Senior Projects

The senior project is a capstone experience required for all Cal Poly students receiving a baccalaureate degree. It integrates theory and application from across the student's undergraduate educational experiences. The senior project consists of either (1) a research paper of at least 35 pages in length, double-spaced, or (2) a hands-on research project, which also must have a substantial written component. Examples of (2) include designing a webpage, a study abroad program, and an interdisciplinary class, working on an electoral campaign and keeping a journal, and organizing a voter registration drive.

The senior project is related to the student's field of study, future employment, and/or academic goals and is carried out under direct faculty supervision by the following regular faculty: Craig ArceneauxChris Den Hartog, Ron Den OtterShelley HurtMichael LatnerAnika LeithnerElizabeth LowhamMatthew Moore,  Allen SettleJean Williams, or Ning Zhang. The precise form of a senior project is to be determined by the student and faculty advisor. We recommend working with a faculty member with whom you have taken classes and/or whose area of expertise lends itself to your project.

To satisfy the senior project requirement, you must enroll in POLS 461 and POLS 462 (each class is two units). POLS 461 and 462 are independent study sections in which you work independently with your senior project faculty advisor. With this option, you do not meet in a class. Rather, you meet individually with your senior project advisor. With your advisor's permission, you may spread out your senior project by taking POLS 461 one quarter and POLS 462 the next quarter. 

To begin the Senior Project process, first talk with a member of the Political Science faculty who is likely to be knowledgeable about topic(s) in which you are interested during the quarter before you plan to enroll in POLS 461. Also, be aware that different faculty members have different philosophies about how to develop a senior project. As soon as possible, set up a tentative schedule for when you will complete each part of the project.

The topic has to fall under the umbrella of "politics," but this can include an explanation of political events, phenomena, institutions, or behavior, interpretation of political text(s), analysis of judicial decisions or legal issues, or any number of domestic and foreign policy issues. Above all, you must have a crystal clear research question that you will investigate. You also must develop an equally clear answer to that question that you will defend in your paper. The Resources page has various links that are useful for exploring topics of interest and for conducting research. Keep in mind that some faculty members require you to complete the Senior Project Contract (Word Doc) prior to beginning your senior project.

The senior project is an opportunity to be especially creative and scholarly. Take it seriously. Begin work on it as soon as possible and stay in touch with the faculty supervisor on how your work is progressing. You are not a Cal Poly graduate and you do not receive a diploma until a senior project is completed.

Learning outcomes:

  • To formulate a clear research question
  • To formulate an equally clear answer
  • To defend that answer
  • To write clearly, concisely, and fluidly
  • To organize the paper effectively
  • To understand and synthesize the literature that is relevant to your question
  • To analyze carefully the data that you plan to use
  • To build knowledge and conduct original research

General Requirements:

The total number of senior project units must be 4. Normally 30 hours of student work will be required for each unit of credit granted. Thus, a senior project should occupy approximately 120 hours from start to finish. The student is responsible for identifying costs and potential funding sources for the senior project prior to its initiation. Costly projects are discouraged.

It is the student's responsibility to become informed about the university's intellectual properties policy and human subjects policy when necessary. If your project involves research on people, including interviews or polls, you must obtain clearance from the Human Subjects Committee prior to beginning work. This process can take several weeks. For additional information about the HSC, please visit the Cal Poly Human Subject Research website.

All senior projects must be grounded in the relevant literature. That means that you must do an overview of the main arguments in the field. This overview may take the form of a traditional literature review, which demonstrates that you have read much of the existing literature and understand what the major positions are, how and why people disagree, where gaps or unanswered questions lie, and where things might be headed next. A literature review is not just several short book reports put together like pieces of meat and vegetables on a skewer. Instead, it should synthesize the ideas and arguments of others to place your research in a scholarly context. Please consult your faculty advisor for the details of how he or she expects you to ground your project in the relevant literature.

All senior projects must include some element of original research. Examples include conducting interviews, presenting original readings of primary documents, and performing your own analyses of data.

Procedural Requirements:

The faculty of the Department of Political Science has adopted the following guidelines as the minimum standards required for the successful completion of a senior project in this major. These guidelines are only procedural. We recommend that you use Strunk and White, The Elements of Style (most recent edition) for all submitted written material. All senior projects shall represent, in the opinion of the faculty advisor, the hours required to successfully complete a minimum of four units of work. The proposed research question of the senior project must be agreed to by the faculty member overseeing the project prior to its beginning. If these criteria are successfully met, and the project is technically correct, it shall fulfill the department's minimum requirements for graduation. The grade shall be determined by the advisor's professional evaluation of the quality of the project.

Students are encouraged to submit their completed Senior Projects to the Digital Commons in the Kennedy Library. See the Digital Commons website for more information.

The senior project is time-intensive and may be difficult to finish in a ten-week quarter. We encourage students to spread the POLS 461 and POLS 462 units out over two quarters rather than trying to squeeze the entire senior project into one quarter. You should begin thinking about the research question you plan to address in your senior project as soon as possible. We also strongly recommend that once you begin your senior project, you arrange weekly meetings with your faculty advisor.

Rough Schedule:

  • Week 0: Prior to the beginning of the quarter that you plan to start your senior project, you should have an advisor who has agreed to supervise the project. Do not wait until the first week of that quarter to find an advisor. That is too late. In addition, you should begin reading the literature that concerns your tentative topic so that you can refine your research question before the quarter begins.
  • Week 1: On the first day of the quarter at the latest, you should have a clearly stated research question and a description of the methods you plan to use.
  • Week 2: By the end of the second week, you should have identified most of the literature relevant to your project.
  • Week 3: Read that literature.
  • Week 4: By the end of the fourth week, you should have an annotated bibliography ready.
  • Week 5: By the end of the fifth week, you should have finished an outline of the entire project.
  • Week 6: Write the rough draft.
  • Week 7: Write the rough draft.
  • Week 8: Turn in a complete rough draft to your advisor.
  • Week 9: Revise the rough draft based on your advisor's feedback.
  • Week 10: Turn in the final draft no later than the Monday of final exams week unless you have made a different arrangement with your faculty advisor.


At the annual spring dinner, the best senior project is awarded the John H. Lynn Prize for Outstanding Senior Project. Faculty members nominate senior projects for consideration and the Faculty Awards Committee makes the final decision.

Senior Project Handbook:

The Senior Project Handbook  has been created by POLS Faculty to help you submit a successful senior project and covers, in greater depth, the information above.


Check out these informational videos on the senior projects.

If you have trouble viewing this video, please watch it on Youtube

If you have trouble viewing this video, please watch it on Youtube

If you have trouble viewing this video, please watch it on Youtube

If you have trouble viewing this video, please watch it on Youtube

If you have trouble viewing this video, please watch it on Youtube

If you have trouble viewing this video, please watch it on Youtube


For answers to additional questions regarding Senior Projects, contact a faculty member who specializes in a topic of interest to you. Please See the Political Science Department's faculty pages for further information on faculty specializations.

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