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Why you NEED to do an Honors Thesis

Aaron Kagawa, B.S. ICS with Honors 2003, and M.S. ICS 2005, explains why undergraduates should participate in the Honors program. His argument applies equally well to the M.S. Plan A option!


UHMHonorsProgramLogoThe undergraduate Honors Program opened tremendous opportunities for me in both my educational and professional career. Before starting the Honors Program, I was an average University of Hawaii ICS student. I had good grades and was counting down graduation. But, I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. I didn’t have much experience in one specific topic and the experience I did have didn’t seem to match the jobs out there. After completing my honors thesis, things totally changed. I got accepted to graduate school and was awarded a Graduate Research Assistantship. During my RA I worked in a research lab that conducted software engineering research with companies and organizations like Sun Microsystems, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other universities around the world. Now, I’m working in Hawaii’s high tech industry in a position that I believe was made possible by my work in the Honors Program. This may not seem like a big deal, but in this article, I promise to prove why it is a big deal and tell you how you can take advantage of the same opportunities that I had.

Why it is a Big Deal

Who is the typical undergraduate student? It is probably you. More importantly don’t forget your 100 or so friends that will graduate in a couple of years. What is going to separate your resume from the rest of the graduating class? You all learned the same things. You had the same professors, the same curriculum, the same assignments, the same everything. You might as well all write the same resume and just replace the names.

Ok. I am being a little too sarcastic. But, at least now you understand my point. Furthermore, Hawaii’s small but strong technology industry provides little opportunities for inexperienced ICS undergraduates. Remember that. Who would a company choose (a) a person with at least two years experience in a line of business that is important to the company or (b) a brand new ICS undergraduate who has good grades? I would claim that 8 times out of 10 the company would choose person (a). The fact is that ICS undergraduates have relatively no professional experience. Many ICS student simply do not have the time to juggle work and school. And I don’t blame them, it isn’t their fault.

To add to this inexperience, ICS undergraduates rarely study a specific domain for longer than a semester. They, however, have an excellent education of a very wide variety of topics. ICS undergraduates’ inexperience in a particular domain is not the fault of the department’s curriculum. In fact, it is a job of the undergraduate curriculum to function as such. So don’t blame the curriculum for your inexperience. The following is the job of the different degrees; Undergraduate Degree – wide variety domain of knowledge, Masters Degree – more specialized domain of knowledge, PhD Degree – a very specific domain of knowledge.

If you’re a sharp student you now realize that they are two types of inexperience that ICS undergraduates have: (1) professional experience and (2) domain specific experience. And, if this sounds like you, you are in for a tough time finding your dream job.

How does a typical ICS undergraduate become experienced? You can either find a part time job; of course this job has to provide you with the right experience. Working for Zippy’s or Macy’s doesn’t count. Or, you can further your educational career by getting into and going to a graduate program. I have some bad news for you if you picked the latter. Similar to Hawaii’s technology industry, Graduate Programs are also very competitive. If I remember correctly, the Graduate School average acceptance for the University of Washington is a GRE score close to perfect. If you can’t score that high or can’t show that you possess, unique qualities then your in for tough application process. It was very humbling for me.

I apologize once again for being so cynical. Actually, your opportunities aren’t as bad as I am writing it. But, I’m taking the Devils Advocate position to prove a point. And the point, if you don’t get it yet, is that you need to do something in your undergraduate education that separates yourself from your 100 friends by the time you graduate. Separate yourself with experience and your domain knowledge. You do this and you are better off.

Take Advantage of the Same Opportunities I Had

There is one option that a typical ICS undergraduate can take to become experienced that I did not mention yet. It is the University of Hawaii at Manoa Undergraduate Honors Program. What is Honors at Manoa?

“For highly motivated undergraduate students, the Honors Program offers special academic opportunities; it is a valuable complement to students’ academic and professional careers, helping them to realize their potential. For those students with the curiosity and the innovative spirit that create new opportunities, the Honors Program provides a place within the ordinary curriculum that fosters the extraordinary and transforms an undergraduate career into a voyage of discovery.”

That previous statement is what Honors is all about, in a nutshell. For more information about the Honors Program go to Stop reading this paper right now and click on the link to Honors Program. Read and print out all information on the site.

Now that you know more information about the Honors Program, I’ll provide you with a little more insightful information about doing an Honors Thesis. The Honors Program provides you the opportunity to solve the problems that I mentioned in the previous section. Working on a thesis project enables (and in some ways forces) you to focus specifically on a single domain for longer than a semester. More importantly, doing an Honors Thesis Project requires you to work closely with a Faculty member, who oversees and help guides your project. So, not only are you focusing on a specific domain, you are probably doing it right!

An Honors Thesis also has the following benefits.

  • Critical Thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Time Management
  • Improving Communication Skills, both oral and written
  • Improves your marketability
  • Distinguishes yourself from your peers

Don’t take only my word for it. Here are what some other students have to say (from various sources,

  • Josh Hvidding, John A. Burns School of Medicine, Biology Spring 2002 “… one of the University of Hawaii’s best kept secrets. It was like paying in-state tuition for an ‘Ivy League’ education”
  • Rebekah Morrow, BBA 2005 “I grew tremendously as a person, developed leadership skills that will forever be an asset, learned how to successfully research any given topic, refined my writing skills, and made lifelong connections with other students and faculty.”
  • Roland Davis, Highest Honors in Music, Summer 2004 Graduate “The Honors Program was EXACTLY as a few Honors Candidates first described it to me: very demanding yet extremely rewarding. It’s like grad’ school; they treat you like adults/graduate students and you have all the responsibility that goes with that…and the faculty have all the expectations that go with that too. It was a great training experience for my graduate work. Being around the best and brightest at the University of Hawaii was very similar to being with the best and brightest musicians in the world here at the New England Conservatory, where students win over 25 national and international competitions each year.”
  • From An Extraordinary Graduate: Mette Moffett, “For most, a degree with Highest Honors would be far enough. Mette, however, is extraordinary in what she did along the way to earning a B.S. in Information Computer Science: helping to invent a program that simulates a business environment, winning a research grant to develop the program, lecturing on the program in a graduate course at UHM, and co-founding a start-up internet company.”
  • From UHM Honor’s Students Compete with the Best,  “One hundred sixty-three students have graduated with Honors degrees in this time frame, including last summer’s commencement crowd. Of those who have reported future plans, 75% are either in a graduate program or a professional school or have plans to apply to one.”

How to start

Ok, so the Honors Program sounds interesting, now what? These are the steps that you need to take to start your Honors Thesis:

  1. Read all the information on the Honors Program website:
  2. Read a couple honors theses (find them on the Honors website).
  3. Talk to a couple of Honors Program graduates (find them on the Honors website). Or you can email me (
  4. Talk to faculty about potentially starting projects with them
  5. Contact the Honors Program and get direction on how to start the program.


The Honors Program is definitely the best hidden secret in the Undergraduate curriculum at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Not many students know that it exists. Now you know, but what are you going to do about it? You could do nothing at all and be the typical ICS undergraduate along with a 100 of your peers. Or you could take the challenge and start a voyage of learning.

Editor’s Note

This article was adapted from a blog entry by Aaron Kagawa.  Our thanks to Aaron for permission to repost on the ICS website.