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Guidelines for Senior the Thesis, by Walter McDougall



Guidelines for the Senior Thesis (INTR 390/391)


Walter A. McDougall



Not For Reprint Without Permission. Copyright: University of Pennsylvania, January 2000, revised September 2015



N.B.: Your assignment for the first meeting of your INTR 390 seminar is to read, mark, and inwardly digest this document!!


1.     Introduction


The INTR 390/391 senior seminar sequence is meant to be the "capstone experience" for I.R. majors at Penn. This is your chance (a) to use the theoretical tools you have acquired in the core courses and electives; (b) to exploit and expand the specialized knowledge you have acquired about a particular subject or geographical region; and (c) to satisfy your own desire to study intensively some issue of particular interest to yourself. Ideally, therefore, the senior seminar should satisfy the intellectual appetites that drew you to major in I.R. in the first place.


The focus of INTR 390/391 is in every case the senior thesis. Seminar leaders may spend several weeks reviewing with you the major theoretical approaches to I.R., but the principal requirement of the seminar is the conception, researching, and writing of a thesis. Now, the word "thesis" conjures up images of Masters or Doctoral dissertations. Certainly we do not expect undergraduates to approach that level of length and sophistication. On the other hand, the senior thesis should be more than a glorified term paper. It should (a) be much longer than the usual 15 to 20 page term paper; (b) make an argument of your own conception rather than just summarize facts and conclusions found in books on the topic; (c) use primary source material and data to the extent possible; and (d) conform to the format and style of good academic writing and documentation.


You may not think that you are capable of all this. I assure you that you are. The senior seminar is not a simple exercise by which you demonstrate to us what you already know—but neither is it meant to induce terminal anxiety. Rather, it is designed to push you beyond what you already know you can do so that—with hard work and the help of faculty and staff—you can realize your own highest potential at this level of your education and maturity.


2.     Selecting the Topic


You should begin to think about topics for your senior thesis as soon as possible. Some students waste a month or more at the start just finding a topic that is appropriate and feasible. We suggest, therefore, that you begin to think about topics at the end of your junior year, or at least a month or two before the start of your 390 semester. The criteria for selecting a topic are as follows.


First, it should be a problem you will enjoy solving. It could be an issue about which you have always been curious, or which you encountered in a lecture course and want to know more about, or are interested in for reasons of professional or personal commitment. But whatever the case, you should be motivated to do the thesis for its own sake, and not just because you have to do it to graduate!


Second, the topic should in some way relate to your own area of concentration within I.R. and/or grow out of coursework you have already taken. In other words, you do not want to choose a topic “out of the blue" that will require you to do an exorbitant amount of background reading just to learn the basics. (You will have enough reading to do anyway even on a subject familiar to you.) What is more, a topic derived from courses you have already taken automatically means that there is a professor or two on campus to whom you can go for advice on your thesis.


Third, your topic must truly be one in "International Relations" and not merely one that happens to concern a foreign country. The essence of I.R. is the study of relations among nations, hence analysis of relationships is the key. For instance, if you are interested in Third World development you might study "the politics of foreign investment in Mexico"—but not merely "Mexican development policy." If you are interested in security you might study "U.S.-European debates over NATO strategy," but not merely "defense policy in the Bush Administration." In sum, it is O.K. to study one country's foreign policy or the internal factors driving a state's foreign relations, but only if those internal factors are understood as independent variables affecting the main problem which remains the international relationships of your chosen country. Your seminar leader can help you judge whether a topic is sufficiently "international" on a case by case basis.


Fourth, your topic must give rise to specific questions, the answers to which can be pursued through the application of theories, models, or techniques drawn from political science, economics, business, or diplomatic history. Do not say simply, "I want to do something on the terrorism" or "I want to study the European Union." Rather, formulate precise questions you hope to answer and the methods by which to answer them.


Fifth, your topic must be feasible—that is, narrow enough to complete over two semesters with sources and data readily available in the Penn Library or other archives in Washington or New York. Don't bite off more than you can chew.


Finally, be aware that the phrase "international relations" is broadly conceived in terms of relations among peoples and organizations as well as governments. Topics concerning transnational cultural contacts, global problems such as the environment, global commons such as the oceans, or non-state actors such as business firms, NGOs, and IOs are encouraged.


Come to your first INTL 390 meeting with at least three possible topics (related or unrelated) that you think will meet these criteria, and review the theoretical literature (from the I.R. Theory course or other courses) appropriate to your topics.


3. Requirements


No set limits on length are possible, but senior theses are expected to reach the range of 60 to 75 double-spaced pages. This is the standard length of an article in an academic journal. Some students produce as many as 80 or 100 pages, but in many cases this is the result of poor planning (too large a topic) or poor editing (throwing in everything but the kitchen sink). If your first draft seems too short, ask yourself what you have ignored in your research or what arguments need more evidence to back them up. If your first draft seems too long, ask yourself where you can cut without damaging the main argument.


As stated in the introduction, the senior thesis is meant to be original to the extent possible. Now, there are few topics of any importance that have not already been written about by scholars, and few readily available sources and data that have not already been examined by researchers. So try to find an “angle" on your topic that has not been done to death or has not received the attention you think it deserves. As soon as possible, identify primary source material and data to support your study. You do not want to write an essay that simply regurgitates what other authors have to say.


Normally, seminar leaders will pace you throughout the process by issuing deadlines for topics, bibliography, outlines, and drafts. The deadline for the final copy will be posted at the beginning of the spring semester. The precise date changes slightly from year-to-year according to the dictates of the academic calendar, but the final deadline is around March 25.


N.B.: Seminar participation represents a distinct portion of the thesis research endeavor and students may receive different grades on their thesis product and the seminar itself.


4. Theoretical Framework


Perhaps the aspect of the senior thesis most worrisome to students is the theoretical framework. You may have learned various models and theories about balance of power, multipolarity, functionalism, dependence, etc., for exams in your coursework, but don't feel comfortable about formulating and applying such theories on your own. This is where your seminar leader can be of significant help.


A "thesis" is not merely descriptive or narrative—it must employ some sort of theoretical or interpretive methodology. Most students in I.R. tend to specialize, in terms of methodology, in one or another branch of political science. Hence, a standard senior thesis will involve testing the applicability of a given theory to a case study. For instance, you might apply the “voice-exit" or "bandwagon-balancing" models of alliance behavior to help you analyze likely futures for NATO in light of the prospect of German unification. You begin by reading and understanding thoroughly the theory you wish to test, proceed to empirical research on the subject itself (in this case, German and European policies and proposals for the reform of NATO and European public opinion on the question), then draw conclusions that either confirm or call into question the theory with which you began. If your facts do not fit the theory at all points, you may wish to suggest alternative theories that would better help us analyze reality, or else junk existing theory as inadequate. What you must not do in a modest thesis of this sort is to move from one case study to a general theory—you cannot prove anything by one case—or choose your case study because you already know that it will conform neatly to your theory—in that case you are "proving" nothing.


Remember that the I.R. major at Penn is multi-disciplinary. You need not choose an approach drawn from political science, but can just as well apply economic theory or business models to your topic. If you have an historical bent, or wish to study an aspect of a past problem (say, the effects of the Marshall Plan, origins of the Vietnam War, or Gaullist policies on decolonization), you are encouraged to do so. In this case, you may take a wholly empirical approach, but must meet, of course, the critical standards of the historical discipline on sources and interpretation.


To sum up, you have extraordinary flexibility in deciding what to study and how to study it. You may wear the hat of a political scientist, military strategist, economist, sociologist, or historian. And you may study the foreign relations of the U.S., Europe, the USSR, China, Japan, India, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, or the global environment, the high seas, or outer space! But whatever methodology you choose, you must aspire to the highest standards of that discipline.


How can our seminar leaders direct theses on such a broad range of topics? The answer is: they cannot. They will help you in any way they can, and will supervise the conception, writing, and revision of the essay. But no one—faculty or graduate instructor—is expert on everything. That is why it is critical for you to seek out and consult professors around campus who are knowledgeable about the topic you choose. If you have already taken a course with such a professor, so much the better. But even if the professor is a stranger, you can still drop in during office hours. If you are in doubt about which professors are expert on your topic, ask us and we will do our best to help you find them.


5. Research


Whatever help you get, however, the senior thesis is yours to do. We cannot do your research, or your writing, for you. To be sure, the prospect of disappearing into the library for days on end, not being sure of what you are doing, and wasting a good deal of time pursuing false leads is daunting. The academic researcher is always on the horns of a dilemma: to find a rich collection of sources only means that you will have to spend hours and hours ploughing through it; to find meager sources may mean you have no thesis at all. But such is the scholar's life. Just think of yourself as a detective rooting out clues and solving a mystery.


There are two sorts of sources: secondary and primary. Secondary sources consist of books and articles written by scholars about your topic. Primary sources consist of information generated by your topic and the people involved, such as government documents, memoirs by participants, interviews, published data, minutes of meetings, and so forth. Newspaper and magazine articles are ambiguous. They are reports of current events and contain many original facts, but are also filtered through "spectators": reporters, columnists, and editors. Obviously, such articles are often indicators of opinion as well as facts.


You should begin your research with a thorough survey of existing secondary sources: all the books and articles that have appeared on your topic. Make yourself an expert on your topic, the relevant history of the issue, and the political or economic context in which the issue emerges. For instance, if you are studying British policy toward Europe 1992 you should read up on the history of British relations with the Common Market, some books on British politics and foreign policy in general, and a book or two on the history of the Thatcher government. That way you can avoid rehashing what has already been done and also get some ideas about the dynamics that drive your topic. (Do British electoral politics or agricultural prices help explain British policy toward Europe? If you don't do your background reading, you will never know.)


Next you should tackle the primary sources and use all that are available to you. Some may be obvious, like government publications. Others might be found by "raiding the footnotes" of a secondary source. This is fine so long as you don't claim in your own footnotes to have examined the documents consulted by another author. For instance, an author might cite the "British White Paper on Europe" of March 1987. Wow! Get your hands on that document, study it, and cite it yourself. If you cannot lay hands on it, you may still refer to it but must say in your footnote "as cited by (the author)". You can also follow leads derived from articles. For instance, if the Economist suggests that the Thatcher cabinet fears high protective tariffs in a post-1992 Europe, then look up the figures and see how much British exports might be hurt by Britain merging with a protectionist Europe. The mental process of doing research is not mysterious, but does require intelligence. Any legal assistant can drudge through casebooks looking up precedents and facts—it is the lawyer who applies brains to those data and builds a case. And that process is essentially one of moving back and forth between "inductive" and "deductive" reasoning. Induction means the derivation of theory or interpretation from data. Deduction is the application of theory to data. Neither is sufficient by itself—they work together as you read up on a topic, induce theories to explain your facts, then do more research further to see whether your theory is borne out.


Research takes time and thought. It is not something to be left until the last minute. You will go through tough periods when you make little progress, then race ahead. That is why you should get started as soon as possible, and judge—as best you can—which primary sources are likely to be most valuable. Do those first. If they prove disappointing, you will still have time to look elsewhere.


Remember also that you will eventually be turning the information gleaned from your research into an academic essay with footnotes. Therefore, be sure to take down complete references for every book, article, or document you consult. Nothing is more vexing than finding out in the writing stage that you failed to record the full author, title, and publication data on a source you looked at two months before. It means an extra boring trip to the library just to finish a single footnote.


A final exhortation. Students in I.R. are obviously interested in foreign countries. Why, then, do so few of them learn foreign languages, or, if they have, do not use those languages in their research? Perhaps it is a lack of confidence. Or perhaps many students can read a language, but slowly, and fear getting bogged down in large amounts of foreign sources.


But the fact remains that someone who claims to be researching, say, Latin American relations ought to be able to handle some Spanish language sources. We urge all students to use whatever foreign tongues they have in their thesis research, even if it is just translating one book or a couple of articles. It vastly increases the sources at your disposal—and magnifies your credibility.


6. Evaluation


How will you be graded on your thesis? What are the methods of evaluation? Needless to say, your grade for the INTR 390/391 seminars will be determined by your seminar leader. He or she may factor in your performance on assignments along the way such as outlines or class presentations. But the largest factor in your grade will be the thesis itself—judged in terms of its content and its writing style and presentation.


Evaluating the content of a senior thesis can be likened to the judging of a diver or gymnast: how difficult is the dive or routine attempted? How well is it performed? Thus, your topic should be challenging (and therefore interesting to both you and your audience), but not so difficult that you cannot do an elegant job. The A paper, not to mention a Palmer Prize competitor, is one that requires imaginative formulation and research, presents its evidence in a clear and compelling fashion, and is well-organized, well-written, and buttressed with the proper academic apparatus (footnotes, bibliography, etc.). Of course, you cannot know for certain how difficult a given topic will prove to be. So do not be afraid to make adjustments in mid-semester. If you find that your chosen subject is too broad or complicated, narrow it down as you go. If you find that your subject is proving to be too easy, or you discover a more relevant or sophisticated approach to your topic, then change or expand your focus. In every case, aim at realizing your full potential. The goal is a senior thesis of which you—and we—can be proud.


Prior senior theses and Palmer Prize winners are available in the I.R. common room for your perusal. The titles and topics of the theses available in the I.R. Common Room is available as an Excel spreadsheet from the I.R. Program Webpage. The theses themselves are currently being compiled for online access.


7. Style


The senior thesis is ultimately an exercise in expression. Some students have the idea that writing is something to be taken seriously in English classes, but not in other humanities or social science courses. Nothing could be further from the truth. Writing (or speaking) is not one academic subject among many: it is the medium of communication through which almost all knowledge is conveyed. It does not matter how brilliant your ideas may be if you cannot express those ideas to another person in clear and effective language. Imagine the frustration of losing a case in court because your dumb lawyer is incapable of getting your point across to the judge or jury. In academic writing you are your own "lawyer"—you must build a strong case, but also find the best means of communicating that case to your audience.


Like it or not, that means you must take your writing seriously. State your argument clearly, marshal your evidence in a rational way, employ good English grammar and correct spelling and punctuation. Above all, revise your first draft carefully and proofread at every step.


There is no way to summarize here all the elements of good English style, nor can we turn you into an excellent writer overnight. But here are some standard tips:


  1. Strive for crisp, clear, punchy sentences rather than long-winded, run-on sentences.
  2. Read over your sentences and ask yourself: "Did I say what I mean, and did I do it in the most economical, elegant way?"
  3. Try to use vivid verbs and nouns instead of adjectives and adverbs: "Gorbachev procrastinated" is much punchier than "Gorbachev was apparently not able to make up his mind".
  4. Avoid the passive voice whenever possible.
  5. Avoid all colloquial words or phrases (including contractions). Don't use "don't". "Very" is very bad form.
  6.  Avoid split infinitives: "to boldly go" is not good English.
  7. Avoid repetition or redundancy.
  8. If you open a subordinate clause with a comma, close it with a comma.
  9. Use semi-colons sparingly: a hyphen, full colon, or even a new sentence is usually better.
  10. Make sure your pronouns have clear and correct antecedents. If you refer to "the French government" in one sentence, you cannot use the plural "they" in the next.
  11. Be alert for dangling modifiers. "Having strong trade relations with her Commonwealth partners, the E.E.C. did not appeal to Britain" is wrong!
  12. Learn your plurals and possessives! "the Contra's M-16" is the possessive singular; “the Contras have M-16s" is plural; "the Contras' M-16s were defective" is possessive plural.


One of the toughest lessons to learn is when to quote. Students tend to over-quote because they are concerned with "proving" their point. But too many quotations—especially long, indented ones—break up the flow of the text and put the reader to sleep. In most cases, therefore, paraphrase your source and footnote it just as if it were a quotation. By summarizing in your own words, you are doing the reader a favor.


When should you quote? First, when the point you are making is controversial or not generally known so that the reader might not believe you unless your information comes "from the horse's mouth." Second, when the person you are quoting has said something so perfectly, so powerfully that you would really damage the point by paraphrasing. Third, when the way in which something was expressed—for instance, the precise language used—is part of the point you want to make. Fourth, for dramatic effect.


There is another reason why students tend to overquote: paranoia about plagiarism. But if you footnote your source for an idea or interpretation you are covered, whether or not you quote. Plagiarism is not a complicated, technical concept—it is a simple, ethical one. It means misrepresenting the ideas or labor of someone else as your own. Your conscience, not some elaborate set of rules, tells you that you are cheating. If you get an idea from a secondary source, cite that source. It may seem to undercut the originality of what you are saying, but in fact it will only strengthen your credibility.


Of course it is disappointing to find that someone else has had the same idea as you—especially if you came to your conclusion independently. But if you fail to mention the "someone else" in your notes, you only arouse suspicion. If you do mention the other author, and perhaps have found additional evidence to support the idea you share, you make a real and honest contribution.


(Needless to say, plagiarism of a blatant variety will be investigated and punished. Do not let momentary desperation about the thesis even to tempt you to buy an essay, copy sections out of a published book or article, submit a paper or large sections of a paper you have done for another class, or substitute an essay written by another student. At best, you will flunk the seminar. At worst, you will be subject to university discipline.)


Do not get hung up on rules of style when you write your first draft—it will be enough just to get your ideas and information down on paper. But when you revise, keep the stylistic tips in mind and play the role of a tough editor of your own work. For there is no piece of writing that cannot be cut, no sentence that cannot be improved.


B. Format


All senior theses should conform to the same "stylesheet" regarding format. Theses should be printed, double-spaced, with a left margin of 1 1/2 inches and a right margin of 1 inch. Use a 10 or 12 point font on your printer. Standard academic form should be employed for footnotes and bibliography. Sections within the essay should be set off by bold faced or underlined subtitles centered on the page. Do not use "chapters" or Roman numerals.


Submit a single copy of your final draft—unbound, unstapled and secured by alligator clips. Submit a second copy electronically as an Adobe PDF document. This allows us to copy papers for review by the prize committee and to bind prize-winning essays ourselves.


Examples of the thesis title page form, footnote form, and bibliography form follow.