Political Science

Senior Thesis

Many resources are available for seniors writing theses in political science, including the Political Science Senior Thesis Handbook; we recommend that seniors also look at the general resources offered by the CIS thesis page and the Reed Senior Handbook (PDF). A list of past theses in political science are available from the Reed College Library Catalog.

Thesis is a two-credit course that you take with a professor. It is an exciting experience precisely because you have the opportunity to work closely with a professor on a one-to-one basis. Treat it as a class. Give yourself the time to prepare before you see your advisor so the time spent is worthwhile for both of you.

Remember that you need to work with your advisor to find the kind of supervision that works for the two of you. Often students need different things from advisors. Some students are concerned whether they have enough data; others need someone to bounce ideas off of. Others use the thesis to explore broader issues, such as, "what is a political scientist and should I go to graduate school to become one?" Some students drop in once a week with material to discuss. Others treat it as an independent study; we definitely do not recommend this. Some students want structure and formality; others prefer a less formal style of supervision. Whatever your needs, you need to find the relationship that is most comfortable for you and your advisor. There should be regular consultation between you and your advisor as every advisor has his or her own expectations. Usually, you should agree to set up regular meetings (thesis conferences), expectations for chapter drafts and other benchmarks of progress.

The best advice for selecting a topic is to talk—with anyone, but certainly with faculty—about things that interest you. Talk with other students, attend lectures, make some notes about ideas, pay attention in class (faculty will often comment "that is a good thesis topic"—don't let those hints pass). The key is that settling on a topic is a process and a dialogue. A brilliant and very specific topic may suddenly occur to you, or you may actually have had one in mind for years, but that is rare. Do not forget to review the past theses in Political Science in this appendix. If a title interests you, look it up in the Library. Reed theses are rarely "the last word" on any topic, and any thesis may spur a completely different idea. Usually good topics emerge from conversations over time, and it is up to you to initiate them.

Keep your topic simple, but not simplistic. A good topic addresses a basic question or puzzle in the discipline. Often the more complicated the question, the more evasive it seems. For example, what is Foucault's connection to Bataille and Nietzsche can be thoroughly interesting, but you still need to answer the question: what does it matter? What conceptual issue or puzzle does this topic address in political science or political theory? Grounding yourself in this way will give you a star to navigate by. It will make it easier for you to separate what is important to write about and what you can ignore. And you will find that the clearer your focus, the more you can write.

Keep your perspective on what you are writing. You are not writing Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. While we hope you write a wonderful thesis, we know that you will learn a great deal in the process of researching, writing, discussing and rewriting your thesis—regardless of how happy you are with the final product that you have produced when time runs out at the end of Spring term. Remember that thesis is as much about process as product, and that you are evaluated not only on what you wrote, but on what you did over the entire year.

The thesis process has its own rhythm, which accelerates as the year proceeds. Usually, the first chapter takes the longest time to write precisely because you are setting out the topic, but as you proceed, you become more sure-footed and the chapters are written more quickly. As an exercise, count back from the first draft deadline (usually the beginning of April) and figure a month per chapter. Balance your schedule accordingly.

Write, write, write! Writing and thinking are not exclusive categories. Often when we write, we also think more clearly. You may end up using only a fraction of what you write in the end, but it is better to pick and choose what you will include than to write a great deal all in a hurry. As an exercise, try to set aside 15 minutes a day to write down thoughts on your thesis and go over them occasionally.

Do not put the details off to the last moment. Work on your bibliography when you have time, writing it up in the proper format, or make use of bibliographic software available for Macs and PCs. Make sure you are familiar with the proper footnoting format. If you don't know whether you are using proper format, check Turabian's A Manual for Writers.

Among the skills we hope you master in the course of thesis is the ability to edit and tighten your own work. When we submit our materials to journals and publishers, they commonly ask us to cut 1/3 or 1/4 of our "finished material." We know how valuable this exercise is, and painful though it is, it has taught us how to edit. We believe mastering this skill will assist you in writing graduate school essays, op-eds for newspapers, or journal articles and will generally increase the likelihood that strangers will read your work with interest. The greater the economy of thesis, the easier it will be for you to submit it to national student journals and conferences.