University News

Social science students least likely to write theses

Low honors completion rates may be linked to requirement constraints and thesis concerns

By
Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Social science concentrators, including those in the Department of Economics, are among the least likely to graduate with honors.

This article is part of the series Pursuing Honors

Students who concentrate in the social sciences are significantly less likely to complete honors requirements than concentrators in other academic fields, a trend that could be linked to requirement constraints and to some concentrators’ concerns about the rigors of a social science thesis.

About 13 percent of social science concentrators in the class of 2013 graduated with honors, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research. Social sciences accounted for the lowest honors completion rate of any of the major academic disciplines for the class of 2013, as 33 percent of humanities concentrators, 35 percent of life and medical science concentrators and 25 percent of physical science concentrators completed honors requirements.

These numbers are consistent with trends over the past decade: The social sciences had the lowest honors completion rate of any academic field for every graduating class since 2004, according to data from the OIR. In the class of 2012, 11 percent of social science concentrators graduated with honors, compared to 27 percent of humanities concentrators, 42 percent of life and medical science concentrators and 32 percent of students in the physical sciences.

The lower social sciences honors completion rate could be linked to the pressures of completing requirements for two concentrations, said Besenia Rodriguez ’00, associate dean of the College for research and upperclass studies.

“There are some fields where maybe almost everybody is double concentrating,” Rodriguez said, referring to social science programs.

Some students who double concentrate may write a thesis in a field that is not a social science, Rodriguez said, adding that the social science honors completion rate does not include this data.

“You only know that they didn’t do a social science thesis,” she said. “You don’t know if they did another kind of thesis in another kind of department.”

Though they are two of Brown’s most popular concentrations, economics and international relations account for two of the lowest honors completion rates among any undergraduate program. About 3 percent of the 212 economics concentrators in the class of 2013 graduated with honors, and 4 percent of international relations concentrators did so, according to data from the OIR.

Clarence Ho ’14, an applied math-economics concentrator writing a thesis on the recent financial crisis, said he felt the project was an integral part of his academic experience.

But Ho said the economics concentration at Brown is more oriented toward multiple-choice exams and memorization rather than the type of research that leads to a thesis.

“When I studied abroad in London, I felt like (economics) there had a strong focus on writing,” Ho said. He added experience studying abroad influenced his decision to apply for honors when he returned to Brown.

Ho said he understands why most economics concentrators may not share his desire to write a thesis. Many students declare economics as a second concentration or because they view the program as easier, given its relatively low number of requirements, he said.

“In the senior-year process, lots of people are looking for jobs,” Ho said. “Taking on a thesis is an extra burden for them.”

Humanities students may be more likely to complete honors because they are often more accustomed to the volume of writing a thesis would entail, Ho said.

“The idea of writing might scare certain people off,” he said.

“Students are motivated by their passion for their topics and their desire to delve deeper into the subject matter than they would in a course term paper,” wrote Claudia Elliot MA’91 PhD’99, associate director of the international relations program, in an email to The Herald. “For these students, the thesis — asking their own research question, designing the study, and arriving at findings from which they derive implications for theory and practice in IR — is the ultimate challenge.”

The lower honors completion rate among the social sciences might be due to the fact that many of the division’s concentrations do not have a research requirement similar to those in the life or physical sciences, Rodriguez said.

In the sciences, “it’s fairly easy to make the decision to … pursue honors,” Rodriguez said. “But in the humanities and social sciences, I think in order to kind of make that kind of commitment, people (have to) really feel very strongly about their project and about the kind of work that they’re doing.”

The College Curriculum Council, which works to support curricular development across departments, often sends a list of “best practices” to departments to help faculty members assist students in writing a thesis, Rodriguez said.

Low thesis completion rates among large social science concentrations do not reflect lack of student support, Rodriguez said.

The DOC office is also looking to expand the Advising Sidekick website to allow students to apply for honors directly through the website as part of the concentration declaration process, Rodriguez said.

But some social science concentrators said their departments may not provide adequate support structures for completing a thesis.

The Department of Economics has limited resources given the large number of concentrators, Ho said, adding that  he had trouble finding a faculty member to advise him on his thesis.

But Ho said he has received support from the department and his adviser as he has worked on conducting his research.

Taewan Roh ’14, who is double concentrating in economics and business, organizations and entrepreneurship, wrote in an email to The Herald that the economics concentration does not prepare some students to undertake rigorous research because they do not have the necessary mathematical and statistical skills.

The thesis-writing gap between social sciences and the humanities may also be linked to the fact that more humanities concentrators pursue careers in academia than do students in programs such as economics, Roh wrote.

The OIR currently does not publicly release data on the number of students who abandon the honors track after having started a thesis, but Rodriguez said the Dean of the College’s office intends to start collecting that information.

Ho said he knew several students who began the economics thesis program but dropped out of the process.

It just depends on how students “would like to take advantage of the Open Curriculum,” Ho said. “You can use that time to do other things as well.”