Master's Degree Guidelines, Procedures, Thesis Requirements

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M.A. Degree Guidelines and Procedures

Thesis Guidelines

About these guidelines

These guidelines are intended as an introduction to the process of writing a thesis. They are not intended to supplant arrangements you make with your committee. Individual professors may make arrangements with you that take precedence over these guidelines. Make sure you review Graduate Studies’ web page on thesis writing before you begin the process.

A general note

Thesis writing is an interactive process. You should not expect to simply write a thesis, turn it in and receive a passing mark. You should expect that it will take many visits and many drafts with your committee before it is considered satisfactory. This is not a reflection of your analytical or technical abilities but is a natural part of doing political science. Expect to receive pointed critiques that indicate what works and doesn’t work in your chapter/thesis, and to go away and do more work.


Work out a concrete set of deadlines with your advisers. Set dates for the completion of the proposal and the various thesis chapters. Although the overall timeline might need to be adjusted, these deadlines will help motivate you to finish each portion. In addition, there are two other deadlines you should keep in mind: Internal Departmental Deadlines and Graduate School deadlines.

  • Graduate School deadlines: As an example, the deadline for submitting a signed thesis to the Graduate School for winter 2005 graduation is December 9, 2005; for spring 2006 graduation, it is May 19, 2006.
  • Internal Department Deadlines: As a general guideline, a first draft of all chapters should be submitted to your thesis committee at least 10 weeks prior to the time you expect to file your paperwork for an approved thesis to the Graduate School. Again, in some cases, you may need much more time than this to satisfy your committee. For a spring graduation, this means you should have given your committee drafts of all your chapters by mid-March, or just before spring break.

Do not expect that you can turn in your thesis chapters and have your committee read them overnight. Expect that you will need to give your committee at least one week to read each chapter, and in some cases, several weeks. Ask your committee when you can expect to receive your drafts back. In addition, most members of the Political Science faculty expect hard copies that they can mark up. E-mail copies of chapters are usually unacceptable, although check with individual faculty members.

The proposal stage

The first step to developing a thesis is to write a proposal that outlines the project. You will work primarily with your adviser until you are both satisfied with the topic, the scope of the inquiry and the methods involved. A successful proposal will pose an interesting question, situate it in the literature, explain your plan for analysis (e.g., state hypotheses and the means for testing them) and note what the project will contribute to our understanding of politics. Although the proposal serves as the foundation of the project, it is in no way the final word. Projects evolve. As yours changes, be sure to discuss revisions with your adviser.

About the thesis in general

Your thesis should be an original body of work that contributes to a particular problem in political science. In most cases, it should articulate an argument and defend it with original, empirical research (some political theory papers may differ from this exact formula). Except in its conclusion, it should not be a policy paper or simply assert a partisan stance on an issue. Imagine that you are writing for a skeptical, unfriendly audience that will require cool, rational persuasion of the veracity of your case.

You should be able to clearly answer the following questions for yourself and your committee:

  • What puzzle or problem am I investigating?
  • What is the answer (hypothesis/thesis) I am proposing?
  • How am I defending my hypothesis? What kinds of evidence am I using? 
  • What other answers might there be that “solve my puzzle” and why don’t I think they are particularly good or useful?
  • What body or bodies of work in political science does my thesis contribute to?

In general, the thesis will consist of:

  • an introductory chapter
  • a chapter that situates your work in a broader set of discussions within political science (the so-called Lit Review chapter) a chapter that explains the method(s) you will use, the logic of your approach, the concepts involved and, if applicable, the measurement of those concepts (i.e., the nature of your data)
  • at least one rigorously researched chapter that defends your thesis (often empirical, but may be normative in some political theory theses)
  • a conclusion

In some theses, chapters 2 and 3 may be combined into one chapter. Your thesis should be at least seventy-five pages long, not including references and a bibliography. The bulk of the thesis should focus on chapter 3: a rigorous defense of your thesis.

A word on the “Literature Review” chapter

The point of this chapter is to connect your work to the existing work. It situates the framework you will use to evaluate your research problem and distinguishes the analytical tools you will use from other possible approaches. The point of this chapter is not to describe all the work ever done on your subject. Remember to clearly state which approach you prefer and why. Keep your own analytical voice constantly present. Remember to categorize types of approaches rather than run through them one by one.

About references and sources

Follow the guidelines in the American Political Science Association’s writing style manual for citing sources, using footnotes, etc. Your bibliography should be extensive. If you are recounting background material or conducting a literature review, do not simply rely on a few sources. Be careful to not overuse quotes, to accurately paraphrase others, and to properly cite all sources.

Other points:

  • Pick a subject you like.
  • Keep in touch with your adviser and your committee.
  • Remember that critiques of your work are intended to improve it and should not be taken personally.

The grad student guidebook (pdf) gives you everything you need in a very user-friendly format, including information about thesis guidelines.

Comprehensive Exam Guidelines

Department guidelines to comprehensive elective to fulfill their culminating experience requirement

Political Theory Comprehensive Exam Guidelines

Contact the Graduate Coordinator

For academic questions, the graduate coordinator is Professor Katherine Gordy. She can be reached at or (415) 338-7528.

For a complete list of course offerings by the department, visit the online SFSU bulletin.