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How-to Guide: Writing an MA Thesis in the Social Sciences

It all begins with a good research question.

A good research question is the key to an excellent thesis. A bad research question can only result in a poor thesis- trying to answer it will be like trying to build a structure on quicksand with the ground constantly shifting beneath your feet. Get the research question right and everything else should follow.

So how does one go about choosing a question? I tell my MA students at King’s that they need to begin by choosing a topic that really excites them.

In choosing your topic, the subject matter needs to be so compelling that you want to read about it all the time. If you are already bored after a few days of reading, cut your losses and choose something else.  If you try to stick it out, you will dread working on your thesis.

Do not choose a topic simply because you are familiar with it already. You will be bored by the subject and your boredom will show through in your writing.

Do not try to pick a research question without having read at least *some* of the existing academic literature in your area. Being interested in a topic does not always mean that you will enjoy the academic literature on that subject. Scholars might debate points that you find nonsensical, obtuse, or irrelevant. This is information you can only find out if you do some background research.

Policy Report vs Academic Thesis

A thesis MUST have a scholarly component to it. In other words, it must engage with the scholarly literature on this subject. Theses that do not reference the academic literature are unlikely to pass.

An academic thesis is not a policy paper. Neither is it a chance for students to speculate on the future of a country, a program, or a war.

A thesis may or may not include a policy component. However, students should note that policy recommendations should follow from the conclusions of the thesis research. Students should not go about this backwards by starting with policy recommendations and basing the research around policy ideas. This would be putting the cart before the horse.

MA Thesis Timeline (for non-procrastinators, for King’s War Studies students)

1. Choose a topic. You may need to test out a few before settling on one. (Oct-Nov)

2. Read about the topic. Write 2-3 potential potential research questions. (Dec-Jan)

Focus on a few major books/articles from the academic literature. Aim for 10+ articles or book chapters. Read the abstracts of 10+ additional pieces.

Write out a few research questions that address contested positions in the debate, or that fill a gap in the literature.

3. Choose a research question. Refine. (Jan-Feb)

This is the tricky part. You’re looking for something that is broad enough to stimulate your interest, but narrow enough that you can actually offer a satisfying answer. From your list of potential research questions, choose one to refine with your supervisor.

More advice on developing research questions here and here (See Section 4.3).

Don’t choose a research question to which you already know the answer. This may sound obvious, but it’s a common trap. The answer should not be a foregone conclusion. You might have a hunch about what the answer is, and you might desire a certain outcome, but there should be enough uncertainty that you are actually motivated to find out the answer. Proving something you already know is unlikely to keep you excited for long.

Here is a memorable piece of advice that Ngaire Woods gave me when I was putting together my doctoral proposal: Choose a question where all possible answers are interesting to you.

4. Read widely around your topic. (Feb-Apr)

Now is the time to read as much of the scholarly literature on your topic as you can. Sample from different disciplines to get a sense of what other fields have to say about your topic.

5. Map out existing scholarly debates surrounding your question. (Feb-Apr)

Understand what has already been said by others in answer to your research question. How are these scholars answering each others’ critiques? How do these debates speak to previous debates? What arguments do you find compelling? Whose work do you like? What do you like about it? What do you disagree with and why?

Here is a very good link to writing a literature review. (Aimed at PhD and higher, but still very useful.)

6. Refine your research question. (If you have time)

Now revisit your research question. Have you found evidence, ideas, theories that suggest a refinement of your research question? Did your literature review turn up a comprehensive answer to the question that you’ve posed?

7. Determine how your argument/thesis fits in with (or argues against) what  has already been said in the academic literature. (May)

Provided that your research question is still holding up under the weight of the research you’ve already done, you now need to consider how your argument contributes to the broader discussion. This should be grounded in the academic literature.

Do you provide additional statistical evidence for a claim? Does your case study confirm/disprove an existing model/theory? Are you overturning conventional wisdom in some way?

8. Marshal appropriate evidence (May)

Carefully consider the types of evidence you will present. This can take a range of forms: qualitative, quantitative, case studies, statistics, logic, interviews, social network analysis, court testimony, legal cases, firsthand observation, ethnography, oral history, experimental, photographic, audio-visual, archival, etc. Here are some ways to think about types of evidence in general, from philosophy, and from the health sciences.

Be careful though: not all evidence is created equal. Just because somebody with authority said it does not make it so. Not only should it pass a basic test of common sense, but I often stress to my students that they really need to understand the quality of that evidence and how it was sourced. One of the first thing I learned in my Waterloo stats class many years ago: Garbage In, Garbage Out. If your data is flawed or your sample is unrepresentative or your proxy is nonsensical, then the results and findings will be contested. Think carefully about what you need your evidence to do, decide if its strengths outweigh its weaknesses, and whether some information is an improvement over no information.

A good case in point is exemplified in this controversy over a blog post on levels of racial tolerance around the world. Max Fisher, a very respected foreign affairs blogger, had his analysis picked apart by Siddartha Mitter and by Stephen Saideman. Twice. The discussions centred around the poor quality of his data, his understanding of the data, and his interpretation of the data. The same skeptical eye will be directed towards any evidence that you choose to incorporate.

9. Outline + Detailed Outline (May-Jun)

The first outline should be 1-2 pages. It should include all of the major sections that are specific to your thesis, and 2-3 sentences on what you will discuss in each section. You should include a word count for each section.

Be mindful that your answer to your research question should take up the majority of your allocated words. I.e., in a 15,000 word thesis, be sure to use 7,000-9,000 of your words to answer your question. One common trap is to become so engrossed in writing an extensive literature review or in providing case study background information that the thesis only spends 2,000 or 3,000 words on answering the research question. Do not make this mistake.

The second outline you write should be as detailed as you can make it- down to the paragraph if possible. Put down all of your ideas in this structure and treat them like building blocks: you can move the individual elements around until you feel like your argument is coherent and flows properly. Use this outline to write your thesis.

10. Keep reading about your topic. (Jun-Aug)

In addition to the academic literature, read the policy papers put out by important organizations. Read what various NGOs have to say. Read the archives. Read the news. Read everything you can get your hands on. Watch movies on your subject. Listen to podcasts. Find documentaries about it on YouTube. Immerse yourself.

11. Write. Write. Write. (June-September)

Remember to stay focused on your research question. Your job is to provide as clear and compelling an argument as possible.


At this point, you will probably struggle. As I recently said to one of my students: An MA dissertation is hard-  and I expect you to struggle. It is your job to decide which set of theories apply best, whether you should integrate case studies or separate them out, whether the reader needs more background information to make sense of your argument, etc. A good chunk of the learning takes place IN THIS STRUGGLE. Don’t try to take a shortcut through your learning process- push through it. If you try something and it doesn’t work, you will need to rewrite it. It’s that simple.
There is not one way of writing an excellent MA thesis- there are many ways! You just need to choose one that suits you.





*To my King’s MA students: Please come prepared having done what was asked of you before meeting with me. If you are not prepared, the meeting will be a waste of time.

** To all other thesis writers, please find your advisor/tutor/professor at your home institution. I’m sorry, but I can’t provide specific thesis advice to you. Your advisor will be in the best position to give you specific advice.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. khairunnisa permalink
    May 27, 2013 3:30 pm

    please help me in choosing topic for research in applied linguistic and English literature.

    • May 30, 2013 3:16 pm

      Sorry Khairunnisa- I can’t help you out there. I teach politics and international relations, not English literature. Try approaching your professors, tutors, teaching assistants, or graduate students for advice.

      • mohsen permalink
        July 7, 2013 3:11 pm

        hi , please help me i have a question. i want to know how many research questions a thesis for MA should have. is the number of research questions important?
        i have 1 research question and it is divided to 3 more ones . is it appropriate?
        1. What is the effect of pronunciation awareness training on tertiary level
        Turkish EFL students‟ listening comprehension?
        In order to answer this question, several sub questions will be added.
        a. Is there a difference between the pre and post-test results of the
        experimental group after a 6-week pronunciation awareness training?
        b. Is there a difference between the pre and post-test results of the
        control group after six weeks of regular intensive English classes?
        c. Is there a difference between the experimental group and the control
        group in terms of their development in listening comprehension at the
        end of the 6-week period?

        please mail the answer for me. thank you so much. I’m MA student of English teaching.

      • July 10, 2013 3:23 pm

        Again, please see my response to the previous question.

  2. mohsen permalink
    July 11, 2013 7:58 pm

    wow! thank you for not helping mee !

    • Rezvan permalink
      February 28, 2014 1:55 pm

      ur people r always behave the same! 😦

  3. July 16, 2013 8:26 pm

    Mohsen, your response was both rude and unmerited! If you had bothered to read Professor Cheng’s introduction at the start of the article, you would have seen that she does not teach English. Furthermore, she was polite in her response to the previous question and explained that she does not teach the subject for which you seek help. She then gave suggestions for where to find help. My suggestion is that you start Fully reading and digesting information before making any more snarky comments.

  4. lily permalink
    July 27, 2013 1:47 pm

    Thanks for your guidance! 🙂

  5. Bengehya Buranga permalink
    August 11, 2013 10:39 am

    Dear Cheng.
    I am MA student in Human Rights and Multiculturalism at Buskerud University College, Drammen, Norway. I’ve been really inspired by reading your blog. I am working on a research question on the conflict in DRC. My experience is that there is little interest and knowledge about this conflict. My fellow students and even my professors did not know (or believe) that this conflict is the deadliest since WWII etc… and around the globe academics are doubting on IRC’s 5,4 million death estimate, and calling the conflict a civil war.

    My desire is to describe why the Congo conflict should have a central part in the lower and upper secondary curicula for social studies, and why it is one of the most central conflicts to look at in conflict/peace education, human rights education and social studies.

    After reading your very helpful article here, I see that my questions so far, are more to the “policy reports” direction than to the “academic thesis” direction. If you have time; can you give some of your thoughts on how I can avoid making my thesis a policy paper?

    • August 11, 2013 4:31 pm

      Hi Bengehya,
      Unfortunately, it’s really hard to give useful advice without reading or talking through the specifics of your project. This is really the point where your thesis advisor or tutor needs to step in to provide guidance.

      • Bengehya Buranga permalink
        August 12, 2013 8:03 am

        Yes, ok. I’ll do that. Thank you for answering.

  6. sarah permalink
    November 10, 2013 10:02 pm

    Hello Cheng.
    I am a Public Policy Master student. I am trying to find a topic for my thesis, and my supervisor did not like any topic that I brought to her. Currently, I am thinking about the wage gape between men and women in the U.S. The question for my thesis would be: do the differences in education between women and men play a role in expanding the wage gap? Would this question be a good thesis’s question.

  7. Rezvan permalink
    February 28, 2014 1:50 pm

    Hi cheg,
    I found it very useful, thank u .

  8. Aiman permalink
    March 8, 2014 5:43 pm

    Dear Christine,

    Thanks for your post, it really is extremely useful. I wanted to ask you about my research question. My topic is democratic transition and consolidation in Pakistan but I am unsure about how to phrase the question exactly. These are the sub-questions that I would like to answer: Which factors facilitated and hindered the democratic transition in Pakistan?
    Which factors are undermining Pakistan’s democratic consolidation?
    What are the prospects of consolidating democracy in Pakistan?
    But I need to combine all three…which one sounds better to you from the following as the Main research question?

    To what extent has the transition to democracy been consolidated in Pakistan?
    What are the challenges, opportunities and prospects of consolidating the transition to democracy in Pakistan?
    What factors are affecting the democratic transition and consolidation in Pakistan?

    I would be eternally grateful for your help!

    Many Thanks

  9. April 26, 2014 6:07 am

    Thanks for the information. It was really helpful to me. I am studying in China. And I am not Chinese . So I don’t know from where to begin where to end… tnx a lot

  10. Bella Jiji permalink
    May 11, 2014 1:47 pm

    Hello Friends, i m a student of Master Degree in English and International Relations from Tunisia, i m looking for an interesting subject for writing my dissertation.

    i would be grateful if you could give me a hand( suggestions)
    thanks in advance.

    Jihene Chedli

  11. June 10, 2014 11:33 am

    You are right, we should not choose a topic simply because you are familiar with it already. You will be bored by the subject and your boredom will show through in your writing.

  12. Hamdy permalink
    June 22, 2014 7:56 pm

    Thanks a lot

  13. gavinder rana permalink
    September 15, 2014 1:35 am

    please help me in choosing topic for research in philosophy. I’m very much interesting in Religion, metaphysics and extremism.

  14. co co permalink
    July 29, 2015 2:54 pm

    Hello, what is the difference between background and literature review sections?

  15. November 4, 2015 8:07 am

    Thank you for your helpful article. The topic of the thesis is really very important, because it affects your interest in writing a thesis, and thus its the quality. We must choose not what we know well, but what can really interest us.

  16. Seremba Claire permalink
    December 31, 2015 1:59 am

    Hullo Prof. Cheng,
    This is very helpful….
    If it isn’t any trouble could you help shade more light on the part of choosing a research question this is where I find most difficulty.
    Thank You
    Claire (MA Student)

  17. Josheena permalink
    February 4, 2016 11:20 pm

    Dear professor, can you share a link to good examples ot theses or even just research questions? Thanks

  18. Saleh M. Sani permalink
    April 13, 2016 12:10 pm

    Hello Prof Cheng,

    I am a Master student of Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution at Open University of Nigeria. I’m preparing for my thesis when I came across this blog and it helps me a lot. Thanks a lot Prof.

  19. April 23, 2016 2:26 pm

    I love the fact that this post seems to have helped so many students. Unfortunately, I can’t provide personalized guidance on your individual research questions- this is really the work of your dissertation supervisor. In our MA in Conflict, Security, and Development, most of my students will go through many iterations of their research question before they arrive at the one that they ultimately choose to answer. Between each iteration, students will go and conduct more independent research to confirm that they are on the right path. This is a process that typically takes 2-5 months and they take on this work alongside their regular coursework.

    Research questions usually requires quite a bit of refinement and back-and-forth discussion. I help students hone in on what they actually care about- what they’re really interested in exploring. Usually, they have a feeling about something but they don’t exactly what it is, and it’s up to me to zoom in on the subject of interest, help them dig out the puzzle or the curious finding, and then guide them towards an appropriate question.

    For good examples of MA theses, I would turn to eIR. Some of the articles on that site have been converted from MA theses.

  20. May 31, 2017 8:17 am

    Thank you very much indeed for this article. I am planning to study for an MRes & I was quite worried about the process. Your article is realistic & grounded & it certainly helped.

  21. yogi permalink
    July 24, 2017 7:14 pm


    Thank you for your great article; it’s given me some food for thought but, there is one thing I am still unsure of.

    I was wondering if you have any advice on whether/how to integrate quotes into our body of work. I normally (in essays) do quote large bodies of text but I have seen it done in some brilliant books and journal articles. I’m currently in the writing phase of you masters dissertation and I’m writing about civil war recurrence.

    I’m a student in International Relations/Security Studies.

    Thank you!

    • October 18, 2017 1:56 pm

      This is a bit late for you, but I would say you can use common sense here. The longer the work is, the more discretion you have to integrate a long quote (say, a paragraph or more). In shorter works (like class essays), there is less discretionary space. Efficiency is more important and you are trading off the space for a long quote against space that you need to make your argument.

  22. Özge Emre permalink
    July 5, 2018 8:35 am

    Thank you professor Cheng, that has been helpful:)

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