Honors students

A Taste of Research for Undergraduates

Monday, May 23, 2016

Undergraduate students in the University Honors Program get a rigorous introduction to the complexities and hard work of research as they complete their degree. To graduate with Latin Honors, students must conduct an Honors Thesis project, which is a student-led research project, which they write up by the end of their senior year in the form of a thesis. To graduate summa cum laude, students must give a presentation on their thesis as well.

Thesis development is covered in two Honors Thesis Seminar classes. In the first class, students define their project. The second class is devoted to data organization, analysis, and writing the thesis. Throughout the journey, students receive feedback from a host of sources—faculty members, librarians, and their fellow classmates.

“It’s really a complex process,” says Professor Colleen Manchester, the course instructor, adding that these classes give the students’ critical thinking and project management skills a real workout. “But these students represent the best and brightest at the Carlson School. They are high-caliber students.”

Daunting as the classes might be, they are increasing in popularity. Thirty students signed up this year, an increase of almost 50 percent over last year.

The confidence gap in the workplace

One such student is Avery Moe (left in photo), who will be graduating in May with a summa cum laude designation as a finance major. She has landed a job at 3M as an internal auditor. Moe was drawn to the class because of the support she receives from her fellow thesis writers.

“Writing a thesis is a very large commitment and can be overwhelming at times,” she says. “It is incredibly valuable to work through this process with other students and to have a place to share my ideas and concerns with people who are going through the same process.”

Moe’s thesis, being supervised by Manchester, looks at women’s confidence levels in the workplace. “Existing research demonstrates that women tend to have less confidence than men, and this ‘confidence gap’ can lend itself to greater gender inequalities in the workplace,” Moe says. “Additional research shows that firms with greater numbers of women in upper management tend to have greater numbers of women in middle management and a lower wage gap between men and women throughout the firm. I wanted to explore whether these two ideas are connected—are women more confident when they have female bosses or mentors?”

Moe designed an experiment where participants are randomly assigned to receive instructions for simple tasks from either a man or a woman. They were then asked to rank their levels of self-confidence. Moe thought that women will feel more confident in their ability to complete a task if they receive the instructions from another woman rather than from a man. The findings have been inconclusive.

“So far, I have not found any results in support of my hypotheses that are considered statistically significant. However, I am still in the process of analyzing my data,” Moe says. “It can be difficult to put forth so much effort into developing hypotheses that are justified by existing literature and then go through the effort of collecting and analyzing data, only to realize that the results you’ve obtained don’t match your initial expectations. Research can be exciting at times, but also frustrating.”

How socioeconomic status affects consumer preferences

Paige Thorburn is a senior marketing major set to graduate summa cum laude in May. In August, she will start work as a business analyst at Target in Minneapolis. She has much praise for the Honors Thesis Seminar class and the experience.

“This class helps me stay focused and provides a sense of accountability. Professor Manchester is really good at giving us structure and pointing us in the right direction,” she says. “It’s also great to be able to see what my peers are working on and learn from that.”

Thorburn’s project focuses on how socioeconomic status (SES) affects consumers’ preferences for luxury products and attempts to uncover the underlying motivations that explain it. Her project supervisor is Marketing Professor Deborah John. Thorburn’s original hypotheses were that people of higher SES would prefer “quieter,” or less conspicuously branded, luxury products in order to fulfill value expressive motivations, and those of lower SES would want “louder,” or more conspicuous, products for social acceptance motivations.

“I’m finding that this isn’t the case, or at least not within my survey data. I’m finding little or no correlation between SES and product preferences or motivations,” she says. “However, I have found other little things, like a correlation between value expressive motivations and both feelings of power as well as the need for uniqueness.”

Thorburn is finding that data analysis is a real journey. “I had kind of assumed that once I put out my survey and collected the responses, I’d just throw them into Excel and get a nice little regression that would tie everything together,” she says. “As it turns out, there are a lot of steps involved, and I’m having to explore different avenues that I hadn’t anticipated because my results aren’t what I had expected.”

One major surprise she notes is finding a lot of “bad data.” Some respondents just clicked the first response to every question in her electronic survey in order to finish more quickly.

Despite some setbacks, she is really enjoying the level of autonomy that research gives her. “It’s exciting and rewarding to be working on a project that is completely of my own design and to have the chance to work on something that really interests me,” she says. “I’ve always been intrigued by retail and fashion, as well as the more sociological side of marketing, so being able to explore that more deeply is great. Additionally, I’ve really appreciated being able to work with faculty. We have such talented people working here and being able to learn from them one-on-one has been extremely helpful.”