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My year doing Honours

Last April I graduated. I put on the mortarboard, wore the gown, shook hands with the Chancellor, was given a certificate, and did everything else that graduation normally entails. The week after, I was back in class. How, you may ask? Rather than finishing my uni career just yet, I had enrolled in Honours.

While my former classmates were agonising over the start to their professional lives, I was agonising over potential research questions and methodologies as I got ready for what would end up being one of the most academically challenging – and rewarding – years of my life.

So, what is Honours? To clarify, there are actually two kinds of Honours: Embedded and End-On. Embedded means that Honours is a mandatory part of the degree you’re studying and doesn’t require an additional year of study. End-On Honours is an optional year (or part-time equivalent) of study separate to your undergraduate program that must apply for. My degree, a Bachelor of Communication, offers End-On Honours so that’s the kind of Honours I’m going to talk about here.

Honours is a huge commitment and the responsibility is placed firmly on your shoulders. From the very start, your Honours year is all about you. You have to think of a topic you want to research, and you have to plan and execute that research. It’s very much self-directed and while the assessment guidelines are there to help you understand what you need to do to fulfil the requirements of your degree, your research is definitely your own personal project that you have to make happen. That’s not to say that you’re entirely on your own as you have a much-needed source of guidance in the form of an academic supervisor.

While they won’t do your research for you – and, honestly, you likely wouldn’t want them to – their expertise will be invaluable in helping you decide what shape your research will take and how to exactly go about it. In my experience, they will also be your biggest supporters during the Honours process, helping to keep you motivated and on track during what is going to be one of the most demanding things you’ve ever done academically. Like the rest of Honours, however, finding a supervisor is your own responsibility as well.

Honours is also a very different year both schedule-wise and assessment-wise. In my Honours program, I only had at most four hours of class a week in the first semester, all of which were on the same day. In the second semester I didn’t have any classes at all as I concentrated solely on researching and writing up my project. Beyond class time, however, I also had a weekly meeting with my supervisor where we’d check in on my progress and work out what I had to do next. What your meetings with your supervisor look like will mostly be up to what works for you and your supervisor though. Some supervisor/student pairs work on a weekly meeting basis like I did, some meet whenever they need to and communicate over email for the rest of it.

In terms of assessment, in first semester I had to submit several essays and reports as I completed coursework. These assessments were on research methodologies, research ethics, as well as what prior literature there was on my topic. I also had to give a presentation in both semester one and two to a room of academics that explained what my research was all about. The final assessment I had to complete was the thesis.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it; a thesis is a significant amount of work that from the outset looks practically impossible. For Communication Honours, my thesis had to be between 15000 and 20000 words. My final thesis ended up being approximately 17 000, not including the reference list or appendix, and was more than 80 pages long. Once again, I’ll stress that this is a significant amount of work. Luckily, in my Honours program at least, some of the essays and reports you complete in first semester essentially become sections of your final thesis which helps to lessen the burden but it’s still a huge amount of words to write.

It is important to note, however, that my assessment experience is not the only Honours path there is. Even with the Bachelor of Communication, there are different ways of undertaking research beyond the traditional thesis route. For Ed, one of my fellow Bachelor of Communication (Honours) students, his research took the form of a creative project. While his first semester assessments were identical to mine, instead of a thesis he produced a 20-minute short film. In conjunction with this, he wrote a 7500-word exegesis – an academic reflection on his process that tied into prior literature – in order to delve into his research topic of the manipulation of time in film.

For Hannah, a Bachelor of Biomedical Science student who is completing her Honours part-time, the Honours assessment structure is slightly more like mine as it includes a 15000-word thesis as well as other assessments like literature reviews and presentations. Some Honours programs, like mine, require you to do a final presentation before you submit your final thesis, while some require you to complete yours afterwards.

Suffice to say, Honours is an incredibly arduous year of work and if you want to succeed in it, then you need to put in a whole lot of effort. It can be stressful and nerve-wracking and plain exhausting at times. The lack of structure, at least compared to your undergraduate program, can also be challenging which both Hannah and I agree on. Depending on your project, it can also mean that you may not have the opportunity to have a proper holiday during the break between Semester 1 and 2. For some projects that involve more labour and time intensive research methods like fieldwork or interviews, the break is the only time to get that work done.

While the Honours is tiring and beyond stressful, it’s also so very worth it. Doing Honours has been such a rewarding experience for me as it has helped me better understand what I want to do and where I want to go in my career. Honours also lets you explore a topic in depth and without the constraints of a course’s rubrics. It is also great to work with fellow students who are just as motivated and keenly interested in research as you are. For Ed this was the students that he made his film with, while for Hannah it is the lab group that she is a part of. While my project was more solo, and I didn’t have as much interaction with other students in second semester, getting to talk about research and theory with similarly engaged people in my courses in first semester was a great experience.

For me, Honours has also been a great first step towards the wider world of research and made it clear that I want to do a PhD one day. Having an Honours qualification is also an incredibly powerful thing to have on your resume because it signals the kind of rigorous, self-directed work that you are capable of to prospective employers.

If you’re interested in Honours, now is the time to start thinking about a topic and who you might get to supervise you. You’ll also want to check your program plan to see what the specific requirements (such as GPA) are for entry into Honours.

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