“We’re going to see if those answers change depending on if they won the game or lost the game,” Honomichl said.
In addition to 52 cards, Honomichl must offer something more to complete her study: time and money–treasured possessions among the college demographic. Students who choose to complete their thesis undergo a journey that occupies three semesters, and if defended, graduate with the title of “Thesis Scholar.”
The process begins with UHON 398 “Thesis Prep,” a one-credit course that students take during the fall semester of their third year.
“You start getting into your thesis groove around fall of your junior year,” Honomichl said. “It goes over the basics—thinking of topics that interest you, a question you can ask based on that topic, and then finding three or four faculty members or people outside of the university that would have some expertise in that field to help you along with that process.”
60-70 percent of students enter the Thesis Prep course unsure of what question they want to pursue, said Scott Breuninger, USD’s honors director.
“I ask them to start big. I ask them, ‘what are you really interested in?’” he said. “Because the thesis can really be on any topic. We’ve had people in pre-med who do fine arts projects.”
Following Thesis Prep, students can take 2-6 credits of UHON 498 “Honors Thesis” throughout their third and fourth years.
“That’s when you’re working on your thesis. You’ve created your committee, that has at least two faculty members and then either one more faculty member or someone from outside the university, and you go forward with the project,” he said. “If it’s experiment based, you do your experiment, you collect your review info and put it all together.”
Lastly, after the student completes their thesis and their committee reviews it, they must defend it in front of a panel. If defended, the thesis stands and is published.
Breuninger said in his six years of leading thesis courses, only one theses’ defense hadn’t held up to the panel.
“The only cases we run into problems is when the student doesn’t stay in close contact with the faculty members and then try to rush everything at the end, so faculty members haven’t seen any of it before the defense,” he said.
According to USD, a student eligible for in-state tuition pays $302 per credit hour. This means a finished thesis can cost between $906 and $2,114. However, most students don’t take more than two credits following Thesis Prep unless they want to “carve out” an allotment of time to work on their thesis during their senior year, Breuninger said.
“A thesis is a pretty substantial undertaking, and I think it would certainly be worth five credits, but I think students, rightly so, don’t want to pay for extra credits,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for students to do what they want to while earning credits toward graduation. There is a cost, and that’s an important consideration, but it’s a cost that directly helps them.”
In the case of junior medical biology student Ben Jacobs, Breuninger’s estimation stands true. Jacobs said he spends an average of five hours a week working on his thesis.
“One hour is a meeting with someone on my committee and usually four hours doing literature review and other stuff. Since I am taking one credit of my thesis I am trying to treat it like a course,” he said.
Jacobs’ thesis studies “the curriculum of the medical school and cultural competence in diversity.”
For his thesis, Jacobs is sending surveys to students enrolled in USD’s medical program, asking how they’re being educated on treating diverse peoples, specifically Native Americans. He said the extra work it entails doesn’t weigh on him in his other studies.
“I like biology, right? Because that’s my major. But if I was doing more biology research, it might be redundant to be learning in class and do a survey, but because I’m passionate about religion and diverse peoples, this gets me away from my schoolwork,” he said. “It’s about communication. I’m not learning about the mitochondria during my thesis, I’m going to be learning about how to work with diverse peoples, which I would argue is more important when you’re working with patients.”
Jacobs said the cost was a concern, but never deterred him from completing his study.
“It’s hard because of the financial aspect, but I’m so far in debt already, add another zero, I really don’t care,” he said. “Overall, it’s worth it. That’s why I joined. I picked it up as a sophomore because I wanted to.”
Honomichl, however, said she occasionally had second thoughts.
“I will say I’ve had hesitations. I’ve considered dropping it before because of the extra time requirements and the money component,” she said. “However, at this point, with the aspirations of what I want to do after graduating–I want to go to law school and get a joint degree in policy–having a thesis that looks at a specific area I think will be beneficial for me applying for law school and grad school.”
The thesis forces students to reflect on “how they work,” according to Breuninger.
“There’s something about the process, and learning how to have self-discipline and learning how to motivate yourself and learning how to deal with ambiguity,” he said. “When they sit down, they can do literally anything, which is something you can’t do in any other class.”
Breuninger said constructing a thesis allows students to get a taste of their profession’s work before their career begins; a valuable headstart in today’s competitive climate.
“In today’s environment, whether you’re looking for jobs or trying to figure out what you want to do with your life if you’re standing still and not pushing yourself, you’re falling behind. I feel the thesis provides a real opportunity for students to get a better sense of who they are and what they want to do.”
Students may feel more comfortable paying for thesis courses if they knew where their money is going, Honomichl said.
“I was talking to a friend that goes to South Dakota State and she’s also in the honors program. They don’t necessarily require a thesis but they require an independent study and a paper…so basically a thesis. I was talking to her about it, I was like ‘I can’t believe I have to pay upwards of $1,000 just to write this thesis, and she was like ‘I don’t really have a problem with it because it’s going to benefit the department.’”
Honomichl said the honors program at SDSU allows students to take credits through any department, and in turn, those tuition dollars return to the department (South Dakota State’s Honors program did not respond to calls confirming this).
“I think that’s something that I would like USD doing. Instead of it going to the honors program, granted they use that money to take us on trips and stuff, but I would much rather spend my money knowing that it’s going back to the dept that I’m working in. since they’ve provided so much for me, I’d really like that my money would go back to benefit them.”