Discussion and Guidelines

The International Relations Program encourages superior IR majors to pursue independent research and writing with an honors thesis. The honors thesis is a significant piece of original research that is prepared, written and defended in an oral examination during the senior year. Writing an honors thesis is a wonderful opportunity for you to pursue your research interests and to work closely with a faculty member on a topic of importance in the field of international relations. The research, writing, and analytical skills acquired in the composition of a thesis better prepare students for not only graduate school and professional school but for future careers as well. Obviously, the honors thesis is a serious undertaking; the most successful theses exhibit deep thought and a sustained argument. They exhibit original ideas, a clear and compelling argument, and a convincing analysis of the evidence. They are based on extensive research in primary sources and reflect a keen understanding of the secondary literature. Beginning in spring 2010, IR theses that are successfully completed and defended will receive the designation of honors (high or highest honors will no longer be awarded).

The first step in pursuing honors is to think about a potential research topic and carry out preliminary investigations to determine whether that topic is feasible. (A subject could involve documents that are inaccessible to you, for example, or require foreign language ability that you do not possess.) As a general guideline, you should gauge your interest in the honors program and your academic abilities between the start of the sophomore year and the beginning of the second semester as a junior, and make every effort to enroll in as much relevant course work as is possible. Honors thesis work must build on existing knowledge and information rather than provide an opportunity to gain such information. This is a strong argument for early planning.

A related issue is research and methods training. The earlier you acquire research tools in your academic career at William and Mary the better able you will be to conduct independent research or an honors thesis. Depending on the question you address in a thesis, you many need specific language training, courses in research methods, historiography, econometrics, or game theory. The sooner you gain the relevant tools, the more you can use these tools in the process of honors research.

Students interested in and eligible for Honors in International Relations need to understand from the outset the nature of a thesis: it is much more than, and quite different from, a mere report or even a research project. The goal is to produce an analytical work based on original research, not simply to summarize or describe existing scholarly work. These guidelines are meant to help you decide whether what you have in mind actually is (or can become) a thesis.

  1. A thesis is more than a topic. A student who starts out by saying "I want to examine the thesis that...." is way ahead of one who begins by saying "I want to do a thesis about..."
  2. A thesis statement is an argument that some factor(s) or variable(s) best explain(s) the outcome. Above all, the statement must be one that can be analyzed and tested (and thus it must be falsifiable in principle).
  3. But a thesis statement is never normative, tendentious or partisan. Note, this does not mean that you cannot analyze and evaluate behavior or policy outcomes within a particular normative framework. You certainly can.
  4. A thesis statement can not be only speculative or predictive. Such speculation or predictions can not be tested or examined empirically. A thesis may have some value in helping to predict (see #2 above), but its value in that regard can only be shown by testing it in light of things that have already happened: the latter constitute the empirical analysis or case study(ies).
  5. A thesis statement helps to explain a cause and effect relationship that has general interest and implications beyond the project topic itself. It helps to shed light on some basic issue. Remember: it will be evaluated by two people who may well not share the author's interest in the details of a specific topic, and they will also conduct the oral exam.
  6. A thesis should therefore build on or in some way extend existing scholarship in your field. The project itself should thus begin with a brief review of "the literature," that is relevant to the proposed research. This is not really, or not merely, a bibliography of books and articles about the topic, but a summary of the existing assumptions about the ideas discussed above. This summary should highlight an ongoing debate or a gap in the literature (what question is not being asked or fully answered by scholars), a gap the thesis can help to fill.
  7. A thesis should also involve some kind of original research, ideally drawing upon "primary materials"--government or party documents, letters of correspondence, official statistics, survey data, news accounts, interviews, participant observation by the researcher, etc…--to test the argument and to help shed new light on the topic. Alternatively, a researcher might take existing data and extract new information from it (doing content analysis of documents, classifying/coding official statistics to test an hypothesis, etc…)
  8. You should not start by asking or worrying primarily about the length of a thesis. Plainly a thesis should be more indepth and thus certainly longer than the average term paper. On the other hand, it is not meant to be a complete analysis of a broad topic (another reason for the caution in #2 above), and thus should never be conceived of as a small book. A better model is a good, substantial scholarly article or chapter in an edited volume.