The History Major Senior Thesis
All history majors at Berkeley take a History 102 seminar, during which they complete their major capstone project, in the form of a thesis paper. Beginning in Fall 2023, the department will be introducing a new History thesis course infrastructure, which offers all history majors a capstone experience. Students pick from one of the following two paths:
1) a one semester capstone project trackThis track enables students to be eligible for honors, high, or highest honors.
2) a one year capstone project trackThis track also enables students to be eligible for honors, high honors, and highest honors.
For more information about the department's honors program, please see our honors page.
The one semester thesis track
The one term senior project preserves the option for all of our majors to be eligible for honors by offering a capstone requirement that is a serious research paper, traditionally called the senior thesis. Expectations for the one semester capstone track in terms of page length and scholarly engagement will be a paper of between 25-30 pages. Note that well-qualified students might opt for the one-term project over a one-year project for reasons such as participating in study abroad or double majoring. Effective Fall 2023, highest and high honors will be open to students who choose to do the one semester thesis track.
The one year thesis track
Students interested in the one-year project track must apply during the summer one year before their intended graduation. Applications will be vetted by the Faculty Committee on Honors.
A standard fall/spring sequence for the one-year track is expected. During their senior fall, honors students will enroll in the first course, HIST 101A with a designated faculty advisor while they develop their topic, identify and work through relevant primary and secondary sources, sharpen their questions, and produce a robust prospectus. During their senior spring, the same students will enroll in the second course, History 101B. Expectations for the one-year project track in terms of page length and scholarly engagement will be a paper of between 45-60 pages.
In order to participate in the one-year project track, students must meet the following prerequisites before applying:
- 3.5 overall GPA and 3.7 major GPA at time of application to the two-term program (only UC courses count toward the major GPA); and
- on track to have completed 90 units before the end of their junior year; and
- at least four upper-division history courses completed.
The application for the 2023-24 academic year is now closed. The application for the 2024-25 academic year will open in Summer 2024.
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Frequently Asked Questions
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What is a 102 thesis?
Your 102 project is a chance to carry out a piece of original research. You pose and answer a historical question based on independent research in primary sources. You also place your findings in the context of what other historians have said on the topic.
How do I write my thesis?
You carry out your project in a section of History 102 if you are doing the one semester track, typically in your final semester. Each section is limited to 15 students and is centered around a theme. If you are doing the one year track, you will work on your thesis over the course of 2 semesters- HIST 101A in the fall semester and HIST 101B in the following spring semester. Your instructor will guide you through the process of research and writing.
How long should the thesis be?
It depends on your capstone project track. If you are completing a one-term track, your 102 paper should be 25 to 30 pages in length (papers in excess of 30 pages are not encouraged). If you are completing a one-year track, your 101A/B paper should be 45 to 60 pages in length (papers in excess of 60 pages are not encouraged).
What are considered primary sources, and to what extent must my thesis be based on them?
Primary sources are documentary materials arising directly out of the historical episode you are studying. They can include letters, diaries, speeches and literature, written records of all sorts, oral histories, photographs, physical artifacts, and other items created by historical figures. Primary sources are the raw material of history, and your thesis needs a strong base in them.
How do I find primary sources?
Your instructor will help you with this, but you should think about it on your own, too. There are sources in the library (published materials, government documents), in museums and archives (artifacts, maps, papers of individuals or organizations, oral histories), and online (digitized collections of primary sources, databases).
Are foreign languages required for topics on non-English-speaking countries?
Clearly, reading knowledge of the appropriate foreign language would be very useful for such topics. However, with the amount of source material available in translation, it is often possible to work around the language problem. Thesis instructors are aware of the issue.
How can I prepare for the capstone project?
You should begin thinking about topics as you proceed through the history major. A paper from a previous class can start you thinking about questions to explore further. The 103 seminar, especially 103s with the R designation (for "research"), will help you understand how historical arguments get constructed. Defining your Field of Concentration (see the Requirements for the History Major) will let you focus on a particular area. You can also explore topics raised by courses outside the department. And good 101 projects often arise from independent research with a professor or in centers like the Regional Oral History Office (e.g., in the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program).
Can I get financial assistance if I need to travel to conduct my research?
There is a limited amount of money available from the History Department. Applications are accepted each semester. Please see the application form here. You may apply early, with faculty support for your project, but you will not be reimbursed until you are in a thesis course (HIST 102 or HIST 101A/B). In addition, the Office of Undergraduate Research has competitive grants for summer research. Please see especially the SURF grant and Haas Scholars Program information here.
Can I get more information about the capstone project?
Yes, see the Undergraduate Advisor, or visit an instructor from one of your previous courses or a professor in your field. The 101 student manual is also available here. *Manual is pending updates!*
Do I have to wait until my final semester to take 102?
You can take 102 at any time during your undergraduate career. It it is strongly recommended that you at least reach junior standing, and it is often good to take 103 first. At that point, however, you should consider taking 102 at any time when it fits your schedule. 102 offerings vary from semester to semester and are listed on the department website. If you see a seminar that interests you, seize the opportunity. Don't count on finding the perfect-fit 102 during your final semester on campus.
How do I sign up for the course?
Sign-ups for 102, as for 103, are conducted via the Undergraduate Advisors. Course descriptions will be posted online at classe.berkeley.edu. After you list your top choices on a form, your section is determined and the class number is provided. Fall semester sign-ups currently take place the week before classes start; spring semester sign-ups, in mid-October.
What do I do if I can't find an appropriate section for a topic I have in mind?
It is almost always possible to "spin" topics to fit into available sections. Please see the Undergraduate Advisors, if you find yourself in this situation. In some semesters, a "Writers' Group" is offered for students who already have well-defined projects. Admission to the "Writers' Group" is offered on the basis of an application made when 102 sign-ups go up.
Do I have to take a 102 or 101A/B in my field of concentration?
Yes, this is required. But if a section directly in your field of concentration is not available, you can usually carry out a project in a related section.
Can I contact a professor to supervise my paper individually?
No, there is no "independent study" thesis course.
Can I take the thesis courses at another school?
No, all thesis courses- HIST 102 and HIST 101A/B must be taken here at Berkeley.
Are the thesis courses offered during the summer?
Is there a difference between a thesis course taught by a grad student and one taught by a professor?
There is no difference in the quality of instruction and supervision. If you will be seeking a letter of recommendation specifically based on the thesis for graduate or law school, you should be aware that a letter from a member of the faculty carries more weight than a letter from a graduate student.
Can I take a thesis course P/NP?
HIST 102 and HIST 101A/B (and all required courses for the major) must be taken for a letter grade.
What is the minimum grade I can get on my thesis course and still graduate?
You can graduate with a "D-" (D minus) in your course, so long as your overall GPA, your GPA in upper-division courses in the major, and your major GPA are all above 2.0.
Does the thesis paper determine if I get honors?
Along with GPA requirements (see the Honors page), your 101 paper contributes heavily to determining if you get honors. This is true for students who declared the major 5/31/03 and after. If you declared before then, consult the earlier major requirements.
What have past students said about completing the thesis?
- "The course was lots of work. I felt lost when I started, but the whole thing really paid off. (I almost decided not to declare the major when I found out about the thesis requirement, but I'm glad I didn't.)"
- "I got to dig into a question of my own and shape it to my interests. It gave me a hands-on feeling for what it means to do history."
What advice do past students give to those about to take the course?
- Jump into the project at the start of the semester; don't imagine you can write it at the last minute.
- Take the time commitment seriously.
- Talk with your instructor — they are there to help you.
- Enjoy it! This may seem ludicrous, but it's a great experience (by the end).