Preparing & Defending Your Thesis

A senior thesis is required for Graduation with Distinction in the Physics Department. The thesis is a written document that summarizes and explains the thesis research for a committee of three faculty who will evaluate the quality of the research, the quality of the thesis, and the student's understanding of the thesis as demonstrated during an oral thesis defense. The committee will then decide on whether to award honors and what kind (honors or high honors).

Preparing the Thesis


The thesis should be between 30-70 pages long. (Most physics theses are less than 50 pages.) It should be written in the style of a journal article with a title, abstract, introduction, discussion of methods, discussion of results, a conclusion, and acknowledgements. The student should cite all related and prior work and include a list of references in a bibliography at the end of the thesis. Special attention should be given to writing the title, abstract, opening paragraphs of the introduction, and the conclusions since these are what most people read first and read most carefully. In particular, it is important for the student to identify and to state clearly in the abstract and in the conclusions what the student did and in what ways the results of the thesis are new, significant, or interesting to physicists. The ideal audience for the thesis is Duke physics seniors, so the student should write his or her thesis so that most of it can be understood by this peer group.

You should look at several of our past theses. They will give you an idea of the style of writing and how a thesis is organized.


It is strongly recommended that the student share the title and abstract of the thesis as soon as possible with his or her committee members so that the committee is clear about the intent of the thesis and so that the committee can provide feedback to the student and to the student's advisor at the earliest possible moment. The student should also provide a draft of the thesis to the Committee members at least two weeks before the oral defense, so that possible questions or issues can be identified and explained to the student before the defense. A key to success for an honors thesis is frequent communication with the thesis advisor and with the committee members.

Although it is not a requirement, students often complete the research project as part of the course PHYSICS 495, "Thesis Independent Study". To achieve honors, especially high honors, a student should plan on spending at least a full year on the thesis work, with an effort corresponding to about ten hours per week over that time. Regular meetings with the faculty mentor should be scheduled (approximately once per week) and an interim progress report should be presented to the faculty mentor and to the DUS after the first semester of work.

Defending the Thesis

The honors thesis defense is an oral examination that involves a student giving a 30-minute presentation to a committee of faculty that will then evaluate the quality of the thesis work and of the student's understanding of his or her thesis work. The committee will then vote on whether the student has obtained honors and, if so, award honors or high honors.


The defense must be held no later than the last day for undergraduate classes during the spring semester. A final version of the thesis must be submitted to the DUS in PDF format before the end of the examination period of that same semester.


The thesis defense will last no longer than two hours. The student should plan on speaking for no longer than 30 minutes (without interruptions), which should correspond to no more than 18 presentation slides (this is a strict limit). The remaining time will involve the committee asking the student questions about the thesis and for discussion (in the student's absence) about whether to grant honors and what kind.

The student is strongly recommended to practice his or her thesis presentation at least once with the thesis advisor before the actual defense. The student should also share a draft of the thesis, especially the thesis abstract, with the Committee members many weeks before the defense so that the Committee can provide early feedback to the student and to the student's advisor. This will help to to make sure that the writing and defense of the thesis all goes smoothly.

Your Responsibilities

It is your responsibility to make all arrangements for the defense in consultation with the faculty advisor. These responsibilities include:

  1. Finding three committee members to be on the thesis committee and emailing the membership of the committee to the Assistant to the DUS for approval by the DUS. The committee chair is the student's advisor; the DUS (or the Associate DUS for Biophysics, for Biophysics theses) will often (but not always) serve on the committee. The student should request one or two additional faculty members to serve on the committee. Any faculty member at Duke may serve, although at least two should have appointments in Physics. Non-faculty members with Ph.D.s involved in supervising students (e.g., research associates) may also serve on the committee, but there must at least three faculty members.  It is preferable for at least one committee member to have expertise outside of the subfield represented by the thesis topic. The deadline for approval of a committee is March 1.
  2. Finding a time when all committee members can meet for the two-hour defense, on a date no later than the last day of classes.
  3. Reserving the meeting room with the help of the Assistant to DUS. The defense date must be set and the room reserved by March 11.
  4. Arranging for audio-visual equipment.
  5. Distributing a copy of the thesis to the committee members at least one week before the defense. The draft should be double-spaced to make it easy for the committee members to write comments.
  6. If revisions are needed, distributing the revised thesis to the committee members for approval at least five days before the end of the examination period. 

You should start taking care of the above responsibilities no later than the beginning of February of your senior year, so that there is plenty of time to identify a committee and choose a date for the defense.