Senior Thesis in Comparative Literature and Society

Senior Thesis in Medical Humanities

A vademecum

General Information

The Senior Thesis in Comparative Literature and Society and the Senior Thesis in Medical Humanities give students the opportunity to deepen and refine their interest in a particular subject, establish a sustained intellectual relationship with a Columbia or Barnard Faculty member, and be considered for ICLS Departmental Honors.

Students are advised to start thinking about their thesis, including possible topics and faculty members who might serve as Thesis Supervisors, in the Spring Semester of their junior year.

CLS and Medical Humanities majors are encouraged to consult with the DUS early in the process. The DUS can offer early advice on topic and Supervisor selection.

Note: Medical Humanities majors are also encouraged to consult with Professor Rishi Goyal (, Director of Medical Humanities, for advice on the early steps of thesis construction. If you plan to use the Health Sciences Library, please see the slide show from this Fall 2022 orientation.

Students who decide to write a thesis will enroll in a year-long course (CPLS3995) starting in the Fall of their Senior Year. This year-long, 3-credit course (1.5 credits in Fall, 1.5 credits in Spring) will allow students to receive academic credits for their thesis, and to count the thesis towards completion of their major requirement when necessary (Requirement #10 of the CLS Course Chart).

The Thesis: What Is It?

The Senior Thesis is a piece of scholarly research, the model for which is an academic journal article. A translation or a piece of creative work, such as a piece of creative writing, can be submitted with the prior approval of the DUS, and must be accompanied by an explanatory introduction or foreword of no less than 5000 words in length.

The Senior Thesis must be between 11,000 and 15,000 words, in 12-point font, and double-spaced. The total page count includes the preface or introduction, the main body of the thesis, references and/or a bibliography, and appendices (when applicable). The following items (all of which are optional and are not required) do not count toward the total page number: Title page; Table of contents; List of charts, graphs, and illustrations.

The Thesis must be written in English unless the student has received permission to write in another language. The citational and bibliographical style will be decided in consultation with the Thesis Supervisor.

Who Can Be Your Thesis Supervisor?

Any Columbia and Barnard faculty member can serve as Thesis Supervisor.  This is usually a person you have worked with previously or taken a class with, or who is an expert in your subject matter. You are encouraged to discuss with your DUS before finalizing your choice.

Why Write A Senior Thesis?

The Senior Thesis is the culmination of a student’s journey through the major. It presents a unique opportunity to utilize one’s skills in research, critical analysis, and sustained written argumentation while developing a topic of choice and, in the process, gain valuable scholarly expertise. Being completed in close collaboration with a Faculty member, the Senior Thesis provides an occasion to develop a close academic relationship with someone who is an expert in their field, and to experience the rewards and demands of academic research during this year-long process.

The Senior Thesis is the capstone of a student’s undergraduate studies, and represents valuable experience – and precious training – for those considering a graduate career in academia, as well as any other endeavor involving research and writing.

On the Construction and Completion of the Thesis

1 How to Find and Shape a topic?

If you are still reading, you may indeed end up writing a Senior Thesis in ICLS! Let me now address you directly, (future) thesis writer.

First, how do you find a topic? Topics arise from curiosity, interest, love at first sight with a text or work of art, and the desire to explore and learn more about a particular issue or a complicated question.  In the early steps of the process of identifying a topic, you should cast a wide net: What is it that you like to study? What are the areas, events, authors, exchanges, issues, or archives that have nourished your curiosity? How are they connected? In answering the last of these questions, you are beginning to shape your thesis comparatively. The way you decide to explore and organize the comparison will shape the structure of your work.

The topic for your thesis is often – but not necessarily – the result of your engagement with a particular question, theme, or set of works in a class you have taken. You have the option, in accordance with your Supervisor, to develop the Senior Thesis from a research paper you have already written.

After identifying the broader contours of your topic, your focus should shift to progressively scaling down and refining your topic so that a limited, manageable, yet clear and fruitful set of questions will guide your thesis. The nature of your revised frame of inquiry should remain comparative: How do texts, contexts, events, images, or social practices inform each other and amplify information when they are brought into shared frames of analysis? What might comparing, contrasting, or otherwise juxtaposing material allow us to see that we might not otherwise see when we read or interpret materials separately, or solely within their tradition, context, or medium?

2 Sources

Identifying your sources is crucial to defining your topic and to constructing an appropriate set of methodology(ies) for your thesis. Like other aspects of writing a senior thesis, deciding what kind of sources to use or what text/material to include or exclude is a process of refinement that will require time and that will invariably involve making a set of difficult choices. It is not possible, nor should one try, to write about everything at once!

Some helpful tips:

* Start locating and assembling the corpus of your thesis early, in terms of both primary sources (novels, art pieces, archival sources, etc.) and relevant secondary sources (scholarship).

* Continue to refine that corpus in conversation with your Supervisor while remaining attentive to your evolving interests and preoccupations, until the final core texts or authors become clear.

* Do not be afraid to change your mind, but at the same time bear in mind that this is just one serious piece of writing. There will be others.

* Because the thesis is limited in scope – and one of your first research experiences – it cannot encompass all of your interests. If you are dealing with a large quantity of material, in the very early stages of the process your attention should be directed to breaking down your interests (and the materials that will allow you to develop them) into smaller, more manageable chunks. Your thesis will grow out of this process of selection, execution, and imagination.

3) Research and early Writing: the Outline and a Preliminary Bibliography:

The goal of the Fall semester of your Senior year should be completing a good amount of research and reading. Do not wait for research to finish to start writing: research never finishes. To start and grow your work, take advantage of the structure of the Senior Seminar, which is aimed to encourage you to start writing early, even if that only means a few sentences, a paragraph, or a page. Make an outline and keep it up-to-date and useful. As you keep reading and narrowing the scope of your intervention, keep revising the outline and, in light of it, readjust the direction of your writing. Submit your abstract and writing to your Supervisor throughout the Fall semester, and by the time Spring comes, you will have a clear roadmap, as well as sufficient progress, to finish the thesis as thoroughly and carefully as it deserves, while preventing the April 15th deadline from becoming a source of anxiety.

4) Funding your research
You may apply through research funding through your college. Students in Columbia College see this page. Note the deadline is usually in the Fall term. Students in the College of General Studies may apply in either term, information can be found here. Consult these websites for application details and updated deadlines. Barnard College students can find funding resources here. *Note that this page also has additional funding resources for which CC and GS students may be eligible.

5) Coversheet details
We do not have strict guidelines regarding the format of the coversheet but we ask that you include: the thesis title, the date, your name, the phrase “Senior Thesis in (your major) at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University,” and your thesis advisor and their department.

Submission Deadline and Grading

The deadline for submitting the Senior Thesis is April 15th.The Thesis will be submitted electronically to the DUS of ICLS and to the Thesis Supervisor. Medical Humanities majors will also submit, at the same time, to Professor Rishi Goyal, Director of Medical Humanities. The Thesis Supervisor is solely responsible for the final grade.

Submission Extension Policy

Short extensions of the submission deadline can be requested with prior approval of your Thesis Supervisor. Any request for extension should be submitted to your DUS by email as early as possible, and your Supervisor should be copied. Please be advised that being granted an extension makes you ineligible for Departmental Honors and Prizes.

Click here to watch the 2020 Senior Thesis presentations.

 The Heyman Center for the Humanities, Room B-101
74 Morningside Drive
New York, NY, 10027
  (212) 854-4541
  (212) 854-3099