Distinguished Majors Program

General Information

The Distinguished Majors Program (DMP) in Psychology was initiated in January 1986 as an opportunity for psychology majors with exceptional records to prepare a thesis under the supervision of a departmental faculty member during the student's fourth year. The resulting thesis may be based on empirical research conducted by the student, analyses using an existing database, or a critical literature review. There is also a required seminar for DMP participants. This is designed to enrich the thesis experience. An important feature of the DMP is the opportunity for students to work closely with a faculty member and gain valuable hands-on research experience.

Upon successful completion of the program, a Distinguished Major's degree may be awarded with Distinction, High Distinction, or Highest Distinction. The level of distinction is determined by the Undergraduate Committee and The Director of the Distinguished Major Program. 

Review the sections below for more information:


Thesis and Deadlines

Students must prepare a thesis under the supervision of a *psychology department* faculty member. It is the DMP applicant’s responsibility, prior to application, to find a faculty advisor who agrees to serve as thesis mentor.

*In unusual circumstances, non-Psychology department faculty may be approved as thesis mentors, but this authorization is at the discretion of the DMP selection committee.

The thesis may be based on empirical research with data collected by the student or obtained from an existing database, or it may consist of a critical review or theoretical analysis of existing findings. The thesis work consists of three credit hours each semester of the fourth year. Distinguished Majors who begin in the Fall semester register for PSYC 4970; those who begin in the Spring semester register for PSYC 4980. The same course number is used the second semester. Upon completion of the thesis, one grade is assigned by the thesis advisor for all six credit hours.

The topic of the thesis, identified by the student in consultation with the advisor, must be identified by the end of the first month in the program. A second reader must be identified by the end of the first semester.

The thesis must be completed and submitted to the thesis advisor and second reader no later than one month prior to the date of graduation. Two copies of the final thesis must be submitted to the Undergraduate Committee by the last day of classes.

Specific Coursework

In addition to meeting the requirements for the Psychology major, DMP students must take PSYC 387, Seminar for Distinguished Majors, each semester while enrolled in the program. This one-credit seminar meets one hour per week and is graded satisfactory/unsatisfactory.

Area Meetings

It is recommended strongly that DMP students attend the weekly area meeting (e.g., Clinical, Cognitive, etc.) of the area to which their research is related. Each area meets (usually during the lunch hour) for presentations of research or discussions of topics of interest. Presenters are faculty members, graduate students or visitors. Meetings are informal and offer a wonderful opportunity for the exchange of scientific knowledge. Distinguished majors do not enroll in these classes. Attendance at departmental colloquia also is encouraged. Announcements of area meetings and departmental colloquia are sent on email to those in the DMP. DMP participants are required to attend a minimum of two research presentations each semester.

Suggested Courses

DMP participants are encouraged strongly to take seminars at the 5000-level or above that are of interest. Courses at the 5000-level are taught at a similar level to courses at the 4000-level, except the courses are designed to include both undergraduate and graduate students. Courses at the 7000- and 8000-level may be taken, subject to approval by the instructor and the Dean of the Graduate School based on departmental recommendation. With approval of the Director of Undergraduate Studies, graduate seminar courses can count as fulfilling the 4000- or 5000-level course requirements for the major.


The College of Arts and Sciences requires that students complete their degree with a University grade point average (GPA) of at least 3.40 to graduate with distinction. Any student who completes the thesis but does not have the required overall GPA will receive a grade for the DMP course, but will not graduate with distinction.

The Admission Process


Three criteria are required at the time of application: (1) A psychology grade point average of at least 3.40, (2) a grade of at least B+ in PSYC-3005*or 2005, and (3) an agreement with a faculty member to serve as your mentor. Students lacking one or more of these criteria may submit a petition to the DMP Admission Committee Chair, Frederick Smyth (Director of Undergraduate Studies). 

*Students who have not completed PSYC-3005 or 2005 can be considered on a provisional basis, with final decision reached once PSYC-3005 or 2005 is completed, at least by May of 3rd-year.

The College of Arts and Sciences requires that students must complete their degree with a University GPA of at least 3.40 to graduate with distinction.
Students with a GPA below 3.40 may submit a petition the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

When to Apply

If planning a Spring graduation, the ideal application time is by March 31 of the third year, though applications will be considered as late as August--prior to the start of classes for the fourth year.

How to Apply

Complete the Distinguished Major Application and email the form to Lisa Ishler ([email protected]).  DMP Admission Committee decisions are made on a rolling basis.  Applicants will be notified of the decision by e-mail.

Getting Started

Finding an Advisor

Any member of the faculty within the Psychology Department may advise you, but typically they will want to be well-acquainted with your work and interests.  This usually occurs through having served as a Research Assistant in their lab.

The undergraduate psychology web page contains information about the research interests of the faculty members in the department, so perusing this list would be a great place to start if you’re a first- or second-year student thinking ahead about the DMP. 

Once you've identified a faculty member as a prospective advisor, you must initiate contact with her or him.  A face-to-face discussion is preferred for discussing the possibility of supervising your thesis.

Here are some things to keep in mind during your meeting:

  • Many faculty members are delighted to work with top undergraduates (which DMP participants usually are).
  • You want to convince a faculty member that there is something to gain from working with you. Plan what you will say. Be confident and tell this person why you would like to work with him or her.
  • A faculty member may decline your request if he or she is already spread over too many projects, will be on leave, or thinks your area of interest is too far from his or her own. Do not take this personally. Try someone else.

Selecting a Topic

Your advisor is there to teach and advise you. He or she has years of experience in conducting research. The process of developing a thesis topic is one of collaboration. Don't worry about getting an idea on your own. Talk to your advisor. He or she will help you find direction with a program of readings that will help you generate ideas. Whether you come in with a fairly clear idea of what you want to study, or you only know the broad area, your advisor will want to discuss the ideas and work with you to refine them. The final topic will probably be one in which both of you had some input. It will also be something in which both of you have an interest.

Thesis Resources

Research projects vary widely in their need for equipment, materials and supplies. If the equipment needed for a thesis is available in the department, it should be available free of charge. All arrangements for equipment are made through the advisor.

Materials and supplies may be covered by the advisor if the research is conducted as part of a grant. If the research is not covered by a grant, the Psychology Department will provide copies of experimental materials (questionnaires, consent forms, etc.) up to a reasonable amount.

In the past, the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences has offered a limited number of grants for amounts up to $500 in support of undergraduate research.

Publish Your Work: The Oculus

 You may wish to submit your research to The Oculus, UVa's multidisciplinary research journal! They accept DMP or Majors Theses, Course Papers, Independent Research, and more. Research from any field, from Biology to Art History, is accepted.

Visit this link for guidelines or contact [email protected] with questions. If you want to see last year’s edition of The Oculus for examples of previously published papers, check out this link.

Appendix and Forms

Distinguished Major Application

Guidelines on the Awarding of Levels of Distinction
Consistent with University guidelines, recommendations for distinction are based on the following:

  • The quality of the student's thesis.
  • The student's overall work in the DMP.
  • The student's overall work in the major field of study.
  • The student's overall College record.

Departmental recommendations are submitted to the Chair of the University Committee on Special Programs no later than two weeks before graduation. This is typically after the diplomas have been submitted to the printer. Therefore, DMP students should expect to receive a blank "diploma" at the departmental diploma ceremony. Actual diplomas are mailed shortly after graduation.