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Honors Program

Honors in Psychological Sciences

The Honors Program offers students the opportunity to gain more intensive experience conducting scientific research with a faculty mentor. Participation in the program affords students the chance to collaborate on cutting-edge research in their major area, and to gain research skills and experiences that are of considerable value not only in preparation for graduate training but also in a variety of work settings. Students apply to participate in this program in the spring of their sophomore year, and the program is open to majors in Psychology, Child Development, Cognitive Studies, or Child Studies as a first or second major who maintain at least a 3.3 GPA both overall and in their major. Participants in the Honors program work collaboratively with their research mentor during their junior and senior years, and also participate in the Honors seminar each semester. Participation in the program culminates in the completion of an Honors Thesis and a presentation of the research conducted as a part of the thesis. The program is flexible enough to accommodate students who need to student teach and students who want to spend a semester abroad. Students who successfully complete the Honors Program and maintain an overall GPA of at least 3.3 will graduate with the special designation of either “Honors” or “High Honors” in their Psychology, Child Development, Cognitive Studies, or Child Studies major.

Details About the Honors Program

Honors Programs in Psychology, Child Development, Cognitive Studies, and Child Studies

Honors Program Directors:
Adriane Seiffert, 534 Wilson Hall,
Amy E. Booth, 215A Hobbs Hall,

Drs. Seiffert and Booth jointly administer the Honors Program. To enrich students experience in the program, each director will work with one cohort of students through the entirety of the four-semester program. Students are assigned to a cohort depending on the year they begin the program/graduate not whether they are A&S or PBDY majors. Students spend their Junior year under the direction of Dr. Seiffert, regardless of whether they are A&S or PBDY majors. Students spend their Senior year under the direction of Dr. Booth. Students may contact either faculty member with questions about the program.

Philosophy of the Honors Program

The program is designed to emphasize two of the essentials of superior research training: first, the student must be actively involved in all aspects of scholarship rather than acting as the passive recipient of other people’s written and spoken words of wisdom. Second, the student must have considerable guidance from faculty mentors–in planning a course of study, in formulating research questions, in developing conceptual and technical skills, in evaluating research findings, and in presenting research in both written and oral reports. Each Honors student is viewed as a research apprentice, in the same sense that silversmiths, airline pilots, and surgeons learn by witnessing, emulating and receiving instruction from a master of the trade. The Honors Program is designed to provide hands-on training in all phases of research under optimal supervision.  In addition, the Honors program also provides additional guidance and training from the director(s) of the Honors program.  Through active participation in the Honors seminar each semester, students will gain additional writing and research skills, as well as receive feedback from an additional faculty member and from their peers.

Who Is Eligible?

The Honors Program is for majors in Psychology, Child Development, Cognitive Studies, or Child Studies who have a 3.3 GPA, both overall and in the major. Although not a prerequisite, having taken at least two courses in your major is highly recommended. Honors students who have A&S majors should take PSY 2150 and 2100 by the end of junior year. Honors students with Peabody majors should complete PSY-PC 2110 and PSY-PC 2120 by the end of their junior year.

It should be emphasized that the Honors Program is not restricted to students who plan to do graduate work in psychology. The nature of the Program and the advantages of participation are suited to students with diverse professional and career goals.

Faculty Mentors

To participate in the program, interested students must first obtain a faculty mentor who agrees to supervise the honors research. Together, the student and faculty mentor complete a brief application to participate in the Honors Program. This application is then reviewed and approved by the director of the Honors program. Once the application is approved, the student is officially admitted to the Honors Program.

The faculty is fairly large and diverse; consequently, most patterns of students’ interests can be matched with a professor. The Director of the Honors program will meet with interested students to discuss possible faculty mentors.  It is the students’ responsibility to identify a faculty mentor who is willing to work with them on an Honors project.

See the Psychological Sciences Faculty web page for a description of faculty and their research interests.  Students should contact faculty members with whom they’re interested in working to obtain more information about possibilities for working with that faculty member in the Honors program.  You can also download this year’s “How to Find an Honors Mentor” packet below:

Finding an Honors Mentor

Course Structure

During the fall semester of the junior year, Honors students should enroll in the Honors Seminar, which is either PSY (or PSY-PC) 3980, depending on who is teaching the course. The program is jointly administered across the two departments and the required courses are equivalent.  So all junior Honors students meet together for the seminar, and all senior Honors students meet together.  In addition, there are several sessions each semester where both cohorts of students meet together.

The majority of Honors students’ time is spent working with their mentors on their research project. In addition, they will attend meetings of the honors seminar. During the first semester we will focus on information literacy, particularly literature searches and literature review. Students will learn to structure their literature searches in a way that allows them to find the type of source and specific content they’re looking for, and also learn to parse sources (ways to tell the difference between a lay source and a scientific article, for example). Brief research summaries will be written in the service of a statement of the problem, summarizing the central idea they wish to address with their honors research. One approved copy of the statement of the problem will be due by the end of the semester.

Work during the spring semester of the junior year includes (1) attendance at the Honors Seminar (PSY (or PSY-PC) 3981), (2) continued work in the laboratory, and (3) preparation of a written research proposal. During the second semester the seminar will focus on Responsible Conduct of Research, navigating the IRB, and preparing research proposals. The research proposal outlines the research that the student will undertake. This research plan derives from numerous discussions between the student and the research mentor. Research proposals are due at the end of spring semester.

During the senior year, students receive three hours credit each semester for PSY (or PSY-PC) 4998 and 4999. Students will continue to conducting research outlined in their proposal and will write their thesis. In the fall, the Honors Seminar will focus on interpreting and analyzing data. Students will also produce drafts of their introduction and methods section by the end of the fall semester. The final semester in the honors program sequence will serve three aims. First, we will offer a series of capstone lectures/discussions in which we offer students the opportunity to integrate the information they have learned from their thesis project with theories that are relevant to their areas of study. The second aim will be to offer students a forum for developing their written thesis. Students will also be given an opportunity to practice their thesis presentation in front of other students in the honors program.

The Honors Thesis presents the rationale for the project, the methods used, the results obtained, and a discussion of how the findings fit within the context of existing research literature. The Honors Thesis must be completed in early April of the senior year. Students will defend their thesis in front of a committee of three persons–their research advisor, another professor from the Department of Psychology or the Department of Psychology and Human Development and a graduate student who is knowledgeable about the area of research. The Director of the Honors program determines committee membership with suggestions from the research mentor. On Psychology Day, students present the final research project in the form of a poster.

The honors program is 4 semesters. However, students can complete the program in 3 semesters (due to travel abroad, student teaching, etc.) if they can find a research mentor who is willing to work with them given these constraints. The student is still expected to complete all the requirements of the program. Students who do the Honors program in 3 semesters, should continue working with their research advisor during the summer through the VUSRP program or as a summer job if possible.

Lab Participation

Students and mentors should realize that participation in the Honors Program represents a substantial commitment of time and effort. Students should plan to devote an average of 10-15 hours a week to their honors-related work. This will mostly include working in the research lab, meeting with your research mentor, the thesis-related writing assignments, and participating in the Honors Seminar. Therefore, potential participants must carefully consider whether they are able to, and want to, devote the required time and energy to this program.

Upon entering the program, however, the student is not committed to participate for the full two years. If after one or more semesters the student decides that the Honors Program is not consistent with his/her academic goals, there is no problem at all in getting out. In that case, full course credit for the hours taken in the Program is given. For example, if a student takes the Honors Seminar for one or two semesters and subsequently decides not to participate further, full credit for the seminar would still be granted.  In this case the hours would count as elective credit for the major.

Expectations for the Student and Mentor

Two major goals of the program are to expose students to the full range of activities and skills associated with initiating, conducting, and successfully completing a research project, and to encourage students to appropriately apply these skills to the successful execution and completion of their own honors project. However, it is highly unlikely that the student will come into the honors program with all the knowledge and skills necessary to immediately jump into their honors research. Thus, for training and didactic purposes, especially in the early semesters of the program, honors students can reasonably expect to perform a variety of research-related tasks that may have little or no direct bearing on their specific project. These activities can range from the mundane (e.g., photocopying, scheduling subjects, data entry), which may be requested for practical and didactic purposes, to the more interesting and exotic (e.g., data collection, data analysis, or the performance of highly technical laboratory procedures), which may be requested more purely for training purposes. Nonetheless, honors students should not be treated like paid research assistants and the activities they engage in should have a clear educational purpose. If at any point an honors student is unsure of why s/he is being asked to engage in a given activity, s/he should discuss the reasons behind the activity with the faculty mentor. Mentors should be committed to making students’ research experiences as educational as possible, and should be willing to discuss the reasons for engaging in particular activities in particular ways and at particular times, as well as where these activities fit in to the larger scheme of the mentor’s research program. Finally, beyond training purposes, when the honors project represents a piece of a larger research endeavor, even when they have begun to primarily focus on their specific piece of the project, students may be asked to contribute to the larger project in ways that only indirectly support their individual project. However, such contributions should not be at a level that interferes with their ability to complete their honors project in a timely fashion.

An additional set of issues concerns the nature and scope of the honors project itself. It is anticipated that the honors project will almost always be derived in some way from the mentor’s ongoing research program. For example, the project might be a distinct facet of a much larger research project, or it might be a new experiment (or small series of experiments) that follows directly from some earlier findings that have emerged from the mentor’s research laboratory. However, as much as possible, the mentor should encourage the student to take intellectual ownership of his or her honors project. At minimum the student must have a clear and deep understanding of what the research project involves and why; that is, the nature and significance of the research questions being asked, how the study’s methods and data map onto these questions, how the data analyses address these questions, the implications of the observed results, and so on. Ideally, to the extent feasible, the student should make substantive contributions to the design, conceptualization, analysis, and/or interpretation of the aspects of the study comprising his or her project. Except in very rare instances, however, the student should not expect to engage in research activities entirely of his or her design that have little or no direct connection to the mentor’s research program.

In terms of the scope of the project, the student and faculty mentor should work together to ensure that the honors project is feasible, and that it can be successfully completed within the constraints of the students’ planned participation in the honors program. At the outset of their participation in the Honors Program, the student and mentor should discuss and reach an agreement concerning how many semesters, as well as the number of hours each week, the student plans to devote to the project (and this time-commitment should conform to the general expectations described above). Given his or her much greater expertise in these matters, the faculty mentor is primarily responsible for ensuring that the project does not evolve into something overly grandiose or impractical that cannot reasonably be completed within the negotiated time constraints.

As conceptualized, the ideal progression on the honors project is: (1) to receive research training while reading the literature, and conceptualizing and planning the honors project during the first semester; (2) to propose the honors project by the end of the second semester; (3) to collect, analyze, and interpret the data during the middle semester(s) and into the final semester; and (4) to devote a substantial portion of the final semester to writing the thesis. In practice, however, students can expect that the development of their project may deviate significantly from this progression.

Because research is, by definition, an exploration into the unknown, surprises often arise that force an investigator to alter his or her research plans. Initial pilot testing of the research ideas may highlight the need for additional, unanticipated pilot testing; planned procedures may prove to be unworkable; unanticipated findings may lead one to reconsider one’s original research questions or hypotheses; and so on. Thus, students should not be overly concerned if they discover a need to alter their research plans somewhat (sometimes even substantially) as the project progresses. However, it is expected that such changes will he discussed by the student and mentor as the need for them becomes evident, and that the changes actually implemented will be consensually agreed upon. The student should not make substantive changes to his or her project without consulting with the mentor, and the mentor should not mandate changes without first discussing/explaining them to the student. Again, given the mentor’s greater experience with the research process, the mentor is primarily responsible for ensuring that such changes to the research plan do not render the students’ project unfeasible.

A final set of expectations concerns the faculty mentor’s supervision of the honors student. The faculty mentor is the person who is primarily responsible for supervising the student’s progress through the honors program. This in no way precludes the possibility that the student will work closely with a graduate student, post-doctoral fellow, and/or research faculty member on a day-to-day basis. However, the faculty mentor cannot transfer mentorship to someone else that is otherwise ineligible to serve as a mentor. Thus, the mentor is directly responsible for monitoring the student’s progress, s/he should meet with the student on a regular basis (individually and/or in group research meetings), and s/he should generally be available to meet with the student to discuss various issues related to the project as they arise.

The director(s) of the Honors program and the student’s faculty mentor will jointly determine student grades for each semester of the Honors program.  The grade will be based on the faculty mentor’s assessment of the student’s progress on the honors project, as well as the director(s) assessment of the student’s performance in the Honors seminar.

Advantages to the Student

The major advantage to the student in participating in the Honors Program is that it represents an educational experience superior to that offered by the usual list of course offerings. Regardless of the student’s choice of future career, he/she should benefit by the opportunities for carefully supervised independent study and active participation in research.

If the student intends to pursue graduate studies, a second major benefit accrues. Students in the Honors Program are treated very much like graduate students in psychology. They work alongside graduate students and they do many of the same tasks; consequently, they learn in a direct manner what it is like to perform graduate work.

A third important advantage to the student is that successful participation provides an opportunity to acquire authoritative letters of recommendations for subsequent study or employment. Both the student’s mentor and the Coordinator of the Honors Program get to know students well.

Fourth, and not to be forgotten, successful participation in the program is an honor. It is recognized as such on the diploma, on the transcript, and in letters of recommendation. Fifth, and perhaps even much more important than the other considerations, is the fact that the Honors Program provides a very stimulating and enjoyable set of experiences. Work in the Program is both productive and fun.

Applying for the program

During spring semester, the Coordinator of the Honors Program will call a meeting for students interested in the Honors Program. The purpose of the meeting will be to answer general questions and schedule appointments for individual meetings if needed.  Students must arrange their own project with a faculty mentor of their choice – having a faculty mentor already lined up is a requirement for admission into the program.  Students should turn in a copy of their transcript (a sorted course report from YES is fine) when they submit their application to the Honors Program director(s).

Ideally, arrangements should be negotiated with the faculty mentor and the completed application to the program should be turned into the program directors by the end of the spring semester of the student’s sophomore year. The co-directors will review applications. Please note that in some circumstances students who meet the minimum GPA requirements may not be accepted to the program, if an inspection of the student’s transcript raises concerns about his/her ability to complete an honors project in psychology. In addition, if the mentor comes from a department other than one of the Psychology Departments (e.g., Special Education, Psychiatry), the potential honors major should consult with the Program Directors regarding the appropriateness of the mentor and project before applying to the program.

If a student is accepted to the program s/he should be registered for the Honors Seminar PSY (or PSY-PC) 3980 by the end of the spring semester of student’s sophomore year. However, it is possible to register for required courses and to participate in the Honors Program (assuming all other requirements are met) right up through the end of the change period at the start of fall classes.

You can download this year’s application below:

Honors Application