Stephen Van Evera // MIT Political Science Department
I often make the following suggestions to seniors writing honors theses.
I. TOPIC SELECTION
Look for a topic that's both feasible and significant. Avoid the impossible, but also remember that this is the only senior thesis you will ever write; don't blow it exploring a minor sidebar to the big story.
A good thesis has a thesis--a main line of argument, or a set of related arguments. If your thesis lacks a thesis, think it through again. If your thesis has too many theses, consider ways to organize your ideas more simply.
III. YOUR INTRODUCTORY CHAPTER: FORMAT
Your first chapter should summarize your thesis. It should answer six (6) questions:
- What question or questions do you address? Spell them out clearly. If you cannot frame your questions clearly, this means they may be muddled in your own mind.
To avoid mind-muddle of this sort at the drafting phase, you should frame your questions on paper before you begin your research. If you find your questions hard to frame, keep trying until you come up with something you like. If you don't do this your research will meander.
A thesis may propose theories; test theories; describe and explain historical events; evaluate (criticize or endorse) past, present, or proposed public policies; assess or prescribe strategies for social groups, movements, or leaders; and other things as well. State clearly what general mission your thesis fulfills.
- Why does your question(s) arise? From what academic debates or real-world events?
If a previous literature exists on the topic, you should describe that literature: summarize its evolution and main conclusions. Are there different schools of thought? If so, who are the major disputants, and what points of difference lie between them? What mysteries has this literature already unravelled, and which has it left unsolved?
- What answer or answers do you offer? Clearly state your conclusions in your introduction. A good thesis should not try to "seduce" the reader by withholding conclusions until late in the document.
- What competing explanations, arguments, interpretations, or frameworks do you reject or refute? (You may have already answered this question under #2.)
- How did you reach your answers? Say a few words about your methodology and sources. What sources did you consult? Which didn't you consult, and why not? Briefly tell the reader what evidence is available, what is not, what research proved feasible and what did not.
If there are important questions which you did not answer, identify these and explain why you couldn't answer them.
Instead of writing your way around gaps in your research, explain them honestly in your introduction. (But do your research in a manner that doesn't require lame excuses.)
- What comes next? Provide a roadmap to the rest of the thesis: "Chapter 1 explains how I began my life of crime; Chapter 2 details my early legal embarrassments; Chapter 3 recounts my journey to Sing Sing; Chapter 4 offers general theoretical conclusions and policy implications." Something of that sort.
#1 ("What is your question?"), #2 ("Why does this question arise?"), and #3 ("What is your answer?") are the most important. Make sure you cover these well.
A summary introduction of this sort will eliminate confusion about what your thesis does and does not say. It can also serve a diagnostic purpose for you. The act of summary will force you to confront any gaps in your argument or evidence, thus pointing the way to areas that still need work.
Introductions are often best written last--it may work to convert parts of what you first write as a "conclusion" to serve as introductory material. But throughout your project you should keep your eye on how you will answer these questions when the time comes.
In your conclusion you may wish to summarize your questions and answers, if your summary introduction was cursory. However, I prefer a conclusion that briefly recapitulates the project, and then explores its implications. What policy prescriptions follow from your discoveries? What arguments do they settle? What new questions do they raise? What further research do they suggest is needed? This is the place to explain the significance of your project.
These injunctions should be born in mind:
- Frame your argument clearly. If your thesis discusses cause-effect ideas, your readers should be able to "arrow-diagram" these ideas. For a discussion of arrow-diagrams, see my handout on "Hypotheses, Laws and Theories: A User's Guide." If your causal ideas cannot be reduced to arrow diagrams, then your writing (and probably your thinking) are too muddy. Think your project through again.
If your thesis is purely descriptive or historical, make sure to offer periodic summaries of your main arguments or discoveries.
- Think carefully what evidence would confirm or disconfirm the arguments you plan to advance or investigate. Do this early, before you begin your research! Otherwise you won't know what evidence you are looking for.
- "Argue against yourself." Frame the objections or questions that might be raised by someone skeptical of your case, and briefly address them throughout the text, where this is appropriate. To persuade the reader that you have been thoughtful, you should preempt doubters by letting them know that you are aware of the problem they spotted, the alternate explanation they would suggest, or the alternate interpretation of evidence that they might prefer. Then let them know why you think you still have a valid point.
Often, of course, the doubters have a good point, and you should grant it. Do not claim too much for your arguments or evidence!
A reader should be able to grasp the thrust of your thesis by reading only the first sentence of every paragraph.
a. your argument;
b. your supporting evidence;
c. counter-arguments, qualifications, and limiting conditions of your argument;
d. brief concluding remarks, which may include comments on the implications of your argument, or may note questions they raise.
For more advice on writing see William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd. ed. (NY: Macmillan, 1979); and Joseph M. Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 3rd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1989).
A thesis should reflect a comprehensive survey of literature and evidence relevant to the subject matter of the thesis. You are responsible for in-depth knowledge on the main aspects of your subject. In addition to conveying what you know about the topic, you should be able to tell the reader what is and is not known about it. This requires that you read many books! Ask your advisor what bibliographies, syllabi and library reference indexes you should consult to build your bibliography. Also ask the reference librarians; they can resolve many mysteries.
You also may wish to consult Kate L. Turabian, A Student's Guide to Writing College Papers, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) for more clues on how to do research.
On all matters of style (e.g. footnote and citation format, etc.) consult Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 5th ed. (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1987). Carefully follow her instructions--sloppy style makes you look like an amateur. (You will probably want to own a copy.)
IX. SCHEDULING YOUR WORK.
My advice is: finish a first draft in time to leave several weeks for more research. During drafting you will doubtless run across important questions which you overlooked during your first phase of research. If you don't leave time for exploring these at the end you may be left with gaping holes in your thesis.
X. YOUR TABLE OF CONTENTS AND ABSTRACT
When you start your project you should draft a provisional table of contents for your thesis, with chapter titles. Later, when you circulate chapters to advisors or friends, you should always include this table of contents. This helps them see the big picture.
Before submitting your thesis you should write a one-page (doublespaced) abstract that sums it up in a clear, cogent manner. This helps readers grasp what you have done.
XI. YOUR PROSPECTUS
The political science department will ask you to produce a prospectus summarizing your thesis project during the fall semester before your thesis is due. That prospectus should follow the format of the guideline sheet attached to this memo.
XII. HOW TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HOW TO WRITE A THESIS
Take a look at one or two good theses, especially theses that recently won prizes, and imitate their better aspects.
Your thesis prospectus explains your project to your advisors, friends, and others who need to know what you are up to. It should frame the question(s) your dissertation will answer, and should explain how you propose to answer them. It also should persuade readers that your questions are important, and your plan of action is practical.
A complete prospectus should answer five (5) questions:
Note: Questions #2 and #3 overlap, and can sometimes be answered together in a single statement.