Senior Thesis

Changes for the Senior Thesis - Effective 2020-2021:

Starting with the 2020-2021 catalog, physics majors can satisfy their Disciplinary Communications (DC) requirement in one of two ways:

  1. Complete PHYS 182 “Scientific Communication” or
  2. Complete PHYS 195A “Senior Thesis I” and 195B “Senior Thesis II" 

This means that the senior thesis is optional for new students; you have the choice of taking PHYS 182 or writing a senior thesis in PHYS 195AB. If you are a continuing student, you can choose to graduate under these new catalog requirements as long as you will satisfy the other requirements. (Note that the new capstone courses are 134, 135, 135AB, or 136. You must take one of these lab courses to graduate under the new catalog requirements.)

What is the Senior Thesis?

The senior thesis is an option to satisfy the DC requirement for graduation in the Physics, Physics (Astrophysics), and Applied Physics majors. Students work on their senior thesis as coursework for PHYS 195A and PHYS 195B. The senior thesis is a clear, logical presentation of some independent, physics-related work done by the student under the supervision of a thesis advisor.  Possible forms of the thesis include: results of the student's experimental, theoretical, or numerical investigations (often in connection with on-going research at UCSC); a review of a particular topic in physics; or a significant extension of class material (for example a Physics 134 or 135 experiment). The thesis must display understanding of physics at the level of an upper-division physics course. In conclusion, the senior thesis may range between a literature review on a topic that the student will choose in agreement with an advisor and the representation of significant research effort. Examples of senior theses can be found here. These theses use LaTeX template files for the standard UC thesis format, with examples of figures, tables, references, etc.  The package has been tested with the graphical Web tool Overleaf ( but may also work with stand-alone LaTeX or other interfaces.  Please report errors to Prof. David Smith.

The Value to You of a Senior Thesis

The senior thesis is designed both as an option to complete the undergraduate physics experience and as an opportunity to develop writing and research skills that will be important for your career in physics and beyond. Complementing standard physics courses, the senior thesis emphasizes independent decision-making, activity-scheduling, and presenting of scientific material in a well-written form. It allows you to explore and develop subjects of your own choosing and develops your ability to communicate your work effectively. Students considering graduate school are encouraged to complete a senior thesis. A reference letter from your thesis advisor will be a valuable addition to your graduate school application. Furthermore, your transcript will reflect the fact that you completed the requirements by writing a senior thesis.

The Senior Thesis and PHYS 195A and PHYS 195B

The PHYS 195 course is designed to guide you through writing your senior thesis. The structure, format, and content of a senior thesis are discussed in detail. Grammatical skills, effective writing, and literature search techniques are developed. You will plan your topic and develop reference lists, outlines, and drafts. The thesis approved by your thesis advisor must be submitted before the end of PHYS 195B in order to pass the course. These two courses should be taken in your thesis advisor’s section during the two quarters you intend to write your thesis. This means that you must identify a thesis advisor, who agrees to guide you in your thesis research and writing, before you enroll in Physics 195A. The Physics Department can help you find an advisor if you choose to write a senior thesis.

This document contains a summary of the thesis advisor's responsibilites, the expected writing standards for a senior thesis, and sample syllabi for Physics 195A and 195B. The student and advisor should read all parts of this document carefully through together before 195A starts, and agree to all the required work and to making sure the standards are met. The writing standards document should be revisited together when each full draft of the thesis is complete. Please note particularly the requirements for at least one substantial, significant revision of the full thesis based on the advisor's feedback, and for an oral presentation of the work. The talk can be given at a group meeting, departmental research symposium, or scientific conference, as long as the advisor is there to provide feedback. 

Timeline for the Senior Thesis:

Finding a Research Project

Students are encouraged to begin a thesis project between 1 and 2 years before their expected graduation. You should have identified a thesis advisor and research project at least 3 quarters before your expected graduation. As you choose a research project and begin your work, remember that unexpected results -- including null results -- are common in science. Even if your work does not yield the conclusion you first expected, there is great value in documenting and discussing your research work in the senior thesis. 

Enrolling in PHYS 195AB

Enroll in your thesis advisor’s section of PHYS 195A and PHYS 195B during the two consecutive quarters you plan to work on the thesis. For example, if you are graduating in Spring quarter, you can take PHYS 195A in Winter and PHYS 195B in Spring. (If you are graduating in Fall, enroll in PHYS 195A in Spring and PHYS 195B in Fall.) Make sure to leave enough room in your schedule for these 5-credit courses, as they reflect the amount of work you will need to do on your thesis.

Completing the Senior Thesis

The senior thesis must be submitted before the end of PHYS 195B in order to pass the course, and good progress must be made throughout the course, with first full drafts required in Week 7 of the quarter. If the thesis is not submitted in acceptable form by the end of the course, the instructor/advisor may decide to grade the work as Incomplete; in that case the usual policies apply for removing an Incomplete grade before it becomes a failing grade.

Physics Department Thesis Honors Procedure

The senior thesis of a physics, applied physics, or astrophysics major may be given an honors designation, an honor that will be mentioned in the graduation ceremony. In order that all of our majors have an opportunity to receive the thesis honors designation, we have adopted the following procedure:

1)  No later than June 3rd, 2022 the thesis advisor may provide a nomination of the honors designation to the chair.This is best done at the time the thesis advisor signs the thesis. It is important that all faculty be aware of the honors designation and give consideration to all theses that they sign.

2)  The Department Chair  or their designated assistants review the advisor’s recommendation within the context of the full set of senior theses received and either accept or reject the nomination.

3)  The honors designation is forwarded to the Physics Advisor at to be recorded.

4)  Late theses, for example those completed over the summer, may still be given an honors designation, but no mention of that will be possible at the student’s graduation ceremony.

The following general criteria should be considered when nominating a thesis for honors:

1)  The thesis should reflect research done by the student. This does not rule out theses based on library research, but to be considered for honors such a thesis must provide some interesting in‐depth analysis that goes well beyond just summarizing information from references.
2)  If the student’s contribution to research is significant enough for the student to be included in the author list of a scientific publication based on or including the student’s work (regardless of whether it was or will be in fact published), then the thesis should be considered for honors. The thesis research project may also be submitted for consideration for campus research awards: the Dean's, Chancellor's, and Steck awards.
3)  The thesis should conform to the writing quality and formatting expectations established within the Physics 182 and 195AB courses. Excellence in writing and presentation may be part of the consideration for honors but is not sufficient in itself.