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.
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 crap, 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.
*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.