IPE 301: Pre-thesis Research

IPE majors write a pre-thesis paper in their IPE 301 classes.  The purpose of this paper is to help students frame a question suitable for the senior thesis, develop a working hypothesis, and do preliminary research that will benefit them is the IPE 401 senior thesis seminar.

Different professors assign somewhat different pre-thesis papers to accomplish this goal.  Some professors ask students to frame a question and perform a thorough liteature survey in 301.  Others as for a formal thesis proposal, which includes a literature survey and other elements.  Although the assignments may differ, the goals remain the same: to lay the foundation for a successful senior thesis.

Here is an example of the pre-thesis paper assignment contributed byProfessor Dave Balaam.

Professor Balaam's Guidelines for the Thesis Proposal.

1.  Select and clarify the topic you want to research.  Establish its importance.  Why did you choose to study it?  Choose a topic you are interested, excited about, or better yet, feel quite passionate about.  This thesis will require a good deal of time and effort, so pick something you will feel positive and energetic about. 

2.  Do some background research on the topic.  What has been written about it?  By whom?  When?  Go to the library and look for books and journals that cover the topic.  Use the internet to locate these sources.  Stay away from websites that cover the topic superficially (ex, Wikipedia).  Use this material to begin your list of references for the proposal’s bibliography.

3.  Determine the specifics or dimensions of the topic.  Try to establish a problem.  Ask yourself one or more of the following questions related to the topic.

  • What am I trying to explain?  Why someone, an institution, a state, or an international organization (or NGO) did or does something?
  • What factors or variables cause something to happen? 
  • Use an if X—then Y statement, if applicable.  If something happens, then a certain behavior occurs.  X is the independent variable, Y the dependent.  Y happens when X is present.  Ex:  president Bush tends to act like a cowboy (tough) when he senses a physical threat to the United States.

Be careful to choose a problem that is not too complicated, nor is it too simple.  Paradoxes are often fun to study and explain.  For example, why is the opposite of something also true? 

The issue of specifics or dimensions is something your professor can help you clarify and establish.  But you must first do the background reading and research. Don’t avoid these first steps as they are critical!  Start early and discuss with your friends or faculty to help you understand the difficult aspects or dimensions of the topic.

4.  Next, establish a topic statement and thesis title (even if only a temporary one).  Ex, I want to explain why NATO policy has (or has not) changed so much since the end of the Cold War. Then ask yourself, what factors caused NATO to change (or not change)? Was it change in member behavior?  The personality of certain leaders?  Or systemic factors outside of nation-states like terrorist threats to the members, etc?

5. Establish a temporary thesis statement.  Ex,  “In my thesis I argue that NATO behavior changed for three (or four or five, etc) reasons that include …….  Note: if you are not sure about the thesis (main argument) at this time, don’t worry about it.  This is a temporary thesis.  It may change as you work through the topic.  Again, get to work on it.  Start doing the research to support your thesis (main arguments). 

6. Write an outline of your research project. A simple way to do this is to look at the thesis argument. What are the factors or elements of the argument you are making.  Make each one of them a separate section (part) of the thesis.  Each subtopic then will be a mini-research project unto itself.  Think of yourself as a painter trying to communicate certain ideas. What elements are needed in the painting to communicate your idea or mood?  What colors? How many people, trees, etc?  What is the background like (this could be a section of the paper on the history or background the reader will need to understand your arguments. 

6. Next, write a brief description of how you will conduct your research/study.  Determine the research design and methodology of the study. How are you going about conducting your research?  With historical sources?  With psychological studies?  Does your work include some quantitative study of a problem?  Most research can be thought of in terms of traditional (historical-philosophical work that employs logical and deductive reasoning), or a more modern study that includes some form of statistical analysis employing quantitative data. Many studies use both methods to prove something or make an argument.  The important point is to be aware of and clarify what approach or methodology your work employs.

7. Start doing the research to see if your proposal is feasible or needs to be changed.  Spend so many hours a day working on the thesis.  It is best to pick a place to work where it is quiet and where you can reflect on the project.  When you get to places where you are stuck, put the work down and come back to it later.  In the meantime let your mind reflect on it from time to time.  Sometimes the best ideas come when we are relaxing or doing something else.  When you have a good idea, write it down.  You might also talk to your friends about your research.  The more you discuss it in your own words the clearer it will be what you are trying to say and how you will say it.  Many people overlook this step. It is very important!

8.  Use the Chicago style of footnote reference for your resources. 

9. Take careful notes of the works you read.  Carefully note the author, titles, volumes, dates and necessary publication materials. Be careful not to plagiarize the work of others.  It is good to summarize their ideas, but not copy it word for word.  If you do you must footnote or reference their work.  If you aren’t sure if you are copying their words, footnote to protect yourself.  Use footnotes sparingly, and remember that they should support your points, not make them for you!

Take some time to deal with the implications of your research in terms of policies, theories, or other ideas. Conclusions in the thesis itself will be the place to discuss any other issues that follow from your work, but that needs more research that can be done later. 

10.  Make your study a challenge, and fun! When you look at it this way, it will be easier to do and you will feel better about it as you work through these steps. 

Buona fortuna!