Elements of a senior thesis

The particulars will vary from project to project, but a Politics thesis typically includes the following elements.

Choosing the Thesis Topic

The topic is the general subject matter for your thesis. This includes the geographic area you want to study, the particular phenomenon you wish to study or the theoretical questions you wish to explore. We strongly recommend that you choose a topic that builds on work you have done earlier in your academic career. Perhaps you want to study the Polish electoral system, and you know something about Poland but nothing about the theoretical literature on electoral systems, or perhaps you know the literature on electoral systems but nothing about Poland. That’s ok. If you know nothing about either Poland or the literature on electoral systems, we encourage you to choose another topic. In your introduction, you might introduce your topic, discuss why it is important and how you came to be interested in it.

The Research Question

Coming up with a good research question is one of the most difficult steps in writing a good thesis. The question must be focused enough such that you can hope to answer it in a semester’s work. Also, the question must be placed in the context of existing literature. You cannot ask the same question that others have done without exploring first what these others have argued before you. Then you might find an issue they didn’t discover, or you may wish to see if their conclusions extend to different cases. For example, a question that seeks to explain why the countries in the European Union approach multilateral institutions differently than the United States does is probably too broad. A question that seeks to explore particular hypotheses, such that the differentials in US and European power explain these different positions, is much more workable. You might also frame a research question to address a debate among scholars within the literature. Above all, the answer to the question should be of interest to other scholars and you should be able to articulate its significance.

The Literature Review

Your question often comes out of an understanding of the scholarly literature. The literature review section of your thesis is where you consider existing literature on a particular topic and analyze how the authors came to the conclusion they did. What were their assumptions? What did they decide to examine and how did they examine it? What are their central findings or conclusions that inform your research question and theoretical framework? What questions or evidence did they leave out? The literature review helps you explain how and why your question contributes to existing knowledge on the topic. A literature review is a critical assessment of scholarship, but one that is focused. The critiques you raise about the work of other scholars ought to be ones you can address or resolve in your study.

Your Approach to Evidence

This is a statement and justification of how you will seek to answer your question. What cases will you be studying and why? What texts will you consider, and with what lens will you analyze them? What kind of evidence will you be using and how will you use it? What questions will you ask in interviews? How will you analyze roll call votes and why? What are the variables you will examine when you look at historical literature, and why do you think those variables are useful? Make sure your research strategy is linked to your question. If you engage in hypothesis testing, then be clear about how you derive your hypotheses from your theoretical framework and how you will then test them. Your thesis may also include creative work, in addition to evidence, such as your own fiction, poetry, dance or visual art.

Evidence and Analysis

These sections present your analysis of the evidence and whatever tentative conclusions you reach on the basis of this evidence. How you organize these sections, and how many sections you have, will depend on the nature of your question and your research strategy.


A short section of about eight pages or so that restates your question and summarizes your conclusions. Then the conclusion should outline the implications of your findings both for the existing literature on the topic and possibly also for policy. If the analysis is positive in nature – that is, identifying and testing hypotheses about political phenomena – then this is also a good occasion to consider the normative implications of your findings. Finally, you should discuss issues that arose that you could not answer do to a lack of resources or time, or even interest, and what further research could be done.