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The History of the Princeton University Senior Thesis

The senior thesis has been a requirement of all undergraduate students at Princeton University since 1926.

Senior Theses lined up for exhibit. Historical Photograph Collection, AC112, MP012, Image 765
Senior Theses lined up for exhibit. Historical Photograph Collection, AC112, MP012, Image 765, 1942.

During a Faculty Meeting on February 19th, 1923, the Committee on the Course of Study submitted a report for a new study plan known as the “Four Course Plan.” The four course plan called for an extensive reading program for the student in his department under the supervision of an adviser, with the goal that students gain a better command of a subject during independent work. “The plan was instituted in 1924 for the degree of Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science and put into operation for the Class of 1923 as juniors.” (Luther Pfahler Eisenhart, Dean of the Faculty)

By 1926, Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degree requirements included a senior thesis and a comprehensive examination, an innovation that soon became a hallmark of a Princeton education.

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Today the the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library houses the students’ final works. Prior to 1976, theses were in circulation in Firestone Library. Here at Mudd we house over 60,000 theses in three formats: bound, microfiche and unbound. Senior the­ses submitted in 2013 and beyond will be available only electronically (however, access is limited to computers logged into the Princeton University domain). Senior the­ses submitted in 2012 and before are viewable by anyone in the reading room of the Mudd Library. For more about the digitization of senior theses, see this previous post.

In the video below, Princeton University Archivist Dan Linke gives a behind the scenes tour of the collection as a part of the Giving At Princeton series.

Fun Theses Facts:

  • The longest thesis is 756 pages. [Jeanne Faust ’76, English, “Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald ’17: A Collection of Short Stories”]
  • The shortest thesis is three pages. [Gianluca Tempesti ’89, Electrical Engineering, “Overview Opto-Electronic Integrated Circuits”] This thesis consists of a technical drawing and explanation of something invented by the student, so unlike a humanities thesis, the work is not in the writing but in the creation.
  • The departments with the most theses archived are: History (8,223), English (6,801), Politics (6,893), Economics (6,921), and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (4,109).
  • There are a number of theses that are commonly viewed and requested, which we detail here.
  • Students retain the copyright to their theses.

A look at some thesis titles can provide a preview of students’ future careers.

  • Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito ’72 : “An Introduction to the Italian Constitutional Court.”
  • Editor of The New Yorker David Remnick ’81 : “The Sympathetic Thread: ‘Leaves of Grass’ 1855-1865.”
  • Current First Lady and former health and community affairs executive Michelle Robinson Obama ’85 : “Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community.”
  • Political blogger and Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall ’91 : “Virginia During the Nullification Crisis.”
  • Executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Angela Ramirez ’97 : “Acceptance of Differences in the National Origin and Race in Public Policy: Passage of the 1965 Immigration Act.”
  • San Diego Padres pitcher Chris Young ’02 : “The Integration of Professional Baseball and Racial Attitudes in America: A Study in Stereotype Change.”
  • U.S. Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz ’92: “Clipping the Wings of Angels: The History and Theory behind the Ninth and Tenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.”

The Mudd Library houses both senior theses and Ph.D. dissertations written by Princeton University students. Both can be searched by using the Princeton University Library’s search service, Books+. To learn how to view or order a copy of a senior thesis view our LibGuide.

Additional articles and links related to theses:

Agony! Ecstasy! The thesis is a senior’s final lonely journey By: Mark F. Bernstein ’83

Undergraduate Admissions on the Princeton Experience

Virtual Orange Key Tour

Princeton Writing Program – Senior Thesis Bootcamp

New York Times article: “Campus Life: Princeton; Senior Thesis Debated: Enrichment or Torture?” article: “Princeton’s vast thesis library provides a glimpse into the young minds of celebrities”

Princeton Alumni Weekly articles about theses:

June 7, 1925; February 12, 1932; June 8,1934; August 9, 1935; February 19, 1950; September 19, 1954; November 5, 1954; November 26, 1954; April 9, 1956.

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