Featured Video

Honors Program Q&A

Listen in on this informal Zoom session to hear program leaders address questions and answers about the Sanford School's Undergraduate Honors Thesis Program. 

Featured Video

Honors Thesis: One Student's Story

Ysanne Spence PPS'22 talks about what writing an honors thesis has meant to her.

The Whats and Whys of an Honors Thesis

It is a year-long intensive research experience where you do your own research on a topic of your choosing.

Most commonly, the year-long project goes from second semester of your junior year through first semester of your senior year. Students are abroad in the spring can complete the year-long project by completing two independent studies during their senior year.

  • You have the desire to explore a policy research question in depth; have an interest in determining whether academic research might be a potential career path; or want to have the opportunity to work closely with an expert in a particular policy field.
  • Graduating with distinction sends a very strong signal to employers/graduate schools that you are among the best of the best.
  • You will get to know your advisor really well, leading to great letters of recommendation.
  • A chance to conduct original research. Many honors students say that doing an honors thesis is the best academic experience they have at Duke.
  • You become the "expert" in something and this provides you with potential topics to use in interviews for jobs and graduate schools as an example of how you work.

Most students will complete the honors thesis by taking a two-semester honors seminar (PUBPOL 495S in spring and PUBPOL 496S in fall). Students who are abroad in spring and cannot take this two course sequence can complete an honors thesis by doing two independent studies in their senior year, one in each semester.

  • You are eligible to graduate with distinction or with highest distinction. Graduating with distinction is among the highest honors that Duke bestows on its undergraduates.
  • Students who have earned an A- on their thesis (and have satisfied the GPA core course requirements) will graduate with distinction.
  • Students who have earned an A or A+ on their thesis (and have satisfied the GPA core course requirements) will graduate with highest distinction.
  • No. To qualify for honors, you have to have a 3.4 GPA for four core PUBPOL courses (155, 301, 302, and 303).  IMPORTANT: Beginning with the class of 2026, the GPA cutoff to qualify for the honors program will be 3.7.
  • If your GPA is below 3.4, you can still enroll in the honors course and complete a thesis, but you will not be eligible to graduate with distinction.
  • Yes. You can be enrolled in the honors seminar or the independent study at the same time that you are taking any of the three post-155 core PUBPOL courses.
  • When you complete those courses, the honors director will calculate your GPA and let you know if you qualify.
  • If you complete the core courses and do not have a 3.4 GPA, you can still complete a thesis, but you are not eligible to graduate with distinction. IMPORTANT: Beginning with the class of 2026, the GPA cutoff to qualify for the honors course will be 3.7.

No. If you took ECON 201, we will use your PUBPOL 304 grade instead. Your GPA would be averaged over the following courses: PUBPOL 155, PUBPOL 301, PUBPOL 302/GLHLTH 210 and PUBPOL 304.


  • Yes, there are 2: PUBPOL 495S.01 in the spring and PUBPOL 496S.01 in the fall. The thesis writing process requires two semesters. It meets semi-regularly on Friday afternoons.
  • They are for-credit courses and you will receive a grade in the courses.
  • You will need a permission number. For the first course in the spring, you will receive the permission number in December.
  • Both courses count as the upper level elective requirement and are coded as both W and R. 

Please fill out form: Honors Form Fall 2023. The form is due in mid-fall (see form for specific deadlines).

  • The honors director will let you know in December, after grades for the Fall 2023 semester, have been finalized.
  • If you are eligible, the director will send you a permission number to enroll in the honors course.
  • You are guaranteed a spot in the honors course if you qualify.
  • You can drop the course during drop/add.
  • You can take one semester of the course and then not take the second semester course.

Deadline: October 27, 2023

Please note: You will submit the form by October but then you will not be notified until December if you qualify. After grades for Fall 2023 have been released, we will notify you if you are eligible for honors.

No, do not leave it blank. It is important that you start thinking about your thesis topic prior to enrolling in the class. Please provide your best guess of what topic will be. You can change the topic later if you need to.

The Independent Studies Route

  • You will enroll in an independent study (PUBPOL 494) in the fall of your senior year.
  • During the fall, you will work on your proposal. At the end of the fall semester, you will turn your proposal into the honors director. The honors director will provide you with feedback as to whether the proposal is likely to result in an honors thesis that will merit distinction.
  • During the spring, you will enroll in another independent study (PUBPOL 494) and convert your proposal into a thesis.
  • At the end of the spring semester, you will provide your thesis to the honors director, and they, in consultation with your advisor, will decide whether the thesis merits graduation with distinction.
  • Prior to the end of drop/add in the fall of your senior year, you should complete an independent study form. You will check the "honors project track" box. You will enroll in PUBPOL 494.
  • Once your independent study has been approved, you will receive a permission number to enroll in the course.
  • The option is designed for students who are not on campus during their spring semester of their junior year (e.g., they are doing Duke in DC or study abroad).
  • Students who are on campus during the spring semester of their junior year should complete an honors thesis through the honors seminar.


  • Reach out to professor who have taught courses related to your research topic.
  • Search the Sanford faculty by research theme.

While advisors from Sanford are preferred, they can be faculty from any department.

  • Every student who completes an honors thesis will need an advisor. The advisor will help you with the substantive area of your thesis.
  • For those completing the honors thesis through the independent study route, your advisor will also be the supervisor of your independent studies.
  • Students who are completing the honors seminar route should ideally identify a thesis advisor in the fall of their junior year. If students can't identify a thesis advisor then, they should identify one in the early weeks of the spring semester. If you don't have an advisor by the time you complete the honors seminar form, you can leave this space blank.
  • Students who are completing the honors thesis through the independent study route will need to identify an advisor prior to enrolling in the first independent study.

Other Questions

If you will not be on campus during junior year spring, you can complete an honors thesis by taking two independent studies your senior year, one each semester.

You can write one thesis and have it be eligible for honors in two departments. However, the thesis has to meet the requirements of both departments. See here:

Graduation: Graduating with Distinction | Trinity College of Arts & Sciences (duke.edu)


  • The qualifications for, and the standards used to judge the thesis, are the same, regardless of which route students take to complete a thesis. Students can graduate with distinction either way.
  • The honors seminar, however, offers students a more structured experience, with enhanced opportunities for advisor and peer feedback. The honors seminar also offers students additional methodological instruction. We therefore strongly encourage students to complete their thesis through the honors seminar rather than by completing two independent studies.

Featured Video

Guidance From 3 Current Honors Program Students