PLSI Guidelines for Thesis

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. You will need to work well in advance of Graduate School deadlines. For these, view the section on the gradate website for more details. For example, the Grad School requires a preliminary format check in late April and the final thesis in mid- to late May for a spring semester graduation.

Do not expect that you can turn in your thesis and have your committee read it overnight. Expect that you will need to give your committee at least one week to read each section or chapter, and in some cases, several weeks. Ask your committee when you can expect to receive your drafts back. Find out whether your committee members prefer hard copies or e-versions.

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 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). 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, theses come in two main forms. The traditional thesis model and the research paper model. You should work with your advisor and committee to decide which is most appropriate for you and your project.

The Traditional Model (typically around 60-80 pages)

  • 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, some of these chapters may be combined into one. The bulk of the thesis should focus on a rigorous defense of your thesis.

The Research Paper Model (around 50 pages)

The research paper model takes the format of a publishable quality scholarly journal article. In general, it will have sections rather than chapters and will be based on substantial, original research. Please speak more with your advisor for exact details.

A Word on the “Literature Review” Section/Chapter

The point of a literature review 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 the literature review 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.