Skip to main content

Writing Tips for Theses

Tips for Writing a Thesis Proposal

1. Find an area (or subfield) that interests you.

Look for a topic that combines personal excitement with scholarly potential. Does  your past work at Northwestern reflect themes that run through the choices you have made? Do you find yourself selecting classes on a general topic or returning to a subject repeatedly? Is there a question or an event that has really captured your attention, or something happening in the world that appears puzzling and that you would like to make sense of?

Sometimes the topic may come from your personal experience or from something you observed. Your initial idea may be about a very broad subject (“I’m interested in the role of religion in American Politics”) or something more specific (“How is France trying to assimilate immigrants from its foreign colonies?”). In each case, you will need to transform a topic into a research question.

2. Transforming a topic into a research question

Most first efforts at formulating a research topic are either too specific or too broad.

Questions that are too specific have a yes, no, or fairly easily reached empirical question.  Examples of too specific questions include: Why was smoking in restaurants banned?  What led to President Nixon’s near impeachment? 

Broad questions, by contrast, lack focus and need to be narrowed and framed in a way that makes the topic researchable. The quickest way to make progress is to write a paragraph about the topic, and take it to Political Science faculty member to discuss.

As you sit down to write a paragraph, ask yourself what specific concerns led you to the general issue? How did you first see the problem? What events stand out? Around what cases do the discussions revolve? Was there an important book, newspaper article or lecture that piqued your interest? Is there a recurrent argument about current affairs? Formulate questions with these specific facts in mind. Talk with others about the topic, including political science faculty members and TAs.

Keep in mind that it is usually better to ask a question rather than to state a topic. Thus you should transform an interest in civil war into a question about the conditions under which a civil war or type of civil war occurs.

3. Formulate a research question in a way that widens its appeal.

Merely exploring a topic because it interests you is not enough; the thesis must pose a question that subsequent research attempts to answer or resolve. This question should be framed in a general way that highlights its importance. “Why was John Roberts confirmed to be a judge on the US Supreme Court” is probably too specific. It would be better to ask “What factors lead to success or failure in the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices?” You may end up answering this question by looking at confirmation hearings across time or by a comparison of just two nominees. The key is that the question is important in its own right and that answering it provides insight that is useful beyond the specifics of the case.

Even with a carefully posed question, you still need to highlight its importance. You need to explain why it matters whether or not someone is confirmed for the US Supreme Court, and explain why confirmation is problematic enough to be worth sixty to a hundred pages of analysis.

More advice on selecting a thesis topic and crafting a proposal are available at the following website:

Concerning the Form of the Thesis

The watchword for writing a long research paper is structureThe format of your paper should reveal the structure of your thinking. Devices such as paragraphing, headings, indentation, and enumeration help your reader see the major points you want to make.

Headings can convey the major topics discussed in your paper. A research report typically contains four basic components:

  1. Statement of the problem or theoretical question that gave rise to the research, and an explanation of why the problem or question is important to address.
  2. Discussion of how the research was designed to clarify the problem
  3. Analysis of the data or information produced by the research
  4. Summary and conclusion of the study

Although you could include those sections in your report without separate headings, the underlying logic of your paper will be more readily apparent with headings that identify its basic components: (1) the problem, (2) research design, (3) data analysis, (4) summary and conclusion. Obviously, you can adjust or elaborate on these generic headings depending on your topic.

Back to top