Economics Department

Writing a Thesis

Choosing a topic and an advisor
Reviewing relevant literature
Collecting data
Creating results
Finishing the thesis


Approaching a senior thesis in any major can be an intimidating prospect. However, like most large tasks, the thesis is much more manageable if you take it one step at a time and rely on your advisors to lead you in productive directions. The Economics Department tries very hard to support thesis students in their research and writing. The mid-year mini-orals and the early deadlines for first chapter and first draft all encourage seniors to make steady progress through the thesis year.

In some ways, economics is a particularly intimidating field in which to contemplate a thesis because much of the research literature that you read as an undergraduate makes use of mathematical tools that you are probably barely familiar with and not comfortable using on your own. Most seniors feel as though they are not capable of undertaking research at this level. But writing a senior thesis is quite a different task than getting a research paper published. Although a few economics theses have used the kind of sophisticated mathematical or econometric tools that are common in the journals, most seniors rely entirely on techniques that are learned in Reed's theory and econometrics courses.

What is a senior thesis? You may want to look at some economics theses in the library to get an idea for the scope of projects that recent seniors have undertaken. There is a lot of variation in Reed senior theses, but successful ones are nearly always based on a central question that the author attempts to answer: the thesis of the thesis. Investigating this question may lead you to review the research of others, to synthesize others' work in new ways, or to conduct theoretical or empirical research on your own. Sometimes the outcome of a thesis can be a detailed proposal for further research that the author thinks would provide a better answer than is available at present. In its most basic form, your thesis should be an argument, using tools, research and reasoning appropriate to the field of economics, in response to the central question you have chosen to investigate.

Producing a thesis can be broken down into a series of stages, as outlined below. Each stage involves a substantial amount of work and, to some degree, must be completed before the following stages can proceed. Steady progress throughout the year is crucial to a successful thesis. Students who achieve the benchmarks for progress set by the department and their advisors are usually able to minimize the amount of stress arising at the second-semester deadlines.

Choosing a topic and a thesis advisor

Selecting a good thesis topic is the first step in a successful thesis project. You will be devoting much of your energy over a nine-month period to studying this topic, so it is important to choose an area in which your interest is likely to be sustained through this lengthy research process.

Once you have selected the general area of your research, the choice of the thesis advisor is often obvious. If there is a member of the faculty with expertise in that area, that person should normally advise your thesis. However, many theses are very general or are specialized in areas outside the interests of the faculty. In cases where there is no obvious choice of advisor based on the subject of the thesis, you should request an advisor with whom you are comfortable working and whose advice you respect. Economics majors are asked to express a preference for a thesis advisor. However, if the advising load is excessively unbalanced in a particular year, some students may be asked to work with an advisor other than their first choice. In such cases, the department's decisions about who should be asked to change advisors will be guided mainly by thesis topics and the ability of alternative faculty to provide good advice.

Within your area of interest, the most crucial issue is doability. A major cause of disappointment and frustration for seniors is choosing a thesis topic on which it is difficult to make progress, either because the question is so large that they cannot manage it or because the question/topic cannot be easily investigating using the tools that they command.

While you are the best authority on your own areas of interest, you will have to rely on the faculty, and especially on your advisor, to help you find a specific thesis topic that you can complete on time with the resources that are available at Reed. Specific, focused topics are almost always better than highly general or vague ones. Questions like "How can we reduce water pollution?" or "What determines the rate of technological progress?" are so broad that an adequate answer could not fit into a senior thesis. However, within those general areas the faculty can help guide you to one of many doable theses.

Reviewing relevant literature

All scholars in economics build on the shoulders of others. The first step of your thesis research is to search broadly and deeply to find out what others have discovered about your question and related questions. There are many resources available at Reed to help you with this search. The first is your thesis advisor and other members of the faculty, who may be able to point you to prominent pieces of research that bear on your thesis.

Each of these papers will contain citations to earlier work on related topics. Other references can be found be searching for appropriate keywords in EconLit, which indexes all economics books and journals, or one of the public-affairs or newspaper indexes. These indexes are available online through the Reed Library website. If you cast your net broadly at the beginning, you are less likely to be surprised at the end to find that someone else has done research that diminishes the impact or credibility of your own work.

As you begin reading for your thesis, you should also begin writing. A thesis is usually a much larger project than a course paper and the strategy that has worked well for you on course papers may not work as well for the thesis. Many students write course papers in two discrete stages: the research (input) stage and the writing (output) stage. In the input stage you cram everything that you learn from your reading and research into your brain, then in the output stage you spew it back out in the form of a paper. Since most course papers are written in a couple of weeks and encompass a relatively small body of input, this strategy is often satisfactory. However, the thesis is written over nine months and many students read hundreds of articles and books in the early stages of research. This is too much information and too long a time for your brain to be able to keep track of all the input and save it up until you get to the end and begin outputting.

A better strategy is to begin writing the thesis the same day you begin reading for it. Keep detailed notes on everything you read, including full bibliographic information in the appropriate format. Reed has software available to help you keep a database of references. (Be very sure that your notes distinguish between the author's words and your own. Plagiarism can arise inadvertently if a student uses in the thesis a passage from his or her notes without realizing that it was a near-exact quotation copied into the notes months earlier.) Photocopy all passages you think you might want to quote and any tables that contain useful data. The notes you make as you read can be the basis of your literature-review chapter, which is the first piece of your thesis.

Collecting data (if needed)

If you are doing a thesis that requires empirical data, one of your biggest obstacles is likely to be assembling your data base. Since you cannot proceed with your econometric work until your data are in place, the prompt completion of your data collection is of critical importance. It is important to recognize that data collection is subject to the "90/10 Rule. Ninety percent of the time you spend obtaining data will be devoted to ten percent of the data series. Much of what you need is likely to be easily available through standard published or electronic sources. But there will be other data series for which you will have to search extensively and some you may not ever find. Do not be fooled by the ease with which you obtain the first series; there are almost always snags.

The first step in data collection is to compile a wish list. You should consider the characteristics of the data that are most desirable for your study: the frequency of observation and whether you are looking for aggregate or disaggregated data. List all of the variables that you think you might need. If you have doubts about the availability of some variables up front, formulate strategies for doing without them in case you cannot obtain them.

Once you have your list, start collecting numbers and entering them into your computer data base. Your advisor and other faculty members can probably guide you to sources of data that are relevant to your topic. For other sources, you may need to rely on the data resources discussed earlier in this chapter. The economics librarian can also be a highly useful source of further information.

Generating results

Once you have reviewed the relevant literature and collected the data you need for any empirical work you plan to do, you are ready to get down to the central task of research: generating results. The way that you achieve these results depends entirely on the research methodology you and your advisor have chosen. It may involve theoretical reasoning using economic models, combining and/or comparing the results of others, interpreting numerical data, estimating coefficients and testing hypotheses using econometric methods, or conducting experiments.

About all that can be said in general about the process of generating results is that some aspects of the results are very likely to surprise you. Solutions of theoretical models, regression results, and experimental outcomes usually do not end up exactly as you envisioned them at the beginning. If these results arrive just a few days before the draft of your thesis is due, you are unlikely to have time to develop a satisfactory explanation for them or to conduct the additional research that would resolve them. At a bare minimum, you should plan to have all of your results generated two weeks before the first draft of your thesis is due. This will give you at least a little time to reflect on and refine them in the completed thesis.

Finishing the thesis

The last stage of preparing your thesis draft is the formulation of your conclusions and the preparation of the thesis draft itself. In the euphoria and exhaustion of having completed their research, many students devote too little time to this important step. At this stage, you turn all the work you did during the year into a coherent argument, starting with your central question, explaining how your work builds of that of others toward an answer, describing and interpreting your results, then summing everything up with your conclusions.

Because much of your thesis will have been written months earlier, it is important to leave a week or so before the first draft is due to reread the entire thesis and make sure that the pieces fit together. The argument should flow naturally from a statement of the question to a discussion of the contribution of others to a description of your own research to your formulation of an answer. Each piece should advance the argument, following from the previous piece and leading to the next one. If a section does not relate to the overall argument of your thesis, it should not be in the thesis.

Finally, you need to deal with issues of formatting. The Reed Senior Handbook will give you the basic guidelines for format and spacing. Make sure that your references and citations are in an acceptable and consistent format. Sequence the numbers of your chapters, sections, figures, and tables appropriately. Then make two copies and turn them in to the faculty secretary in Vollum 112 before the first-draft deadline.


Regardless of how good the first draft of your thesis is, your advisor and first-draft reader will probably have extensive comments and suggestions for revision. Arguments that seem clear to you may not be as readable to someone else. Moreover, there may be flaws in empirical work or theoretical arguments that are not apparent until the entire thesis is read in proper sequence. It is not unusual for advisors to have extensive additional comments on the completed draft, even if they have already seen each chapter before.

At the revision stage, it is important to make sure that you understand exactly what your readers mean by each comment. As soon as your advisor and first-draft reader tell you that they have finished their reading, you should pick up your thesis and read through their comments. You should then meet with each of them (separately or together) to discuss the thesis and clarify what revisions they expect. Remember that these are the individuals who are responsible for assigning the thesis grade. It is to your benefit to understand and fulfill their expectations about revisions.