A senior or honors thesis is a wonderful way to explore politics, policy, or political theory from a novel vantage point. A thesis is a sustained, extended written work that examines a central idea or question that is developed under the guidance of a professor. Designing a research question, gathering and presenting data, and analyzing and arguing one's own perspective offers students the opportunity to put a capstone on their experience as a Political Science major. Typically ranging from 75-150 pages in length, a thesis offers students the scope to explore questions of interest with a depth not offered in ordinary classes. Writing a thesis is of particular interest to students thinking about graduate school in Political Science, Public Policy, Law, and other professions where good writing is key. No two theses are alike. Each one is a unique reflection of the individual, researcher, critic, or thinker.
A lot of students ask whether they should spend their senior year embarking on the grueling hours it takes to plan, research, and write on a research question. Students wishing to embark on a thesis should find a thesis advisor willing to work with them one semester before planning to start the thesis.
The thesis is a two semester project. Senior thesis students enroll in PS 691 Senior Thesis in the first semester, and should plan to attend the meetings of PS 683 Honors Thesis Colloquium (unless their course schedule does not permit). In the second semester, senior thesis students enroll in PS 692 and should attend meetings of PS 684 Honors Thesis Colloquium. Honors thesis students enroll directly in PS 683 and PS 684.
Grading: PS 691 and 683 are graded "P" if the student is making adequate progress. PS 692 and 684 are graded A-F.
The short- and long-term benefits from writing a thesis are available to everyone and not just those going to law school or graduate school. The thesis requires energy, focus, determination. and discipline. The main prerequisite for a thesis is that you want to write one.
Intellectual Curiosity: You must be interested in your topic! The good news is that you can choose your topic. Taking on a thesis when you’re not really interested in a topic is not a good idea. It then becomes an unbearable chore. Instead look at your senior thesis as a way to pursue something you’re curious about. This is an opportunity for you to direct your own education in a very comprehensive manner. It is an opportunity to make it more exciting and catered to your interests than almost any other project in your college career.
Developing professional skills: A thesis is a great way to cultivate some skills you might actually use after graduation so you can feel more prepared for the professional world. A thesis demonstrates your ability to work independently on a sustained project that requires complex analytical skills.
Professional Credentials: Completion of a thesis is an important credential for law school, graduate school, and employment. Admissions boards, employers, and colleagues regard a thesis with respect due to the motivation and discipline required.
Developing a relationship with faculty advisors: This is a very unique opportunity to work with professors and other members of your department. You will work closely with both your research advisor, the thesis seminar instructor, and fellow students who are writing their own thesis. It is a highly collaborative process and a unique opportunity to work with many interested faculty, staff, and students. Many students develop a relationship with faculty who then recommend them for admission to law school or graduate school. Some students and instructors who work closely together form lifelong professional relationships around their shared intellectual interests.
Originality: What if I don't have an original idea? This is a questions that research asks at all levels. It would be disingenuous to say that any academic work is ever entirely original. We all build upon libraries of information and resources that have come before us. An important part of academic work is acknowledging our debt to other scholars fully and clearly. We can stand on the shoulders of giants. The important question is how the thesis can add to a conversation already begun on the topic.
In order to develop your topic, spend some time reading in your area of interest. Look at your professors’ profile pages to see the research that they are working on and if it interests you.
Working with a Faculty Supervisor: In general it is best to work with a professor who is familiar with your work and ability, but successful theses have been written under the direction of a supervisor who has never taught the student in class. The sooner you identify a faculty advisor, the better. Your advisor will help you hone your research question, assign background readings to prepare you to conduct your research, and help you identify materials and analytical techniques. You will meet regularly with your supervisor, producing drafts and revisions under their guidance.
Step One: Reflection and Reading – Finding a Topic: A senior thesis should be based on something that has interested you during your pursuit of an undergraduate career. Often, a thesis topic grows from a persistent question you have studied or even written about in a course you valued. How does this question connect with other things that interest you? Often it is best to talk with a friend, professor, or advisor in your department. You must get used to talking about your ideas as soon as possible.
Step Two: Focus on a Research Question or Set of Research Questions: After you have traced several branches of your main idea, choose one of these and pare away all excess material. This aspect may be your thesis topic. The best test to see if this idea can be made into a thesis is to prepare an abstract.
Step Three: Writing a Proposal. A proposal is a refined synopsis of your proposed thesis topic. A well-composed proposal guides your research and writing. It also helps you engage a faculty supervisor, and it is required for research funding. The proposal is broken down into the following questions/topics.
- Thesis statement- This is one sentence—25 words or less—that makes the main idea of your argument clear to any intelligent reader.
- Method- Is there a theoretical model you will follow? What is your evidence? Are you doing field research?
- Goals- What do you hope to accomplish by writing your thesis? Are you hoping to fill a particular gap in the research of this topic, or to bring a special perspective?
- Audience- In general, the audience for a research thesis will be professionals in your discipline.
- Implications- So what? What do you hope to show that is different from what has been said before in the conversation on your topic? How do you see your project fitting into the big picture of studies in your chosen discipline? If you are writing a creative thesis, what is creative about it?
A good proposal usually goes through several drafts, and it will go on changing even while your write the thesis itself. It is essential that you get feedback from readers you respect at every stage of proposal development.
Recommended Reading: How to Write a B.A. Thesis, by Charles Lipson, 2005.
- The Honors Program offers grants to conduct honors thesis research! Deadlines for the Trewartha and the Mensink Grants are in late October. Visit the L&S Honors Program for more information.
- Up to twenty excellent senior theses will win a University Book Store Award ($1000) each year. Deadlines for those are in late March.
- Our department gives out an award for the best undergraduate term paper or thesis each year, the William Jennings Bryan Award.
All senior and honors thesis writers are expected to attend PS 683 and 684 in the fall and spring semesters respectively. The point of writing a thesis in conjunction with this seminar is to reap the benefits of going through the process with your peers and with the structure that the course schedule provides. You are expected to dedicate yourself to your project, but you can also expect that this will be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
All thesis writers are expected to find a faculty member to serve as your thesis advisor who specializes in their area of interest. If you have already made a connection with a faculty member who has agreed to advise your thesis—fantastic. If not, you should immediately begin seeking out a faculty member who does work in your area of interest. You will each turn in a thesis advising agreement form during the fifth week of class that will serve as a contract between you, your substantive advisor, and the Thesis Seminar Instructor, Amy Gangl. Her role in your thesis adventure is to guide you through the process of designing a research project, conducting the research, and writing the thesis. (This is slightly different than the “second reader” role described in the Lipson book recommended above.)
The main requirement, of course, is the 75-150 page senior thesis that due the last week of classes in May (the actual length will be agreed upon with the thesis advisor.) In the Fall semester, thesis writers are required to complete a thesis proposal, a pre-writing of research results, and a timeline for the second semester. In the spring semester, thesis writers will be required to participate in either the L&S Honors Program Senior Honors Thesis Symposium or the Undergraduate Symposium. Thesis writers will have the opportunity to receive and to provide constructive critiques of the work of other seminar participants.